Academic Writing: Debunking Some Myths (3/4)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Here are some tips about academic writing that I have been trying to apply for years and have made me feel guilty and powerless because they did not work for me.

Please read this blog post exactly the way you should always read any ((academic) writing) tip: this is food for thought, not a recipe that will work for you no matter what. Conversely, I am also definitely not saying that these tips are not helpful, or that you should not apply them. Rather, all I’m saying is that these tips do not work for me, and that they seemed so general and easy to apply that I really struggled: Why would I be the only one for whom these tips didn’t work?

I address (and try to deconstruct) four very widespread tips on academic writing:

  • “Write every day.”
  • “Eat that frog.”
  • “Do not start with the introduction.”
  • “Find your tiger time.”

“Write every day.”

What it means

Well, this one is pretty obvious. Related: “Write XXX words per day.” or “Write XXX minutes/hours per day.”

Why it does not work for me

I think none other piece of advice has undermined my self-confidence as much as this one. I get the rationale behind it: deromanticize writing, don’t wait for inspiration, make it a daily habit you won’t even question, make it an inherent part of your job, etc. And still.

Mondays do not feel the same as Wednesdays, there is at least one day every month when menstruation pain prevents me from writing, and in between, you know, life happens.

I came to understand that I have to write when I have something to say. And sometimes, I do not (yet) have something to say. I can (now) trust myself to know that if it’s not today, it’s not today, and maybe not any other day this week. 

I know the difference between “I don’t have anything to say because I’m processing new, unorganized thoughts and I’m not ready” and “I’m finding myself excuses not to write—but why?”. 

Also, sometimes, and in 2020 more often than not, I feel totally fine not to write when the/my world is falling apart. After a while, I am getting impatient and nervous and know I have to get back to it.

You may have never felt like this, and feel that you need to write every day (or at least very regularly) in order not to ‘forget’ how it goes. It may be the case. But have you ever tried not writing, and waiting for it to come back? Not necessarily the urge to write, but the one to say something? Oh, and while not writing, not beating yourself up for not doing it, but trusting yourself and letting yourself be, and knowing that a lot of things are happening in the background in the meantime? 

“Eat that frog.”

What it means

The concept comes from a bestseller, Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy (2017: xii), and relies on that simple idea: “start with the biggest, hardest, and most important task first”—the “ugliest frog”.

Applied to academic writing, which is seen as (one of) our biggest, hardest, and most important task(s), it means that you should begin with writing. The expected rewards is that you train your brain into a new habit, become more confident, and—well, this is the goal—finally get to write this paper/book/grant/application.

Why it does not work for me

As Aisha Ahmad says, “For me, I need to ease into heavy-duty academic writing.” Almost every day, no matter how early I woke up, how energized I am, I need some time (up to one hour, but I never time it) to put myself into writing mode. I rename a few files, organize my Zotero database, drink two coffees, read a few sentences from others to inhabit a world of writing in the language I’ll be writing in for the next hour. (Why multilingual writing practices never get accounted for when talking about (academic) writing, oh, don’t get me started.)

Then, I’m ready. 

It took me seven years (!) to understand that this preparation phase is not procrastination, but the time I need to process the mere idea of writing.

Moreover, I cannot write if I know that I have multiple small things to go through. Of course, learning to prioritize your writing and to shut down this little voice in your head is key—emails can wait. Still, on some days it’s easier for me to begin with emails (and then even put a timer!) because it gives me a good feeling about myself (I hate letting people wait): I’ve achieved quite a lot in a limited amount of time.

Then, I can write. Then, I must write, because I’ve given others the time they needed, so now it’s my turn. 

By the way, isn’t it contradictory to pretend, on the one hand, that writing is just like any other task that you should just integrate into your daily routine (“Write every day?”) and, at the same time, to say that this is something so important and so big that it has to be your frog, your ugliest frog, the thing you begin with every day?!

On a side note, I also think that conceptualizing writing as the “ugliest frog” per se, without even questioning it, is problematic: on some days, writing doesn’t feel hard at all. Grading does, almost every time. On some days, calling (hi millennials!) someone from the administration to be reimbursed is the small thing I’m avoiding. On some days, writing is my easy task.

