the pluses and minuses of #acwri self-diagnosis

I don’t write much about my dogs. I have two. They’re fairly elderly now and becoming plagued by ailments that are not really life threatening, but do need attention.

It all began when the older of the two got terribly lethargic. Suddenly, it seemed, she could hardly drag herself out for a walk. One week she was bounding around, the next she stayed curled up in her basket. And did her fur seem to be getting thinner? And was she putting on more and more weight despite the fact we weren’t feeding her any more? “You know,” I said one night to my partner, “ if this dog were a human we’d think she had a thyroid problem.” So, duly concerned, we took her off the vet. And sure enough, there was a thyroid problem.

This little story points to the fact that it IS sensible to watch your pets and what they do. It’s a no brainer to say that it’s good – indeed vital – to watch to see what’s happening. That’s particularly true when the pets are getting on a bit (like their owners).

But it’s also important not to rush to judgment about what’s wrong. You see, Im fallible.  I don’t always get it right.

Another little story. We’ve just had our dogs back at the vet for check-ups because we thought something was wrong with them. Again. They were a bit lethargic (again); one of them had a cough and the other seemed to be drinking a bit too much. Side effects of thyroid medication we reasoned, or perhaps diabetes? Even worse, something ghastly internally? Well, after several expensive blood tests and good general going over it turns out they are just, um, old but perfectly healthy. What’s more, it’s cold and they quite sensibly wanted to sit curled up by the heater and hibernate a bit. (Just like their owners.) I’d assumed they’d both succumbed to illnesses instead of their lassitude being straightforward and pretty commonplace.

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I think these dog stories have something to say to academic writing and academic writers. Just as I watch my dogs, I also watch my academic writing practices. I reckon it’s very good to know about your own writing habits. It’s especially good for people just starting out on an academic career. There’s a bunch of pretty helpful information out there about good writing habits and writing problems enabling you to match what you see yourself doing/not doing with helpful general writing strategies and insights. Reading about academic writing, as well as reading about the nature of the difficulties that you might be having with your writing, can lead you to some very helpful advice, new resources and productive #acwri avenues.

But, just as with me and my dogs, observation and reading about #acwri can make you  unnecessarily anxious. And maybe you’ll leap to a premature diagnosis. Stuck on writing a paper? It must be writer’s block. Having difficulty sorting through the mountain of data? It must be that you’re not capable. Feeling really nervous about giving that paper? Must be a crippling case of imposter syndrome. Finding yourself pausing while writing? Must have a hyperactive inner editor.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that any of these things – writer’s block, being incapable, imposter syndrome, hyperactive inner editors and so on – aren’t real. They are, very. I don’t want to suggest that these things don’t debilitate and prevent some people from getting on with their PhD or with a writing project. They do. They really do. But these things aren’t as widespread nor as crippling as popular media headlines and online discussion about them might suggest.

Let’s face it. Not all writing goes smoothly. Some academic writing takes a long time and is hard. But the problem might not be writer’s block. It might just be that you haven’t yet sorted out what you want to say. It might be that you need to talk the writing over with someone, or do some more reading, or go back to the data or the texts. Self medicating an apparent problem may mean you don’t do what’s actually helpful at that point in time.

Let’s be honest. Having a mountain of data is really terrifying. There is no right answer to how you analyse data even though there are often recommended analytic procedures. It’s very normal at the start of dealing with a pantechnicon of material to feel a considerable degree of trepidation. We all do. It’s not unusual. It’s not because you’re dimwitted that it feels overwhelming.

Let’s say it how it is.  It is very scary standing up and talking in front of a group of people, being asked to speak about something out of your comfort zone, uttering those tricky, theoretical, highly nominalised zombie nouns for the first time in public. Yes, you do feel like a fraud –  but that’s normal. The feelings of being silly and exposed come and go. It’s generally not a life-threatening condition which sticks with you day after day. It’s sporadic, it’s a bit like getting a cold in winter – unpleasant but pretty ordinary. Because you expect it, you aren’t so surprised then it happens –  you can understand what’s going on and even take a few precautions to fend it off.

Let’s get real. Speed writing isn’t the answer to all problems. Quite often you need a good plan or a self-imposed question or a set of stuff you’ve accumulated that you can speed write about.  And you can’t get everything done by speed writing – you have to give the results of speed writing a really good serial revision. And when you are finessing a text, then a good inner editor, your academic writing crap detector, is really invaluable. The problem with an inner editor is not that you have one, it’s just that you need to bring them  into play at the right time.

