There is a paradox regarding the large number of scholars who get stalled in writing—and a large number do get stalled at some point (50% of graduate students drop out)—they got far enough to get stalled because, for some long period of time, they were able to write. People who can’t write a second book, or a first one, or a dissertation, are people who wrote well enough and often enough to get to the point that they needed to write a dissertation, first book, second book, grant, and so on. So, what happened?
The advice they’re likely to be given is, “Just write.” And the reason we give that advice (advice I gave for years) is that we have the sense that they’re overthinking things, that, when they sit down to write, they’re thinking about failure, and success, and shame, and all the things that might go wrong, and all the ways what they’re writing might be inadequate, and all the negative reactions they might get for what they’ve written. So, we say, “Just write,” meaning, “Don’t think about those things right now.”
The project of writing may seem overwhelming because existentially risky, and the fear created by all the anxiety and uncertainty is paralyzing. It can seem impossibly complicated, and so we give simple advice because we believe that persuading them to adopt a simpler view of the task ahead will enable them to write something. Once they’ve written something, once they’re unstuck, then they can write something more, and then revise, and then write more. Seeing that they have written will give them the confidence they need to keep writing.
And I think that advice often works, hence the (deserved) success of books like Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day or Destination Dissertation. They simplify the task initially, and present the tasks involved in ways that are more precise than accurate, but with the admirable goal of keeping people moving. Many people find those books useful, and that’s great. But many people don’t, and I think the unhappy consequence of the “you just have to do this” rhetoric is that there is an odd shaming that happens to people for whom that advice doesn’t work. And, while it’s great that it works for a lot of people, there are a lot for whom it doesn’t, and I’m not happy that they feel shamed.
These books have, as Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson have argued, characteristics typical of the self-help genre (“The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books”), especially in that it presents dissertation writing as “a series of linear steps” with “hidden rules” that the author reveals. While I am not as critical of those books, or of the genre of self-help, as Kamler and Thomson, I think their basic point is worth taking seriously: that this advice misleads students because it presents dissertation writing as a set of practices and habits rather than cognitive challenges and developments.
Academic writing is hard because it’s hard. Learning to master the postures, steps, and dances of developing a plausible research question, identifying and mastering appropriate sources, determining necessary kinds of support, managing a potentially sprawling project, and positioning a new or even controversial claim in an existing scholarly conversation—all of that is hard and requires cognitive changes, not just writing practices.
Telling people academic writing “just” requires anything (“just write,” “just write every day,” “just ignore your fears,”) is a polite and sometimes useful fiction. And self-help books’ reliance on simple steps and hidden rules is, I’d suggest, not necessarily or manipulative, but based in the sense that telling people something hard is actually hard can discourage them. If you lie, and thereby motivate them to try doing it, then they might realize that, while hard, it isn’t impossible.
I think the implicit analogy is to something like telling a person who needs to exercise that they should “just get up off the couch.” Telling people that improving their health will be a long and slow process with many setbacks is unlikely to motivate someone to start the process; it makes the goal seem impossible, and unrewarding. Telling someone that getting healthier is simple, and they “just” need to increase their exercise slightly, or reduce portion size slightly, or do one thing differently will at least get them started. Having gotten a little healthier might inspire them to do more, but, even if it doesn’t, they are getting a little better.
But that’s the wrong analogy.
A scholar who is having difficulty writing is not analogous to someone who needs to get up off the couch: it’s a person with a long record of successes as a writer. That is what we (and people who are stuck) so often lose track of when we give the “just write” advice. They are not a person sitting on a couch; they are someone with an exercise practice that has always worked for them in the past and it isn’t working now.
The better analogy, I would suggest, is a sprinter who is now trying to run a marathon. Sprinting has worked for them in the past, and many academics have a writing process that is akin to sprinting—chunks of time in which we do nothing but write, and try to get as much done as quickly as we can. Writing a dissertation or book, on the other hand, is more like running a marathon.
It would be unethical to tell a sprinter who is unable to run a marathon that she should “just run.” She has been running; she’s quite good at it. But the way that she has been running is not working for this new distance. And if she does try to run a marathon the way she has always run short races, she will hurt herself.
My intuition is that people who have trouble writing are people who have always used the sprinting method, and have simply managed to develop the motivational strategies to sprint for longer, or collapse from time to time while on the race, and pick themselves up. Often, it seems to me, that motivation relies on panic and negative self-talk—they manage to binge write because otherwise, they tell themselves, they are a failure.
So I’m not saying that “Just write” is always bad advice. I am saying that it sometimes is; it is sometimes something that can send people into shame spirals. It only works for some people, for people who do find that polite fiction motivating. For others, though, telling them “just write” is exactly like telling a person in a panic attack “just calm down” or someone depressed “just cheer up.”
The “just write” comes from a concern that lack of confidence will paralyze a student. But I think we might be solving the wrong problem.
