Making my peace with ‘good enough’ writing

I’m a patchy perfectionist. This basically means that I don’t have the energy to be a perfectionist about everything (just ask Lovely Husband about all the random, tidy piles of clutter on surfaces that should be empty and pristine), but I have a lot of energy to be perfectionist about some things. Like writing. I really struggle to let go of my writing when I am not sure it’s exactly right or amazingly great. For me, my whole life, there has never really been such a thing as ‘good enough’ when it comes to academic work and ‘products’ like papers, dissertations, reports and presentations. It must be the Best Ever or it’s nothing.

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This is, quite obviously now that I write it down, a recipe for immense frustration and quite a lot of stress. Especially when the career I have chosen requires me to write at least two papers every year that can be published, and requires me to carefully and supportively mentor other writers and thinkers through teaching and supervision. I would never place this much pressure on my students; in fact, my advice to them to is become more realistic and pragmatic in their plans and expectations of themselves, because the perfect, Moste Amazingly Goode Paper is a fiction. It does not exist.

What does exist are lots of decent papers, many good ones and a few really fabulous ones, and these measures are not really very objective. Case in point: I once submitted a co-authored paper to a journal based abroad. I was corresponding author, and after revisions had been made, I mistakenly uploaded the revised paper to the wrong part of the submission site (for new papers). I emailed the editor and we sorted it all out (or so we thought) and the paper was published (with minor revisions, which was lovely). But, two months after it appeared in print, we got two more reviews from two different reviewers, recommending rejection. Obviously, the paper had been published and that was a done deal, but what the experience showed me was that I could send any one of my published papers to different reviewers and readers and get quite different, and quite possibly less positive, feedback that I did from the original reviewers and readers.

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So what, then, is ‘good’ or even ‘great’ in a published paper? How do you know when what you have written is good enough to send to a journal, a supervisor or a critical reader whose opinion matters to you? How do you tame the perfectionist who wants it all to be Best Ever, and let go of it? How do you trust the feedback you get and believe the positive comments? I have many thoughts on this, some of them contradictory depending on how loud the perfectionism is and what I am writing and who I am writing for. But I’ll focus on a couple here that seem to be pretty settled across all of these variables. They mainly have to do with my sense of my voice and my writerly self, and my groundedness in the field I am contributing to.

I have published a number of papers and book chapters and have just finished a book that is now in press. So, I have a fairly clear sense now of when my writing sounds and feels like ‘me’ and when it does not. I think of this as my authentic or real writerly voice, and this has been very much a work in progress over the last ten years. I have to mostly play by the rules in terms of layout, style, grammar and so on – I can’t just freeform or stream-of-consciousness my papers or they won’t make any sense – but within those rules I can assert my agency to make sure that I use words, terms, turns of phrase, examples and arguments that sound and feel like me, my scholarly self. This is a big thing for me. It’s really hard for me to be excited about telling people to read my paper if I feel like a fake on the page or if the voice sounds stilted or ‘off’. Sometimes, editors make suggestions that push the writing in that direction which even five years ago I might have just accepted without thinking about it too hard. But now, I really stop and think and try out the suggestion in my voice. If it fits, cool; if it feels like something I would not say or write or like someone else’s voice, I politely disagree and defend my original choice. I don’t always win, but I win often enough that I can (just about) let the losses go.

So, when I get to the stage where the paper or chapter looks and sounds and feels like me on the page, and it’s an argument and a piece of work I am proud of and excited about, that’s a point where I can believe it’s at least a decent paper or chapter. The more you write and send your work out and get feedback, and work with it to become conscious of what you are learning and the effect of that learning on your writing and thinking, the easier it becomes to believe you can written something decent, good even. Practice does not make perfect, but it does improve your feel for your voice and for what readers within the fields for which you are writing will respond positively to and what they will likely critique or challenge.

At that stage, I really then turn my attention to the contribution, and look really carefully at the quality and clarity of the argument. I try to ask myself hard questions about how clear my claims are, how strong the evidence is, how useful the paper is or what kind of contribution it may be able to make. I have a less pressured sense of trying to say Something Really New and Huge with my papers than I used to when I started writing for publication, and try now to find angles that shed a different, new-ish light on topics that my peers and colleagues are talking about and interested in. This means I have a clear conversation to join, and I have something small but valuable to say. This doesn’t always mean a ‘yes’ from journals, but it does make it easier to aim for ‘good enough’ rather than Best Ever.

