not letting go of the text


A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I had any advice for someone who struggled to let go of their writing – they wrote but then it was really difficult to send the writing off to their supervisor. And clearly, this was an issue. Sending the stuff off is part and parcel of doing the doctorate, and part and parcel of any subsequent scholarly work too.

So I’ve been mulling over this not-wanting-to-part-with-the-words feeling.

And I must confess, letting go of a text wasn’t an issue I had thought about much. So I did what I always do when in doubt, I googled to see what might already be out there.

Well, there was nothing particularly appropriate. A lot of stuff about giving up on relationships. But I wondered whether this angle had anything to offer.

The giving up on relationships advice largely seemed to focus on sorting yourself out: checking that your expectations are realistic, understanding that you can’t control other people, avoiding getting fixated on particular outcomes, being open to change, not being afraid of negative emotions, doing what works for you and so on… Well, all very well, and I am sure that some of this is very good advice.

And I am sure that letting go of the words could be to do with negative emotions like fear, and worry about being scrutinised. But you know, I’m a social scientist and I know that emotions and behaviours are formed over time, and they are generally also relational and structural. Feelings come from somewhere and that somewhere often matters a great deal.

Thinking more about the social aspects of academic writing, I began to jot down some alternative lines of thinking about reluctance to part with writing:

In general, writing is high stakes academic work. We are judged on the apparent quality of our writing by examiners, referees and our institutions. So being concerned about how our writing will be seen has a firm and rational basis in the realities of academic life.

And just as important is the nature of supervision. Pedagogical relationships, particularly those in supervision, are evaluative. The job of the PhD supervisor is to offer constructive critique which will help the PhDer achieve their floppy cap and gown. But this relationship can, depending on the person and their individual life experiences, feel a lot less than supportive. For example –

  • If you are used to getting the equivalent of all gold stars then getting the supervisory track changes treatment can feel a lot more like never being good enough.
  • If you are used to being critiqued, then it’s just more of the same and maybe you just wish it might be different.
  • If you haven’t experienced this kind of evaluative pedagogical practice before, or for a long time, then it might feel like an unwanted belittling of what you know and who you are.
  • Or maybe you just want the text to be so perfect nothing can be said about it – and that really isn’t going to be the case, ever.

And of course, supervisors can be more or less skilful, and more or less patient, in what they do.

All those possibilities suggest an open conversation, between PhDer and supervisor, about the best way to deal with critique. This might be needed sooner rather than later in the supervision relationship – and certainly if things are going wrong. But conversation is often easier said and done because of the power relationship embedded in supervision. However, discussing the issue of not wanting to let the writing go might be easier than discussing critique per se. And worst might come to worst – it may be that it’s just not possible to change interaction patterns and you have to find ways – preferably in the company of other PhDers – to deal with the process of critique.

But maybe there is something else going on – some other combination of history and relational-structural issues that I can’t quite imagine in the not wanting to send off the writing feeling.

And it does seem that whatever I imagine might be going on ultimately still needs the reluctant text writer to do something themselves. Ultimately it appears that the PhDer who hangs on to the text has to decide to do something. (Yes, all very 12 steppish!)

So what might there be other than just sucking it up?

Well, I do wonder if finding a writing partner mightn’t be a useful thing to do. Get someone you trust to read through what you have to send off, before you decide to step away from the send button. Or perhaps you could set up some kind of reward system for yourself when you send off the text when you don’t want to.

But I confess, I really don’t have a lot of advice that is helpful for this problem. So, in the classic social media move, I now want to say – maybe some of you reading this post, might have things to add. If you have experienced not-wanting-to-send-off-the-writing, what worked for you? What did you do – or do you do- in order to deal with this problem?

Related posts:

Finished your first draft? Now it’s cut and come again

On not writing from the PhD.

Image credit: Jakob Owen on unsplash.

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, critique, supervision, text, text work/identity work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to not letting go of the text

  1. Brenda Gouws says:

    Hi Pat,

    When I first began my masters in Education (now PhD), the very first piece of writing that I sent to my supervisor was about 20 pages long. It was the introduction and I spent a very long time editing and re-editing my work. I sent it expecting that it would come back with a few comments, which I would then work on, but in my mind, the first 20 pages of my introduction had been written. Bear in mind that I’m an older student, was not working in the field. I was there by recognition of prior learning.

    So when I got my work back and it had been duly edited with a few nice comments and few things that needed changing, I was relatively okay with it. However, the subsequent meeting with my supervisor changed that and ultimately I was very pleased with what happened next. He was very kind, said that it was adequate, even good in some places, but that I needed to re-write it. I was horrified! I blurted out a few shocked words, to which he responded, “Are you in love with your work?” I was a bit taken aback. No, I quickly uttered. “Well you have to get used to re-writing your text in a thesis – many times!”

