Understand the psychology of writing, particularly the importance of balancing believing with doubting. Learn how to overcome “writer’s block” and manage difficult writing assignments.When it comes to writing projects, do you tend to procrastinate and then binge-write around the deadline time? Do you ever have difficulties scheduling your writing work so that it doesn’t become aversive?
The following suggestions will help you handle “the psychology of writing.” Where possible, these suggestions link to more thorough discussions of writing principles.
Balance Believing with Doubting
Just about everyone has moments of despair and doubt about their writing. After countless hours and the feeling that your work has been futile, that you have not clearly expressed an important concept or relationship, you may feel the urge to give up, to abandon the project.
But you can’t give up. To be a successful writer (or really, to be a successful person) you need to emphasize believing. Especially in the beginning of a writing project, you need to set aside doubt, self-criticism, and despair. You need to emphasize the positive. After all, down the line, when your work is graded or critiqued by readers, you’ll have plenty of time for self-criticism and doubt.
Why Belief is Important
One difference between successful writers and those who fail is that successful writers have faith in the creative process. In other words, even when they come close to despairing, they believe their rough drafts will become crystal clear—with effort. They believe they will develop an argument that synthesizes all of their reading. They believe that they will identify some innovative, creative interpretation. Buried deep in their rough drafts, they hope to find the seed of an elegant idea.
When Charles Darwin spent his early twenties and thirties writing obscure essays on barnacle taxonomies, he didn’t give up. He kept writing, thinking, working, and eventually he created an elegant theory that transformed society: Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
Whenever you become discouraged about your writing or about your potential as a writer, remember that successful authors did not become competent overnight. In fact, for most people, learning to write well is a lifelong process, an apprenticeship.
Why Doubt is Important
Writing can be discouraging. After hours of effort, you can end up with a product that absolutely fails to express what you intended. Plus, the feedback and criticism of your classmates and teachers can be depressing. When there is a large gap between what you said and what you meant to say, you can easily get down on yourself, telling yourself that you are not a good writer and that you will never be good at writing.
Sometimes, however, you need to shut off the negative voice within you and trust the generative nature of language to help you find exactly what you want to say. You must have confidence that your writing will be concise, coherent, and persuasive, given enough time and effort.
Of course it’s true that writers must balance the negative with the positive. To be a successful writer you must be a realist: You must understand others will interpret your words in ways you cannot anticipate. Critics will identify unexpected weaknesses in your presentations. Being able to take the audience’s view and accept criticism are helpful components of the writing process.
Successful writers try to anticipate the reactions of readers and critics. Indeed, writers must be critical of their ideas. There are some writers who tend to be especially reluctant to be critical of their work, who look on their writing as a reflection of their being. Writers who look at their work to affirm their insightfulness will not see glaring logical flaws. Those who look only to reaffirm their creativity may ignore the importance of others’ views, research, and scholarship.
Successfully Mixing Belief and Doubt
While you must believe in yourself, while you must been comforted by the seed of a good idea beneath a dozen drafts, you must also be critical. You must balance believing with doubting.Successful writers are energized by their faith in the writing process. Their experiences as writers have taught them how to balance the importance of balancing believing with doubting.
Establish a Comfortable Place to Write
Ideally, you should find a quiet place where all your needed writing resources—such as a personal computer, dictionary, and paper—are set up. To help you focus on the work at hand, you may need a place that is reasonably free of distractions. For example, you may find it helpful to be away from temptations like the phone, television, refrigerator, radio, stereo, magazines, and books. Nonetheless, you must listen to your inner voice and trust your judgment. Some people enjoy writing in crowded spaces, abhorring the silence of isolation.