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Writing is hard enough without all the added pressure of trying to make every paper or dissertation or report or presentation the Best Ever. There are literally thousands of papers published every year and thousands of M and D degrees awarded, by and to scholars who are smart, capable, doing interesting work. If you choose academia as a career you are most likely a small fish in a big pond, unless you are in a very niche field or area of study, perhaps. What this probably means, pragmatically and in defence of your mental and emotional wellbeing and work-life balance, is that your career will be full of writing that is decent and good enough with hopefully high points of great in the mix. This is a long marathon, and looking at your career as a whole rather than paper by paper can help to mitigate any over-stressed perfectionism.

I drew this one 🙂

Realising and accepting this was harder for me when I started publishing than it is now, with a few papers and some pretty mean peer reviews behind me. So, I realise that if you are still trying to publish your first paper or are earlier on in your career this can sound like it is easier than it may feel. It is not easy, and it does depend on how much is invested in the paper or project you are working on. Sometimes, with a paper we are less invested in, it is much easier to accept ‘good enough’ and let go of ‘great’ or ‘amazing’. Other times, this is much harder because so much more of our scholarly selves and time has been invested in the project. I guess it might also depend on the stakes – is a promotion or probation riding on getting a publication in a ‘top’ journal, meaning it probably has to be pretty good or even great? With each paper and project, you may need to work out the stakes involved and also figure out what you can live with and let go of and what you need to hold on to and fight for.

For me, learning to be okay with ‘good enough’ has been – is still – hard. That academic over-achiever is never really satisfied and she still rewrites bits and pieces of early papers that had too many long sentences and too many compromises in her head. I have learned, more or less, what I would regret and rewrite in my head if I let go of it too soon, and what I can live with. This has been a process (ongoing, of course) of being increasingly conscious of what feels and sounds and looks like me on the page and what does not, staying up to date with new research and writing in my field both in peer reviewed journals and the more popular presses, and focusing on what revisions, edits and changes made using feedback from critical friends and reviewers do to my voice and the clarity and impact of what I write.

The more conscious I am of the craft of scholarly writing, and of the mark I want to leave, the easier it is to be okay with the ‘good enough’ papers, because I have realised that they are actually much less awful that I think they are and that no one is harder on me than I am on myself. I need to take my own advice and focus on pacing myself for the longer race I am running, and learn to trust that sometimes ‘okay’ is more than okay and ‘good enough’ is actually pretty great. If I stay as true as I can to my own sense of scholarly self and to my own voice, it’s hard to regret anything I have written, even those long sentences!

Book writing: Timelines, best-laid plans, and expecting the unexpected

Those who have been following this blog for a while will know that I have been working on my first sole-authored book for some time now. I am completing the final edits and corrections this week and then it will be off to the publisher for the next stage of the process. And what a process it has been. I had NO idea, in spite of reading other people’s blogs about book writing, exactly how long this process takes and how many different steps and stages there are along the way. This posts tracks my book-writing process, and I hope it may be helpful to those of you working on a large project of your own.

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2015: While working on my postdoctoral research and writing papers for journals, I start thinking that my argument is much bigger than a journal article, or even a few journal articles; that I actually need a PhD-thesis/book-length project to say what I think I need to say about knowledge-building and teaching in higher education. One of my two advisors is putting together a larger proposal for a series, so I run my early ideas past him. He’s interested and thinks it could work, so he says ‘draft a proposal and let’s see’.

2016-2017: I start working on early versions of the book proposal in 2015 and by mid-2016 it’s in a pretty decent state. I even have a basic draft chapter to go with the proposal and a few other pieces of two other chapters. But, I work on contract and I have kids and bills and a life to help pay for, so teaching and consulting work takes up most of my headspace and emotional and mental energy. The proposal writing process slows way down. Then my mum gets really ill mid-2017 and no writing or research of any kind happens for a while. My advisor—now the series editor —emails periodically, encouraging me to keep thinking about the book and working on it when I can.

