Academic writing is a challenging, and fascinating process. You ask questions, become entrenched in literature, have deep fascinating conversations with brilliant people, and if conducting research, pledge to follow where the data leads. It is rewarding and can be enjoyable, but it can also become too comfortable.
When I began the 2017 spring semester, I had spent 3+ years writing in APA for “hard” science classes. From physics essays to research papers on the wind and solar policies in Oklahoma, I did not refer to myself when discussing findings and I wrote in an impersonal and “objective” manner like a good little scientist should. If someone contradicted my findings or observations, well, I had data! I had citations for heavens sake. I was, at the moment of conversation, well shielded and well armed for these infrequent debates.
In an abrupt about-face, I switched gears on my senior capstone from developing a sustainability metric to something more personal. I would do qualitative research and conduct focus groups. I had no experience with either of these fields of research. With the support of wonderful and patient professors, I began to reformulate my approach to academic writing and began to see just how subjective all research, even my much loved scientific-mathy-statistics and measured papers can be. That subjectivity is directly addressed in qualitative research, but prior to my exposure to this field of study, I had been completely insulated to the idea that someone could call into question the findings of a statistician or a biologist. “Objectivity is bull-shit” and Qualitative research IS research became my new mantras as I engaged in spaces where our traditional pantheons of logic prevailed. I found presenting the notion that all science may not be created equal, and it may be time to address the production of knowledge with a more critical, and realistic perspective was downright sacrilegious to some “true” scientists.
And yet, even with this new (to me) discovery of the qualitative voice, support, citation, and proof is needed (of course) in academic writing. What I did not realize, is that with each paper I wrote, my desire to defend my position grew, and my ability to rest on my own opinions, my own intuition, slowly diminished. Instead of finding strength and confidence in my abilities, I found myself terrified to engage in conversations or present opinions where I could be discredited. I had lost my capacity for vulnerability in academia.
Vulnerability – or the ability to make one’s self-vulnerable- may need to be viewed as any other ability. Skiing is a skill, that requires practice and a personal investment into your craft. Perhaps the same logic should be applied to the practice of vulnerability. At its root lies fear. Fear of judgment or being seen as ignorant being the two most dominant concerns for me personally. Once I came to this realization, I could not look back. Instead, I began a process to actively cultivate a greater vulnerability, and hopefully confidence in my writing, both academic and personal.
Get out of your head
It is insanely difficult to get out of your own way when creating. Because I enjoy writing, I had not realized how edited my words had become, even in my own journals. I feared judgment or had reservations on expressing certain views. I adopted a practice known as “Free writing” as a pre-writing exercise. The process is quite simply to write for a specific amount of time, usually around 10 minutes, but do not edit, check spelling or even really think about what you are saying. Even if you have nothing to say, and write “I have nothing to say” for 10 minutes you can count it as successful. Free Writing is more about developing a practice than actually producing something astounding every day. When a routine has been established, the idea is for your words and thoughts to become easier to access in your academic writing. While I have only been working on this for a few weeks, I have found the self-editor in my mind has become a bit quieter, providing me a greater opportunity to get the words out, and then go back with a careful hand for editing.
Clear up your writing space
When you sit down to write, choose to do so in a distraction free(er) typing application like Omwriter or even in humble word. In Word on a Mac, you can choose the “focus” setting by going through View > Focus. This mode provides a simple and clean – relatively distraction free writing environment for you to get lost in. I have also heard that setting your phone to airplane mode for a designated amount of time daily may help in reducing distraction while writing. Ultimately my best advice would be to try a few different applications, and see what works for you.
When in doubt, get out
It may be the tritest or over advised bit of help, but honestly – a walk can do wonders. Geniuses and writers from Einstein to Dickens had integrated a daily, meditative walk into their routine. My family in Quebec, and in particular my maternal grandmother, would always have a walk in the early morning, or often after supper. These walks were times to talk, be plugged into to our urban or suburban natural environment, and to think. I have been trying to integrate the practice into one or two moments daily, but any time you feel stuck, or frustrated is a good time to step outside- without your phone- and let your mind wander.
Academic writing at its core will be questioned, criticized and critiqued- as peer review is a tenant of the scientific method. While learning to be well versed in the process of research, and how to take criticism of work well are foundational skills developed over a career, we must not forget how to write without armor. Cultivating vulnerability in ourselves and in our writing will hopefully produce a more honest representation of one’s self and a greater feeling of confidence in our work.