(How-we-write series no. 1)
In this post, Zoe, a researcher, reports a fascinating story about her stance on academic writing. Starting from a position of dissatisfaction with her writing method, she discovered a regular writing habit that became her morning ritual, and changed the way she valued writing. We find her story extremely inspiring, with lessons to learn for all of us. In spite of her initial struggle with writing, Zoe did not give up until she succeeded and found her very own way of writing!
This guest post by Zoe is part of our new series in which we ask researchers who previously joined one of our writing programmes to share their writing experiences. This not only gives a unique perspective into the process of writing academic texts, but in every story there’s a lesson (or two) to be learned! Enjoy!
Guest post by Zoe
How I felt about writing before
I struggled with academic writing. It’s not that I hadn’t done it—I did— but I had to push myself, and it required a significant amount of effort. I had begun to believe that I was simply not good at it, and that this fact was not going to change. This belief further dampened my motivation to write, or even to try to improve my writing. I would do everything to consciously avoid or endlessly postpone my writing activities. I even contemplated quitting academia over a ‘writing disability’.
This is all strange because I had read and heard from several people that writing is also a skill that can be built through sustained practice. Sometime in September last year, while I was struggling with despair, I came across the blog post “Train your writing muscle: Achieve better results” by Tress Academic. I decided to prepare my writing muscle training plan, and gave myself 15 months to consistently and incrementally build my writing skills before quitting academia all together.
Setting up a training plan
The first step was to find my ‘ideal’ time window to write. I am an early morning person. For years I have known that just after getting up, my brain is most creative and productive. So getting up early was not a challenge. I aimed for the time window between 3 am and 5:30 am. To make sure that I get adequate sleep, I started going to bed at 8 pm. My partner supported me wholeheartedly in this new routine even though it cut down our time together each evening quite significantly.
I thought I should start my day with meditation and exercise to give me a great start to the day. I’ve probably read too many self-help gurus and productivity champions, and also been influenced by them a bit too easily. So I began my day on a meditation mat, sitting crossed legged, only to find out that in no time, I was drifting off to sleep. That was not going to help. Then I started the day with yoga, which was great, but was still not ideal. After weeks of trial and error, I finally found my routine.
Here is what it looks like:
My morning ritual
I get up, walk into my home office, start the computer, and start writing. I know what I am going to write every morning because I chose the topic the previous evening. My brain is well rested, and has had no other inputs so far from emails, social media, etc.
Previously, my day began with checking my phone before anything else. Now, my brain goes straight from sleeping mode into wakeful writing mode. While writing, I do not have my email programme open. This approach works best for me. I am able to concentrate on my writing, and it is still too early for my brain to start telling me incessantly how I am not good at writing.
In my experience, my self-doubt and self-criticism increase exponentially throughout the day, and I eventually spiral down in despair, which is a terrible way to end my day. So I catch my brain rested and awake enough to get writing done, but not awake enough to spin all the negative self-talk.
How I benefit from my ritual
At 5:30 am I go for a 30-minute walk. Thus, my writing period has a clear beginning and a clear end. By 6 am each morning, I have already accomplished two main tasks for my day while the world is still waking up. It gives me the perfect start for the rest of the day. It energizes and inspires me because of this sense of having accomplished a small success.
Since I start my day early, I also end work early. I have noticed some changes in my feelings about writing. I still have not started liking it, but I have noticed several moments when I was in a writing ‘flow’. I never thought that would be possible. I do not avoid writing anymore. I do a little bit of writing every day, and I see how over time it shapes my work for better.
The biggest benefit I have observed is that since I started this routine, I haven’t gone to bed feeling guilty for not having done enough to improve my writing, or not having done the most meaningful and important task of my day. This has made a huge positive difference in my wellbeing. It has dampened to a small degree this self-criticism –‘you are not good enough’.
Has my writing improved? It is too soon to tell. But I am a researcher. I am observing the process and the output systematically, and might be able to report my findings in a year.
Best wishes, Zoe
Zoe has been with us on various courses and online programmes since her time as a PhD candidate. She’s now an established scholar in her field, and has published 20 scientific papers. Zoe is a pseudonym, used because of the very personal content that she shares, and the author’s preference to remain anonymous. We’re grateful for her insights into the process she’s been through, and for sharing her extraordinary writing experience. It is a great example of how important it is to find your personal way of writing, making writing a habit, exercising it, and sticking to it. Keep going, Zoe!
Lessons to be learned:
- Don’t give up until you find your own personal way of writing! Zoe was at the edge of ditching her academic career, but she persisted in finding a way of writing that worked for her. That is an encouraging and motivating message for everyone! You’ve got to keep going!
- Challenge old beliefs. Zoe thought she was simply not good at writing. If you believe you are not good at writing (or anything else for that matter) you’ve got to challenge that belief. Maybe somebody at some point in your life (maybe it was just an odd remark from a teacher in school, or a parent) told you that you’re not good at something. But that does not mean you TRULY are not good at it. Maybe your belief got you stuck and made you hold back. Challenge it and move one!
- Write early in the morning. Zoe’s story has confirmed what many scientists point out about writing: That it’s best to do it early in the morning. The brain is rested, you are more motivated, and it has a huge transformative effect on the rest of the day! You will feel better! And no, it does not have to be 3 am. Decide for yourself – and give it a try!
About this series:
The idea for the How-we-write series arose from the many individual stories and anecdotes that we’ve heard over the last decade from the students in our programmes. We always found their stories amazing, and now we’ve encouraged some of them to write about their personal experiences and share them in our community. We think there’s a lot to learn from them.
If you have a specific way you write, or any extraordinary experience to share about writing (whether it be rejections or a flat-out acceptance), and have some lessons for others to learn, please be in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us your story. We’d love to hear from you!
- Blog post #88: How the COVID19 lockdown changed my way of writing (How-to-write series #2)
- Blog post #63: Train your writing muscle: Achieve better results
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