Joli Jensen

Hazel Rogers Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa

The Secret Shame of the Scholarly Writer

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Academic writing is a craft—a set of practices that can be learned and should be shared. Yet for generations we have wrapped academic writing in mystery and shamed those who struggle with it. So when our writing isn’t happening, we are afraid to ask for help.

This has to change. We need to do a better job of helping ourselves—and each other—learn to hone our craft. My suggestions so far have focused on taming techniques, protecting your time, making a space for writing, and allocating energy. These basic writing tools can help you move ahead with any project.

But academic writing is emotionally loaded, too, and it takes not only the right tools, but the right mindset to succeed at it. In upcoming columns I’ll explore how to overcome some self-created beliefs that can keep us from progressing on our writing. But first we have to acknowledge how psychologically and emotionally challenging academic writing can be.

Like it or not, the measure of our professional worth is wrapped up in our ability to write and get published. It’s how we attain status and support as graduate students, how we win postdocs and tenure-track positions, and—if we are fortunate—how we achieve tenure. So the stakes are very high.

The trouble is, academic writing is hard. Even the most experienced tenured faculty member struggles with it. A prolific and accomplished colleague recently told me about a sudden, unexpected bout of despair. After a day of unproductive writing, he decided his book project was both wrongheaded and impossible to complete. He even contemplated returning the advance his publisher had given him.

But after waiting just a day, he realized he had lost track of the true focus of his book. He recommitted to the actual focus (and wrote it down!) and immediately felt back on track, and ready to continue. A less experienced writer might have stayed stuck, despairing for weeks—or longer.

So getting tenure doesn’t mean we’ve fully mastered our writing issues; it only means those issues haven’t yet overwhelmed us (or that we’ve become good at hiding them). In fact, because being “unproductive” is such an academic sin, most faculty members would rather die than admit to experiencing writing problems of any kind. So we suffer silently through cycles of fear and frustration, writing and revision, rejection and resubmission, and we keep our doubt to ourselves.

When we hit a wall, we may feel like there’s nowhere to turn. Our mentors may not be willing or able to help. Worse yet, they may expect us to have the writing and publishing game all figured out, especially after grad school. Ask for guidance and you risk looking like an academic lightweight: If you need advice, maybe you don’t have the right stuff. Or so the thinking goes. But writing issues don’t just disappear on their own, and the fear and high stakes can make things worse. How is a grad student, postdoc, or junior professor supposed to figure out how to write, submit, and publish like a senior professor? By osmosis, apparently.

So if you want to write, be prepared to train yourself. Better yet, join me and others in a new online scholarly writing group; let’s share our struggles and talk about the academic writing techniques, habits, and practices we’re using to overcome the many obstacles that get in our way. Writing can be a lonely experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Maybe all we need is a little more knowledge, support and encouragement.

To get things started, here’s a list of books and resources that I’ve found useful:

The Productive Writer is a free listserv started by Jan Allen at the Cornell University Graduate School. Twice-monthly messages offer strategies for greater writing productivity, including how to reduce distractions, stay motivated, revise and edit, communicate with advisors and editors, deal with writer’s block, manage procrastination and perfectionist tendencies, and create and maintain a writing support group.

How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation, by David Sternberg (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1981).

I love this classic guide for its sensible advice on getting organized and working with advisors and committees. His suggestion for a project box, which I described in a previous piece, is a must—and his tips on surviving the dissertation ordeal remain wise and relevant.

Writing for the Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book or Article, by Howard S. Becker (University of Chicago Press, 1986; 2007).

Becker offers personal examples and much insight about how we get in our own way when writing. His advice is especially well-suited to writers who want to write without pretension or jargon.

The Clockwork Muse: a Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations and Books, by Eviatar Zerubavel (Harvard University Press, 1990).

This detailed, specific guide to academic time-management taught me to notice my own chronological patterns, and find ways to write regularly and when I’m freshest and most productive.

How to Write a Lot: a Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul J. Silvia (American Psychological Association, 2007). This lively summary of advice and research evidence offers an excellent overview of what helps and hinders academic writing.

What other books and resources help you? Tell us in the comments below or at On Scholarly Writing.

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