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.
If you struggle with writing anxiety, I want to assure you that it is possible to learn to love writing. Such love is the foundation and motivation for a healthy practice. Saying that it’s important to love your work and calling it “a labor of love” might suggest that I’m getting distracted by woo-woo new-age goals, so I want to be clear that my goal is to help anxious writers write more productively, any emotional benefits are secondary. It just so happens, however, that people often manifest high-level performance because they love what they’re doing and consequently spend a lot of time and effort on it. I imagine that anyone in academia has met at least one scholar who did good work and was truly, genuinely excited by and interested in the ideas they were pursuing.
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An anxious writer once told me “I made some notes and organized my thoughts but didn’t get any writing done.” She was feeling anxiety, shame, and a sense of failure about not adding to her manuscript. But that narrow view of what counts as “writing,” doesn’t recognize the value of some activities that are valuable parts of the writing process. In the previous post, I argued that all types of writing—email to friends, social media posts, etc.—can contribute to your skill as a writer. In this post, I’m following a related idea—another idea about what does and does not count as “writing” and what does (or does not) help you make progress on a manuscript. You can do important academic work without adding a single word to a manuscript if you are using writing as a tool to explore ideas.
How do you get academic writing into your bones—and mind? If you’re an experienced professor, you may not need to immerse as much as your students do. In my dissertation editing and coaching practice, I’ve noticed that many student writers write like they speak—conversationally and colloquially.
If you’re a closet novelist, fine. Write like your characters speak. But academic writing is a breed unto itself, and not giving it the proper attention is the downfall of many a previously good student.
It’s no secret that writing is hard, whatever our experience, stage, or state. Academics aren’t the only ones who abhor writing. It’s likely that anyone who ever had to write anything abhors writing. With academic writing, as any other kind, it’s usually hard to get started. Even if we’ve had an initial flush of enthusiasm and are amazed at having produced the first few pages, it’s too easy to sink into a frozen torpor.
Yet writing represents some of the most important aspects of our professional work. And too often we avoid, procrastinate, and rationalize why, instead of writing, we must polish the car or clean out the refrigerator.