Because I’ve stopped beating myself up when I cannot write, I can also really enjoy these other days when writing feels obvious, and have been able to put up a small list of external factors that make it happen: HIIT or cardio training first thing in the morning, very light dinner on the day before, having already plans for the evening, but nothing too special or too fancy.

“Do not start with the introduction.”

Screenshot from a thread on academic writing, 1 October 2020

[The screenshot/tweet reads: “Diss coach here. DO NOT START WITH THE INTRO. The intro is the top of the Jenga tower, and if it’s not perfectly aligned, the tower will fall. Start with your theory/theoretical framework. That governs all the rest of your research design; you can’t move forward without it.”]

What it means

This one is pretty straightforward as well. It means that you should not begin with the introduction, as this part of your work requires a clear vision that you get only at the end of your writing. 

Why it does not work for me

A more appropriate way to phrase this could be: “If you start with the introduction, be prepared to rewrite it.” On some very special occasions, I am able to begin writing out of the blue—the methodology, the theoretical framework, the empirical part. But more often than not, I need my central argument and my structure to get startedall those things that actually happen in the introduction.

What I like about introductions as well, is that they have to engage the reader by presenting an anecdote, a new way of thinking, a random fact no one had observed before… and writing this helps me connect to why this piece of writing means something to me, and why I’m excited about it. So I do begin with introductions.

In this workshop, I’m not giving you any general tips—and this may be very frustrating. My hope is that you’ll learn how to find what works for you by delving into yourself, and that we can collaboratively develop a pool of tips to go through when we need to renew our methods. Of course, this is harder and less popular—talking about our feelings can make us incredibly uncomfortable, and there is no ready-to-go solution. Still, in the long run, it’s worth it. In fact, this might even be the only way.

“Find your tiger time.”

    Screenshot from a thread on academic writing, 15 September 2020

[The screenshot/tweet reads: “Figure out when you write best & block out that time on your calendar. I write best in the morning. Unless unavoidable, I do not take meetings in the morning. Mornings are my time to read, write, & think. I write every single day, Monday-Friday. Even if just 30 minutes.”]

What it means

The idea is that we all have a time during which we are more creative and more able to concentrate. Figure out when that time is. Then, avoid making appointments at that time and integrate these writing blocks into your daily routine—no emails, no department meetings, no grading at that time. Make writing during your tiger time a priority. 

Why it does not work for me

Because I don’t have any tiger time. Literally. I am rather an early bird and enjoy waking up between 6 and 7:30 am. Then, I am usually in a good mood and ready to write during the day, usually before 5 pm. Still, as you can imagine, I am not writing 9 hours a day, and there is great variation there.

So, when do I write? When do I commit to writing? I don’t have any precise schedule on a daily basis. (I am fine and still achieve quite much, thank you.) I have monthly plans, sometimes divided into weeks (sometimes!).

This mental flexibility does marvels for me (although I totally get that it may not for people who need routine or are prone to anxiety, for instance): I write project-based and not “just to write”. Similarly, in my journal, I can spend weeks not writing and then write several times a day. 

Hot take: a very common (and surely useful) piece of advice is to break your work down into SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely) goals. I’ve never been able to do this, because figuring out all the small steps leading to the final piece just depresses me; there are too many of them. I’d rather begin, no matter how, and go from there. This one won’t probably convince you, but that how I feel, and here again, central to my writing experience was just accepting that it’s how I work. 

When I come back to writing after a long period of absence, I reflect on why I am writing now: did it feel long? Was I avoiding something? Why do I feel ready now? What has changed? What have I read, analyzed, understood in the meantime that make it possible to be writing now? 

I am not doing this every time, but every time I want to come back to a project after a while. It helps me recenter on why—why does this project matter to me? When I come back to the inner purpose, writing may still feel like a big hill, but at least it feels like the struggle is worth it.

Embracing the messy

For a long time, I have felt guilty and, sometimes, even ashamed, not to be able to make some of these easy tips work.

It is only once I have accepted and embraced the messy, emotional, scary part of my writing that I’ve been able to reconnect to why (my) writing matters. Finding your way through this is what I address in this final blog post.

Cite this article as: Naomi Truan, "Academic Writing: Debunking Some Myths (3/4)," in Ici et là, 12/10/2020, https://icietla.hypotheses.org/1561.

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