The thoughts of a lonely academic writer

I’m on one of my non-posting streaks again, which is usually a good indication that I’m writing something elsewhere. In this case it’s a journal article. One of the pieces of research I did during my MA got recommended for publication, albeit with a major rewrite, and I finished the course with noble intentions of getting straight to work on it and finishing within a couple of months. Five months of flimming and flamming followed, and only over the winter break did I manage to sit down and get a fair amount of the article written. The problem now is that it still doesn’t feel like something that would be published. In order to improve it, I have bought myself a copy of “Writing your journal article in twelve weeks” by Wendy Laura Belcher. It’s essentially a workbook for academic writing, and contains a number of tasks, some of which I’m going to tackle in this post.

Time and place

Belcher has a lot of very sensible and resonant things to say about where and when we can write. I say ‘can’ here because the big point of the first chapter is that successful academic writers write every day, even for just 15 minutes, rather than ‘binge writing’ for hours at a time. This is something I’m certainly guilty of. I’ll block out three hours of time for a long writing session and after two hours of it be entirely distracted and not really achieve much for the last hour or so. She also quotes her colleague, Chon A. Noriega, who points out that we tend to get better at what we do regularly, and so by NOT writing regularly, we get better at NOT writing, and develop our skills in dreaming up stuff to do instead of writing. Establishing a decent writing site is also important. I already have this – a quiet corner of the local Starbucks; I get extremely huffy if someone gets there before me. However, being flexible is important too, especially in carving out 15 minute writing spaces. To prove this, I wrote the introduction to this post whilst lying on my bed before going to football, which felt a lot less onerous than fastening myself into a chair for a five hour writing odyssey. Again, in the past I’ve been guilty of saying to myself “I don’t have enough time for a trip to the coffee shop to be worthwhile so I just won’t do anything.” In the spirit of all this, dear readers, I promise you that I am going to spend at least 30 minutes working on my article each day (I have a reminder in my to-do list app now) wherever I may be. Anyone who wishes to check up on my progress is most welcome to.

Feelings about writing

Another element of the first chapter of Belcher’s book is exploring your feelings about writing. On the whole my feelings are not particularly positive about the academic writing experience. Before writing, weariness prevails at the thought of trudging to the coffee shop and staying there for a number of hours, and at the thought of producing a kind of writing that I am both inexperienced with, and far from sure of the conventions. During the actual writing, this transforms itself into a strong feeling of inadequacy that I’m not a part of the community that really knows this stuff, and so I’m left with the overwhelming sense that I’m an impostor and charlatan dressing up some ropey old ideas in language cribbed from proper scholars’ articles in the hope that I can sneak it past a bunch of reviewers. A lot of these fears can be rationalized. I know that the articles that I read and compare my work to are written by people with years of experience, qualifications and craft-honing, and are still the results of endless revisions rather than a first draft like mine, yet still the worry persists that whatever I write, it will never sound as smart and strident as the rest of “the literature”.

None of this, according to Belcher, is particularly unusual. She cites plenty of responses from students and faculty members saying similar things. Her contention is that most people’s negative feelings are actually connected to not writing, and positive experiences come when you start getting something done. I don’t find a massive amount of personal truth in this. I’m actually better at getting myself in a position to write than I am at sustaining that motivation through three hours of over-informal phrasings, words hiding just beyond the tip of my pencil and appalling overuse of commas. What I do recognize is that it’s when things do get tough that I tend to find other things to do, treading an odd boundary between reading the Guardian and feeling like I’ll never finish, and wasting more time fantasizing about what I will do when it’s all over. I’m hoping that as I improve as an academic writer, all this will become easier, but for now I want to concentrate on finding more productive ways to get through the tough parts, perhaps by working on other parts of the article rather than crafting Facebook statuses that I never actually bother posting. Honestly, I could probably just do with being a little bit less of a mopey git about the whole thing.

It’s better when we do it together

The final point that I want to share is Belcher’s idea that we write better socially, as we have support, accountability and an audience. This does make a lot of sense, and so this post is also going to function as an appeal to anyone else out there who is writing something and would prefer it not to be such a solitary slog. If anyone out there wants to talk about writing, read my writing or have theirs read (my paper is on pronunciation testing, but it’s really not that important what you are writing about), or just wants to sympathize, my Twitter and email are over there at the side. Otherwise leave me a comment and I will get straight back to you. All the best for any and all your writing.




6 responses to “The thoughts of a lonely academic writer

  1. Read this just when I’m about to start a long day of essay writing so thanks for the final tips and boost to motivate me to get started! I don’t have much experience with journal writing but with the MA assignments I’m finding them slightly, dare I say, easier every time as I start to develop a style of planning, drafting, writing etc, sure you found the same thing? Also bet the same rule applies to writing articles so take some comfort in thinking any articles you write after this will be much easier!
    Now get off facebook and write, write, write!


    • Hi Gem,

      Thanks for the support. It’s very much appreciated. So far I am keeping up with my goals too.

      With the MA, my assignments were all six months apart so I’m not sure that I built quite the same momentum as you seem to be. It definitely helped getting used to academic writing conventions though. Also not totally sure I could take another article after this either! 🙂

  2. Alex, let me just say a big Thank You. I started writing (not even academic, just blogging) last December and from time to time have the feeling you described above: Am I experienced enough to write about this? Have I read enough of what the others have to say? (and many similar questions in my head) After reading your post and Gemma’s comment at least I know I am not alone. I am learning. Thank you for your support.

    • Hi Zhenya,

      I believe that this is a pattern most people experience when writing in any new genre. I’d just like to say congratulations on starting a blog. Are you planning to write every Wednesday? Having read one of your posts, I’m sure you’ll go far!

  3. Gina Paschalidou

    Very sincere and insightful post. Thank you.
    I have just finished a paper for my MA the other day and I can definitely sympathise with you. Not exactly the same as an article, though.
    I believe you feel most awful when you don’t get down to work and find excuses all the time whereas you feel a kind of satisfaction and accomplishment when you do sth, which in turn boosts you further. Don t you ever feel the same way too? Anyway, write a little everyday is good advice but 15 minutes, I reckon, is too little! For me, at least.
    Support and sharing is also helpful, I ve experienced it with a friend-colleague and it works.
    And yes, keep away from social media, surfing the net and curation! I m trying to keep a programme on that, say, 1 hour in the morning and 1 in the evening. Thanks again. 🙂

    • Hi Gina,

      Thank you very much for your comment.

      I absolutely agree with everything that you said, and I think this is what the book was saying too. Our habits reinforce themselves, and so just getting writing a little can snowball into something far more productive. The 15 minutes, by the way, was the absolute minimum for very busy days, and longer writing sessions were recommended.

      Best of luck with your MA!


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