coping with writing anxiety – or – learn to stroke your spider

Desensitisation is a psychological term. It is used to describe a process through which a very anxious – perhaps even phobic – person gradually becomes used to the object or situation which makes them afraid. Professional support is often required for effective desensitisation.

Desensitisation usually consists of three steps – developing a fear hierarchy, relaxation training and then something called reciprocal inhibition. Let me explain these steps in a touch more detail.

The fear hierarchy – well this requires making a list. You make a list about the thing you are anxious about, going from the least terrifying version to the absolutely most awful. (In clinical practice this list-making is done with a therapist and there might be discussions about where these fears came from. ) My favorite example of a possible fear hierarchy is this –


  • Think about a spider
  • Look at a photo of a spider
  • Look at a real spider in a closed box
  • Hold the box with the spider
  • Let a spider crawl on your desk
  • Let a spider crawl on your shoe
  • Let a spider crawl up your pants leg
  • Let a spider crawl on your sleeve
  • Let a spider crawl on your arm
  • Stroke your spider

Now I assume that when this imaginary fear hierarchy was drawn up the spider in question was actually your ordinary harmless garden spider. It wasn’t one of the very many bitey and downright dangerous eight-legged creatures found in Australia for example. Clearly, giving your average dinky-di redback a bit of distance is a pretty good idea. No crawling up the leg please. Simply recognising a redback and keeping your distance without panicking is what’s required. But I mustn’t get too distracted by the venomous possibilities of Australian arachnids… suffice it to say that knowing what and when you need to leave well alone is also part of the process.

After developing a fear hierarchy, the anxious person then learns and practices relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, developing countering-images or systematically relaxing muscles. The anxious person is then gradually introduced to the cause of their anxiety while relaxed, working through the various versions and levels, from mild panic to gut-wrenching fear. The theory is that you just can’t get tense and breathe shallowly at the same time as your muscles are loose and you are breathing deeply and slowly. You have to do/be one or the other. Because  you can physically only be/do one of these  states – anxious or relaxed – it’s reciprocal inhibition. And then, after you have faced your fear in a relaxed state, well, it stops being so scary.

The other desensitising technique is called flooding. This is when the person faces their fear at its worst – no gentle moving through stages – just straight in at the most terrifying. Here’s a spider, yes it’s pretty big, but it’s harmless I promise, just stroke it. Faced with their worst nightmare, the person then works to replace their fear using the relaxation techniques they’ve learnt. Flooding is usually carried out in clinical situations – although it also bears a remarkable similarity to things that happen in reality television!

So what does all of this have to do with academic writing? Well, some of the very well-known approaches to academic writing are related to desentisitising approaches.

Speed writing for example – the use of timed writing sessions, the backbone of shut up and write meetings – is a form of reciprocal inhibition. The theory here is that you can’t get into habituated ways of self-censoring, worrying about every sentence, stopping rather than starting, if you are focused on writing as much as you can as fast as you can. Just as you can’t relax and be tense at the same time, you can’t edit your work as you go along if you are also writing a stream of consciousness. (It’s not surprising that speed writing was one of the strategies advocated by Robert Boice and Peter Elbow, both psychologists.)

Writing for yourself every day – without having to show the writing to anyone else –  can be a way to get through one of the lowest stages of the writing fear hierarchy. Yes, you are writing. You are writing regularly. You can do this writing. Yes, you can. Writing for yourself is absolutely different from writing for your supervisor – or writing that thesis or writing for peer review (these generally come at the top of the writing fear hierarchy list).

Regular blogging in an informal style can also help you to get over writing worries. Writing something more colloquially and less high stakes sits somewhere in the middle of the writing fear hierarchy. Writing conference papers and book reviews can help you to move up the stages of fear of writing for public scrutiny too, they don’t have the same consequences as the thesis exam or journal article review.

Co-writing is a great way to desensitise a fear of critique and a fear of cutting hard-won words. Co-writing helps you change an habituated avoidance of revision. A shared conversation about how to improve a text for which you are both responsible is as good as a few deep breaths.  A trusting relationship with a co-writer, or with a team of co-writers, can go a long way towards helping you separate your sense of academic competence from your first drafts. It can allow you to shift from a habit of minor edits to fearlessly holding a draft to rigorous scrutiny.

And perhaps the thesis boot camp and writing retreat are a kind of flooding activity. Writing the thesis, the journal article, the book are the academic equivalent to stroking the spider. In a supportive environment and in the company of peers, with plenty of creature comforts and rewards available, people with writing anxieties are encouraged to jump into this very high stakes writing activity for hours – days – on end. By immersing themselves in the thesis or paper, in the right context, they are able to break through the anxiety associated with being able to produce large quantities of important text in a short space of time.

