Several years ago, as I struggled to write my dissertation, I made a startling discovery.
Research is not writing. Writing is not research. Call me naïve, but I felt as though I'd experienced a revelation.
Like Alice in Wonderland, we academic writers often fall down rabbit holes of our own making. A tiny moment to look up a small fact to support our main argument turns into a full-blown wild goose chase to find some obscure shred of evidence.
Academics are, by profession and by nature, curious and inquisitive people. We live to find the perfect source, document, or photograph. Doing the research is the fun part of any academic project, whether a dissertation, book, or journal article. We're at our best because we're in our field sites, our archives; we're in our elements. Conducting research often feels like hunting for buried treasure: each new discovery leads to a discovery more wondrous than the last. The chase feels exhilarating. Research allows us to be the heroes of our research journeys, linking fragments of clues together until we arrive at the exact place where X marks the spot.
Armed with our research—our hard-won documents, interviews, and data—we begin to write.
And then we become bored. To quote B.B. King, the thrill is gone. We grapple with our findings, arguments, and conclusions. We struggle to translate our ideas into written words. We write terrible first drafts. We struggle to craft topic sentences. The act of writing threatens to overwhelm us with emotions we’d prefer not to experience: shame, anger, frustration, and anxiety. We wrestle even more with the writing.
In the middle of our writing, we suddenly find holes in the evidence. Relieved to have an excuse to stop writing, we dive into the rabbit hole of research for hours on end. We wonder why we don’t seem to make progress with our writing. We’re frustrated that nothing has been written.
When I first began writing my dissertation, I would sit down to write and yet always found myself doing more research. I wondered why I wasn’t making better progress. Then I made the amazing discovery: research and writing are distinct activities. They are not one and the same. Research is research. Writing is writing.
Here’s what no one will tell you: research is fun, while writing is generally unpleasant, even for people who like to write. Writing will trigger every unhealed childhood neurosis you thought you’d dealt with in therapy years ago. We feel anxious, angry, and ashamed that we can’t write. We don’t want to feel all of these negative emotions, so we avoid writing. We procrastinate, which only causes more anxiety, shame, and anger. We neglect our writing. We feel like failures.
Here are some steps to help:
Acknowledge to yourself that writing is hard. Turning ideas into words is difficult, but writing is also hard because we so often feel under massive emotional pressure while doing it. Realize that you’re probably going to feel unhappy and stressed while writing. Your feelings are valid. However—and here’s the kicker—you’ve got to keep writing through the emotional yuck. You need to keep writing despite your anxiety and frustration. Cry if you must. No, it’s not fun. Yes, it’s unpleasant. Keep writing anyway.
Set a timer. Feeling like a total failure as a writer and human being is more tolerable if you know that you’ll only feel that way for a set amount of time. Once you’ve completed your allotted writing time, you can stop writing and go about the rest of your life like the competent adult you are. Many people have great luck with the Pomodoro method and write in many small twenty-five minute periods. Other people need longer periods of writing time to get the ideas flowing. I find that I need to write in hour-long periods—any less than an hour and I haven’t had enough time to work through the bad feelings that get in the way of my good ideas. Give yourself some scheduled time for writing and your feelings.
Separate writing from research. Your writing time is for writing, not falling down research rabbit holes (or, *ahem*, watching hours of kitten videos on YouTube). If you need to look up a date or fact, put some dummy text in your writing to hold your place (e.g., some person named XXXXX did thing XYZ in year YYYY) and keep writing. You can look up this particular fact later. Get back to writing.
Make a research to-do list. When tempted to jump down the research rabbit hole, control yourself. Every research urge you have should go on your research to-do list. Jot it down, know that the item is safely on your to-do list, and return to writing. When you’re done with your scheduled writing for the day, figure out some time to pursue the items on the list. The advantage of this method is that you’ve now scheduled time to fall down that research rabbit hole on purpose. You now have permission to be the hero of your own choose-your-own-adventure research quest while still making writing progress.
Set goals and rewards for writing. Writing can be a whole lot more enjoyable when you receive tangible rewards for hitting certain milestones. Challenge yourself to write more than you think you can, but be realistic. You’ve crawled over hot coals and written 3000 words? Finished a chapter? Revised your article? Congratulate yourself with something fun or a present. Giving yourself some real rewards for writing sometimes makes the pain of writing feel almost worth it. Little tangible rewards along the way mean more than distant and intangible ones like, “When I’ve finished writing my dissertation, I’ll have a PhD.”
Meditate. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: regular meditation is a powerful productivity tool. Training your mind to focus intently on one thing primes it for the focus and attention that writing demands. Just like meditation is a practice, so writing is a practice. Meditation also allows you a safe place to work through any bad feelings about writing. Be mindful. Write a journal. Do yoga. Do tai chi. Practice something that requires intense focus and reflection
In sum, if you’re not making enough progress with your writing, evaluate your writing practice. What’s getting in the way? What would happen if you devoted your entire attention to your writing on a regular basis? What if you did less research and more writing? If you’re using research to avoid writing, separate these activities from each other. Research is not writing. Writing is not research. Research to research. Write to write.