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.