Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety

Need to write? Set a deadline! Deadlines are a fantastic motivator. If I didn’t have a deadline, this newsletter might never be distributed! It’s the deadline that drives me: I know that by the second Monday of each month, I must have a completed article about a topic my readers will find useful and insightful.

I suggest using deadlines to complete all of your writing, including the chapters of your dissertation. Those of you who are using our TADA-CD are already familiar with this foundational strategy … for example, using a conference submissions deadline as a motivator to get one of your chapters finished.

It’s also important to set a continuum of deadlines. After clearing a major hurdle – such as defending a thesis proposal – many students want to take a break from writing. If you find that you need a break after the completion of a major task, by all means take one – but only after setting a date for when you plan to begin writing again, as well as a deadline for when your next task must be completed.

Following are some additional TADA tips to help ensure that your writing gets done (and done well)!

Capture Ideas with a Journal:

Keeping a journal is an age-old technique that writers have used to get their thoughts down on paper and keep track of what they learn. Many writers use a journal to write down facts, brainstorm ideas or “free write” a stream of consciousness to get their creative juices flowing. Others use it to vent their frustrations, which can help them move past the emotions of writer’s block.

Though you might resist this strategy because you consider it extra work, I highly recommend using our TADA Journal. You can use our Methods journal to write down random thoughts and ideas whenever they strike; it can also serve as a central depository for data that can be mined in the future. There is also a “Issues to be Resolved” section, and a half page of graphing paper to create hand drawings of the elaborate tables and graphs you plan to include in your thesis/dissertation. You can run these “rough” drafts by your advisor for approval before investing a lot of time mapping the final versions.

Keep Keywords or Phrases Handy:

Academic writing is quite formal and is not designed to be entertaining. Remember that the most important goal in writing is to get your intelligent point across in a clear concise manner. This style of writing is structured, formal and objective. A wide range of vocabulary is of course important, however, when writing academic papers, it is often helpful to find key terms that are familiar to your reading audience. Focusing on scholarly text will also ultimately assist you in the writing process. Use academic journals to prepare a list of key words that are important in your research area—use this set of key words repeatedly throughout your document.

Resist the urge to use your thesaurus to come up alternate synonyms to substitute for key terms; these words all have different meanings, nuances, and connotations. For example, if the key phrase for your discipline is “family structure”, —do not try substituting other phrases like “family composition”, “family formation”, “family arrangement”, or “family size.” Experimenting with alternative word choice can do more harm than good. On the other hand, purposely repeating key words and phrases links sentences and paragraphs. Moreover, repetition of key words and phrases not only emphasizes important points but also adds cohesion to your overall argument by creating powerful links between ideas in your paper and helping your reader understand the logic of your paper.

Organize Your Thoughts:

At some point you’ll need to stop garnering ideas and facts, and start to write. First, however, it’s important to organize your project. Out of the mountains of raw data you have accumulated, you’ll need to decide what material to include, how to sequence that material, and how to shape your document to achieve the strongest possible argument and impression.

One of the most productive approaches to organizing your thesis or dissertation is to begin with your proposal and a well crafted table of contents (TOC). Your thesis or dissertation is really just an extension of your proposal; as such, a good starting point is to go through your proposal and simply change the tense from future to past. Then you can craft and use a TOC to create headers and sub-headers for the entire document.

This exercise will help you to organize your ideas effectively, and might also point out areas where you may need to collect more information. Be sure to involve your advisor in this process, and take careful note of the feedback he or she provides.

Editing Your Work:

It is difficult for any writer to critique and proofread his or her own work. For the best result, take a “top-down” approach, and begin by reviewing the general organization and content of your writing. Don’t worry about sentence-level editing at this stage. Instead, focus on the flow of your paragraphs and sections, and whether they are properly ordered to facilitate a smooth stream of thought. One way to gauge this is to write down all of your topic sentences in the order in which they appear in the document. (You can accomplish this quickly and easily by using the “blocking” function of your word processor to copy them to a blank page.) Once the sentences are listed in this fashion, you can easily observe whether they flow logically and make any necessary changes.