So all of those things you read as writing strategies and advice? Free writing, blogging, retreats….? It seems they do have a basis in psychological theory and clinical practice. So if you do  have writing anxiety, it might be productive to think about desensitisation, read a bit more about it, and see if these approaches might have anything to offer you.

And if you have a really serious writing anxiety problem, do seek some help.

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forget angry birds, make mine angry writing

I’m about to write another angry book. That is, a book motivated by anger. Real, proper rage. I’ve already written two angry books, and they are probably my best. I want to tell you about angry writing, because I keep reading writing advice that says scholarship should be dispassionate. You know, academic writing should always be objective, calm, well behaved. Right? Well, no. Not at all. 

I need to say first of all that writing an angry book doesn’t mean that I get to throw all scholarly standards out the window. It doesn’t mean that I only look for evidence that supports my point of view. It doesn’t mean that I write without due attention and care to the ways in which my argument is logically staged. It doesn’t mean I just engage in bile-filled polemic. No. Not at all. 

Writing from a position of anger means that I not only want -but also need – to make a case very persuasively. I have to stand on solid ground. My scholarship, if anything, is actually better when I’m writing about an anger-making topic than when I care less. That’s because when I write from anger I work hard to marshal the most convincing evidence that I can find. I am determined to deal with all possible objections. I want to make absolutely sure that I have covered all of the relevant literatures that are pertinent. I want to make it really difficult for my case to be knocked down.

Writing from a position of anger also means that the actual production of text becomes of critical importance. I want to produce writing that will keep the reader interested. I want to use metaphors that are gripping as well as apt. I want to use description and quotation so well that the reader nods their head and says “Yes that’s how it is.” I want to write so that it’s close to impossible to ignore the argument being made.

This all means that I will read, read and read and then revise, revise and revise until I am confident that my text and my case are as strong as I can possibly make them.


I want to tell you this because we academics do not always come clean about the commitments and emotional engagements that underpin our research and writing. We maintain that scholarship is driven only by abstract curiosity, by a peculiar kind of detachment from life. I don’t think that’s always the case.

I can point to many topics where I am pretty sure that some level of researcher emotion is involved.  Researching almost anything to do with health and well-being, the environment or social justice for example is likely to be driven by – or provoke – powerful emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and grief.  I’m sure you can add more to this list.

Writing from anger is not a problem, it seems to me, as long as we are able to keep to rigorous standards of scholarship. Indeed, rigour and standards are our good friends. As both Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault argued, scholarly traditions of evidence and reason are the basis of our expertise. And it is expertise that allows us to make potent and grounded interventions in, and pointed commentary about, the things that matter.

And indeed, conviction, sound scholarly arguments and finely honed rhetoric are absolutely necessary to deal with the kinds of opposition and political rhetoric that might be directed our way when our angry work becomes public. You see angry books enter territory where there are heated debates, high stakes policy and firm position taking.  In those circumstances, we must have research and writing which provide us with a solid place to stand/speak.

I’m certainly hoping this next angry book will be good. I’m hoping it will stand up to the opposition it will provoke. 

In the meantime I’ve got even more reading and research to do before I put hand to mouse.

Photo credit: Pingz Man

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starting the PhD – write and write regularly

The PhD is not only about the actual research that you do. It is also about your capacity to:

  • explain why your research is necessary
  • show how your inquiry fits with and builds on existing research
  • clearly state and justify what you did, when, with whom or what, in what order, how long it took and what happened as a result
  • say what your results mean, and how they add to what we already know, or challenge it, and what should happen as a result.

So you need to be able to adequately deal with other people’s work as well as the big ideas that are pertinent to your particular topic. You need to be able to make your own argument in a persuasive way. Dealing with these requirements means that you need to be, at the very least, a competent writer. 

People may say to you when they know you’re doing a PhD, “It’s never too soon to start to write”. Do listen – it’s absolutely good advice. You see, in order to write well, you need to practice. Writing is something that you now need to do regularly, and often. 

And by writing I don’t just mean taking notes of your reading – although you will of course need to make summaries and put together pieces of text synthesising your reading.  I mean writing regularly, each day, about something strongly related to your research.

This could be for example:

  • writing about something that puzzles you
  • writing about how a particular reading relates to your topic
  • responding to a small quotation – writing about what it made you think about
  • exploring a particular possible idea for a research design
  • developing an argument about an aspect of your research – the choice of method for example, writing about why it is a good choice and/or why it might not be
  • writing about a talk that you’ve heard
  • recording a research related conversation you’ve had with a peer
  • thinking/writing about what you might want to talk to your supervisor about
  • experimenting with different writing ‘voices’ and styles
  • trying out draft paragraphs, introductions, abstracts
  • writing descriptive pieces, where you work on the ways in which you might provide rich detail about your work
  • practising how to incorporate dialogue into an argumentative text
  • writing to learn to craft anecdotes and vignettes.

