I’m slow; I read slowly, think slowly and write slowly. In the best of times this is merely a little annoying but at the worst of times it can be debilitating. This especially applies to writing and I’m not alone here. It can be a real source of anxiety for many graduate students. Even journaling and free writing, otherwise easy creative processes, can be laden with perfectionist expectations that can hinder productivity. None of what I’m saying will come as a surprise to most grad students because, A: as mentioned, it’s aquite common, and B: even if we did think we were alone in feeling this way, the slew of books, blogs, articles, webinars and workshops dedicated to reassuring us that we’re not and providing advice for getting around it should serve as a reminder.
Writing is the academic golden ticket. Like it or not, most roads lead there at some point. If we’re writing then there’s a good chance that we’re publishing or on our way to be; and being published has become even more important in much of academia. What if like me, you love the idea of teaching or talking to people more than writing or you get a kick out of collecting and analysing data? It’s not the end of the world if writing isn’t your bag but it still has to get done.
Think about it; as academics we write for our degree; we write to get a job; and we write to keep a job. No matter what stage we’re at it’s a big part of what we do and our need/desire/want to just write (for heavens sake) can be so intense that it precludes it from happening at a pace that seems productive if at all. I’m talking about writers block and it can actually be a better place to be in, than having a so much or even a little to say. Here’s why. When nothing comes we eventually have no choice but to throw in the towel and walk away for a time. This can be the best decision that so many of us never make. Why don’t we make it? Because, walking away means not working which means not producing which means falling behind which means failing. I get it, but if we think we’re clear about what we want to say, and manage to eek out a few words to boot, we’re likely to keep pushing and struggling our way into unproductive territory, and sometimes the chase just doesn’t pay off.
Much of the advice about how to write effectively is limited to the act itself, independent of reading and thinking. I think this is a problem. Many young academics, myself included at times, approach reading, thinking and writing as separate activities or stages. Okay, in theory they are but one necessarily involves the other and not in any particular order either. We read, we think about what we’ve read, we use this to cultivate a well-informed, strong argument that may or may not inform empirical work, and then we write. At the same time that we engage these activities as separate methodological practices there’s a tendency for reading and thinking work to be subsumed under the rubric of writing because, as I said, most roads lead there. This makes writing seem like it’s the most important of the three activities when (I think) they are all of equal importance. More to the point, reading, thinking and writing take time that we sometimes don’t have. External pressures to publish or be publishable loom large causing many of us to start writing when we mightn’t be ready. Working slow may seem like the sour cherry on top of the sundae but there are practical ways to address it. If you’re stuck or dragging along and feel as though you must write, some of best advice I’ve found comes from James Hayton of Three Month Thesis. One such tidbit is a short, simple writing exercise that actually works. More importantly though, the advice for successful and consistent writing isn’t fool-proof and the very best course of action that I’ve found is to go easier on myself. This involves seeing the way I naturally work, slow and steady, as a useful characteristic and one that reflects a careful and meticulous nature.