    After I’d re-written the 20 pages, he told me how good it was and that it was much better than the first draft. Whether or not it was is immaterial, because what he did was teach me that it’s okay to send in anything I’d written, and that he would help me through the changes. Our writing is not sacrosanct and the sooner we get over thinking that it is, the better. It makes for a better writer. This exercise also engendered trust in my supervisor because I realised that he was helping me become a better student and a better writer.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “If you are used to getting the equivalent of all gold stars then getting the supervisory track changes treatment can feel a lot more like never being good enough”

    It took me a long time to understand that I fell into this category. I went directly from a small undergrad where I could do no wrong to a PhD where I still had a lot to learn. If I had realized where my trouble was coming from sooner, I might have been able to face it better. Recognizing what the problem is is the first step to overcoming it. For me, it was recognizing that, even though I still needed to edit every piece I sent out, I was also getting better, with each new piece requiring less work than the last.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brenda Gouws says:

      Hi Nathaniel,
      This is exactly why my supervisor had a great tactic – reject the first piece of writing so that you know from the start that every piece of writing going forward is a work in progress.


  3. Ciaran Sugrue says:

    Well Pat, thanks for this, a rather knotty problem!
    My first, perhaps too glib a response is that better too late than too soon to submitted draft work! As the comment above indicates from the former masters/ now PhD student, it is about relationship forming, and how those relationships actually work, while even in what has been written above, there is evidence of power play between supervisor and supervisee– ‘you’d better get used to my track changes’!
    My second reaction is that while I support the ‘critical friend’ approach to one’s writing before hitting the send button, this strategy, as you well know, is no panacea. It is rather difficult to find a trusted partner who will take the time to give detailed, positive and critical feedback, and, even when this materialises, it is well to recognise that the ‘critical’ bit always hurts a little or a lot depending on what’s at stake! As you have pointed out, it depends on what the slings and arrows activate in our internal cognitive-emotional armoury. Thus, allowing the dust to settle on the feedback and the emotions it evokes is critical rather than firing off any overly trigger keyboard (get even) urges that have been ‘triggered’ in our synapses! Best to sleep on it, at least once. And, this brings me to a possible third point.
    The underlying agenda here, perhaps, is that the process of writing, and feedback on it, is fundamentally about getting to know ourselves, and what works for us, and what this ongoing process contributes is ‘fruit for thought’ that directly and indirectly invites us to think about our reactions and why we have them to certain external stimuli– in the form of ‘constructive feedback’. Perhaps it is too optimistic that as a consequence of this ongoing process, not just during the ‘survival’ of the doctoral labyrinth– that word ‘journey’ is sooooooooooooo overused– is that we become more reflective and humble human beings, as well as possibly improve our writing skills?!
    Finally, your email arrived at a moment when I was all too easily distracted from providing feedback on a draft of a masters thesis! Perhaps when I return right now, I will think more carefully about my comments in track changes, seeking some ‘sweet spot’ between the critical and constructive!
    Thanks for the distraction and the stimuli !!


  4. Elham (Ellie) Zakeri says:

    First I choose a deadline for the draft I am working on. Then, I work on it, edit, re-edit until the day it is due. Then, I tell myself this is the best I could do with all the knowledge and understanding I have that day (which may later change) and I need to send it off to get feedback. This really works. After sending it, I feel much lighter.

    When I meet my supervisors for feedback, they start with the positive points and then discuss what can be improved. I confess that I usually feel a bit down after the meeting but I try to gather my pieces and get back to work by listening and re-listening to the supervisor meeting (I record the meetings) to decide on the steps to take for improving my text.

    I have learnt that all writing is a work-in-progress and that it will never be perfect. I need to write, submit, get feedback to be able to write more and finish my thesis. So, the message is do your best, have a deadline and just send it.

    Hope this helps,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I relate to all that has been said, and would liek to add the following, too: even once you get the hang of 3 years or 6 (if part-time, like me) of shitty drafts and thoughts-in-progress, and even if can just about click ‘send’ whislt hold your nose, it never feels satisfying becasue you know you still have a mammoth task ahead of you. The amount of patience and tolerance of ambiguity that you learn during a phd is quite something. But getting into gear for the final lap requires a totally different mind set. This is when it does have to be in tip-top shape, and that requires a huge shift in expectations.

    Thank you, Pat, as always. There is still much to be said about academic writing, so please don’t stop 😉


  6. Sue Watling says:

    Can recognise so much in this – in particular Ciaran’s line ‘…the process of writing, and feedback on it, is fundamentally about getting to know ourselves, and what works for us…’

    I see writing as having the potential to be as individual and personal as we all are – and it’s ok to develop our own voice – yet writing up our research happens within expectations around academic literacies – and finding that balance between the supervisor’s own style and expectation and ‘what works for us’ may be a challenge.

    The topic of writing isn’t addressed enough – maybe if we had more opportunity to write freely and creatively it might help release the ‘writer within’ – then we can use that to craft writing for academic purposes. Can feel my own blog post coming on about the craft of poetry as a tool for the PhD. Thanks Pat and everyone for their comments – all very valuable.


