I find that it helps a lot to understand WHY I struggle to write. So reasons:
-Writing your dissertation or a manuscript is hard because no one has ever been where you are. No one has ever written about it in the way you're going to. It's literally the edge of our collective knowledge or else you wouldn't be writing it.
I also found writing to be hard for reasons that I thought were about me, but turns out a lot of people have these issues. So when struggling to write my dissertation, like any good scientist, I researched the problem, its possible causes, & potential avenues to troubleshoot.
Here's what I found.
Problem #1 - I was trying to generate content AND copy-edit the content at the same time. This NEVER works.When you content generate & copy-edit at the same time, you often get stuck in the "Perfect Sentence Vortex" where you are trying to think, write, edit, and polish a sentence all at the same time. The end result is you write nothing.
The Perfect Sentence Vortex and How to Escape It
Does this sound familiar? You sit down to write. You read over your notes to work out what you’re going to say and check up a couple of articles. You write a sentence. You check the sentence over and over again.Because, for me, the Perfect Sentence Vortex causes a lot of frustration, stress, & feelings of failure, I would avoid writing. It had a HUGE negative association with it. Which leads to
Problem #2 - I had really bad writing habits.
-Bad writing habit A: I didn't write consistently. I didn't practice. It helps to think of writing as a sport or hobby you want to become good at. You wouldn't start running one day & try to run a half-marathon or even a 10k a week later. That's just asking for injury.
1-You also wouldn't take a 6 month long break from running & expect to pick back up at the same pace/distance that you could before. You have to follow a training plan & build up to the pace/distance you want. The same is true of writing. Academic writing in particular is a skill
2-It's not an innate talent. It's something you have to develop & practice to maintain. You have to 'train' to write. That's not just learning how to craft a sentence or a paper but also include the actual act of writing. When you write, how often, what you focus on.
3-Bad Writing Habit B: I always stopped when I got stuck. This one is BAD and we all do it. For me, writing takes positive reinforcement. If I stop in a bad place, it's really hard for me to go back to it tomorrow because I left the project feeling negatively about it.
4-Always stop in a place where you feel good about what you've accomplished & maybe could keep going, but you've probably done enough (more on this in a few tweets!). Or as @StephenBHeard says, DONT stop writing in the Chasm of Despair.Don’t stop writing in the Chasm of Despair."So I’d take a break & do something else–something less painful–w/the intent of coming back to my writing when I was in a better mood, or when I’d figured out what was wrong & what to write next, or when I’d had some other kind of magical intervention from the writing fairies".But guess what? Usually, when I came back to the writing, I found myself on the same desolate landscape, back in the same spot in the same Chasm. I’ve since realized: I was doing things exactly wrong. You can’t cross the Chasm by leaving it."Don’t ever stop writing in the Chasm of Despair. There’s only one way out of the Chasm, and that’s to write your way out." I found this quote REALLY resonated with me. I always stopped when I got stuck, which just made coming back harder.
5-Bad Writing Habit C: I had really really vague goals. Examples: I'm going to write. I'm going to work on the introduction. I'm going to write for 2 hours. These vague goals make it really hard to know when you've done 'enough'. When you can feel accomplished.Which can lead to writing exhaustion. To go back to the running metaphor, if you are just going to "run" and you run until you can't anymore, you can't expect to ever know if you're done! Also, if you run til you're exhausted, running again tomorrow is totally out.
6-So now, I set VERY concrete goals. Example: I'm going to write 500 words today. I'm going to edit 4 pages. If I want to do more within reason, that's fine, but once I hit that goal, I can feel accomplished and proud and am free to stop. I also KNOW my limitations.I know I can't sustainably generate content for more than 4-5 hrs a day. I just run out of creative energy after that. If I generate content for 8 hrs one day, I'll have to take the next day off. I know that after 2 hrs, I need a substantial >1 hr break. Find your limits.
7-But all of this is advice on how to practice the art of writing once you get started. But how do you start?? I have two strategies. First, warm up before you write! To get into the mindset of content generation, follow this blog's advice.I would warm up for 8-10 minutes before starting to write, and as long as I sort of had an idea of where I wanted the paragraph to go, if I warmed up, it was much easier to just keep writing and not get stuck in the Perfect Sentence Vortex.Second, Writing Accountability! You can do this one in several different ways. As part of the FIRST program in Atlanta, we would do summer Writing Challenges, where every week you were supposed to write & log at least 5 hours of writing. 5 summers in, I still do it.
8-And sometime I even do it on my own all year so I can see how much time I spend writing. The rules are simple - Set a time you have to accomplish & you have to do 5 a week. You're supposed to do it daily to start building the habit but you don't HAVE to. Do what works for you.You also can't work backwards. So you can't make-up for not writing last week. But you can work ahead. If you're just starting out, I recommend setting your goal as 20-30 min of writing a day. The idea is once you've written for 20 min, it's easy to keep going.
9-You can increase the time period as you get more practiced. Mine is now set for an hour. Also a friend makes our accountability spreadsheet into a pretty rainbow if you get your 5 that week! 27-You can also form your own #shutupandwrite sessions! I love these. Our lab now does them from 10-12 on Tuesdays. We get together in a conference room and do 25 minute pomodoros together for 2 hours working on a task you're avoiding (e.g. writing).The third option is to join an online writing accountability group. There are several Slack options, but the one I use is the Writing Accountability slack. There's always someone on there doing Poms & it's easy to virtually join for a couple hours a day. Peer pressure is real!
10-So what's been the result of following these tips & tricks for me? Well I went from being paralyzed when I sat down to a blank page, sometimes crying, HATING writing, to someone who feels weird to admit I...kinda like writing.Last year, I tracked how many hours I spent writing or making figures for manuscripts & it was nearly 1/3 of my working time. Literally 100s of hours. This year I've submitted two >10,000 word manuscripts. 5 years from my PhD, sitting down to write is almost...easy.
So to wrap up b/c I need to go, like, write myself, you are NOT alone in having a hard time writing. Writing is not an innate skill. If it looks easy for some of us, it's bc we've practiced and practiced just like athletes do. You CAN reach this point.
Thanks for reading @Dr_KatieG1
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