Monthly Archives: September 2013

Writing, rejection and ‘procrastination’



Writing is an emotional activity.  We like to pretend, in academic contexts, that when we write formally, we also write with some objective distance.  Yet anyone who has received a rejection letter from a journal or feedback from a thesis supervisor will know how painful it can be.  Our reactions are not objective at all.  Things tend to get a bit mixed up in academic writing.  Our self-esteem, notions of intelligence, standing in the community, pride, and confidence all become intermingled in our writing.  So if our writing gets critiqued, so do all these other aspects of our selves – at least in our minds.  Rejection of our writing becomes equated with rejection of who we are, evidence of our lack of intelligence now exposed for the world to see, and proof that we are not really academic enough to belong in this world.  As you are reading this, you are aware of how ludicrous this all is but in the moment when you receive a rejection of your writing, all these thoughts pass through your head.


You only need to receive one set of negative feedback on your writing to experience painful emotions.  In a lifetime of writing at school and then university, we experience many, many negative emotions around writing.  It is not surprising, then, that your body, your entire being, will want to get up from your writing desk and find something comfortable to do rather than write.  Getting a doughnut (instead of writing) will make you feel satisfied and content.  Cleaning the floor/walls/etc (instead of writing) will make you feel in control, virtuous and worthy.


If the writing is high stakes – something we feel strongly about or if we write for an important audience – the more we anticipate the adverse response and negative emotions we feel we are likely to experience.  In these cases, it becomes much harder to get the writing done and much easier to find something else to do.


Sometimes we experience positive emotions when we receive a good review or our thesis supervisor is happy with our work.  But often we rationalise these positive emotions as ‘once off’ or ‘lucky’ and we put it down to the exception rather than the rule.  The more positive experiences we have, the more we are likely to persevere when we experience rejection.  That’s why more experienced academic writers get to a point where they don’t mind journal reviewers’ comments because they can see the value in them and feel the ultimate satisfaction when the paper is finally published.


The reason why I’m harping on about negative emotions and writing is because many people stop writing and move into non-writing careers after experiencing a painful rejection.  Others try to persevere but suffer from ‘procrastination’ or writer’s block.  Still others leave the rejected paper/chapter, no matter how important it is, and don’t re-write or resubmit.  They move onto safer topics.  This is the real danger of negative emotions from writing – that it shifts us away from what we want to write about in the way we want to write about it.


What can you do?  Write about your experiences of receiving a rejection.  Share your experiences with others.  There’s nothing like hearing someone else’s story to put yours into perspective especially if there is humour involved.  Think about critical incidences in your writing career. Have there been moments/incidents that caused you to shift from your original path? Draw (scribble) your emotions when it comes to writing.  Write ‘I feel…’ paragraphs about aspects of writing such as getting negative feedback.  The more you recognise what you are experiencing, the more you will be able to deal the urge to get up and do something else.



Writing, goals and ‘procrastination’


I have to state from the outset that I’m not a fan of goal setting.  Academic environments tend to be filled with people who are overachievers, perfectionists and, in my case, just plain obsessive. Goal-setting in this context often feeds into the craziness.  For myself, I have no problem setting goals.  In fact, my list is likely to reach a hundred.  What is more difficult is setting goals that I can achieve within the limits of my schedule, my family life and my energy levels.  So it is with caution that I am going to advocate that you set goals in relation to what you want to achieve in your writing.


The first step is to set ‘realistic’ goals.  That means what you can achieve in a certain amount of time.  What writing goals would you like to achieve over this semester?  What goals will be possible to achieve within the constraints that surround you?  You can’t work between 12pm and 4am – so cross off the last three goals.  Maybe just focus on one paper.  Once you have that goal then break it down into steps or sections of the paper.  If the whole task is still overwhelming, then you might need smaller steps.  When it becomes do-able, in your mind, the steps are small enough.  So one person might break the paper into sections (Introduction, methodology, literature review) while another might break the introduction into paragraphs.  Finally, you need to attach a schedule to your steps and a deadline to your goal. 

Here is where goal-setting becomes really useful.  Once you have set up a writing schedule that suits your personality and context (eg every second morning for two hours) and you know what you intend to do in that time (eg Week 1: draft three sections of the introduction), it is so much easier to see if you are avoiding writing.  Procrastination is the need to put off doing something you have scheduled to do.  If you don’t have a schedule, it is very difficult to become aware of avoidance tactics.  However, once you are aware that you are avoiding writing, then it is possible to address the problem.

How do we avoid writing?  If I have set aside two hours to write but I spent that time checking emails, or I arrange to meet a student, go to a meeting, or to sort my files, get coffee, etc, etc – that’s avoidance.  “But”, I can hear you say, “I had to meet that student!”  This is why you need goals and a schedule.  If you miss your writing time once, that’s fine but if you miss it regularly then you are avoiding writing.

So, what’s happening when you avoid writing?  For academics, the problem is often a cognitive one.  By that I mean, there is some conceptual obstacle or difficulty.  It’s hard to write the three sections of the Introduction if you don’t know where the paper is going.  Sometimes we avoid writing because we don’t have a clear argument, or the literature is complex and difficult to synthesise or we’re trying to link difficult concepts and can’t build the bridge.  If you are aware that you are avoiding your writing then you can ask yourself questions:  Why can’t I write this? What is making it difficult?  Why can’t I begin?

