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Reward Yourself for Writing

Rewards are motivating

Given all the penalties the academic bureaucracy imposes for not writing, you’d think academics would have all the motivation they need to keep writing. This would be true if humans responded well over the long term to negative consequences.

However, the threat of an often distant or uncertain consequence isn’t enough to make you step away from the Netflix when you’re feeling a bit rundown or to make you commit to getting up before your toddler to write for an hour in peace.

We respond much better to definite, positive rewards. I know of a writer who lines up their favourite sweets on the desk and they get one for every 100 words they write. Another buys a couple of decadent truffles from a local chocolatier every Friday if they met their goal to check in on their major project for at least fifteen minutes a day.

Meanwhile, others prefer larger goals such as a nice dinner out with their partner upon submitting an article or a weekend away for submitting a book proposal.

to do vs. have done

I don’t see why you should have to choose between small and large rewards. Consider how much happier you would be if you gave yourself little rewards on a regular basis for what you had accomplished. This might just take your focus away from worrying about the ever-growing to-do-list and shift it to your rapidly expanding what-I’ve-done list.

Shifting your focus from ‘to do’ to ‘done’ is motivating. As you add items to your ‘have done’ list you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something, and you’ll want to add something else. You can amplify this feeling of accomplishment by giving yourself small rewards along the way. This way you have to pay attention to how much you’ve done, which helps ease anxiety about how much more there is to do.

Rewards to consider

To finish, I’ll list some inexpensive, sugar-free (or at least low sugar) rewards to consider:

  • Make a cup of tea in your favourite mug and sit somewhere comfortable without distractions and just enjoy drinking it.
  • If the weather’s nice, go for a walk – bonus points if you can walk somewhere pretty like a park or the beach. Spending time in natural surroundings will do more to recharge you for whatever the rest of your day brings.
  • Watch a favourite movie or TV show (no guilt allowed; you’ve earned the break).
  • Read a book for fun.
  • Call a friend or meet up for coffee.
  • Play with your kids, dog, cat, …
  • Take the time to cook and eat a proper meal – one during which you don’t try to multi-task by working and that you don’t rush through, so you can get back to work.
  • Take a nice hot bath.
  • Have a nap, go to bed early, or sleep in a little in the morning.

However you choose to reward yourself, make sure it’s a conscious choice and that you take a moment to connect the nice thing you’re doing for yourself with the thing(s) you added to your ‘have done list’. The more often you associate rewards with making progress on your writing, the more you’ll want to write.

Regular Writing Support

If you want regular writing support, consider joining my Facebook group, ‘Your Writing Practice’. In the group, you’ll find a supportive community of writers, writing resources, and live tutorials. If you find yourself struggling to set and meet your writing goals, my new course, Setting and Meeting Your Goals, will help. You’ll find more information about it in this video, and you’ll find a sample from week one in the ‘Units’ section of ‘Your Writing Practice’.

How to Cope with Red Pen Syndrome

Most of us have heard about White Coat Syndrome (sufferers get anxious in medical situations), but what is Red Pen Syndrome (RPS)? RPS is a term for writers who are unnecessarily nervous about sending their work to a copy editor or proofreader. Sufferers tend to (wrongly) assume that editorial professionals will judge them personally or their work.

In this post, I’m going to put those fears to rest. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use editor to refer to both proofreaders and copy editors.)

Why is it sometimes stressful to send work to an editor?

Whether you’re sending a short journal article or a book manuscript, you’re sending your editor work that you’ve spent a great deal of time on–sometimes something you’ve spent years writing. It’s hard to let it go and send it out for a stranger to read.

The practice of writing, especially for academics, tends to be solitary. We’re not used to having our work read in draft stage and it can be unnerving to send it out.

Writing obviously requires time and intellectual labour; it also requires emotional labour, but we don’t often talk about this aspect. As a writer and an editor, I have been on both sides of the ‘red pen’, so to speak. When I’m editing, I never forget the writer behind the document and try always to be sensitive to their concerns when communicating with them.

What an editor won’t do

We aren’t here to judge you or your work. If you haven’t a clue how to use commas or semicolons, we might judge the education system, but not you.

