Tips for anxious writers: Accept uncertainty; trust your practice
Anxiety and uncertainty often go hand in hand. If you’re certain that you’re right, you feel confident; if you have doubts, you feel anxiety. If you’re sure everything will turn out well, you feel confident; if you think you might not succeed, you feel anxiety. Research and research writing are fraught with unavoidable uncertainty that can trigger anxiety and drain confidence. Because uncertainty is unavoidable, it is necessary to be able to act despite uncertainty. In this post, I want to discuss different kinds of uncertainty, why so much uncertainty is inevitable, and how it is sometimes possible to decouple uncertainty and anxiety.
Three types of certainty/uncertainty
Some certainty is logical or intellectual. If you have correctly solved a mathematical problem, for example, or checkmated your opponent in chess, you have logical certainty. Some certainty is predictive or descriptive: for all intents and purposes, we can be certain the sun will rise tomorrow and that our feet will get wet if we step in a deep puddle. Finally, there is psychological/emotional certainty: you can fervently believe you’re right, regardless of whether others would agree or whether there is any clear evidence.
The first type of certainty is familiar, but very rare in research. By and large, research does not move through logical proof, but through limited evidence. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is probably the most famous example of unavoidable uncertainty in research, but it is hardly alone. All inferential statistics are based on probability, not certainty. Less well known, but more frequently relevant, is the problem of induction (sometimes known as Hume’s problem, for the 18th century philosopher David Hume), which says that we cannot use observations to prove, with certainty, a general rule, because future observations might not be the same as the observations we have made so far. (The process of deriving general rules through specific observations is called “induction”.) Because of these concerns and others, research generally does not achieve logical certainty.
The second type of certainty—certainty in planning—is similarly elusive. For starters, without logical certainty, we cannot be absolutely certain that the reasoning or evidence used for our plan is correct. Additionally, it’s hard to predict the responses of different people (I’m thinking specifically with respect to writing or other presentations of ideas), so any plan (i.e., any outline or draft of a manuscript) might be viewed as failing. Other problematic concerns arise, such as who to plan for. If, for example, you have some important idea to share, you have to decide to whom that idea is important and in what way it will be presented—is it for scholars, e.g., a monograph or a journal article (and if so, which journal?); for students, e.g., a textbook or other educational media; or or a popular audience, e.g., in a news publication or mass-market book?
The third type of certainty—emotional certainty—is far too common in some people, but usually not common enough in people struggling with writing anxiety. There are plenty of people who believe in their own ability and are sure their plans will work, even if that judgement is incorrect. People struggling with writing anxiety, however, usually go to the opposite extreme, and are sure their plans are fatally flawed, even if those plans are as well developed as a plan can be. We’ll never get rid of some uncertainty—the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley, as Burns wrote—so we have to go with uncertain plans. That can be scary, but it’s the only practical choice.
Confidence in process and practice
For most practical purposes (like designing a research project or writing a manuscript), only emotional certainty is possible—there’s no rule that tells you what the right project is or what the right manuscript should be. Ironically, this impacts the thinker who applies the critical insight needed for a research and scholarship more than it does other people. The critical thinker looks at evidence and finds logical limits of research conclusions or plans, where a less critical person will not even notice a flaw or limitation. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes how people who have little expertise, and are therefore unable to clearly evaluate their abilities in a field, overrate their abilities. It also describes how people with greater expertise have lower confidence in their own abilities because they can see the flaws in their own work. (Of course, overrating one’s abilities is not limited to people of low ability: everyone in academia has surely met people who were experts but who also thought too well of themselves and their own work. But that’s not really relevant here: I suspect that people who grossly overrate their ability don’t much struggle with writing anxiety.)
How can you develop reasonable confidence in the face of doubt? If your research results are limited, and your plans for research and writing are uncertain at best, where do you find a foundation on which to build confidence?
The section header gives away the answer: anyone can build a foundation of confidence based on practice. If you develop a practice in which, day after day, you come back and put in some work, you can have confidence in your ability to work again one more day. In this perspective, you don’t need to be certain of your research or of how your writing will be received, you only need confidence that you can keep trying and keep learning from things that haven’t worked out. To a great extent, this focus on your practice is a form of believing in yourself, which can be difficult (see tip #9: You are not an imposter). But even if you have doubts about your talent/brilliance/intelligence, you ought to be able to feel confident in your practice because your practice (the practice of a researcher) mostly stuff that you have done for years, and had reviewed, criticizes, and sometimes approved. (If you are a doctoral candidate, you have done plenty of work that has been approved by your professors; if you have advanced beyond doctoral studies, you have even more experience people checking and approving your work.)
