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Understanding Feelings About Writing – Wendy Laura Belcher

This month of #AcWriMo we’re featuring heaps of advice from the book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. She’ll offer a wealth of information on carefully planning your writing and getting over obstacles – practical and emotional.

Writing is to academia what sex was to nineteenth-century Vienna: everybody does it and nobody talks about it. The leading researcher on academic writers found that most academics were more willing to talk about even their most personal problems, including sexual dysfunction, than about problems with writing (Boice 1990) The prevalent belief among academics seems to be that writing, like sex, should come naturally and should be performed in polite privacy.

Because of this silence, writing dysfunction is common in academia. A recent survey of over 40,000 U.S. faculty revealed that 26 percent of professors spent zero hours a week writing, and almost 27 percent had never published a peer-reviewed journal article (Lindholm et al. 2005). In addition, 43 percent had not published any piece of writing in the past two years. The majority, 62 percent, had never published a book. Put another way, only 25 percent of faculty spent more than eight hours every week writing and only 28 percent of faculty had produced more than two publications in the past two years. Furthermore, these statistics are self-reported and reflect the activities of only those organized enough to respond to the survey. Some scholars believe the figure is much lower, estimating productive academic writers as less than 15 percent of faculty (Moxley and Taylor 1997, Simonton 1988). Since publication is the major marker of productivity in academia, these statistics are surprising. Or are they?

You do not have to be Freud to figure out that academia’s silence about writing may be repressive. Writing is, after all, a creative process and like any such process, depends on connection. If you try to create in an environment where sharing is discouraged, dysfunction is the inevitable result. Certainly, many have found that talking about their struggles with writing has been very freeing, both for them and their chosen confidant. The lesson: Learning to talk about writing is an important key to becoming a productive writer.

One of the reasons that academics do not talk about writing is that it involves talking about feelings. Academics tend to be more comfortable with the rational than the emotional. Therefore, even if we do manage to talk about writing, we are more likely to talk about content than process. In fact, many of us have feelings about writing that we rarely acknowledge in public. The first step to success is understanding your relationship to writing.

So, let’s get started with a very broad question. What feelings come up when you think about writing? I recommend that you call a classmate or colleague and discuss this question with them before jotting down your answers. Or you can compose an e-mail to a friend or family member.

When I ask this question about feelings in class, usually negative feelings come up first. I have cited these verbatim from my class notes:

I feel both terror and boredom. . . .

I get depressed when I think about having to write. . . .

I feel discouraged because I feel like I have never done enough research to start writing. . . .

I have fun in the beginning but I really hate revising. . . .

I enjoy revising, but I hate getting that first draft down. . . .

My advisor is so critical that whenever I think of writ- ing

I feel inadequate. . . .

I feel like there are rules that everyone knows but me. . . .

I feel like procrastinating whenever I think of how much writing I have to do and how little I have done. . . .

I feel ashamed of my writing skills. . . .

I wish my English was better. . . .

I feel that if people read my writing they will know that I’m a dumb bunny. . . .

I feel like I work at writing for hours and have so little to show for it. . . .

I spend so much time critiquing my students’ writing that I shut down when I come to my own….

I get a good idea but then I feel a fog come over me. . . .

When I think about the fact that my entire career depends on publication, I feel completely paralyzed. . . .

I feel confident that I could do anything, if I could just get out of bed.

Guess what? You are not alone! Most writers, even accomplished writers, hear these inner negative voices that whisper their fears to them whenever they think about writing. Using this book will diminish those voices, but the most important step is to realize that these feelings are warranted. Writing is difficult and scary. Feeling anxious is an entirely appropriate response.

It is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about what links your negative feelings. Do they revolve around one or two anxieties, perceptions, habits? Do they point to a particular fear, such as what others will think of you? Or to a particular negative self-assessment, such as labeling yourself lazy? Again, jot down some answers.

When I ask students to discuss their feelings about writing, some positive feelings usually come up, too. Students say things like:

I feel excited when I think up a good idea. . . .

Sometimes I write a sentence that comes out more coherently than I expected and I feel great. . .

I feel euphoric when I realize that I have a good conclusion that ties the paper together. . . .

I love the feeling of having just finished a paper. . . .

When I reread something I wrote a year ago, I’m impressed and I think, did I write that!?

In order to feel better about your writing, then, remember the context in which positive feelings arose.

For instance, do you have any particularly good memories of writing? During that experience when you felt good, what was making that happen? What are the lessons you can learn from those experiences?

When I ask this question in class, students list good experiences like:

I had a deadline that forced me to sit down and do the writing. . . .

I had an advisor/friend/spouse who was encouraging. . . .

I was working on a paper that meant a lot to me personally. . . .

My parents took my kids for a week. . . .

I got into a rhythm of writing every evening after Seinfeld. . . .

I had a part-time job that forced me to use my time more efficiently. . . .

I read an article that really inspired me and got me going. . . .

I asked my advisor to meet with me once a week and to expect some writing from me every time.

Interestingly, the lessons students learn from these experiences are similar. Apparently, happy writers are all alike, to paraphrase Tolstoy. Successful academic writers share similar attitudes and work habits. I call them the keys to academic writing success.

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