We are not your supervisor or lecturer, and we certainly are not your school teachers. Therefore, we are not marking or assessing your work.

Most of us use Word’s Track Changes feature, which defaults to red for marking each change. If getting your document back covered in red is traumatic for you, ask how to change it to a friendlier colour like purple or turquoise.

What an editor will do

We will make suggestions to improve your work. When we make or suggest a change, we are not implying that your original text was wrong or inadequate. We’re simply showing you one possible improvement you could make.

We strive to apply the seven Cs of editing and try to make sure your text is clear, concise, consistent, correct, coherent, complete and credible.

Will the editor’s voice replace mine?

No! As an editor it is my job to apply the seven Cs while maintaining your voice. However, I will alert you if your authorial voice is inappropriate for the situation.

I edit both formal academic work and trade non-fiction. The appropriate authorial voice for each type of document is different.

If one of my academic clients sends me a document that is full of colloquialisms and contractions, I will show them how to adopt a more formal, authoritative tone. Likewise, if a trade client sends me something claiming to be a popular history of medicine that only someone with an MD would understand, I’ll suggest ways to make the text more approachable and engaging.

How do editors know which voice is appropriate?

We’re not mind readers. If a client doesn’t state at the outset what the document is for (PhD thesis, journal article, academic monograph, trade book, etc.), I’ll ask.

For academic work, I’ll also ask which style guide you’re using.

For trade publications, if you’ve found an agent or publisher, I’ll ask for their house style. If you haven’t, I’ll draw up a style sheet based on what you’ve written. If anything is inconsistent (say, sometimes you use the Oxford comma, sometimes you don’t), I’ll ask which you want me to apply to the whole document.

Will I still have control over my document?

Of course. As I said above, most of us use Track Changes. When you get your document back, you will have the opportunity to accept or reject each change — keep this in mind when scheduling editing for documents with hard deadlines at your university or with your publisher.

I encourage my clients to send me an email about any change I make that they’re not sure about. If you reject one of my changes, whether you query it first or not, I won’t be offended. It’s your document and your choice.

What if English isn’t my first language and I’ve been told my writing is hard to read?

Don’t worry. I have extensive experience of working with non-native speakers. If I come across a phrase or sentence I don’t understand, I’ll insert a comment in the margin to ask for clarification.

Part of my training for teaching writing at UC Davis was focused on teaching non-native speakers. It helps me to know what language group you’re coming from. For example, some languages don’t express verb tense in the same way as English, while others don’t use prepositions. Knowing this helps me identify likely errors and to make sense of them when they occur.

What guarantees do editors offer?

Good editors do not promise perfection. Nor do they make guarantees about how your work will be received by others. We have no control over how your examiners will assess your thesis, or how your work will do in peer review.

I guarantee that my work adheres to the high standards set by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. I also guarantee that I will treat you and your document with respect.

 

If you have concerns about sending work to an editor, I’d love to hear about them either in the comments section below or by contacting me here.

Review: Write No Matter What by Jolie Jensen

Jolie Jensen. Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

If you’ve discussed writing with me lately, online or off, I’ve probably already recommended Jolie Jensen’s Write No Matter What (2017) to you. This is the best book about writing that I’ve read in a long time.

Jensen is Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication and the director for the Henneke Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa. She brings a wealth of experience to bear on her topic: her personal experience as an academic writer and her experience of helping other academics to write.

The advice in this book is clearly presented in a no nonsense tone. Jensen doesn’t wax lyrical about the beauty of academic prose or the ivory tower of academe. Instead, she offers practical advice that helps her readers identify what their problem really is and get to a place in which they can write again. Her chapters are short and the chapter titles are descriptive. These are important features for busy academics; it’s easy to identify the chapter that’s most important for you and your writing. I would recommend finding time to read the whole book, but it’s one you can dip in and out of–if you read chapter 4 without reading the preceding chapters, for example, it will still make sense.