Additional tips for effective self-editing are to:

o Only edit for short blocks of time;

o Edit in a quiet place to avoid distractions;

o Read your document out loud;

o Read your document backwards, reading the last page first and working your way back to the first page;

o Changing something about your document (e.g., paper color, font size, font color or spacing) to give it a fresh look.

Finding an Editor:

Each time I begin writing this newsletter, I am comforted by the fact that I have an editor who will review my work. Knowing this allows me to freely pour out my thoughts on paper without having to simultaneously worry about the details of style and proper mechanics.

While I highly recommend using a third party to edit your work, it’s important to find the right person. Your thesis or dissertation will be written for a highly intellectual community, many of whom are experts in your field. As such, the editor you choose must be practiced in an academic style of writing that will appeal to this audience.

Evaluate potential editors by having them edit a few pages of your work to get a feel for their style. It’s helpful to provide samples of journal articles in your field, and to advise the editor of your style requirements and expectations. Some editors only edit for grammar and specific MLA or APA formatting issues. Others edit for overall continuity, and will check to ensure that the paragraphs are in the proper sequential order, and whether a particular argument makes sense. Editing fees range from $20 to $150 an hour. Be sure to clarify issues such as how many words or pages an editor can complete in an hour’s time.

Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety: Write with a Clean Slate:

I got high marks in all of my college preparatory English classes, but hit a sticking point in my freshman year of college, when a visiting instructor told me that my writing skills were lacking. I was devastated by her negative assessment, and my confidence in my writing waned.

The following semester, I finished my freshman writing sequence at another university. Despite the fact that I wrote my essays on the bus rides to and from class, I was able to achieve straight A’s. Still, my confidence in my writing remained shaken.

If you have suffered a similar negative experience, it is important to understand that time and continued practice will heal this wound. Writing is like everything else: the more you practice, the better you get. It is important to move past any confidence issues you have by just writing and writing more. Another good way to build confidence is to share your writing with trusted confidantes who will appraise, constructively criticize and help edit your words.

Writing with an Attitude of Confidence:

Many of us experience writer’s block because we are worried about whether or not what we are writing is actually right. I suggest that you abandon “right” and “wrong” and just write with abandon! Write as if you know you are right, and worry about the details later.

Writing with recklessness allows you to clear your head and move ahead of whatever may be blocking your thoughts. I used this technique to write the summary chapter of my dissertation. I had been struggling with the document for months, and finally said to myself, “I know more about this dissertation than anyone else, so I’m going to act like it!.” I began writing as if what I had to say was important, and as if my findings were an important academic contribution to the field. My new attitude was absolutely freeing! I was able to quickly finish the last chapter and rewrite the first one, as well!

Find a “Coach”:

I strongly advise students to find a “coach” to help them organize and complete their project. There is a considerable difference between an advisor and a thesis or dissertation coach. An advisor is, first and foremost, an academician with considerable responsibilities that do not involve you. A thesis or dissertation coach, on the other hand, is paid to focus on you and help you finish your degree by listening to all of your concerns … academic or otherwise.

Thesis/dissertation coaches focus on a holistic – not strictly academic — approach to finishing your degree. In person or on the phone, they can discuss your project on an individual basis in absolute confidence, and also serve as a sounding board for stress relief. They can offer both emotional and academic support to help you complete important tasks, as well as provide the tools you need to achieve your goals, which enable you to accomplish more with less effort.

Coaches can help you get organized, and regularly track your progress to ensure that you stay on top of tasks. Their goal is to work in every possible way to help you write your thesis/dissertation, finish it, and get it published.

“Group Coaching” is also valuable. Through this model, once coach provides counsel to several students over the phone (via a bridge line). Everyone involved agrees to confidentiality, and the group is configured to guarantee that no one in the group will be in competition with another. The advantage of this approach is that you can accomplish more in less time, and can have the opportunity to work with students in different disciplines from all over the world. The group setting also provides built-in peer support.

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