Wrestling your Writing Demons

We’ve all been there: it’s 10pm, and instead of all those brilliant publication-worthy ideas you’ve had bouncing around in your head now being eloquently expressed on the computer screen in front of you, they are, alas, still stuck in your head.

One of the hardest, but most important, skills to develop for a successful (and less painful!) experience as a graduate student is writing. Writing well, writing quickly, and writing concisely are imperative for people who will devote years of their lives to submitting papers for classes, grant proposals for funding, manuscripts for publication…and of course also completing a dissertation or thesis. Whether that rite of passage will be a labor of love or beast of burden depends on many things, but your facility with writing will figure prominently.

1. Find what works for you. One of the great things about being a graduate student is that you have a lot of flexibility in how you plan your life and spend your time. This is also true of the approach you choose to take with writing. Ask yourself: do you work best in a structured environment where everyone around you is acting as a role model? Pull up a seat in the library. Maybe you like to nibble on snacks surrounded by happy chatter? Coffee shops with free internet abound in NYC. I know one person who does her best writing on the couch with the tv on in the background and a glass of wine by her side. It wouldn’t work for me, but she says it makes writing feel less like a chore. The point here is that you don’t need to feel bound by how other writers write. It may take some self-analysis and trial-and-error, but ultimately you need to find an environment that works for you, one where you feel both comfortable and focused.

2. Notice how above I described writing as a “skill to develop”? By the time they reach graduate school, many students have adopted a fatalistic attitude about writing. “I’m not a very good writer”, “I’m such a slow writer”, and “I can never get my point across”, are common laments. However, as Michael Munger of Duke University points out, “Writing is an exercise. You get better and faster with practice. If you were going to run a marathon a year from now, would you wait for months and then run 26 miles cold?”[i] Take comfort that just like running, the more you write the better your writing will become, and the easier it will be to produce.

3. Treat writing as you would any other life responsibility. Are you going to wake up one Wednesday, decide you don’t feel like teaching, and blow off your adjunct responsibilities for a whole season of House of Cards? Maybe in your fantasies. But in real life, you’ll gather your teaching materials and trudge to class. Treat your writing with the respect it deserves: a non-negotiable part of your professional obligations and of your week. Book time for it the way you would teaching, attending classes, or walking Fido. The more sitting down to write becomes part of your weekly schedule, the less it will loom.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  The Graduate Center offers courses on Effective Academic Writing for native and non-native English speakers, workshops on grant writing, and support for writing abstracts and conference papers (see the whole list of writing-related services here: GC Writing Support.) If you’re not ready to commit to receiving formal guidance, here’s another approach: take a look to your right, and then to your left. Chances are you’re sitting near at least one other peer who has struggled with writing. Suggest editing each other’s work, or forming an ad hoc working group that commits to sharing some work with each other every week (this could take the form of a dissertation proposal group, a class study group, or even a group of peers working on separate articles for publication.) Whatever you decide, remember that just by entering the front doors of the GC, you’ve surrounded yourself with people and services that are also thinking about writing and how to do it best. Don’t be shy!