Image: Bull Durham (1988)
Join Vitae's On Scholarly Writing group to share more tips for breaking out of a writing rut.
Until fairly recently, I’ve been in the mother of all sophomore slumps.
Summer is usually prime time for getting academic work done, but this past summer I did a lot of “not writing.” I was supposed to be researching and writing about allergies — my second major scholarly project — and writing a book proposal for a literary agent. Instead I did a lot of sitting at my desk worrying about not writing. I talked to my friends about not writing. I had guilt about not writing. I obsessed about not writing. All of this was made much worse because I never saw it coming.
Novelists often talk about the dreaded “sophomore slump” — that seemingly interminable period after publishing a first book and before beginning a second. There is much camaraderie and empathy and doling out of advice, since most successful writers have been there. The slump is said to be much worse if the first book has been a relative success; the pressure is on for the next book to be even better. As you might imagine, the anxiety produced by such high expectations only exacerbates the writer’s block that goes hand in hand with a sophomore slump.
As someone who has spent a lot of time around seasoned nonacademic writers, I had heard about the sophomore-slump phenomenon and its attendant troubles. But I hadn’t really expected to experience it myself. I was already a seasoned writer used to meeting self-imposed deadlines. I had worked at a daily newspaper and written a novel before I even entered a graduate program. I didn’t think the sophomore slump applied to professors and academic books.
But of course, the phenomenon exists within the academy as well as without. The only difference is that I’ve never heard senior professors openly discuss it.
No one adequately warned me about academia’s version of the sophomore slump. Maybe because, compared with novelists, scholars aren’t as used to admitting weakness or talking about the craft of writing. Or maybe it’s because academics have become inured to the difficulties of writing. After all, it’s not easy for a scholar to write a first book, let alone a second. For a start, you’re learning how to craft a long scholarly work with interconnected pieces and arguments. Junior faculty are also beginners, and novices at any craft often have to deal not only with the nitty-gritty problems of honing a skill set, but with issues of self-esteem and self-confidence.
You’d think all of that would get easier on the second attempt. Instead, those problems and pressures somehow gets amplified in advance of the next book.
It’s been nearly a year since my first academic book came out with Cornell Press. Since its publication, I’ve struggled to get started on my second research project. Writing the first book was challenging and exciting, but also draining. For most junior scholars, our first book coincides with learning the job of being a professor. We’re carving time out from teaching, service, and our personal lives to write. By the time we turn in the final copyedits of our manuscript, we’re exhausted. We need a break. I know I did.
So I took one. And then that break turned into a year-long hiatus. During that time, I still wrote. I wrote op-eds, advice columns, and nonacademic articles. But I couldn’t seem to force myself back to my academic work. Eventually I realized I was in a serious sophomore slump that I needed to shake. The only problem: I didn’t know how. So I spent a lot of needless time worrying about my slump, eating ice cream on the couch, and running through entire TV series on Netflix.
For those of you still slogging away at your first academic book, or those of you in the throes of a slump, here are some tips for getting through it:
- Don’t blame yourself. Things are bad enough when you’re in an extended period of writer’s block, you don’t need to pile guilt and shame on top of that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with you that’s producing the slump. If there’s a term for it, you can bet that it’s a common experience. It helps to remember that other people are in a similar situation, or have gone through it and survived
- Shift into reading mode. Constantly reading other people’s writing will help you to slowly build back up your own. Starting a new project is daunting. It helps if you can rediscover why you loved this job in the first place. For me that meant going back to basics. I started reading randomly around my proposed new topic and allowed myself to read any genre: poetry, journalism, fiction. Anything goes. Exposing myself to a range of styles keeps the writing part of my brain functional. Even when you can’t write, you can usually read.
- Take notes. If you’re starting a new project, trick yourself into writing a little bit. Last summer, I read books by scholars who were working on topics adjacent to my own. Each time I finished reading a book or article, I wrote a précis. Yes, a précis. Act as if you’re a beginner grad student all over again. Geek out. Highlight stuff. Use Post-its. Do whatever helps you to start engaging with the material. Those notes are spurring your brain, leading it back into the writing zone. The bonus is that all those notes on other people’s writing will compile a fairly long Word document of your own writing. I mined my notes for ideas and citations when I started to write a talk (which will turn into a new article) on my new topic.
- Rediscover joy. Slumps are really just extended periods of procrastination and writer’s block. The same tricks you use to combat those problems can be applied to the slump. The hardest part of kicking a sophomore slump is psychological. By the time you get to the second major research project, you’ve likely spent 10 (or more) years toiling away on the first one. The only solution to that fatigue is to rediscover what drew you into a Ph.D. program in the first place. Find the joy in your subject. Get excited about something, find a new puzzle to work out. At some point, you’ll be motivated to write again because you’ll have something you desperately want to say.
And when all else fails, remember this: Slumps can’t — and don’t — last forever. It only feels like they do.