The risk of self diagnosis lies in the tension between knowing yourself and getting it wrong. It’s clearly good to understand your own writing habits, just as it’s good to watch out for changes in your body. But a rush to self diagnose an #acwri condition isn’t always helpful. You may well get your diagnosis wrong. You may think you have an unusual problem and feel dreadful, when in reality what’s going on is a widely shared experience.

What’s more, talking up writer’s block and speaking-in-public nerves as if they are everyday issues for everyone really, really diminishes and negates the experiences of those researchers who genuinely do experience them. We all find it hard, but that’s not the same as having serious writing problems. I’ve worked with some people who do have absolutely terrible struggles with writing, and trust me, it’s different.

Academic writing is hard for most people. But, if you exercise your writing muscles it gets easier. Words become less precious. It’s not so difficult to sit down each day and write something if you just keep at it. And bad stuff doesn’t have to be permanent. You can get past a crappy presentation when you acknowledge the reality that it’s not always possible to be scintillating. You can get past hesitations in a meeting or saying the wrong thing when you understand that everyone messes up occasionally. You can get to love your tendency to fuss over phrases and words when it helps you to produce an elegant piece at the end of a long process of drafting and revision.

So it’s always a good idea to check out what you think your writing problem is. Don’t hide it away. Talk about it with other people and I’ll bet you find out that the things you fear are your problem alone are actually shared, and common. They are just part and parcel of the scholarly writing process.
We can suffer in silence, pathologise our #acwri difficulties and self- medicate, or talk with others and find out it’s generally not that bad or permanent.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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7 Responses to the pluses and minuses of #acwri self-diagnosis

  1. Hi Pat
    I’m just in the process of self-medicating write sorry, right now! Just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying your writing in all the places it keeps popping up on my radar. I appreciate your help in mentoring those of us with various issues as academics – I’ve been reading about self-efficacy in terms of students, and found myself a bit overwhelmed at my own failings there.
    But I just wanted to comment here to let you know that I’m reading and appreciating your insights. And I wish more people would respond out aloud – you mention ‘talking about it’, and we have ways of doing this online (because frankly, it is pretty damned hard to do in real life), but why such reticence to actively participate in dialogue online?
    Anyway, please keep sharing your thoughts. Best, Annabelle Leve

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  2. wanderwolf says:

    this was really timely and reassuring. Embedded in a dog-owner parallel, it also snuck up on me, so pretty effective. Thank you!

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  3. James Regan says:

    Very timely post. Recently, I met with my dissertation committee ahead of schedule to provide them with an update on my status concerning my proposal. I wanted to let them know that there would be a delay in my scheduled completion date. I gave reasons for the delay. While I wasn’t asking for much empathy, I thought that there would be a certain level of understanding. Instead, I was provided with responses that came across as detached and clinical. One member stated that I needed to speed things up and the other suspected that my status was symptomatic of writer’s block. After agonizing over the feedback, I began to realize that my reasons (new and relevant data) were legitimate. So to add what you describe in your post, I also think it’s important to realize that even when you receive feedback, give yourself time to reflect and consider. Best wishes, James

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  4. I’d agree with the idea of reflecting, considering and being honest with yourself, although it can be hard to pin down why you’re having a problem. I went through a phase where I struggled to write and, at the time, called it writer’s block. (I also threw in a good dose of imposter syndrome for good measure). My supervisors made suggestions, other postgrads made suggestions, none of which seemed to work. However, after stumbling across an online tip about storyboarding your research, I realised my problem wasn’t so much not being able to write at all (I was still writing blogposts etc), as not being at a point where I was prepared enough to write because I had lost focus. The suggestions I had from others all assumed I had things relatively clear in my own head when I was anything but clear. What I needed was to take a step back and analyse my plan for my thesis. Plan in hand, I jumped back into rereading the literature and the writing started again without me really realising it.

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  5. francesbell says:

    Funnily enough, I am connecting with this post precisely because I have had a diagnosis of under active thyroid in last few months. I was becoming less productive over time but the change as so gradual that I attributed it to other changes in my life. My friend told me recently that Hilary Mantel found that as she slowly recovered her mental activity ran ahead of her physical energy And that resonated:) I have been capturing my thoughts and reflections by synthesising them in diagrams to explore later in words. So my message is when life is different try a new approach and come back to it later:)

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