For confidence in practice, you need only keep taking small steps that you know you can make, with occasional chances on more difficult steps, all with a willingness to make mistakes because most mistakes are an opportunity to learn, rather than any real block to a project. It’s possible to take some comfort and confidence in a mistake-filled practice, assuming you are willing to keep coming back to work. Sure, you make mistakes, but you and keep learning in the process. That is, of course, the basic dynamic of research experimentation: you test ideas, and if one test doesn’t work out or gives unexpected results, you try another. If you are focused on your larger practice and process, most mistakes are only bumps in the road, to be taken for granted. For a writer, this same dynamic is invaluable, and the cost of experimenting with writing is low: if you spend an hour writing something and you think it’s got a problem, well, that’s only one hour, so you can go back and write anew tomorrow.
Practice confidence around uncertainty
Uncertainty, as I have argued above, is central to research and central to the skeptical attitude expected of researchers: a scholar does not take knowledge for granted, but rather tests it. Therefore, instead of viewing your uncertainty is a weakness, wear it proudly as a badge of your critical insight. Scholars aren’t supposed to have absolute certainty; they are expected to be aware of the limitations of research—their own and others’.
When you’re a student, you need to give answers to professors’ questions, especially on exams. Saying “I don’t know; I didn’t choose to study that,” won’t cut it for an essay exam answer. But when you’re a scholar, saying you don’t know is completely viable. When you’re a scholar, you set your own agenda, so you can always say: “that question is outside the scope of my work; I have not considered it.” Often, one might want to follow up on such a claim of ignorance by saying, “but as I start to consider the question now, I see the following points….” It’s ok to say “I haven’t studied that” or “I don’t have the answer” because no scholar is expected to have every answer to every question.
In your writing, you can make choices and mark them as choices, and this can help reduce self-doubt in the face of uncertainty. If you’re worried about leaving something out, you tell the reader “further discussion of this important point is outside the scope of this work.” If you’re worried that one of your premises is debatable—for example choice of some theoretical model—you can write, “There is considerable debate over which model best suits this situation, however a full discussion of the relative merits of the different models is outside the scope of this work.” This kind of writing allows you to acknowledging the importance of some material while also leaving it out of the discussion. It tells your reader that you recognize some gap or uncertainty, but that you made a choice to pursue some other question. With most audiences, it defuses critiques that you haven’t addressed the material that you didn’t include. If your reader has influence over your work (e.g., a professor reviewing a dissertation draft; a scholar reviewing your work for a publisher or journal), they have the opportunity to ask for further development of the point.
In your research, acknowledge the practical limits of research. When it’s time to present, flaunt the limitations of your work and how those limitations suggest the need for more research, and then explain why and how your work improved on previous work. Expect that your audience will challenge your work and look for ways that they offer you insight into how to improve it, and welcome the chance to improve it (and also be willing to ignore destructive feedback—see Analyze feedback). If you tell yourself “all research is limited/flawed, and by presenting mine, I will gain useful feedback,” then you free yourself of concern for logical certainty, you reduce the difficulty of receiving critical feedback, and have a better chance of sorting the constructive feedback from the useless feedback.
Embrace the imperfections in knowledge and writing
If you are struggling with writing anxiety, and you see the flaws in your work very clearly, do not despair over those flaws, but rather celebrate your ability to recognize those flaws, and take it as a sign of the progress of your research. Some flaws need to be fixed—and therefore it’s good that you have recognized them. Other flaws—the practical and theoretical limitations faced by every research project—simply need to be acknowledged and accepted. Your critical skills are good! They’re important to the task of the scholar. All your academic doubts—doubts about theory or method—those are all good questions to be asking. The standard for a good scholarly work is not that it is beyond criticism, but rather that it takes reasonable steps in its attempt at rigor.
By accepting the unavoidable uncertainties in research and writing—by instead acknowledging the unanswered questions—you can reduce your own anxieties that you have somehow failed. As scholar and writer, it is your job to help people learn, and that includes helping them understand the limits of research.
Read the other articles in this series:
Tips for anxious writers: Series introduction
Tips for anxious writers: Gentle persistence
Tips for anxious writers: Writing is only a tool
Tips for anxious writers: Use exploratory writing
Tips for anxious writers: Practice and performance
Tips for anxious writers: Philosophy, a labor of love
Tips for anxious writers: How to get moving
Tips for anxious writers: Write for the right audience
Tips for anxious writers: You are not an imposter
Tips for anxious writers: Analyze feedback
Dave Harris, Ph.D., editor, writing coach, and dissertation coach, helps writers develop effective writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015), Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice (Routledge, 2020) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010).Dave can be found on the web at www.thoughtclearing.com