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Confronting the anxiety of academic writing: Reconceptualizing writing to clarify your ideas

The first article in this series, based on Rachael Cayley’s October 19, 2022, TAA webinar, “Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing,” considered the importance of taking academic writing anxiety seriously. The second discussed Cayley’s suggestions for tackling the intellectual and practical difficulties associated with writing.

In this third article, we delve into the first of Cayley’s three principles for reconceptualizing writing: using writing to clarify your own thinking. In subsequent posts, will discuss the other two principles: committing to extensive revision and understanding the needs of the reader.

 These three principles are derived from the work of Joseph Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace: “We write the first drafts for ourselves, the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.”

Using writing to clarify thinking can be transformative for many writers, Cayley says: “This principle can allow writers to have greater freedom in their early drafts.”

For one thing, this principle gives people permission to start writing without knowing exactly what they want to say. Indeed, writing becomes an active process of discovery. “Most people have very little access to what they think before they start to see it constructed on the page,” says Cayley.

Not feeling “ready” is a key reason people put off writing, she says, which in turn contributes to their anxiety. Cayley acknowledges that there are necessary tasks academic writers must do before writing, such as conducting sufficient research to conceptualize the contours of the project. However, many people defer writing beyond the point that is helpful.

This exploratory approach to writing requires letting go of the notion that writers be able to start with a “beautiful outline” and simply “fill in the blanks” through writing. As attractive as that idea may be, she says, “when you’re doing the hard conceptual work of academic writing, you don’t always know what is going to happen until you start getting words onto the page.” The reason that exploratory writing is so valuable is that it gets us closer to first draft; “A first draft is like money in the bank,” Cayley says. Once we have a first draft complete, we can see a way forward and can start to do the hard work of revision.

While exploratory writing can seem chaotic, Cayley recommends two ways to manage your writing during drafting:

Make notes for yourself using a different font than the one you typically write in. Cayley advises utilizing a “for-your-eyes-only” font that “signals to you that no one else will see it, so then you can keep track of your concerns.” You can use this font to note when you think you may be getting off track, she says: “You can ask yourself these types of questions: Is this the right direction? Is this what I said that I was going to do? Or, alternately, have I found a new way of doing this that might be better than what I was thinking?”

Reserve time as you are drafting to clarify your own intent. “You might want to save yourself a little bit of time each day to run through [the manuscript], not to do any extensive revisions, but just a first pass to make sure that you understand what you are trying to say,” Cayley recommends. The goal is to come out of this initial writing phase with a manuscript that is ready for revision.

The next article in this series tackles strategies for revising.

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. 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).