Tips for anxious writers: You are not an imposter
Many academic writers fear that their work is not good enough and not important enough, and also that they themselves are not good enough. Such doubts are well-known in academia, and recognized by the phrase “imposter syndrome.” Trying to write often triggers such doubts and their subsequent anxiety, which interferes with the focus needed for good writing. If you’re thinking “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have anything worth saying,” your focus is being drawn away from the things that you do have to say, and how to say them effectively to reach your audience.
The real bar is not as high as you think
Research requires care and attention to detail. Intellectual brilliance helps, but a lot of good and valuable research is relatively simple, with plenty of models to copy. Many research methods are well within the competence of any solid college student. Basic statistics—descriptive statistics and simpler inferential statistical tests like correlation or t-tests—often provide valuable insight into some question that has not been asked before. Coding qualitative data may be subtle, but it’s not necessarily complicated, and can certainly be within the capability of a solid college student. To a great extent, the hard part of research is finding a good question that has not been asked and that can be researched effectively, and that’s not that hard. If you have advanced in academia to the point that it’s a career (e.g, if you’re a professor, an adjunct who has received an advanced degree, or even a doctoral candidate thinking of applying for faculty positions), the chance that you don’t have enough talent to do good work as a researcher, teacher, and academic writer is tiny.
Impostor syndrome is, of course, basically a self-evaluation. So it’s important to ask how good are people at self-evaluation? The answer is, not very. To be sure, a lot of the error in self-evaluation lies in people who think their abilities are greater than they truly are. But not always. It has been observed that many people who are highly competent and also self-critical will underrate their abilities. This general observation is what lies behind the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which less qualified people, who are not self-critical or who do not even have the knowledge to effectively criticize work in their field, believe they are experts, while people who are expert or near expert often underrate their ability because they have the critical awareness to identify their weaknesses. Speaking generally, if you have the insight and knowledge to criticize your work in a meaningful way, chances are good that you’re undervaluing your work and your abilities. This is, I suspect, especially true of people who struggle with anxiety. Your struggle with impostor syndrome suggests that that you are, in fact, highly competent, given your ability to discern the difference between good and poor research in your field.
Where does imposter syndrome come from?
I think there are basically two main flavors or aspects of imposter syndrome. There is a comparative aspect that comes from comparing your work to the work of others, particularly to the leading scholars in your field, and there is a self-critical aspect that comes from your ability to criticize your own work and your awareness of its weaknesses.
Sometimes imposter syndrome is triggered by negative feedback—if someone tells you that your work is poor, you may well begin to doubt your place in academia—but this variety of imposter syndrome is, I think, relatively short-term, unless supported by either comparative or self-critical perspectives. If you are confident in your own intelligence/ability and in the value of your work, then negative feedback is unlikely to suddenly cause a serious crisis of confidence. You need strong doubts about your own work before a negative comment can force you to lose sight of all the strengths of your work.
Comparative imposter syndrome
Ideally, we learn by studying the best. We read the top scholars in our field; we have teachers and colleagues who are experts in their own work. This is good, but also problematic in that it creates an unrealistic standard: when you read the best works of the most important authors, you get a skewed perspective on two levels. It’s skewed with respect to the specific scholars you read because you read their best stuff, works that have been developed, refined, and polished over years, not the drafts that got rejected or got a revise-and-resubmit.
And it’s skewed with respect to perspective on who does good research. If you compare yourself to the best of the best, you lose sight of all the solid people how do excellent but less celebrated work. While it is natural and desirable to compare your work to the best work that you see—you should aspire to do the best possible work and to surpass those who have come before—such comparison may minimize the value of your work. Most scholars feel small compared to the giants of the field, even while they are a peer to most of their colleagues, and their abilities and knowledge far outstrip the average college graduate.
Find the lowlights
Sometimes, it’s realistic and valuable to compare yourself to a lower standard of competition. If you’re looking to get published, you don’t have to reach the bar set by the very best publications, all you have to do is exceed the bar set by the worst publications. And there is a vast array of flawed research out there. Have you agreed with everything you’ve ever read? What have you disagreed with? Why? Wouldn’t you consider that point of disagreement a flaw in their work, and a strength that you can bring to your own work? Have you ever read research that was poorly planned, poorly reasoned, poorly executed, or poorly written? Look at the weakest work in your field: how does your work compare to the worst stuff you have read? If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, it can be a useful exercise to identify publications about which you think “I’m not impressed.”
Please note that I’m not suggesting you set your goals low; I’m suggesting that you avoid the error of thinking yourself an imposter based on comparison to the best in your field. If you are self-critical, do not forget to turn that critical eye on the work of others, too. The ideal scholar is expected to use impartially the same critical skills and standards for evaluating all work, whether their own or that of others. Indeed, you should be turning this critical eye on all the work you read, including the best—you should only recognize something as “the best” because it has survived critical analysis. Even the best research as limits.
The weakest works in your field are the works that reveal your value because they present a baseline upon which your work can improve. To some extent, the value of a scholarly work is reasonably measured in terms of that improvement over the weakest material. To some extent, this is exactly what a scholar is trying to do in addressing “gaps in the literature,” though it’s not quite as explicitly comparative. A “gap in the literature” is either something where no one has done any work (and offering something instead of nothing is good), or it’s a correction of some error made previously.
Self-critical imposter syndrome
The other aspect of imposter syndrome is inward facing: you know the problems in your own work (at least you do if you are careful, conscientious, and capable), and, being aware of these limits and flaws, you convince yourself that the work is no good. But there are limits to what can be accomplished by a researcher, and it’s important to embrace those limits and recognize how they affect all scholarship, not just your own (see Accept uncertainty; trust your practice). If every researcher waited for perfect results, no one would publish.
It can be a useful exercise to write out comparisons to other works dealing with the same material, especially comparisons of the weakest similar work. How is your work different? How is it better? What does it do that others have not done? In the exercise, focus on how your work is an advance, or what you’re trying to say that others have not said. Admittedly, it can be anxiety-inducing to compare yourself to others, and that is especially so if you look at all the best qualities of the other work and all the best work. But even in comparison to the best work, you can still focus on the strengths of your work, and how those specific strengths add to the discourse in your field.
If you’re working on a journal article, such comparisons can be a useful part of the introductory material—what the APA Publication Manual (7th ed.) call the “historical antecedents.” If you’re working on a book such comparisons are an important part of a book proposal: Publishers want to know who else is selling similar books and why yours is different and better. Therefore, writing out comparisons to other similar work can be a useful exercise that might contribute to a useful piece of writing. For the purpose of selling your work to a publisher, as well as for supporting your confidence, it’s important to work through this exercise by focusing on the weaknesses of the other works, and especially weaknesses that help explain why your work is valuable. If you focus on the weaknesses of similar work, you are more likely to see the value in your own work (even if you also cannot ignore the flaws you see in your own work), and seeing value in your work can greatly help with imposter syndrome.
This is a difficult exercise
Of all my tips for dealing with writing anxiety, this is probably the most difficult because these comparisons so often trigger anxiety. It’s an exercise worth doing, however. In the long run, the better you get at critiquing the work of others, the easier it will be to recognize and accept weakness in your own. When you start to see the weakness in all research, you are much more likely to find personal confidence in your ability to do your own research, despite the flaws that you see.
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: Accept uncertainty; trust your practice
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