2018: Buoyed by the encouragement from the series editor and from peers who keep telling me how useful the book could be, I start working on the proposal again in earnest. The series editor gives me really helpful, sharp feedback, and slowly we beat the proposal and a draft chapter into a shape and form that can go out for external peer review. This happens late 2018. The wait for feedback is extended by staff changes at the publisher. I get on with other bits and pieces in the meantime, including holding texts and bits and pieces of writing and thinking on most of the seven chapters.

2019: Feedback arrives finally in February and it’s a green light. Yay! And, OMG, now I have to write the book! I work out, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that with the bits I have already done, I can write the full draft by the end of October. I do not properly factor in how much work I actually do every year between my contract teaching, supervision, consulting, parenting and administrative tasks (life and work). I also do not properly factor in how much procrastinating I do around my writing and research. On top of this, I get pretty ill in July and August and am finally diagnosed with asthma, which is a pretty tiring condition when it is not being managed. I fall way, way behind.

I have written a couple of the chapters in full, sent them to critical friends, and have some useful feedback to work with in revising these one and writing the missing ones. But there is no way I am making that deadline. I have to send the email I don’t want to send and ask the editor for more time. He says: ‘Ok, how much? Be realistic’. Friends who have written books, including Lovely Husband, tell me this is normal: nobody makes their first book deadline. I am encouraged by all of this and set a new deadline: 15 January 2020. This feels mad, but I am also really keen to not drag this project on way into 2020.

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I spend most of November doing everything other than my book, even writing a full journal article on an unrelated topic. I am hugely frustrated with myself but can’t quite seem to make myself do more than a few floppy hours on the book each week. This does not bode well. December and school holidays arrive. I cannot possibly go on holiday: I have a freaking book to write, and I have maybe got about 40% of what I need. So, I write and I write and I write. The combination of shame (I do not want to ask for more time again) and motivation (I really need and want to move on from this now) spurs me on. Having my whole family ask me about my daily word targets also helps. Christmas and New Year pass and the thing is turning into an actual book.

2020: I make my deadline and off the book goes to the series editor. We decide that asking two colleagues for feedback would be a really useful thing to do, so the book goes off to them too. While I am waiting for peer feedback, I get my year going. The coronavirus reaches us in March and everything goes off-plan. My kids are no longer in school; my colleagues’ teaching and home plans change. Feedback finally reaches me in May and it’s all positive and encouraging. But detailed: there are now revisions to really sit with and take time over. I tell myself these will be done in two weeks. Two weeks later I have not even opened the files. It takes about four weeks, but I finally push myself into my chair, open and merge the files they sent, and get started. It is hard. These are not just corrections; they are revisions. New writing, re-thinking, careful responses. I’m exhausted.

July 2020: It goes, fully revised, to the series editor and now it is his turn to read it. He reads the first two chapters and sends detailed feedback. There are a few holes that need filling and lots of small corrections and edits (commas, referencing style changes, etc.) The usual sorts of things you have to pay attention to when you are preparing a manuscript for actual readers out there in the world who will pay for your work. This is fine. But, I am tired, emotionally and mentally. This year has kicked my butt. My asthma is up and down, so some days are full of energy and others are empty of it. I pick away, working backwards from the end of the book (my favourite chapter) towards the ones he has read, making all the small corrections to psyche myself up for the big ones. After completely freaking out about a couple of more critical comments which prompt new writing and actual revisions (not edits), Lovely Husband and a good friend talk me out of the spiral and I manage to get it all done.

Late August 2020: I get an email from the editor saying there’s not much more to do now, and I’m almost there. The relief is huge. The book will be finished (for now) before my birthday, which was my goal. The first major finish line is in sight at last: a finalised manuscript ready for the publisher.