This writing is not intended initially for anyone but you. There is no pressure on you to make it perfect. The idea is simply to write and think about your topic, and also to write and think about the craft of writing itself.

Setting up a regular pattern of writing, for about thirty minutes or so, is a good idea – the time can of course be longer.  It may vary in duration depending on what else is going on and what the task demands. Write as often as you can at the same time and in the same place each day. You might like to set yourself a timer or a word target – these are support mechanisms designed to help you stick to writing, not the end point. 

Just sitting down each day will get you a writing habit that will help you enormously throughout the PhD.


You can do this kind of writing on screen or in a notebook, or a combination of the two, whatever works for you. You might even blog. But a key to sustaining your writing habit is to vary the focus of the writing, but keeping the regular time devoted to research-focussed writing sacrosanct.

Practice makes practice, as we say in teaching, and this is the case for writing too.

See other posts about starting the PhD.


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the blogging scramble

I’ve had cause to think about the blog in the last couple of weeks. In fact last week I abandoned the usual format and did something different – challenged myself to find five quotes that I really liked. They also had to say something related to academic writing.

Now, I made this little detour coming off a bumper week of hits. The post on five ways to organise a literature review was certainly pretty popular. While it wasn’t the most hits I’ve ever had for a post, it was up there. How did this happen? Well, not only did it use a number in the title, it also made a promise – to provide some succinct information about something that worries a lot of people.

I know that I could always write that kind of post.  And maybe I should because it’s what a lot of people find of most use and interest.

But the reality of blogging is a bit more complex. Not all the readers of the blog want unadulterated handy hints. So I want to do something that will keep these people interested too. But as importantly, I want to provide a broader view of scholarship and academic work and to just focus on how to do the expected stuff wouldn’t really fulfil that aim. And it certainly wouldn’t challenge the usual ways of doing things, and I like to do a bit of that too.

6540382097_55cc445ae5_bYou need to understand that I write this blog as a scramble, as Thesis Whisperer puts it. I never have a lot of posts in reserve, and it s not at all uncommon for me to be writing a post the night before it is published. I don’t get that many guest posts; they do just turn up out of the blue and are usually very gratefully received. They give me a bit of a breather, as well as providing other points of view.

But being a scrambling blogger does mean that I’ve built blogging into my regular writing routine. I know I’ll write and publish 2000 words each week and I do my first drafts in two separate hour long stints, usually on the weekend. But blogging this way does mean that I sometimes do scratch my head about content – I feel I have nothing more to say.

Last week, I discovered that I occasionally need to do some posts just for my own interest. In order to keep up my own energy for the blog, I have to appropriate it every now and then to do something that simply pleases me. This might be something a bit eccentric, a little off piste. But it is only a week or a single post. And being able to do something a bit different – just because I feel like it – helps me stay motivated.

I do have a list of potential blog topics which I keep as a running sticky note on my screen. And I have a folder which has incomplete posts which I’ve abandoned because I’m not yet happy with them. I may never return to some of them. But I still reach a point where I sometimes just need to do something a bit weird. Something that’s not the same. Something that interrupts the regular pattern of posts.

I guess that’s a kind of sustainability strategy. Do something odd. Something a bit more creative. Something I enjoy just because I can.

I’d be very interested  to know what other long term solo bloggers do to keep themselves going.

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starting the PhD – tech matters

These days, researchers are very dependent on their hardware and software. If you are just starting on a PhD, there are some tech matters that it’s good to sort out now. Many of these are hidden costs associated with doing doctoral research. They’re inequitable costs too of course, as people have varying capacities to pay for computers and the like.

It’s important to find out what your university offers by way of hardware, software and support. Most universities offer full time students a desk, chair and a computer, with access to a printer. Part time students might get access to a hot desk.

Well this may not be quite what you need. For instance:

  • 3952548811_4820993cb4_bI hate to say this, but your university supplied computer may be fairly old and/or slow and sometimes the printing might be less than reliable. (Don’t even start on the copier.) You may want something different, faster, more efficient.
  • And you might even need a fast machine with lots of puff because of the kind of research that you are going to do – you will generate big files and/or need big processing capacity. If this is the case, you may have to negotiate for this – and if so, the sooner the better.
  • Maybe you going to be on the road doing field work or sitting for a long time in the archive. You’ll need a laptop or a tablet. You need to check out whether the university will provide this.