Academic writers' most common explanation for why they don't write and publish more often is that they simply don't have time. Jensen makes clear that lack of time is often an excuse, not the real problem. We…
Academic writers’ most common explanation for why they don’t write and publish more often is that they simply don’t have time. Jensen makes clear that lack of time is often an excuse, not the real problem. We choose not to find time for our research when we are avoiding it for other reasons.

Part I (chapters 1 to 3) of Write No Matter What, ‘Writing in Academe’, establishes the book’s attitude toward writing. Jensen first insists we must let go of the dream of the ivory tower. However much we want it to be, academia is not some sort of idealised life of the mind in which we have endless uninterrupted time to play with ideas. Academia exists in the world and academics have lives like everyone else. Jensen then moves on to discussing helpful metaphors for thinking about writing. She argues that if we approach our writing as a craftsman approaches a project, we will be happier writers. A carpenter doesn’t set out to produce the best chair ever, she sets out to produce a chair that is better than the last one she made. According to Jensen, if we adopt this attitude toward our writing, we won’t be adding unnecessary pressure to the process.

Part II (chapters 4 to 7) ‘Using Tools that Work’, discusses just that. Chapters five through seven look at securing time, space, and energy for writing. The advice in these chapters is sound, but for my own writing right now, chapter four has proven the most useful. In this chapter Jensen discusses the three taming techniques she found in David Sternberg’s How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation (1981) when she was struggling with her own thesis; British readers, please note that Americans use dissertation where you use thesis and vice versa.

The three taming techniques are as follows: ‘Create a project box. Use a ventilation file. Write at least fifteen minutes every day.’ The importance of the project box is that it keeps your work from taking over every inch of your office or home; it allows you to visit the project daily, and then put it away. The ventilation file is for use on the days that you don’t want to work on your project; on those days for fifteen minutes you write about why you don’t want to write. Jensen argues that ‘[t]he ventilation file is the most crucial and helpful piece of advice I have to offer you’ (19). I was sceptical to begin with, but she’s right. In the ventilation file you have to face whatever it is that’s bothering you about your project. Through using it, a block that would normally have turned into a stalled week, was only a stalled day. Finally, the imperative that you commit to writing for fifteen minutes a day: this one helps in so many ways. When you don’t feel like writing or you’re really busy, you can usually make yourself commit to fifteen minutes; since that’s all you had previously committed to, you can leave it after your time is up without feeling guilty. However, writing for fifteen minutes often turns into thirty or more as you discover you do actually have something to say.

In Part III (chapters 8 to 16) ‘Challenging Writing Myths’, Jensen drills down and helps identify the real reasons we don’t find time to write and offers solutions to these issues. Being able to name your writing demon is helpful whether it’s impostor syndrome (ch. 11), the myth of the magnum opus (ch. 10), or the myth that the whole project will fall easily into place once you produce the perfect first sentence (ch. 15). Once you identify your demon(s) you can start finding ways of dealing with them.

‘Maintaining Momentum’, part IV (chapters 17 to 25), deals with everything from not allowing rejection letters to stall your writing to finding ways to make your breaks (whether they come in the form of a free weekend, summer break, or a sabbatical) reasonably productive; she recognises you need time to recharge and isn’t going to tell you to spend every minute working. Jensen’s discussion of ‘Relinquishing Toxic Projects’ in chapter 23 is very important; hanging onto a toxic project is miserable and it often impedes progress on the non-toxic work you’d rather be doing.

The final section, ‘Building Writing Support’ (chapters 26 to 28), discusses overcoming the isolation that often comes with life as an academic. I especially liked Jensen’s discussion of creating academic writing groups (ch. 27); many academic staff members simply don’t have time for a workshop style group (one in which each member reads the other members’ work), but they do have time for an accountability group. Having such a group not only increases productivity (you don’t want to go tell your group you haven’t written anything in the last six weeks), but also gives you a space to talk about writing. Not the subject matter, the actual act of finding time and head space to do the writing. One of the most important take-aways from this book is that academics need to talk about writing. When we don’t talk about it, it is granted more power than it deserves and we fall into the trap of assuming ‘everyone else’ is better at it. If you’re an academic struggling with writing, it’s a sign that you’re trying to write–not something you should be ashamed of.

