Journaling Prompts to Reconnect with Your Writing
Maybe you’re returning to your book or dissertation after months of not touching it. Or maybe everything was fine these last few days and you suddenly cannot write anything at all.
This may be a long shot, but: Why don’t you try writing about…
… why you’re not writing?
Haha, I know. But it works. It works because:
1) It helps to know why you’re not writing, thus finally making it concrete and offering solutions;
2) It keeps you writing.
In other words, know why you don’t write as well as why you write (Link to another blog post, see tip 20).
I deliberately titled this blog post “reconnect with your writing”, and not “get unstuck” or “find your momentum”, which, let’s be honest, would be wayyyy catchier. Indeed, reflective writing or journaling may be only a first step, inviting you to take action. You may not get out of these ten minutes ready to write. But you may know what to do next to go back to this place — and, I promise, this is already A LOT.
The prompts work best if you have a particular piece of writing in mind. Think small: a paper, a book chapter, a chapter of your dissertation, a grant application or maybe even a section, a paragraph. Set a timer for ten minutes, and write (maybe by hand if you’ve been typing until now, this can be really freeing). Answer the questions. Write. Really, just anything.
Five prompts to get a clear picture of what you’re writing (or trying to write), or five questions to reassess whether this paper really needs to be written (by you):
- Why am I — and not anyone else — writing this?
- Why am I writing this — and not any other piece of writing I could be working on?
- Why am I writing this now — and not later?
- What do I need to make writing flow (again)?
- What would happen if I did not write this?
1) Why am I — and not anyone else — writing this?
The first prompt is about you: What brought you to your current project? Why are you the right person to write it?
Be careful, with this prompt, imposter syndrome is just behind the corner. The idea is thus not to find ten other people capable of writing this as well, but to reconnect with both your motivation and expertise. What aspects of your project were you excited about when you began? Which problem did you try to solve?
Coming back to the beginning is sometimes enough for me to remind myself that I can do this: I collected the data, I developed a specific research question, I read extensively to integrate and possibly extend a theoretical framework to resolve new questions.
Don’t worry, you won’t become narcissistic just after a few minutes of reflexive writing while looking for renewed momentum. Rather, I hope that this prompt helps you highlight your strengths. If on some good day, you find yourself particularly inspired when listing all your qualities, keep that memo not too far, it could become handy 😉
2) Why am I writing this — and not any other piece of writing I could be working on?
Now we turn to that piece of writing you’re struggling with at the moment. Why did you begin in the first place? What do you like about this piece of writing in particular? What are you trying to say that matters?
We enjoy some parts of our writing more than others. Luckily enough, we can often decide which ones to tackle on which days. Maybe today is not the right one for writing a literature review, but you could describe your data collection? Maybe you could begin with Chapter 5 although your introduction still is very unfinished? Maybe you could draft Section 6 even if you’re not sure if it will be Section 6, or maybe rather 5, or even if it will be necessary altogether (it’s never lost, even if you cut it all, as writing orders your thoughts)?
I often need this prompt in the ultimate stages of the editing process: When I have almost no idea what I am looking at, but still want the proofs to be as good as they can. I then need to remind myself that I do care about this paper (or book!) and that investing this last drop of energy and attention to this file is worth it. Or when I have three unfinished papers and really, really want to submit one by the end of the month to finally regain mental space for other (new! exciting! unwritten!) things.
Reminding yourself why this needs to be written by you is often enough. If you feel like writing again, you can stop here. Yes, go back to that paper!
Otherwise, here are some more impulses on why you may not be writing today.
3) Why am I writing this now — and not later?
This one is tricky. It can be very easy to engage in some self-complacent talk and finding all kinds of good excuses for why procrastination is definitely the right answer to you not writing at the moment. But when practiced with trust and intention, self-care is key to academic writing.
- Is there something on your mind today that you confidently know will be solved in a couple of days? Then, not writing may not be a way to avoid writing, but the only thing to do.
- Or, are you exhausted, and would you benefit from a straightforward task? I keep a list of small things that need to be done but feel easy / do not need too much energy (coding, annotating, sorting references, downloading papers) for the days/hours when I want to work but know that I’m not very motivated or have, say, only 30 minutes (tip 8 here).
- Or, do you know that you cannot write that literature review because you feel that you missed something, or you’re not sure if you understood this paper/author/theory properly? If — once again — this is not your inner critic talking, these are legit reasons not to write.
My rule of thumb: The argument ‘this is not the right time’ does not apply for longish periods such as the semester. Otherwise, I would just get no writing done while I’m teaching and managing administrative duties.1
If, however, I feel that I’m too distracted/hungry/restless to write this now, I either decide to write something else (see point 2), or reflect on why I am distracted/hungry/restless, and, if possible, address that need immediately (by calling the friend I’m worried about, cooking, or going for a walk). This is our next prompt.