Chances are that you’ll also want to work at home. It can be difficult working in shared office space – even with headphones on. Lots of people like to do their heavy duty reading and writing at home. So, is your home tech up to it?  Can you afford, or can you get a loved one to buy you, a new machine to get you through the PhD? You don’t want to have to deal with a crashed computer half way through. Or are you best served by a laptop you can carry from university to home? Is your idea of heaven to have a big screen on your home desk? These are things to think about now, at the start.

If you are going to work at home, then you need to consider how you will deal with with having university supplied software at work – but maybe not at home. If you need portable software, or you need to use a particular programme both at work and at home, then you need to plan for that. Maybe you have to buy a home license, maybe you don’t. You need to think about this as you decide what bibliographic and data analysis software you choose to use.

Think too about your internet connection at home. Of course you have access to university inter and intra-net while you are there, and you can access everything the university has remotely. But to do this, you do need to have access to a good home internet connection if at all possible. Part time students really must have good internet access because that will be a key way that they stay in touch. And even for full time doctoral researchers, supervision often takes place via Skype these days. And you may be in the position where you need/want to do some of your data work – interviews or surveys – online. What’s more you don’t want to wait forever to download a particular PDF you have just found. Slow or intermittent access at home will make things harder and frustrating.

Don’t forget you’ll need to sort out your email addresses. If you already have a personal email account and want to keep it, then you need to hook your provided university email to it, or be prepared to check your university email very regularly. Universities now communicate with all staff and students almost exclusively by email and if you aren’t checking your university account often you can miss important deadlines.

Then there’s storage and back up. One of the things that keeps doctoral researchers – and indeed many of us – awake at night, is the prospect of losing work. It’s really important to get your storage and back-up system sorted early on. Your university might provide you with some storage space – so check that out now and start to use it asap. But you might want to buy an external hard drive  that you can use. And/or you might want to use a version of the free cloud storage that is now available – although do check out data security and the Ts and Cs and make sure you’re happy with them.

But that’s not all. Do you need additional kit – audio recorder, microphone, camera? If your phone won’t do the job you’re hoping , then do take this up with your university now –  see if they have equipment you can book out. If not, tell all of your relatives what items you are putting on your Christmas list! And if you are entitled to specialist kit or support related to a disability, the sooner the appropriate university services are onto it, the better. Unfortunately, you may have to chase this.

Do take a moment to look at some of the apps that are available to help you organise yourself – diaries, time management, fitness, organisation and communication. These apps might be something you want to play with at the start so you can find the particular combination of app-roaches that works for you. You might want to check out blogs that talk about PhD friendly apps, like this one from Alex Strick. 

Your colleagues will certainly have more to say about the tech. Start the conversation. It’s good to talk with people who are further along in their PhD than you are – initiate talk about hardware and software issues. Your peers may not only know ways to manage the situation in your university and have good tips and tricks, but they may also be plugged into networks where you can get some quick advice about a software or hardware issue and/or find out about potentially useful and interesting apps.

And check out these other Starting the PhD posts:



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five days five quotes challenge -#5

The last of my quotations addresses the need for writers to live in, and with, all manner of writings. 

Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles that you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes.

Ray Bradbury (1994) Zen and the art of writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions. p 36


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five days five quotes challenge – #4

Today’s writing-related quotation is about notebooks. I have lots of them and I do mainly ethnographic research, so it’s not surprising that this speaks to me. 

( Keeping) the field notebook or diary (is) the making of a fetish: the construction, guarding, cherishing, and the continuous elaboration in writing and drawing that is the notebook itself. This is a most excellent thing, I feel forced to point out, since fetishism has by and large received a lot of bad press, being associated with seedy men in shiny raincoats and old tennis shoes inhabiting the back rows of certain movie houses. Or else it is linked to the celebrated “false consciousness” of capitalist culture, mistaking things for the spirits of commodities. or is the other way around? In any case, endowing things with godlike powers seems to me a nice boost to the imagination required of us to navigate our way through today’s nasty world. It is a boon, therefore, that the fieldworker’s diary achieves fetish status, and does so in no uncertain manner.

Like ivy or some exotic weed, the diary shoots out tendrils and flowers. As the seasons proceed, so new growths form with different colours and shapes creating new patterns superimposed over the decaying leaves and flowers. Not to put too fine a point on it, the notebook becomes not just the guardian of experience but its continuous revision as well, a peculiar and highly specialised organ of consciousness no less than an outrigger of the soul. It becomes an extension of oneself, if not more self than oneself. If a camera is a technical device that more often than not gets in the way – gets between me and people – the diary or fieldwork notebook is a technical device of a very different order and even more magical than the much acclaimed magic of photography.

Michael Taussig (2011) I swear I saw this. Drawings in fieldwork notebooks, namely my own. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press p. 15.


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