In this post I’m going to address three key issues that get in the way of building an effective writing habit. I’m going to call out these three gremlins:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Perfection
  3. Permission

Firstly, the Inspiration Gremlin

I was lucky enough to teach about Romantic poets and writers, and one of their lasting legacies was a belief – now filtered into popular culture – that inspiration is key to any artistic activity. However, if you wait for the muse to arrive before you write, you might be waiting a while – especially if you are busy, tired, stressed out or overwhelmed.  In waiting for inspiration, you’re missing out on what Pat Thomson has called valuable ‘writing to find out what you think’.

The idea that inspiration is a necessary pre-requisite for writing can get in the way of us getting started at all.  Of course, there might be other things ‘behind’ this waiting too: fear of failure, fear that our work won’t be good enough, uncertainty about what we think, disillusionment. (For more on this have a look at Boice’s (1990) Professors as Writers).  If this is you, and there’s some stuckness here that feels like it is more than just lacking inspiration, you can put your self-coaching hat on now.  Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • What’s really going on here?
  • Why am I afraid of starting this piece of work?
  • Are there certain kinds of feelings attached to writing, and how did they come to be there?

You can also remember the resources that you bring to the task:

  • What has inspired you to want to write in the first place?
  • Why is that important to you?
  • What tools to enable success can you bring to this task from previous effective writing you have done?

Secondly, the Perfection Gremlin

I’ve also had the pleasure of teaching Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  Allegedly, in composing the novel, Joyce confided to another writer that it took him a day to write two sentences, because he couldn’t find the “perfect order of words”.  Katherine Firth’s excellent blog on avoiding the perfect sentence vortex describes the painfulness of never being able to leave alone the sentence that niggles.  With this perceived imperfection writing never really proceeds onwards, instead continually circling back to worry away at inescapably imperfect wording.  Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power (1998), gives some great advice about this: separate ‘getting words on the page’ from ‘editing’. If you begin to see the ‘getting words on the page’ as a different process from editing:

  1. You are just getting words down, so what you write doesn’t have to be perfect. You can come back and work on expression during editing.  This means you can get into a writing flow, which may help alleviate any feeling of stilted prose if you are ‘circling’ instead of writing.
  2. If you separate out ‘getting words down’ and ‘editing’, not just as processes, but also in time, you have a gap between writing and editing. This allows your words to settle, and the chances are when you go back to your writing after a bit of a break it will look better.

Of course, there is still the potential issue that even with editing, your work will not feel perfect.  This is where I’d encourage you to get the self-coaching hat out again and just examine:

  • To what extent are the standards you are trying to fulfil your standards, or other’s? Are these standards realistic?
  • What is your perfectionism costing you? Does this outweigh the benefits?
  • Let’s suppose you don’t end up with a perfect piece of writing: what’s the worst that could happen?
  • Now consider the evidence for the worst case scenario: how likely is this?
  • Is there another way to look at the situation?

Finally, the Permission Gremlin

With everything that we juggle day to day in academia, it’s really easy to not find time for writing.  However, I do want to poke at this a bit: what are the longer term effects of not finding writing time?  How might this impact on us realising our longer term goals?  I’ve written before on how overloaded academics and researchers are, and we are all aware of how the sector and thus institutions have a responsibility to work to alleviate this time pressure.  There are also things we can do individually.  We can give ourselves permission to write.  After all, for many of us, our contracts allocate us research time.  This permission might look like blocking out time in our calendar, ‘having a meeting with ourselves’. It might involve structuring our day in such a way that we have ‘buffer time’ when we are busiest so that if we don’t end up firefighting during the 30 minutes buffer we have saved, then we can write instead. It might mean giving up on an idea that we need time to ‘get into writing’ and trying to set aside a whole day dedicated to writing, so we can have this ‘warm up’ (Boice calls this binge writing).

Instead, we might see if we can build a snacking habit.  In snacking we break down our writing into very specific short tasks (e.g. 100 words in an hour on X), so if we can grab 30 minutes or an hour, we can just write the next 50 words.  In other words, we can give ourselves permission to grab what time we can, and know that whatever comes out of that time will help us.  And this is where giving ourselves permission to write in short bursts links to tackling our other gremlins.  Because if we know we don’t need to feel inspired to write, and if we know our writing doesn’t need to be perfect, then it makes it easier for us to work effectively in increments and not big chunks.

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