What to Do When Writing Is Hard

//What to Do When Writing Is Hard
19/12/2019

What to Do When Writing Is Hard

By | 2019-12-19T14:16:35+00:00 December 19th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

This blog post came about after I had to produce a piece of writing on a subject new to me. I thought I would get it done easily in a couple of days. Ehm, not so. It took me a week-and-a half before I was satisfied. And there were quite a few moments while I was writing where I thought back at my PhD, because hey I remembered this feeling! The beginning where you sit down and think: oh, this is going to be so interesting. Then when that wears off the realisation that writing an authoritative piece on a topic that is completely new is more work than you thought. A lot more work… Then the out-of-control part where you think it is never, ever going to come together, and you will fail massively at producing the piece of writing. (This phase lasts longer than you like.) And then finally, when you think it will never happen, the piece does start to come together and you regain some of your confidence. And then the final part: editing. This is equal parts exhilarating and tedious. After that: piece of writing done! And it all seems so easy when you read it back: how on earth that was so difficult I don’t know!

What I (re-)learned about writing this time around (aka: writing tips to finish your paper ASAP!)

1. Routine

Sorry, boring start to the day, but this is so incredibly necessary. By all means, if you are the person who writes whenever she feels like it, and it works well for you, do it that way. But chances are slim. Why? Because academic writing and difficult emotions go together. Why? Because academic writing is hard. Having a writing habit in place will catapult you right into it, where you want and need to be. If you write regularly, at set hours, you have cleared the most difficult hurdle: getting started. Start at 9:00 every day, sharp. Earlier if you are an early bird. Or at any other time, as long as you can be consistent. (For me, finishing my PhD it was always at 10:00. Some people have already put hours of work in by that time of day, but it worked very well for me. Two – three hours of focus is a lot, if you put these hours in consistently.)

2. Inspiration

The moment you start writing you realise the actual doing is more difficult than the thinking about writing! Blinking cursor alert! Urgh. So one option is to procrastinate. The second option is to hurl yourself over the barrier that separates you from that writing flow that is in there somewhere. A neat trick to do so is to get as inspired as you possibly can. What I suggest you do is to pull out a paper or book that is incredibly well-written or that has inspired your thinking about the topic you will be writing about. Or you could even pick a novel. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it has a rhythm or substance that gets you over your resistance. (For me, I when I was finishing a particularly difficult chapter of my PhD I used a book by Peter Mair. He was my supervisor, and an old-school academic. A writer more than a technician. He could definitely write an opening sentence. And when I would read it I would realise: yes, I can do this too!)

3. Lighten up and do it fast!

Okay, this one is a bit controversial. And during some stretches it will feel absolutely impossible! And yes, I am referring to that middle stretch where part of you is sure your work is never going to come together, and another part of you knows it will as long as you just keep pushing and plodding along. Which is what you are doing. Right in the middle of this, when fear and stubbornness are at full force, what would happen if you lighten up a bit? If you could add some quicksilver energy? I got this idea from the book ‘Big Magic – creative living beyond fear’ by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it works wonders. She calls it “the martyr vs the trickster” (p. 221), aka dying for your art vs gaming the system. When every word feels like a serious, difficult, impossible affair, are there ways to lighten up, speed up, do it quickly, or ‘not right?’ It may be the exact thing you need to get your ideas down, and for the writing pace to pick up. (You can go back and fix it later, but who knows you will find out there isn’t any fixing to be done!)

4. Take a break

Okay, so intervals tend to make an appearance in pretty much every blog post of mine, reason being: working in intervals works. Just a few days ago I got an email from a PhD I had a coaching session with, remarking how much working in intervals had improved her work. And her energy levels! Thing is, to work in intervals you need to take breaks. Proper breaks. And it gets so much more difficult when you are really under stress, and there is a deadline looming. Seems that procrastination while stubbornly sitting at your computer is the easier option. What if you do take a break? And make working in intervals a habit? You will gain control over your working hours (mental boost) and more chance of a writing flow, and new, fresh insights to happen. It’s the faster way.

5. Celebrate

Our brains have a negativity bias. That is, the regular person’s brain. Personally I think an academic’s brain will be about a thousand times worse. Trained to focus on what is lacking (gaps in the literature anyone??), what is wrong, what is insufficient. And we have criticism down to an art. Not necessarily criticism of the constructive kind! It was an eye-opener to me to work on a project with people outside of academia. They were trained to make the process as effortless as possible, to promote teamwork, to uplift each other, to keep moving. What a difference! So hopefully you have some of those colleagues, who do understand the value of support, around. But regardless of your peers and colleagues: how do you treat yourself? I say: celebrate every step of the way. And you don’t have to wait until you have submitted that paper. Finishing that paragraph is reason to celebrate too!