Writing Challenges and Writing Workshops
If you are like most of us, writing up your article or manuscript will be hard. The anthropologist Orin Starn (2022) goes so far as to describe writing as ‘misery.’ Writing often feels vulnerable or impossible: it requires the researcher to expose themselves on the page, revealing their thoughts, stylistic preferences, vocabulary, and other personal details to the audience. When our writing receives criticism or judgment, we feel as though we have been personally attacked. Additionally, good writing requires clarity and precision which in turn requires us to refine our own thoughts – something that is surprisingly easy to avoid in scholarship.
There is no one-size fits all cure for the anxieties of writing. However, from my personal experience and from the experience of more learned and thoughtful writers, I can offer you a few suggestions.
1. Find the right part for the job.
Linguists use the term code-switching to highlight our capacity to inhabit different linguistic identities – to change from English to Dutch, from formal to informal, or from professional to familial language as we cross settings. In the same way that we can adopt different attitudes to speech, we also adopt different attitudes to writing. Sometimes we read to evaluate (as when grading), sometimes for pleasure (as with fiction), sometimes to consume information (as with the news). You are not a single reader or writer – you contain multitudes.
It is important to approach your own writing in the right mindset and with the appropriate parts of yourself activated, depending on where you are in the writing process. When you are early in a draft or idea, you may need to engage your creative side. Sometimes in writing you might need to engage your fastidious side (when footnoting, referencing, or dealing with data). When you are editing the late stages of work, you might need to engage the side of you that judges the quality of a work severely. However, if the judge comes out too early in the writing process, it will impede any progress you make – the first words on the page will never be good enough.
When you have trouble writing, reflect on exactly what you are trying to achieve at that writing session, and ask yourself what mindset would facilitate it. Find the right part of yourself for the job.
2. Read good writing.
For many people, reading works well to overcome writer's block. It engages you with ideas and it models verbiage, sentence structure, and composition. Reading writers who you admire as writers will improve your own writing, as you will internalize their tools of the trade over time. This is simple but powerful advice.
3. Read about writing.
There are many excellent books about writing, including some that focus on the challenges of academics in the social sciences. Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists is a classic that emphasizes clarity in communication. In terms of motivating writing and overcoming the difficulties of mindset, I find Lamott’s Bird by Bird to be therapeutic and I know many colleagues who have found it indispensable. For help with composition, I enjoy Williams and Bizup’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (two virtues which are often underappreciated in academic writing!)
4. Writing Workshops
Writing workshops and writing groups are an excellent tool for academic writers. The simplest form of a writing workshop is an accountability group. Each week, I meet with two trusted colleagues. We each share how much we wrote the prior week, and what our goals are for the coming week. This is a basic accountability practice that helps create structure in the writing process, and it also offers an easy transition to occasional reading and editing of drafts. For a larger community of writers, a regular workshop may help to discover inspiration and overcome difficulties. It is crucial that a writing workshop be both honest and supportive: critical feedback must be accepted (otherwise writing can never improve), but it can never be a critique of the writer rather than the writing (otherwise we invite defensiveness and the wrong parts for the job to join our writing space). My recommendation for a basic workshop structure is an opening reflection exercise of 5 minutes followed by group sharing on how the previous week’s writing went, a public declaration of writing goals, and then the supportive but critical review of one piece of writing contributed by a workshop member. The contributor should rotate every session, and contributions that are imperfect or badly need improvement (what Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” a crucial part of the process) must be welcomed.
Writing can sometimes feel miserable, but it can also feel beautiful, rewarding, and communicative. Becoming a better writer is part of the academic journey.
Howard Becker (2020) Writing for Social Scientists (Third Edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Anne Lamott (1995) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Penguin.
Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup (2013) Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Pearson.
Orin Starn (2022) “Anthropology and the misery of writing.” American Anthropologist 124.1: 187-197.