Another reason why we avoid writing is the emotional baggage we carry.  If your internal critic tells you how stupid you are every time you write a word, of course you are going to find something else to do.  If the audience you are writing to makes you shake in your boots, no wonder you prefer to sit in a meeting instead of writing. 

Without being aware of avoidance behaviours, it is very difficult to address them.  Once you know you are avoiding your writing, then it is easy to find some way to address that problem.

I have many strategies and activities in my book Productive Writing, if you are interested and I will be posting more on this in future blogs.  But one activity, which is really successful, comes from Joan Bolker (author of Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day).  She suggests that you turn up to your desk at your scheduled writing time even if you have the urge to avoid it.  You sit at your desk and if you can’t write, you do nothing else.  You just sit there for the full 15 minutes.  Don’t get distracted by emails, phone calls, etc.  The idea is that you will find it impossible, frustrating, annoying to sit without doing anything and will eventually begin to work on your paper.  I suggest you use the time to ask yourself why you can’t write – what are you avoiding?


Lessons from research on undergraduate student writing


I’ve just read an article in University Affairs ( written by Roger Graves from the University of Alberta.  If you are concerned about student writing, it is worth reading the whole article.  I’m going to highlight three points that I think we can relate to our own writing.

The first point he makes is that student writing improves the more they write for multiple audiences.  What we do with writing shifts and changes depending on the audience.  It makes sense that if you write for different audiences, you will begin to analyse and adapt your writing to meet the audience requirements.  If you only write for one audience, then there is the possibility of becoming fixed in one way of writing. So, start writing for multiple audiences.  Send granny long emails about your research, write editorial pieces for the newspaper, journals often publish a variety of papers beside research papers, do book reviews on your current readings, start your own blog…!

The second point Graves makes is that writing improves with revision.  For a long time, when I was a student, I thought revision was proof-reading and formatting.  Writing was so hard and painful, I had no inclination to change a word once it was written.  It was only when I started to ‘slap’ a draft together and then ‘fix’ it that my writing really freed up.  When I say ‘slap’, I mean that I would have done the reading required and thought about the general direction of the paper but it would by no means be complete.  ‘Slapping’ also involves writing quickly, without any thought of grammar, structure, or even referencing.  Once the draft is on paper – no matter how short, it is easier to begin revising.  I start with the overall argument and structure and then work my way down to sections and paragraphs.  Sometimes it is through writing the quick draft that I finally see how the paper will work.  Sometimes I have gaps between connections of thoughts/arguments and it takes quite a bit of revising to make the links clear.  This way of writing gives me permission to begin writing before I feel ready and to become ready through the writing.

Graves’ third point is that writing rubrics help improve student writing.  If they know how they will be assessed and evaluated, they can adapt their writing to meet those requirements.  The same principles applies to us.  If you know what the journal wants from submissions, or your PhD examining committee wants from your methodology chapter, it is much easier to provide ‘good’ writing.  The trick is working this out.  I’m not good at matching my papers to journals if I start with the paper.  If I start with the journal (‘This journal will take a paper on X – I can write that paper’), I’m much more successful and it often generates ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of.  To get to know the requirements, you need to get feedback on your work from others, to read sample papers/chapters and to talk to others who have more experience.

I hope today is a wonderfully productive writing day!


Accepting the emptiness


The new academic year began yesterday.  This morning, our house was frantic (to say the least) as my two teenage boys had to get up early, make their lunches and find all their school stuff.  My youngest has a heavy academic programme this year and last night his chest was tight with asthma – something he hasn’t had in a long time.  I find myself trying to control things very tightly in order to cope with all of life’s demands:  work, home and children’s lives.  I write lists for everyone reminding them of what they need to do, I try to anticipate food/house needs far in advance so that I don’t have to do any mad dashes and I have dreams of a packed freezer with pre-cooked meals so that I don’t have to keep thinking about what to cook.  (In a house with two teenage boys, food is a serious business).  And yet, the more I try to control everything, the more I flounder – possibly because life is uncontrollable.  My energy gets spent on trying to achieve the impossible.


The same thing happens with writing, especially academic writing.  Because it is so hard, the consequences so high, and the time so short, our writing takes place with us pushing our way through fear and anxiety.  Our way to overcoming the angst is control.  So we try to ‘know’ everything we’re writing about by reading more and more.  Then we plan, structure and tie it down so that it doesn’t become unruly and take off. 


Donald Murray, one of my favourite authors, writes in Writing to Learn: “I have learned to accept the emptiness as part of the writing process.  Do not struggle, flail about, but make myself calm and receptive” (p. 57).  It seems a counter-intuitive process to associate with academic writing because ‘research’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘content’ should come from ‘out there’ rather than from within.  What do we know?  How can our thoughts compare to the people we read?  But I have found that when I let go of the idea of controlling my writing, amazing things happen.  I usually only let go right at the end when I’m down to the wire and I have to get the paper written.  That’s when I start talking to myself:  What are you thinking here? What is it, really, that you want to say? Why do you want to say this?  Why is it important to say this?  Instead of looking outwards, I begin to look inwards and to trust that I will know something and that something will be useful. 


When we write like this, the process is enabling, empowering and creative.  Billy Collins, in his poem Introduction to poetry, ( says “I ask them to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a colour slide”.  He ends:  “But all they want to do/ is tie a poem to a chair with a rope/ and torture a confession out it”.  Don’t tie your research down and torture it.  Hold it up like a colour slide to the light and be receptive.  Accept the emptiness as part of the writing process.