 

How to Cope with Perfectionism

The last full week of September brought an outpouring of anxiety to my social media feeds and groups (Twitter and Facebook) about Impostor Syndrome, which I wrote about here. This morning brought an explosion of worries over Perfectionism. Perfectionism is related to and can cause Impostor Syndrome. As I did before, I’m going to offer what advice I can to help those who are trying to overcome perfectionist tendencies so they can be happier, more productive writers.

Please note that if you experience anxiety as a result of your perfectionism or see perfectionism causing problems in multiple areas of your life, you may need more support than the tips in this blog can provide. In that case, please seek professional support–both talking therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy are effective.

Why is perfectionism a problem?

Many of us are taught from a young age that we should always do our best; early on we are told we should strive to write (actually physically form the letters) clearly, while later on, we are told we should strive to perfect our grammar, punctuation, spelling, essay/novel structure, paragraphing, pacing, … Thus, throughout our lives as writers we are encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to internalise other people’s expectations and ideas of what is perfect.

To an extent, professional writers and students have to meet other people's expectations. But too often, we inflate what others expect of us. We need to get some perspective and stop holding ourselves to…
To an extent, professional writers and students have to meet other people’s expectations. But too often, we inflate what others expect of us. We need to get some perspective and stop holding ourselves to impossible standards. If you don’t believe me, find a short piece by an author you admire. Read it carefully and critically. Is it really absolutely perfect? Can you really not find even a phrase that could be more elegant? a misplaced comma? a misspelled word? After you find one or more ‘problems’, ask yourself, ‘Do I still value this person’s work?’ The answer is probably ‘Yes’. If it’s ‘No’, spend some time re-evaluating your standards; we don’t live in an ideal world and only an ideal world can be perfect.

Slaying the perfectionist demon

Almost every writer I know sometimes has to slay the perfectionist demon. Actually, I can only think of one writer I know personally who doesn’t occasionally struggle with this—they were lucky enough to have learned, years before I met them, how to think through writing. The result is that they never get anxious about putting words on a page because it doesn’t feel any more permanent or stressful than having thoughts in the privacy of their mind.

The rest of us need tools for taming or slaying the demon. I say taming or slaying because I recognise that there will be days that you can’t vanquish your demon—maybe you don’t have time, or you’re ill and don’t have the energy—but you still need to be able to put a muzzle on it so you can get some work done.

I wish I could say that once you vanquish the perfectionist demon it will never come back, but that has not been my experience. You may need to return to the list below should it rear its ugly head later in your career.

I’m going to list (in no particular order) things you can do or remind yourself of when you feel your perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of your writing:

1) Tell yourself, over and over until you believe it, that you are not your writing. You are a complete human being. Those near and dear to you will love you no matter what you write or how it’s received. Since writing is a personal process for many of us, it is easy to conflate our identities as writers with our identities as people. If this is one of the primary ways your perfectionism presents itself, put a note above wherever you write that says something to the effect of ‘I am not my book/thesis/essay/etc.’ It will feel silly; if you’re in a shared office, you might want to put it inside your planner instead. Wherever you put it, seeing this message frequently will help you come to believe it.

2) Change your writing situation. If you tend to edit as you write and find that instead of finishing that section you meant to write this afternoon, you’ve been writing and rewriting the first sentence for the last two hours, you need to short-circuit your inner critic. If you touch-type, open a new document and turn off your computer screen. Yes, you’ll have typos, but you’ll also make progress because you can’t edit what you can’t see. You can also try ‘tricks’ like writing in crayon on unlined paper while sitting in the grass outside (obviously that last part is dependent on the weather—I couldn’t recommend it in southern England today—far to gray and cold). I discuss other such changes you can make in my ebooklet on writer’s block, which you’ll find here.

3) Form or join a writing group. If your perfectionism is making you so uncomfortable that you just don’t even want to try to write, find some like minded people who will meet with you and write with them using the Pomodoro Method—briefly discuss your writing goals for that meeting, set a timer for 25 minutes and write, take a short break to discuss your progress, repeat. You’ll find some online writing groups that do this, such as this one.

