There are load of reasons why planning doesn’t work. Life. Work. Other competing deadlines. Unexpected stuff. But sometimes our plans don’t come to fruition because of what we do. Or rather, what we don’t.
And yes, maybe the problem is that the writing plan wasn’t realistic and needs adjusting. But maybe the problem is more about the writer not doing what they really really want to do. But can’t.
Here are four strategies to try when you get stuck. When you find yourself with a book or thesis or paper that isn’t going to plan. When you just can’t seem to get the writing into any shape.
- Try distraction.
Take a break. Go for a walk. Do the dishes. Garden. Have a massage. Reward yourself for what you have done.
Come back another time, not the same day. Leave the writing for a while. Maybe your subconscious will keep working away at the problem. And/or maybe you will come back refreshed and this will be enough for you to pick up the pieces.
More importantly, distracting yourself may disrupt whatever unhappy pattern you have got yourself into. After all, none of us have great days all the time. Academic writers seem less good at acknowledging that you can’t work at your best everyday. Most of my artist friends happily acknowledge that some days in the studio or workshop just aren’t meant for doing anything high stakes.
- Try playing.
Go back to your data. Try writing the text in a different genre or from a different point of view. Write about what you are meant to be writing about. Shuffle the text around. Draw the paper you want to write. Find five objects on your desk and arrange them to show your writing impasse.
Playing is re-energising. But more importantly, playing is a way to allow yourself to move away from your planned argument, the established order of moves. Instead, you open up possibilities for re-seeing connections, for re-visioning the text.
Academic writers seem less good at playing than many craftspeople I know. A lot of craftspeople take time to deliberately experiment. They set aside days and weeks to try new things out and develop new skills and products.
- Get support from peers.
Phone a friend. Joining a writing group or SUAW or organising a writing retreat is one way to carve out writing space. You deliberately put yourself in a very supportive and social environment where everyone’s purpose is to write. Or you can ask a colleague to go for a walk and talk. As you move, you can discuss your writing and what you need to do. Or give your writing to a peer and then have a discussion over coffee.
Talking and free writing offer a way to sort out some ideas before writing them down. But more importantly, writing groups and discussions combine social connections with writing. The loneliness, struggles and frustrations of solitary authorship are removed. A temporary scholarly community is formed, one in which your efforts are recognised and worked with and on.
- Try some coaching.
Coaching focuses on your specific issues and tasks. There are now a number of good academic writing coaches around. Ask about and get a recommendation.
A good coach is a sounding board. They offer a confidential and safe space in which you can discuss your particular challenges. They may give you some strategies, and/or help you to determine a bespoke plan of attack. Regular meetings with a coach offer a mild form of accountability as well as a continued source of acknowledgement, encouragement and support. More importantly, a good coach teaches you strategies you can use now and in the future. Let me explain why that’s a good thing.
We hear a lot in academic writing circles about the inner critic. We all have one, it’s that little voice that tells us what’s wrong with our text. Now, it’s unhelpful to let your inner critic loose too soon in the writing process because it stops you writing anything. You’re too focused on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right and written. (Strategies 1 and 2 above are ways to silence your inner critic from getting too stroppy too soon.) But inner critics come into their own when you come to look at your first draft. It is the inner critic’s eye and hand which gets your writing to the next level.
The inner critic is essential to academic writing as long as you know when to spring them into action.
However, academic writers need more than a good inner critic. Academic writers need an inner coach. Your inner coach helps you get through stuck patches. It encourages you to keep going. It focuses you on goals. It accumulates a little bag full of diagnostic tools and strategies you can try out. It supports you to question your habituated ways of doing things.
Perhaps we don’t have a high functioning inner coach because we simply haven’t had the opportunity to grow one. And sometimes our inner coach gets a bit stuck too. Whatever the situation, working with a live external coach helps you build your inner coach. And while working with a coach does generally cost money, think of it as investment. Coaching is not necessarily just for now, but also for the writer you will be next year – and beyond.
It’s likely that one of these four strategies will help you unstick your writing plan. But it also may be that the plan was mis-timed or mis-thought. One good thing about plans is that they can be tweaked if they aren’t doing their job.
Once again, wonderful insight and practical suggestions from Prof Thomson. I would like to add: drive to the place where you will walk or walk your dog. I have found that driving seems to free up clogged thinking & walking, if possible in the fresh air relaxes the tension.