I imagine, if I had to keep going with this timelines, that September and October will be spent waiting for proofs, which may arrive before the end of the year, depending on the publisher’s timelines and their own planning. I will then have to read the whole book again, dealing with all of their edits and corrections. This is a potentially tiring thought. One of the things I did not expect was how many times I would have to actually read my own writing. Of course, every time I do, I make corrections and improve it (especially my long sentences). But, these improvements are made only after telling the mean voice that says my writing is trash to please shut up. She can be pretty loud, especially when I am already tired and over it all. So, the work now is not just mental; it is also emotional and psychological: I have to use all my resources to get me across this finish line.

This is not unlike the end of a PhD-writing and research process. Doing any kind of significant project, even with the best-laid plans, means coming to terms with unexpected delays (e.g. waits for feedback, for examiner’s reports, and even dealing with yourself and various acts of procrastination and self-sabotage that you need to overcome). It also means being kind to yourself when things go awry or just take longer than you thought they would. This book project has taken, all told, 4-and-a-bit years so far. That is a lot longer than I—perhaps naively—thought it would. There have been many unexpected delays and parts of the process I wasn’t planning on or didn’t know to plan for. But, surrounding myself with people who believe in me and in this project has helped me to stay the course. Imagining that book in my hands with my name on the cover has inspired me to keep going. You can’t do any kind of significant project alone: you need your people and your sources of inspiration and motivation to keep you going.

If this process so far has taught me anything about myself, it is that I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I can do more than I think I can if I just get out of my own way and let myself believe what my friends and colleagues tell me. I can do this, and more. I think those things are probably true for all of us if we let ourselves believe them.

Word limits: Arbitrary or purposeful writing boundaries?

There is a fair amount of art and craft that goes into any form of writing. Scholarly writing is a form that is not often seen—especially by novice writers—in ‘art and craft’ terms in the way that, perhaps, novel or short story writing is. But I think it’s important to understand writing an assignment, a journal article, a book or book chapter, a dissertation or thesis, as an act of ‘crafting’ our ideas and thoughts into a narrative that will engage, inform, persuade the readers we are writing to.

In any form of writing there are word limits. 1500 words for a first-year essay, 40000 words for a Masters thesis, 80000-100000 words for a doctoral dissertation, 7000 words for a journal article. Even in blogging land, the average post tends to hover around 800-1000 words, a fairly standard word limit for the average post. These word limits can frustrate and annoy writers—they either feel like they are hindering creativity and expression or are overwhelming (so many words!) A student once expressed having to stick to a very short word limit for an in-class task (300 words) as ‘deeply painful’ because he felt he had to cut ideas out that he wanted to include, that were part of him.

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All of us writers have, at one point or many, had to sit with a piece that was over the requested or set word limit and work out what to cut, what to leave, and what to rephrase or reword to keep the idea but reduce the word count. This editing and re-crafting process can be a painful and frustrating exercise indeed. It can feel arbitrary after a certain point. ‘Why is there such an issue with an extra 126 words in a 6000-word paper or an extra 10 pages in a 200-page thesis? Just let me say what I want to say!’

These editing and revision experiences and my student’s frustrated plea for more words may beg the question: Are word limits a purposeful boundary around a single piece of writing and thinking or are they rather arbitrary conventions devised by publishers, lecturers and examiners to save costs or reduce marking stress? Why are some word limits negotiable and others are like a solid wall: not one more word may be written!

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To answer this question, I am returning to the idea I started with: writing as a craft. In some ways, it is quite easy to include all of your ideas in a paper or thesis; you can write about everything you have read, everything you think on the issue. You can just capture your ideas as they come. This is often what we do in brainstorming and drafting: let the ideas flow so we get them out of our heads and onto paper. But we cannot send this to reviewers, editors and examiners. This is what we perhaps may share with critical friends and supervisors to obtain feedback and help with shaping one argument that can be clearly supported with relevant literature and evidence, organised coherently and cohesively into a structure that will make sense to readers and persuade them to take our ideas seriously.

This ‘stream of consciousness’ type drafting needs to be crafted—edited, reorganised, shaped—into one argument, one ‘golden thread’ that runs through the paper. This is especially the case when working on a journal article or book chapter. If we try to throw all of our thoughts into one paper, or even one thesis, we end up confusing and confused. We struggle to work out where the focus of the paper or thesis is and that leads to confusion around what we should be including and excluding, what further reading we may need to do, what data we need to select, etc. Word limits are perhaps more accurately described as argument or thinking limits.

