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The three biggest mistakes academic writers make

I grew up in an academic family. When we would gather around the table at holidays, everyone but my bipolar aunt had a Ph.D. My ex-husband once told me he felt I needed to get a Ph.D. to be considered a grown-up by my family. So I know the culture. I am fluent in tenure and promotion, refereed articles and revise-and-resubmit, and the heaven and hell of the sabbatical and adjunct worlds.

As a creative writer and scholar who specializes in teaching mindfulness and writing as ways of dealing with chronic stress and healing from trauma, I bring my expertise in stress-reduction together with my personal experience of what it means to “be an academic.” I want to share with you some insights about the three biggest mistakes I see academic writers making.

1. You spend too much time on your research

When I first start working with someone, I tell her not to write for more than twenty minutes a day. Call this the withdrawal method (you can certainly hear their wails of resistance as if I’ve taken a pacifier away), but researchers are finding that the brain works best in 20-minute bursts of focus. The problem with many academics, particularly during the summer months or while on leave, is that they spend too much time writing. When you sit down at your computer for five, six, or seven hours at a time, the mind wanders. You check a few blogs. You click on Facebook. You email a colleague. The mind is a boredom maker, and when you give it too much time, it will never feel the squeeze of that need to focus. How much can you write in 20 minutes? You’d be surprised. Most people report that they get more done than they did while sitting at the computer all day. Even as academics strengthen their focus muscle, I advise them never to write for more than two hours a day. That’s how much Virginia Woolf wrote—and it may have been too much for her.

2. You spend too much time at your computer

This is connected to the first mistake—but it’s slightly different. What researchers are starting to see is that the fast click-clicking of the computer charges up the left side of our brain. This means that we are strengthening our judgment, criticism, and critique skills. Why is this dangerous? Because this is exactly what we need to silence in order to banish our doubts about our writing. It is the more connected, emotional, right side of the brain that aids us when we are having new and creative ideas. And that side only comes out to play when it feels safe. So while it may seem fun and harmless to spend a lot of time at the computer, it is actually diminishing your ability to write well, make new connections between disparate ideas, and have the courage to believe in yourself.

3. You spend too much time in your office

Even when you’re not really being productive, there’s the illusion that if you’re “in the office,” you’re working. Not so! In fact, one of the most helpful things we can do when we are working on a difficult project is to leave the office. When we are outside, we lose control over our environment—we cannot control the temperature, or the next bird song, or the direction of the wind. Our minds love this! It gives that pesky, boredom-prone monkey mind something to focus on. Try taking a notebook to a park. Write for twenty minutes without stopping, censoring, or self-judging. See what ideas come. And then go do something fun. We work best in short, focused bursts, when we are relaxed and at ease, and when we feel our lives and our work are in balance. Try it.

Cassie Premo SteeleAfter almost twenty years of teaching in academe, Cassie Premo Steele branched out on her own – to become a writing coach to academics nationwide, specializing in working with those who live with disability and diversity issues. Her website is Cassie’s academic coaching services are featured in TAA’s Professional Directory, where she offers a 35% discount to TAA members.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Text and Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.