  7. Kay Job says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue. As you suggest, there’s not much out there about “precious word syndrome”.
    For me, its been a learning curve to get past my sense of deep personal investment in what I have written and recognising that I am not the sum of my writing. In other words, my writing is not what defines me as a PhD student, academic, and certainly not as a person. Learning that writing is something that I DO rather than part of who I AM was the first step into being able to let go of those precious collections of carefully crafted words.
    I also find reminding myself that I can always save my own copy of what I think are beautiful words, or a fantastic paragraph. I change what needs to be changed in the thesis. I have to remind myself to hold the words with open hands. I can still squirrel away those precious pieces in your digital Keepsake Box. One day, a week, a month, or 2 years later, when I go back to reflect over those keepsakes, I might be in a better position to judge for myself whether they actually were as good as I thought.
    And lastly, celebrate the moment. If I’ve written something that I’m really proud of, I celebrate it! Mark the moment. A cup of coffee, a happy dance in my cubicle, that last piece of chocolate (What?! You have uneaten chocolate!), whatever says “I’m really happy with that!”. I don’t share the writing just then. I keep the news of its impending birth to myself, and revel in it, at least for a little while. The ritual of marking a moment privately actually causes me to acknowledge the ‘end of that season’ to myself, so that I are more able to move on with less attachment. It’s like a signpost that helps me to continue on the journey, instead of wondering around in circles wanting to replicate the feeling created in that particular space. When I’ve actually marked the achievement in my own mind, the emotions associated with the writing tend to be experienced as a past event, and the sense of personal investment decreases. I find I’m more willing to share my work with less sense of its ME that is being critiqued, and more as a product I want to improve to meet an end – a satisfactorily completed PhD!


  8. ulaodiase says:

    Hi Pat,

    Thank you for addressing this somehow sensitive subject and opening up a discussion.
    I am not sure if it is going to be helpful to anyone but I was recently trying to process my own reluctance in sharing/sending the written word:

    If our writing reflects our being (I guess that’s partially depending on the subject of our research) – sending it for the review can leave us feeling vulnerable.

    Well, I know it leaves me feeling vulnerable. While I am used to criticism, it does not necessarily mean that I am accustomed to useing it for my own growth. We all come from diffrent pathways, cultures, families – maybe that wider context can influence us in unexpected ways…



  9. sarasaylor says:

    Pat, thank you for writing this! I’ve certainly struggled with some of the perfectionist challenges you’ve described here; I was one of those grad students who had a hard time adjusting to critiques rather than gold stars, and I continue to struggle against the destructive fantasy that if I just keep messing with the draft long enough, it’ll eventually become so great that no one will critique it. Writing partners and groups have been crucial in helping me overcome this challenge; it helps to have friends provide constructive feedback, and also to have accountability partners who urge me to “pass the ball.” Experience has helped, too; after the first few times I sent off a crappy draft and felt as if I would spontaneously combust from shame, I came to realize that it wasn’t so bad. I learned that the feeling would pass, that my reviewers’ judgments of the writing were unlikely to be as harsh as my own, and that the only real way to make the draft better was to share it with readers.

    I wanted to suggest some structural/relational factors that contribute to this struggle for many doctoral students I’ve worked with as a writing coach. In general, these writers are only too happy to read rigorous critical feedback on their projects; they seek criticism out from peers and Writing Center tutors, and they invest their hard-earned money for me to review their drafts. But many of them feel disappointed by the feedback they’ve received from well-meaning advisors who lack the training, time, and support to provide substantive comments (and who instead stick with what’s more familiar, like vague statements–“great!,” “awk,” “?”–and grammar corrections). A more troubling observation is that many students also feel anxiety and fear about sending drafts to their PhD supervisors because, in doing so, they make themselves vulnerable to practices of hazing and abuse. Based on their past experiences (and those of their colleagues), these students fear that, after emailing the draft to their advisor, they will spend weeks or months waiting for a response that never comes. They anticipate that rather than offering substantive suggestions for improvement based on the conventions of writing in their genre or discipline, these faculty members will instead respond with personal insults (actual examples: “you should just quit,” “you don’t belong in a PhD program,” “you give me a headache”) or inconsistent feedback based only on personal idiosyncrasies. Even positive comments can make students feel uneasy if they’re offered in an unprofessional or shady manner; for example, a professor might couple praise for writing with flirtatious advances through comments like “you write like a dream–consider me quite smitten.” This anxiety intensifies if the student has already been through a few rounds of inconsistent responses from the same reader (say, an advisor who says, “you need to add 5 pages to your discussion of theoretical frameworks,” and then two weeks later says, “this discussion of theoretical frameworks is 5 pages too long–you really need to stop wasting my time with all this bad writing”). In general, it seems that the less a doctoral student knows about how to meet his/her advisor’s expectations (either because the advisor never explained those expectations, or because they have repeatedly and mysteriously changed), the more anxious that student will feel about sending out work. This dynamic supports the need for open conversations at the outset, as you suggested–if only so that students can decide, early in the process, to steer clear of potential advisors who show warning signs of erratic or abusive behavior. It also affirms the importance of involvement from multiple mentors throughout the process: official committee members, fellow students, and colleagues from other disciplines and universities.



  10. Pingback: Next steps – warning a long post!!! – kindandcurious

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