A recent Twitter interaction with another writing coach helped me clarify some of the principles that underpin my approach to academic writing.
— Thomas Basbøll (@Inframethod) January 31, 2018
(Thomas was objecting to a tweet comparing writing a first draft to shovelling sand in a sandbox to build castles with later.) There followed a conversation and a blog post. Thomas Basbøll and I agree on much more than we disagree on. But the disagreement is crucial: what counts as “academic writing”? For Thomas, academic writing should be focused on your journal article. Conference papers, free writing, analysis, and everything else is “pre-writing” in his world. He is not alone in this. Many people find this distinction, and the distinction between writing and research, useful. I’m not in the business of telling people to stop doing things that work for them. My sociology background instead suggests that I should ask why this distinction might be so common.
I wonder if the issue is what some call “productive procrastination”: working on things that seem to be moving your project forward but are really a way of avoiding the difficult work of actually moving your writing project forward. I can see how my advice, and advice like it, can seem to be providing excuses for activity that is not effective for achieving the goal of publishing your academic work. I’m not interested in providing excuses that keep you from publishing so let me clarify why I do not make this distinction and instead focus on everything that contributes to your writing from exploring your initial curiosity right through to tidying up your draft for submission.
How do you tell the difference between procrastination and moving your project forward?
How it feels. It’s not about the task. It’s about the emotion motivating the task. To illustrate, I’ll start with a task that no one will argue isn’t real writing: revision and editing.
Whether or not you think a pile of sand in a sandbox is a useful metaphor (and I agree that it probably isn’t), you will accept that your work will never be publishable without revising and editing your first draft. Revision of the structure makes your argument clearer. You revise the words you’ve already written to report your data more accurately to support that argument. Once all the sections of your article are clearly expressed, you turn to editing. You get rid of all the extraneous words you use when writing a first draft that really aren’t necessary (however, furthermore, etc etc). You turn most of the passive constructions into active constructions even though it feels really scary to claim that authority. You check all the references and tidy up the formatting. This is all essential work.
However, sometimes you are revising or editing the words you have already written because you aren’t quite sure what to write next and it’s easier to tidy up what you wrote yesterday then struggle to get the new words down. You’ve told yourself you will just reread what you wrote last time as a way of running into the new section and you look up 40 minutes (or more) later and you’ve not added any new words at all. Revision and editing may not be moving your project forward at all. They became a distraction.
This isn’t the only situation in which editing is procrastination. You can also use editing and revision as a way to procrastinate when you have written a full draft that has undergone several revision passes. You fear rejection so you find reasons to keep working on the draft instead of submitting it. Sometimes you focus on refinement but the danger is that you will venture into completely rewriting the manuscript to address a question that would more appropriately be your next article. (I address this second issue in more detail in The Scholarly Writing Process.)
The same thing applies to tasks that your gremlins (and other writing coaches, your supervisor, or your colleagues) more easily identify as not-writing: reading, making mind maps, having a meeting with your coauthors, making notes on reading, freewriting, having coffee with a friend so you can talk through whatever you are struggling with, etc. Any of those tasks might be essential to moving your writing project closer to published and all of them might also be a form of procrastination.
Making this distinction takes practice
It can be difficult to tell the difference between doing something to avoid the hard thing (procrastination) and doing something to make the hard thing less hard (moving your project forward). If forcing yourself to do Real Writing™ (not a real trademark but doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?) means you stop writing altogether and get into a shame spiral, then this distinction between writing and pre-writing isn’t helping you.
Academic writing is hard. You are grappling with complex ideas that are, by definition, difficult to articulate clearly. You have a lot of material to wrangle. It is also difficult emotionally. Academic writing is also identity work. Some people will only know you by your publications. You are claiming expertise. You may be challenging established views. If you have the urge to do something else but can actually make yourself write, sometimes it’s worth enduring the discomfort to get words on the page.
Procrastination is all about that emotional resistance. It’s about shame or avoiding shame. It’s letting your gremlins have way too much power over how you do your work. As Aimee Morrison said in a recent blog post “Maybe shame is not really a good productivity tool.” My work is all about getting you out of the shame spiral and back to enjoying your work. I want to build your confidence that you can do this (because I know you can).
If you are avoiding writing that next section because you aren’t sure what to say or how to articulate it, then some other task might keep your project moving forward. Reading might make it easier, or reading might be a way of avoiding writing a semi-articulate draft that helps you specify the difficulty more clearly. Freewriting or hashing out the ideas orally with a friend over coffee might be a better way to move the project forward than reading. You might have to experiment to figure it out but keep checking in with how you are feeling, and keep things moving forward.
That’s why I will not discourage you from thinking of writing the first draft as shovelling sand into a sandbox to shape later if it helps you get words on the page.
Box of Sand, Box of Parts by Thomas Basbøll
Why is academic writing so hard by Pat Thomson