Demystifying Writing Myths

You don’t need to believe everything that goes through your head.

This also applies when it comes to your ideas about how you should be as an academic writer, how the writing process should look, or how the text you produce should be. You need to look closely, especially at those ideas that block your writing or prevent you from starting to write at all. They’re often connected to your habits and actions. I call these ideas writing myths: hindering and inadequate ideas and stories about writing (I’ve been inspired to use this term by Keith Hjortshoj’s book Understanding Writing Blocks). Without changing your mindset, they will continue to bother you, each time you (try to) write. Maybe you succeed in finishing and submitting, but with a bad feeling about yourself, the process or your text. Every time you get a new writing assignment, you think that you know what will happen: You won’t look forward to writing, but you have to go through this torment time and again. I don’t think it needs to be this way.

The first step to demystifying the writing myths that you believe in, is to simply become aware of them. Try to find out, what kind of myth it is and how it hinders you from or blocks you during writing. Only then, in a second step, will you be able to adapt your ideas and the habits related to them. It might take some time, but take it from a formerly tormented writer, it’s worth the effort.

I would like to give you an idea of what I mean by writing myths. They’re nothing new. Unfortunately, they have haunted academic writers for a long time. It’s time to demystify them and get your writing done.

  1. I can’t write.

Instead of believing this sweeping statement, think again. Would you be allowed to study, if you were unable to write? Of course not. So, what exactly is it that you think you’re bad at? As soon as you don’t believe this story, someone else might have told you in the past, you can start the work. Find out what aspect of (academic) writing you need to look at more closely. The more you write, the more you can work on your shortcomings (I know I have still some, but this doesn’t hinder me from writing).

  1. I need to be inspired.

No, you don’t. With practice in regular writing, you’ll be able to write, even if the Muse takes a holiday for some months. It’s not worth waiting for her. She’s only visiting the writers who stick to a writing schedule anyway. Get that work done and enjoy it when you feel inspired. If not, do the work nevertheless.

  1. I shouldn’t talk about writing.

Researchers love to talk about theories, methods and results. But when it coomes to writing and its challenges, they too often keep silent. Don’t be one of them. Talking about the craft of writing can only help to understand it better. Talk to other students, colleagues or your professor about writing. Or visit your university’s writing center and similar institutions (I hope there is one). Consider it this way: In order for athletes to become better, they consult coaches. Without them, they wouldn’t know what to improve or how to overcome physical and mental obstacles. Use every opportunity to learn from other writers and share your struggles and successes.

  1. I need to read and know everything before I write.

If you think so, you won’t finish your text in the near future – if at all. There’s always something to read and study. Do yourself a favor and start to write as early as possible. Use writing as a tool to think about your topic, question or thesis. Writing can accompany your research and reading phases. (I believed in this myth for about three years of my PhD…).

  1. I should work like the others.

Maybe you think that your colleagues work in a specific way. They seem to be successful, as far as you can tell. If you also believe in myth number three, then this might all be speculation. Instead of following someone else’s way of working – which might well work for this particular writer – and getting nothing else but frustrated, you better find your own way. You need to figure out what works for you – not forever, but for each writing assignment.

  1. I need big blocks of time to write.

If you don’t have big blocks of time, what are you going to do? Are you going to wait indefinitely until you find this block of time? Good luck waiting. You better get going by using the time that you have. With some training and good habits, you can write for half an hour and produce more than just waiting for four-hour blocks that will never show up. If you belong to those lucky (or poor?) researchers, who received a sabbatical, you’ll have a hard time making good use of it. A sabbatical may be hell, if you don’t know how to spend your time – I know what I’m talking about.

  1. My first draft needs to be perfect.

If it were perfect, it wouldn’t be a draft anymore. Perfectionists make their own writing life worse than it needs to be. Take musicians: They practice for weeks or months, making a lot of mistakes. Only when they go on stage and perform for an audience, do they need to get their act together. As a writer, you won’t perform in front of an audience until you submit or publish your text. Before that, you make up your own audience. So relax and allow yourself to write a shitty first draft that you can revise afterwards. That’s when the quality comes in. Oh, and don’t strive for a perfect text, because it probably won’t ever reach perfection.

  1. I can’t use the word „I“.

That’s an old one too. Although many students and researchers still believe this to be true and to have always been, research shows a different picture. While students especially think that the use of „I“ stems from a subjective, hence non-objective, perspective, they don’t know that they could hide a bias, belief or the like with allegedly objective passive phrases. The question is not, whether you should use „I“ or an indirect self-reference (such as the passive or „This study argues…“). The question is, when and how you use them. It all depends on the writing context (requirements, expectations, rules) and the text genre. If you’re able to switch between the different ways of referring to yourself in the text, you can master every assignment. (See also here for another blog post on this.)

  1. I need to write complicated sentences.

In the name of science: please don’t! Do your peers and yourself a favor and stick to simple, but effective language. That doesn’t mean that you have to write for laypersons everytime you write academically. But it means not making things more complicated than they need to be (no jargon, for one). Use technical terms, concepts etc., but don’t overdo it. Stick to good and understandable prose (check out Zinsser’s On Writing Well). Remember: you need to communicate your insights in an understandable way, unless you want to confuse your peers. Of course, there are many (famous) counter-examples. Don’t imitate them.

For more detailed information and many examples from famous researchers, check out my new book Schreibmythen entzaubern (Verlag Barbara Budrich/UTB, 2016) – in German only.


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