Part of the problem is the myth of positive thinking, which has taken on an almost magical quality for some people. There is a notion that you should only think positive thoughts, as though thinking negative things brings on bad events. Since thinking clearly about how hard it is to write a book, dissertation, or grant (and, specifically, thinking clearly about how we might have habits or processes that inhibit our success) is thinking about “bad” things, about how things might go wrong or what troubles we might have, the myth of positive thinking says you shouldn’t do it. You should, instead, just imagine success.
This is a myth. It isn’t just a myth, but pernicious, destructive nonsense. A (sometimes secular) descendant of the positive psychology elegantly described by Bowler in Blessed, this is magical thinking pure and simple, and perfectly contrary to what research shows about how positive thinking actually affects motivation.
But here I should be clear. Some people who advocate wishful thinking do so because believe that the only other possibility is wallowing in self-loathing and a sense that the task is impossible, and they believe that telling students that academic writing is hard will necessarily lead to their believing it is impossible. In other words, there is an assumption that there is a binary between thinking only and entirely about positive outcomes or thinking only and entirely about tragic outcomes. The former is empowering and the latter is paralyzing. That narrative is wrong on all three counts—positive thinking is not necessarily enabling, moments of despair are not necessarily disabling, and our attitude toward our own challenges is not usefully described as a binary between pure optimism and pure despair. Left out of that binary is being hopefully strategic: aware of possible failures, mindful of hurdles, with confidence in our resilience as much as in our talents.
As to the first, studies clearly show that refusing to think negative thoughts about possible outcomes is actively harmful, and frequently impairs achievement. That’s important to remember: telling students they shouldn’t think about their own flaws, the challenges ahead of them, and how things might go wrong is not helping them, and it is making it less likely they will do what they need to do.
Gabriele Oettingen’s considerable research shows that (summarized in the very helpful book Rethinking Positive Thinking), while wishful thinking can be useful for maintaining hope in a bad situation or identifying long-term goals, it inhibits action. Fantasizing about how wonderful a dissertation or book will be doesn’t inspire us to write either; for many people, it makes the actual sometimes gritty work so much more unattractive in comparison that it’s impossible to write. The fantasy is far more fun than writing a crummy first draft. Similarly, Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets shows that success depends on acknowledging what has gone wrong and identifying how one might grow and change to get a different outcome in the future.
A sense that the task is so hard as to be impossible is not inevitably and necessarily disabling. It is, however, inevitable. It is dishonest to tell students that we never feel that what we’re trying to do can’t be done or isn’t worth doing, because so many of us do. And most of us got (and get) through it. Sometimes it took time, therapy, medication, changing things in our personal lives, changing jobs, changing projects, all of the above. But I don’t know any productive scholar free from times of slogging through the slough of despond.
In my experience, academic writing gets easier, but it’s never easy. The hardest writing is probably finishing a dissertation while writing job materials—nothing after that is so hard. But it’s always hard. If we tell students that it’s easy, or that it gets easy, even if we do so with the intention of keeping them moving, we do them a disservice. If they believe us, if they believe that we find it easy, then, when it gets hard, as it necessarily will, they have to conclude that there is something wrong with them. They are unhappily likely to conclude that they have been exposed for the imposter they always worried they were.
The “just write” advice almost certainly works for some people in some situations, as does the “just write every day” or “just freewrite” or “just start with your thesis” or any of the other practices and rules that begin with “just.” They work for someone somewhere and maybe they work for everyone some of the time, and they always strike me as sensible enough to suggest that people experiment with them. But we shouldn’t pretend that they’re magical and can’t possibly fail, or that someone “just” needs to do them. The perhaps well-intentioned fiction that academic writing “just” requires certain practice is magical thinking, and we need to stop saying it.
In my experience, people who find the “just write” advice useless find it too abstract. So, I think we need to be clear that scholarly productivity is, for most people, hard, and it’s find that a person finds it hard. And it takes practice, so there are some things a person might “just write”:
- the methods section;
- descriptions of an incident, moment in a text, interaction, or some other very, very specific epitome of their problem (Pirsig’s brick in the wall of the opera house);
- summaries of their secondary materials with a discussion of how each text is and is not sufficient for their research;
- a collection of data;
- the threads from one datum to another;
- a letter to their favorite undergrad teacher about their current research;
- a description of their anxieties about their project;
- an imitation of an introduction, abstract, conclusion, or transition paragraph they like written by a junior scholar.
I’m not presenting that list as a magical solution. It would be odd for me to say that simplistic advice is not helpful and then give a list of the five (or seven, or ten) things we “just” have to do to become (or teach others to become) skilled and productive academic writers. What we have to do is acknowledge that the project requires significant and complicated cognitive changes: that, for most of us, scholarly writing is hard because it’s hard. Let’s be honest about that.