4) Get someone else to read your work. If your perfectionism doesn’t really get going until it’s time to send your work out into the world, get someone to read it. Find a friend who’s also a writer and offer to trade chapters and offer each other support. Ask a mentor or supervisor to look at your work. Hire an editor. Join an online group in which members critique one another’s work. Whichever approach you choose, finding a way to have your work read in a less high stress situation than submitting it for marking or publication will make it easier for you to take that final step when the time comes.

If none of these strategies works and/or you find that your perfectionism is causing problems in your life more generally (or that it is so severe that it is crippling your career), you may need professional help. If you can’t afford, or are not interested in, talk therapy, investigate self-help options. If you live in the UK, you can get free help through the NHS; you’ll find more information on that here. Many people have had success using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy—either with a therapist or on their own. There are many websites and books devoted to CBT. I haven’t used any of them, so I can’t suggest anything in particular. Use what works for you, but remember to check the sources of any online therapy—you want resources created by qualified professionals, not quacks.

Further reading

Baty, Chris. No Plot? No Problem! –this is aimed at fiction writers, but all writers can find some useful tips—for silencing your inner critic, see chapter five.

Jensen, Joli. Write No Matter What—this is aimed at academic writers, but as with Baty, other writers will find it useful. For dealing with perfectionism, see chapter nine: ‘Demons in for Tea’.

Murray, Rowena. Writing for Academic Journals—this is likely only useful for academic writers; don’t let the title fool you, the advice in this book would work for other forms of academic writing, too. I haven’t read any of Murray’s other books, but she does have one that focuses on writing the PhD thesis.

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GSU: Regular Revision in 4 Easy Steps

Revision is most effective when it is an ongoing process. When should you start revising for exams?

a) A few days before.

b) A couple of weeks before.

c) After each lecture and seminar.

The best answer is c, ‘After each lecture and seminar’. Of course you need to consolidate your learning in the days and weeks immediately before an exam, but you’ll be less stressed and better prepared if you revise as you go along.

What might this regular revision look like?

  1. If you haven’t already done so, get out your module handbook (or pull it up on your module VLE—Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) and read it carefully. There’s a very good chance you find sections on the aims of the unit and particular skills and/or themes to be covered. Make a list of these. Look back at your notes from the introductory sessions for your module and note anything your lecturer(s) particularly emphasised in them. You only need to do this step once per term/module.
  2. After each seminar or lecture, take a few minutes to jot down notes on how that session furthered your understanding of the items in the list you made in step 1 (most sessions won’t cover all of them, just make notes on the ones that were covered). Organise this in the way that works best for you—a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, a section of a paper notebook. Whatever form you choose, make sure you leave yourself ample space for each week’s activities and keep it safe. I tend to use electronic documents for this sort of thing, then I can save backup copies in my Google Drive or email them to myself—that way, it matters less if my computer crashes or I lose my flashdrive.
  3. While you have your revision document or notebook open, make a few notes about how the session you just attended relates to the sessions that came before it.
  4. Do you have questions about anything that was covered? Good! Jot those down, try to find answers the next time you’re in the library, and raise them in your next seminar or tutorial.

If you complete these steps as you work through your module, you’ll be in an excellent position when it’s time to consolidate your knowledge just prior to the exam. You will have:

  • Considered how the module content helps you achieve the module’s aims.
  • Made clear notes of each discussion or lecture on any given theme or skill covered in the Module—this means no more searching through pages of seminar or lecture notes trying to remember when something was covered. If you simply date your revision entries and your notes, it will be easy to find what you need.
  • Developed an understanding of how the different parts of the unit fit together. It’s important to do this while things are fresh in your mind and having these notes will make it easier to prepare for discursive essay questions.
  • Identified any weaknesses in your understanding of the module and any points of confusion. Identifying these things will enable you to ask specific questions in any revision seminars or tutorials offered by your lecturers. Lecturers want to help their students, but there’s little we can do when students come to us and say ‘I don’t get it’ without explaining what ‘it’ is.

For further help with your studies, see my posts on succeeding in seminars and time management.

Until next time, happy revising!
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