4) What do I need to make writing flow (again)?
If the first three prompts have inspired you, you may now have recognized what you need: self-confidence, time (to think? to read? to connect the dots?), rest, a break from this piece of writing… This is not the same, and forcing yourself to sleep if you believe that you’re missing something in the data, or, on the contrary, pushing through when all you need is hot cocoa and a trusted person holding space for you is not helpful.
Distinguish between different types of breaks (intellectual, physical, mental, emotional).
I don’t always need the same kinds of breaks (see tips 9, 11, 12 here). I DO take real ones, but sometimes it’s more about working on a different paper (NOT a new one!), in a different language, on the same paper but on another section, on the overall structure, on reformulating the research question, working in a new café, reading academically, but not on my current topics… Otherwise:
You know what looks like taking care of yourself but is not? Thinking, hey, I’m taking it slow by spending the day reading half a paper while watching a TV show, feeling guilty about it, and overcompensating afterward. Just take the day off. For real. Often.
5) What would happen if I did not write this?
Finally, I often (probably more often than most do) ask myself: So, I don’t want to write this. Do I really have to write it, then?
Because I trust myself as much when I write and do not write, I have learned to let it go. Even semi-written papers, things for which I have already collected all the data. If it doesn’t align with my current work and values anymore, it’s better to accept that it’s okay to have spent time on it (that will not come back) and move on.
While I recognize that being able to decide whether I will write something or not comes from a position of privilege as my dissertation is behind me and enjoy great freedom at my workplace (I’m non-tenured, though), I do believe that we can all benefit from asking ourselves not only why, but also if we need to write something.
Cathy Mazak explains this idea wonderfully in her podcast episode on “The Economics of Writing” (45) — If you don’t like a movie, will you stay just because you paid for your ticket? Or would it be better to just accept that it’s not for you, leave the room, and reclaim your time? Yes, including the fear of all the missed opportunities (collaborations, publishing venues) linked with this paper or dissertation chapter you will never write.
In 2021, I said goodbye to 3 (!) papers and postponed 1:
- I decided that I would just not write this paper summarizing my PhD dissertation on the third person. I really wanted to: I have the argument, the structure, the data, and half of it written already. But my book is coming out soon, and I just feel like I’m repeating myself. I know it’s not strategic. I also know I am the right person (point 1) to write this paper (point 2), but I cannot bring myself to it. So instead of beating myself up, I work on different things (yes, releasing the guilt actually makes you write more!).
- I withdrew from two fascinating projects with colleagues, one on parliamentary debates (my area of specialization during my PhD), the other on artificial intelligence and bias in sociolinguistics.
– I had been invited to work on the first piece only to assist colleagues with the data collection, and ended up working on the text. Yet this was a too big time investment for something that begun on the side. So, I do think I was one of the right persons, but this was not the right time (‘too late’, as I am not working on parliamentary debates right now).
– I was very excited about the second project, but it was too far from both my past and current projects, and involved too much literature I was unfamiliar with and had no mental capacity to be dealing with. So, I really wanted to be part of this paper, but I wasn’t an expert enough (this is not false modesty to know what you can or cannot (yet)).
- I postponed (again) a paper that I begun in 2015 (!) and may probably never write, although I now have the structure and a target journal, because this is the extra little project for fun that does not connect really well with my current research directions. I do not want to invest the extra time at the moment.
I have been able to do so only by going through the prompts. I tweeted this on 24 May 2021:
I’m still unsure whether this is the whole corona fatigue or if I’m currently working on things that are fascinating but maybe not entirely mine, maybe not the ones *I* should write about, maybe papers that need to be written by someone else? Trying to figure it out.
A week later, I was emailing my colleagues, telling them I would be glad to assist them or review the paper, but could not be co-author anymore. You know what? It was all fine. The world did not collapse, and if anything, recognizing your own limitations soon enough is doing a favor for all the parties involved.
Maybe this is just not your paper. And that’s okay, too.
Conclusion: Writing about Writing, Why Again?
I want to conclude with something very important: Reflective writing or journaling is a tool. Just a tool. Make it fun, empowering, light!
The idea is not to spend ten minutes a day writing about your (non)writing if this is not your thing, but to find ways to get back to your writing practice when needed.
And if writing is really, really not what you need right now, try this (the link will work soon!).
- To me, the pandemic doesn’t count, it’s on another level, which means: Yes, the pandemic (still) is a good reason enough not to write this now. But this would deserve a whole new post, and maybe it’s still worth trying if you’re here anyway?