the limits of writing advice

There’s a lot of understanding now about writing. There didn’t used to be. But over the last couple of decades there’s been a lot more talk and writing about academic writing. I see a lot of writing advice around on social media and in university writing workshops. And that’s fantastic. Writing is getting a hearing. More people are learning strategies that they can use to support their own writing.

Most of us know for instance that free writing – also called writing without a parachute, or pomodoros, or shut up and write – can be a very powerful way to interrupt unhelpful habits such as writing the first sentence over and over and/or editing before hardly anything is written. Can be. Not always is. Can be.

And we all now know that getting a daily writing habit is generally a good thing and waiting for a clear week to write that paper is a recipe for writing nothing. A clear three days don’t appear let alone a week. The paper never gets written.

However, as Helen Sword points out, some people do manage to get their papers and books out without writing each and every day. (That’s not me by the way. I do write most days even if only for a bit. But I know not everyone does.) So this advice doesn’t work for all of us.

And Sword’s research also shows that lots of academics don’t ever do free writing – not ever. They are planners and work from Tiny Texts and outlines. And some write in big long slabs of time too, particularly if they are writing books. I do both of these things – I rarely sit down to write a paper or book without notes about what I want to do, and I often write papers and books in longer sittings. So the most common writing advice actually isn’t actually what every productive academic writer does.


some academic advice to take seriously

A serious risk inherent in writing self-help is mis-placed self-diagnosis, or well-intended mis-guided advice to others. Even though writing advice is given with the very best and most caring intentions, it can actually be unhelpful.

An example.  I often hear people say that they have an over-active Inner Editor which kicks in the moment that they sit in front of the blank screen. Free writing is the usual antidote to the Inner Editor; it works by by serially passing the urge to stop and go back.

But, as Kristen Iversen argues, there is a difference between a hyper-conscious Inner Editor –  essential for revising – and what she calls The Destroyer. The Destroyer is the inner voice that tells you that you have nothing to say, you’re no good and no-one will ever listen to you. The Destroyer, Iversen suggests, is the voice of fear. And that fear can be paralysing.

Iversen’s writing advice is that the way to deal with The Destroyer is to do three things:

  • understand that The Destroyer attacks experienced and beginning writers alike. You are not alone.
  • give yourself permission to write badly. And write badly often. Accept the shitty first draft. Understand writing is about revising and revising, not premature editing.
  • use free writing. Back to free writing.

Taking these three steps – even writing yourself a permission note to write badly as Iversen suggests – does work for some people. They are able to decide to ‘just write’. But what if this strategy doesn’t work? Free writing doesn’t do the trick. Just doing it doesn’t solve the problem.  The writer still can’t get over their worries about putting something out there.

Having tried the writing advice and failed, the stuck writer feels more inadequate than before, And even more fearful – if this didn’t work and it’s supposed to work for everyone – what now? Trying something that doesn’t work can, in some circumstances, actually do further harm.

You see, sometimes, dealing with an onset of stubborn inability to put hand to mouse can mean that the writer needs something different. Not the usual advice. Not self-help. Trying to deal with The Destroyer by themselves can just compound the problem.

When DIY doesn’t work, and support from friends, family and peers isn’t enough, there’s no shame in seeking out some help with writing. Sometimes, working with a writing mentor/coach can help. Talking through a proposed publication and then writing a small piece which can be read through together with further talk – this might just be what’s needed. The writer gets to make decisions about what to focus on, and to set small achievable goals for themselves. Some writing coaches do run support groups and some have online writing groups too.

But if coaching/mentoring isn’t doing it, then finding a good counsellor or therapist or writing therapy group that will provide support and more sustained coping strategies is what to try next. There is no shame in asking for professional help. It’s absolutely no good hanging around feeling miserable about not writing and feeling desperate because the usual advice doesn’t do the trick.

Advice is just that, advice. It’s what works for a big enough group of people most of the time. It isn’t an all-purpose fix for every writing problem and every stuck writer. Don’t think that the writing advice is all that there is. Or that’s there’s something wrong with you if it doesn’t work for you. Advice is good but may not be what you need.

Image credit: Juli, Flickr Commons


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, advice, Helen Sword, Kristen Iversen, pomodoro, poor advice, writing without a parachute and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to the limits of writing advice

  1. I agree with everything in this post. If I might add, what worked for me was changing my immediate writing sub-community — when people express discomfort with what you are trying say, this can sometimes manifest in writing “stuckness”.


  2. Pingback: Reading, writer’s block, and creativity | Academic Emergence

  3. Beverly Bragg says:

    This article is timely for me. I just presented a paper at a conference where I felt my peers out-worded me. This has added to the stress of my writing life. I am going to try more free writing.


  4. klinkehoffen says:

    Great post, thanks!


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