Determine Your Most Energetic Time of Day
In fact I think the best regimen is to get up early, insult yourself a bit in the shaving mirror, and then pretend you’re cutting wood, which is really just about all the hell you are doing—if you see what I mean. Lawrence Durrell
It’s important to try to write when you are in the wrong mood or the weather is wrong. Even if you don’t succeed, you’ll be developing a muscle that may do it later on. John Ashbery
You will probably find it easier to establish a regular writing schedule if you can write during your most energetic time of day. If you tend to procrastinate, try getting up an hour earlier each day to write. The advantage of morning writing is that you are fresh from the night’s sleep. Also, once the words are written, you won’t need to feel guilty about procrastinating all day and the responsibility of writing will not hover over you. Not everyone’s body clock is the same, of course. You may prefer to write in the evening; that is fine so long as you are able to produce meaningful work.
When circumstances prevent you from writing at your best time of day, however, do not use this as an excuse not to write at all. Even ten minutes of freewriting at your worst time of day is better than no writing.
Focus on Priorities
While emailing folks and talking in chats and e-lists can be fun, you need to ensure that you’re not chatting and surfing online at the expense of your writing. As you may know, working on the Internet can be engrossing, just like TV. We can become so engrossed in reading and talking online that we forget we have a writing project due!
Writers are not born nor made, but written. William Matthews
I’m not sure I understand the process of writing. There is, I’m sure, something strange about imaginative concentration. The brain slowly begins to function in a different way, to make mysterious connections. Say, it is Monday, and you write a very bad draft, but if you keep trying, on Friday, words, phrases, appear almost unexpectedly. I don’t know why you can’t do it on Monday, or why I can’t. I’m the same person, no smarter, I have nothing more at hand…. It’s one of the things writing students don’t understand. Elizabeth Hardwick
Think of writing then not as a way to transmit a message. Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking. Writing is, in fact, a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel, and perceive. Peter Elbow
When asked how they develop ideas, professional writers often explain that regular writing becomes an addictive activity that enables them to develop new ideas. As they work on project A, they get ideas for projects B through Z! If you write regularly, you will generate more creative ideas than if you write only sporadically. Successful writers do not wait until they are inspired to write.
Making time for writing on a regular basis does not necessarily mean that you will have less time for your other classes, family, and social activities. After all, working a little each day instead of putting whole projects off until the weekend will leave your weekends freer for other activities. Rather than giving in to procrastination and letting the responsibility to write haunt every pleasurable moment, try little dosages of writing at a time. Ultimately, after a training period in which you need to force yourself to write, you will find writing has its own rewards and you will soon look forward to composing.
On days when disaster strikes—when the rain leaks through the roof of your writing site or a bad storm knocks out the electricity—you should still try to contribute something to your writing, even if it is a single sentence written hastily on a napkin or spoken into a tape recorder.
Establish a Reasonable Writing Schedule
You know when you think about writing a book, you think it is overwhelming. But, actually, you break it down into tiny little tasks any moron could do. Annie Dillard
Structuring your time without being tense about it helps writers find additional time to work and play. And more. If you work with a sense of structured routine, with a present-orientation (dwelling on missed opportunities), with effective organization, and with persistence, you will be more likely to display higher self-esteem, better health, more optimism, and more efficient work habits. Without learning the language of time, you risk depression, psychological distress, anxiety, neuroticism, and physical symptoms of illness. Clearly, writers must learn to deal with time. Robert Boice
Deadlines are extremely important to writers. Documents can almost always be improved with additional revisions, so some writers need deadlines, a line in the sand, to say “Enough is enough!” In turn, for writers who tend to procrastinate, deadlines can provide an incentive to get started. Each time you begin a new project, you should evaluate how much time you can devote to completing the document, then set realistic goals for first, second, and third drafts.
You can overcome the impulse to procrastinate by establishing reasonable goals. For example, you should not expect to write an entire essay in a single session, but it is reasonable for you to write a solid introduction or to develop one point of your essay in a single session.
To help develop a realistic schedule, consider the following questions:
How much time can I spend on selecting a topic? At what point can I get a good enough draft to share with others?When will I have identified the major sources that I will need to consult before writing a solid draft? What sources may be difficult to obtain?When can I develop a fairly complete document planner?