A word limit is actually a limit on purpose and focus: 6000 or 7000 words for a journal article, for example, makes it possible for one argument to be made well. That argument, or main claim/focus, then becomes a tool that enables you to choose: relevant literature to support your contribution to knowledge; relevant theory to apply to analysing your data; selected methodology and data from your larger methodological framework and dataset, chosen to make the argument; a focused conclusion that draws the argument to a coherent close. For a non-empirical paper (conceptual, systematic review, etc.) you still need a ‘choosing tool’ and that is still the main argument or focal point of the paper.

Word limits help up to choose judiciously with the aim of making meanings clear, well-supported and persuasive. For example, if I know I only have about 800 words for a whole blog post, I can’t spend all of those on the run-up to my point; I have to get to the point quickly so that I can spend my allotted words explaining, supporting and elaborating on my point so that it is made meaningfully and as fully as possible. ‘Rambling’ around the point means I have used up my 800 words and left you wondering: ‘Why am I reading this? What is she trying to say?’ This happens with any writing that is sent to a reader without being crafted into a form that has the reader in mind, as well as the purpose and focus of the writing in mind.

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Word limits, then, are not arbitrary or there to save money or time. They are there to help us as writers focus our thoughts, our reading and our research. The outcome of all this focus is clearer writing that makes a limited set of points or an argument meaningfully and effectively with the reader and the purpose of the writing in mind. While all the crafting work that goes into making any piece of writing effective and meaningful is not easy or quick, it is important. Writing is about meaning-making and meanings take time to make well. For students used to writing a paper once and handing it in for a mark, this can be a big shift in thinking and action. Writing is far more about rewriting than people tend to think it is: re-drafting, re-thinking, re-working, re-editing. But, as I have been learning in editing and polishing my own writing these last few weeks, the work pays off in the writing you are able to share and be proud of in the end.

Scholarly writing is a craft

I am working on a lot of revisions at the moment – of my own and also with students on a writing course I am teaching online. I have been thinking a lot about the nature of scholarly writing, especially in relation to why a piece of writing is not working, and what the writer needs to change or add or remove to make it work. This has led me to reflect a bit more on how scholarly writing is a craft an exercise in deliberate, thoughtful, planned thinking, more than anything, and how this manifests in writing that is clear, focused, sensible and accessible to the reader you are writing for.

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Perhaps a good place to start this reflection is on the idea of writing that is not working, and what this usually means. I am focused on the social sciences as this is my field, broadly speaking, but I work with writers across the social and natural sciences and also in the Humanities, and these points apply to the writing they do as well. The first point is the sense that the argument or the main claim is rushed. This is a feeling when I am reading, more than a specific list of qualities in a paper that one can see and tick off as being present or absent. It’s a sense that I am being hurried through the writer’s reasoning process. Common here is claims that are made or stated, but without any or enough explanation in relation to the overall focus or argument of the paper. What I read is a series of statements, perhaps with supporting evidence, but without the writer stepping in clearly enough to comment on, position, or critique these statements from their own position (the argument that paper is advancing). This is, for me as a reader, a paper that is not working to ground and clarify the position the writer is coming from, and what informs that position.

Related to this point is that papers feel rushed when the writer is trying to do too much with one paper – too much theory for one problem, or too many data for one argument, or too many lines of research in the selected literature. If you are working to a word limit, like the usual 6000-7000 words for a journal article or book chapter, this means you tend to gloss over explanations, and rely too much on stating what the theory or data or lines of argument are, rather than thinking carefully about what they mean in relation to the argument you are trying to make. So, as a reader, I feel like I am reading a lot of potentially interesting or useful information, but I am not completely sure why, or what it means, or what you want me to make of it. This is an ultimately frustrating or confusing experience for a reader, because they have to work too hard to try and figure out what they are supposed to be learning from the paper. The guideline, regardless of field, is one main argument/contribution to research per paper, and to carefully select literature, data, methods, and so on in relation to establishing and defending or supporting the development of that contribution.

