Solution to Writing Obstacle No. 1:
“I just can’t get started writing.”
Many academics find sitting down at the computer and starting to write to be the most difficult challenge facing them.
One of the reasons for this, as one of my students put it so well, is that “if I never start, then I never fail.” Another reason is getting out of the habit of writing–or never having had a writing habit.
While tough to overcome, this obstacle does have some straightforward solutions.
Make other tasks contingent on writing
An excellent way of dealing with the difficulty of getting started is to make a preferred task contingent on a nonpreferred task, as the behavior management experts put it (Boice 1983).
In this case, writing is the nonpreferred task you have to complete before you get to something you prefer. For instance, do not allow yourself to read the morning newspaper or check your e-mail before you write for thirty minutes. Tell yourself that you will call a friend or watch a favorite television program after writing for an hour. Most academics flip this and tell themselves “I’ll watch TV for an hour and then write.” But it is better to make the pleasurable activity a reward. Turn your procrastination tactics into productivity tools.
One warning on this tool. A friend of mine, when invited to socialize, always told us that she couldn’t get together because she had to write. When we called her the next day, however, she usually admitted that she had just watched bad television. It’s better to feel guilty about really enjoying something than to feel guilty about misspending your time and not writing. Denying yourself a real pleasure in order to force writing rarely works. Delaying a pleasure does.
Make writing low stakes
But, there are lots of other methods as well. Someone told me that she tricked herself into writing by promising herself, “I’ll tweak a few lines while the tea kettle boils.” That sentence, she said, was “the gateway drug to at least fifteen minutes of scribbling.”
Start by revising
Another method is to start writing by looking back over what we wrote the day before.
Anthony Grafton says “I always start by rapidly revising what I wrote the day before” (Grafton and Charney 2013). The word “rapidly” is essential here. It’s easy to get bogged down in revising.
Plan your next session
Another method is to plan the agenda for your next writing session at the end of the last one.
That way you will know what to do when you sit down to write. This will also help you stay focused on your article as a series of small tasks.
Some authors even recommend that you always stop in the middle of a sentence, so that you have somewhere to pick up. “Deliberate interruption” can spur your motivation to return: “an almost done project lingers in memory far longer than one that is completed” (Carey 2014).
Start with ancillary writing
Another method is to start by writing something else.
Some academics begin by typing a quote from their reading.
Others write a plan for what they would like to do in that writing session.
If you really feel shut down, it is useful to start by writing down the thoughts of your inner critic. You know, “It’s hubris for me even to pick up a pen, there is no chance of me actually finishing this article in time,” etc., etc., etc. When you get bored with this inner critic and think, “Oh come on, things aren’t that bad,” then you can start writing your article. It may seem impossible, but I promise, eventually you get bored with this voice. It’s not very good company and writing becomes preferable to whining.
Start by writing badly
Another method is to focus on writing badly.
If you can’t get started because your first sentence has to be perfect, this method can be useful. For fifteen minutes, write down every thought you have about your article without stopping to edit. Just let it all hang out. This is writing what one writing guru has celebrated as “a shitty first draft” (Lamott 2007). I could use the more alliterative word “fecal,” but “shitty” gets at the real feelings of shame and revulsion many have about writing. If you set out deliberately to write something horrible, this roadblock is erased. Again, eventually you write a sentence or have an idea that, despite your best efforts at producing ghastly work, sounds pretty good. And then you are on your way.
A variation on this is to try reading. I don’t mean getting up from your computer and finding a nice chair. I mean, reading at your computer, and reading material that will help you with that article, not your teaching or future books.
Get social support
Another method is to have a video call partner.
Arrange with another prospective author to agree to write at the same time. Start up your video call when you are supposed to start, encourage each other, and then get started writing with the video call still on, so that you can hear them typing and they can hear you typing. It helps knowing that someone else is going through the same horrible suffering, I mean, wonderful process that you are. Lots of my students have found this (or doing the same by phone or email) really helpful. It seems to be more helpful than the plan of meeting at someone’s house to write together, which often ends up being a talking session rather than a writing session.
Keep your writing file open
Another method, especially if you are in an extremely busy period, is to determine to open your article every day and do one thing to it.
Sometimes people find that the idea of even just fifteen minutes a day shuts them down. Instead, you can decide to develop this practice of opening your article every morning and doing whatever occurs to you when you glance through it—changing a word, adding a citation, or cutting a sentence. You should find that at least a few times a week, that one thing develops into fifteen minutes of writing, but the main aim is to be sure to at least look at your article every day.
Connect to the pleasure of writing
One of the academic writing gurus, Helen Sword (2017), argues that if you want to become a productive author, you need to take greater pleasure in writing. Her evidence is empirical, interviews with one hundred successful scholarly authors, whom she identifies as having four characteristics, including “emotional habits of positivity and pleasure.”
It’s easy to give ourselves lots of negative messages about writing. Because some aspects of academia are dreadful, we get in the habit of complaining about writing as well. But, productive scholarly authors are often those who look forward to writing and see it as a privilege. Even if you find that tough to do, remember that, as the popular performance scholar Brian Herrera put it, “Taking the time to write is a gift you give yourself. Don’t be stingy.”
Solution to Writing Obstacle No. 1, which obstacle is listed on page 31 of Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (University of Chicago Press, 2019).
Altick, Richard Daniel. 1963. The Art of Literary Research. New York: Norton.
Groszmann, M.P.E. 1911. The Career of the Child. New York: R.G. Badger.
Boice, Robert. 1983. “Contingency management in writing and the appearance of creative ideas: Implications for the treatment of writing blocks.” Behaviour Research and Therapy 21 (5):537-543.
Grafton, Anthony, and Noah Charney. 2013. Anthony Grafton: How I Write. Daily Beast.
Carey, Benedict. 2014. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York: Macmillan.
Lamott, Anne. 2007. Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor.
Sword, Helen. 2017. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.