Because writing is typically not a step-by-step process, you will probably want to routinely revise your goals for research, writing, and anticipated due dates.
To keep motivated on a daily basis, many writers also maintain logs of their daily writing—i.e., written records of their daily efforts to get writing work done. On longer projects, writers maintainWeekly Progress Reports.
To get the best out of a log or progress report, each time you complete a writing session, map out the agenda for your next session.
If you find it difficult to maintain your schedule of goals, use the reward system. Allow yourself a treat or indulge in a pleasurable activity—a hot fudge sundae or a relaxing swim— but only after you successfully complete a specific goal.
Plan Your Document
As children many of us heard the classic fable about the tortoise and the hare. The moral of the story is that rushing straight from point A to point B is not always the swiftest way to the destination. Sometimes it makes sense to pause for a few moments and ask yourself, “Do I really want to go there? What obstacles can I expect to encounter? Do I need to take a compass and a map? Is the path well marked? What provisions am I likely to need along the journey?”
Like many children’s tales, the tortoise and the hare has implications for adults, too. For even though logic tells us that we can save time by quickly writing a first draft, we in fact might manage our time more effectively by doing some preliminary planning and prewriting.
Complete a Document Planner to navigate writing projects efficiently.
Unlike a chef who follows a single recipe for preparing chocolate cheesecake, writers lack a single modus operandi. Sometimes you may need to write 30 drafts and other times a single draft will do. Sometimes you should dictate your ideas; sometimes you should write them on the computer; sometimes you should scratch them out carefully with a pencil.
Instead of expecting yourself to write perfect first drafts or to develop your best ideas before writing, you need to learn to trust the generative nature of composing. By being flexible and open minded, you will sometimes discover your most innovative ideas in progress, because language generates thought. In fact, what you learn as you write will sometimes contradict your preliminary hunches, so be prepared to revise accordingly.
You also need to be flexible about how you compose documents. You need to be be aware that some documents will be more demanding than others. For example, a semester-long research paper or an international corporation’s annual report would require a different amount of collaboration, research, and revision than a biography or a memoir.
Sharing your writing with friends and classmates can help motivate you to get the work done and help you judge whether or not your writing successfully communicates your ideas. By collaborating early in the life of a document, you can help focus and enrich the work.
Sometimes inexperienced writers are so inspired by seeing their words in print or published on the Internet that they fail to see the problem in the document.
Inexperienced writers are often astonished by the amount of criticism that professional writers receive as part of the pre-publication process. Typically, before publishing an essay or book, a document goes through extensive revisions in light of peer reviews, professional critiques by editors, and copyediting. Even people who do not write as a career will face evaluation of their writing. The final writing activity for many people involves submitting their work to clients, co-workers, or supervisors. For students, primary audiences tend to be teachers or other students. Whether you’re writing for a teacher or a client, criticism can often be painful so it is understandable that many of us try to avoid hearing or thinking much about our critics’ comments. Nevertheless, your growth as a writer is largely dependent on your ability to learn from past mistakes and to improve drafts in response to readers’ comments.
Maintaining organized files for all of your classes can be an important time-saver. By keeping lists of ideas or drafts of essays that might be worth developing and by organizing reading notes, you will have less trouble generating subjects to write about.
Use Technology Wisely
Used wisely, technology can literally transform how you write, research, collaborate, and publish. Writing tools, drawing tools, collaboration tools, animation tools—these are just a few of the examples of technologies that are transforming how and what we write.
- Microsoft’s Track Changes or Commenting can help you organize feedback from critics.
- A wiki, such as /placeholders/external_placeholder.html?http%3A%2F%2Fwritingwiki.org, facilitates co-authoring and enables you to easily publish your work on the Internet.
- Charting and graphics tools enable you to use visual language to facilitate invention and creativity.
- To aid your research, your college or university’s library can provide you access to thousands of online journals, books, and databases.