Another common issue as regards a paper not working is a paper that lacks signposting, or markers for the reader that connect the different parts of the paper’s argument together into a coherent whole. There is no one ‘formula’ for writing a publishable paper in any field. There are commonalities, such as the IMRaD structure for many of the natural sciences, but even with that, a writer cannot simply rely on sub-headings to create coherence for them or communicate the logic of the argument in their head to the reader clearly. So, one way of crafting a paper that works for readers is paying attention to the connections you are making between parts of the argument, and how you are making these apparent. There are various ways of doing this, through the use of descriptive sub-headings (so a heading that indicates what the literature is about, rather than just Literature Review, if you are ‘allowed’ to do this); through careful repetition of key ideas and phrases (introducing the idea in the last sentence of section one, and then repeating the term or phrase in the opening of the next section); and through using connecting word and phrases to signal transitions and relationships between ideas and sections.

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These words are key in writing as a craft: in relation to. Everything you choose to bring in to your paper to situate your contribution within the field, and make a case for why your argument is useful or relevant to readers and fellow researchers in this field need to be carefully chosen. This notion of choice means that you need to be thinking all the time of what that reading, or piece of data, or aspect of methodology or theory, means to your argument, and how it will help you to explain your meanings to your reader. It also means that some things will have to be left out – you cannot use your whole thesis literature review in one paper, or all the data you have generated, or your whole theoretical framework. You will need to select, rewrite, rework and relate chosen parts together into a new whole that connects to the larger research project you are working on, but does not try to cram this into one paper in miniature form. You also need to think very carefully, all throughout the writing process, of how the pieces you have selected in connect or link to one another within the logic of this argument you are making right now.

Writing as a craft is, at its core, an act of meaning making, and these meanings have to be carefully established, explained and connected together into a whole paper that makes sense to readers. A great deal of the initial acts of writing anything – a thesis chapter, a paper, a book – is planning: working out what to select in and what to leave out, and what the line of argument is that you are trying to establish and support. Later, after feedback, revisions are focused on honing your craftsmanship: editing your ideas, focusing on the connections between parts of the whole – within and between paragraphs, and within and between sections of the paper or chapter. When the first basic draft of pre-writing is down – the writing you have done to tell yourself the story of your paper or chapter – it is important to pay attention to every sentence you write. What are you trying to say here? What is the value of this information – claim, evidence, explanation, connection – to your paper? What are you communicating here, and does it connect with or move away from the core meaning your paper or chapter has to convey? Answering these kinds of questions as you write, think, read your work over, get feedback, and revise and rewrite will all move you towards more deliberate writing, more thoughtful writing, more readerly writing that shows your craftsmanship as a writer.

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Book writing: I wrote a book!

If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know that I have been writing a book. Last night I typed the final full stop on the draft manuscript, and today it’s going off to the series editor and the publisher. The work is not yet done – reviews and changes and proofs and all that are still ahead, but guys, I wrote a book!

It feels amazing and oddly anti climatic, a bit like finishing the PhD thesis. In form, the book and the thesis were a lot less alike than I thought they were going to be, but in process they were quite similar. Much to my dismay, it turns out I have not become any better at time management and planning my writing time than I was 5 years ago. Also, while I am better at shushing the Mean Voice that says my writing sucks, I am still quite angsty about whether I have anything to say that people will want to read. So, I wrote a book but in many ways I am still struggling to be a confident writer.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Reading Helen Sword’s book about how successful academics write, I am struck by truth that learning to be a writer is not a process with an end. Well, death is an end, I suppose. But, what I mean is that there is no point where you go ‘Yes, I am here! I can now write without any imposter syndrome or struggle or fear that my writing is crap – it will all be smooth sailing from here on!’ I think many students have this weird idea that their supervisors just churn out published research and erudite online pieces without any trouble and that they are the only ones who struggle with writing. There’s a lot of self-blame about writing struggles, and this can be hard to manage and overcome, especially without help.

