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Confronting the anxiety of academic writing: Tackling the intellectual and practical difficulties

The first article in this series, based on Rachael Cayley’s October 19, 2022 TAA webinar, “Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing”, covered the concerns of writing product and writing process and how they are so deeply rooted that they start to feel inevitable.

In this second article, we discuss some of the ways that Cayley suggests tackling the intellectual and practical difficulties associated with writing. To tackle the intellectual difficulties, she says, you need to reconceptualize writing: “Writing is not a simple matter of writing up something that has already been created. Prior to writing, for most of us, there’s not much there. And that creative process—the process of getting words out of our inchoate minds and on to the page—is an intensely difficult one. No matter how much underlying research, or note taking, or outlining, or thinking you may have done.”

She goes on to say that writers need to accept that there is this constructive element to writing: “Writing is not reporting things that we have previously thought. Writing is constructing meaning on the page. And once we’ve accepted that the nature of writing is thinking, we can then turn our attention to the revision process that helps us to meet the needs of the reader. But we have to start by thinking of writing in a more complicated way than some people want to. When you are wedded to the notion that writing should be a kind of reporting, you will often be disappointed in yourself, disappointed in your ability to put down on the page what you have been thinking.”

According to Cayley, our ability to better manage our writing process relies on this reconceptualization: writing as thinking, writing as revision, writing as audience awareness. Taken together, these ideas allow to reframe writing and confront your difficulties.

To tackle the practical difficulties, Cayley suggests prioritizing writing amidst all your other commitments: “The fact that writing is so intellectually difficult—that you are working out on the page issues that are inherently complex and incredibly important to you—means  that we readily turn away from that task. Because of these intellectual difficulties, t’s too easy for us to prioritize everything except writing in our workflow.”

For Cayley, these two difficulties require systematic attention: “Writers often think of these types of feelings as private failings, as something wrong with us—that we’re just not very good at this. But that diagnosis can lead writers to imagine that the only solution is for usto work harder, or for us to try more. But when we try to use renewed effort to fix problems that weren’t the result of an insufficient effort in the first place, we are not likely to have much success.”

Renewed effort only works, she says, when the original problem was insuffient effort. Since that’s not the case most of the time, it often isn’t a good strategy. “It’s an overwhelmingly common strategy because we feel like we are failing all the time,” she says. “We don’t do it enough, we don’t do enough of it, we’re too slow, we get behind on our deadlines—all of those feelings that lead to anxiety. We often imagine if we just were a better person, we would be better at writing.”

However, Cayley argues, when you let go of the guilt—that you haven’t written enough, that you’re not a good enough writer—you free up energy to find solutions that actually help with writing challenges.

The next article in this series will look at some strategies for reconceptualizing writing.


Rachael CayleyRachael Cayley is an associate professor (teaching stream) at the Graduate Centre for Academic Communication, which is part of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. She teaches academic writing and speaking to graduate students. Before joining the University of Toronto, she worked as an editor at Oxford University Press in Toronto. She has a PhD in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and a BA in political science from the University of British Columbia. Rachael blogs about graduate writing at Explorations of Style and has a book forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press, Thriving as a Graduate Writer: Principles, Strategies, and Habits for Effective Academic Writing (June, 2023).

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