Maybe there are magical academics who write and write without a single moment of self-doubt or fatigue over revisions or wishing they could just stop and not do this anymore. I have not yet met any, but academia is a big place, so who knows? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have no angst at all about your writing you are probably not doing it fully consciously. By this I mean that all writers, fiction and non-fiction, put themselves into their pages. I write about my research, which I do because it is meaningful to me, part of my identity as a scholar and also as a human. So, when you read my papers and my book(!), you are getting to know me a bit, and what I care about professionally and personally. If I was completely unfazed by any parts of the writing process, I probably wouldn’t be fully connected with it on a personal level, I reckon.

This is probably why I find writing so angsty so often – I’m not writing about something detached from me. If readers and reviewers are really critical, it hurts. If people think my ideas are weak, or wrong, that’s hard to process. If you’ve spent any time writing for publication and sending your work to journals and publishers, you will know that critical feedback is part of the deal. If you have had hurtful feedback already, you will know that it can be hard to come back from in terms of believing in your ideas and continuing to put them out there. I think part of my angst and struggle is often linked to anticipation of criticism. I get ahead of myself and imagine all the disagreement and opposition to my ideas that might be out there before I’ve written it all down, and then I start to doubt myself. I did that far too often with the book, and ended up behind schedule for most of it.

The solution here is to surround yourself with people who genuinely do believe in you. As Lovely Husband said the other day, it (the last bits of the book, in my case) is like climbing Mount Doom, and Frodo could not have done that alone. He needed Sam to help him get there, to keep telling him he could do it. You are Frodo and you need Sams, family, friends and peers who can encourage you, make you tea, share your ideas and offer constructive advice, and keep you going. The trick, when these people tell you that your writing is not crap and that you can do it, is to believe them. You need to pick Sams who you will believe, and whose encouragement and advice will be meaningful to you. I had so many Sams, virtually and in person, and I could not have kept going at points without them. As with my PhD, this part of writing has not changed: you need people with you on this road.

The other solution here is to consciously get out of your own way. I am so good at getting in my own way and getting ahead of myself. I have written the mean reviews for the mean reviewers before I have written a word for them to actually read! I did this a lot during the PhD too, putting feedback into my supervisor’s voice even though I knew that she wouldn’t actually be that mean or that critical and was far more likely to be encouraging even if she thought I should rewrite a whole section, or think harder about my claims. The thing is, you can only write and read and think your way through your project one day, one idea, on sentence at a time. Try to actively bring yourself back when you start freaking out about next month, next year, the next 100 pages. You’ll get there, but you have to go through here first. This has been a huge lesson for me in writing this book.

I think being a more confident writer probably requires a mix of things. I need to keep learning to be conscious of where I am now and where I need to end up with the paper or chapter, but not freaking out and getting ahead of myself so that the writing is tied up in knots before I have started. I need to keep being brave and sharing my writing struggles and my clunky words with my Sams, and try to believe their feedback when it comes, both positive and not. I need to be kind to myself but not let myself off the hook – a little bit of writing and thinking every day is better than nothing; it keeps the ideas from getting away from me and taking on a life of their own.

None of this is new. I have written it all before here, in different words and ways, this just reinforces for me that this writing gig is a lifelong learning process, and that we often have to learn the same lessons over and over in relation to different projects and at different times. I am always going to be learning how to believe in myself and my ideas, and I think doubt is part of the process of becoming a good writer, someone who is conscientious, understands the power of words, and takes this responsibility seriously. But we have to work to keep the doubt in check, so that we can keep writing and working and get the ideas out there for people to agree and disagree with.

Putting your work out there, in any form, is hard. I want everyone to love this book and, like the PhD, I want it to be the best book ever. It won’t be, of course. But, I am so proud of it, and it’s written. It’s a stepping stone to new projects, like the PhD was a stepping stone to this one. This is another thing I am still learning: that every paper, every project is another building block for me, another opportunity for learning, another chance to fail better. This actually helps me – if the PhD or the book is not the only things ever that you will write, you have more chances to do better, to reflect and learn and grow.

I hope some of this helps you to feel less alone, and like you have Sam her, believing in you and your ability and ideas. Everyone struggles, everyone fails, even the most successful and productive writers you know. Their secret is that they don’t let either the success of the failure define them to the point that they stop learning from the struggles, and working out how to keep moving forward. Happy writing, Frodo Baggins. You got this.