August 29, 2007

The costs of writer fatigue

As is often the case, after having a session with a client, I find a perfect quote for the discussion we were having. This client noticed that he became more and more down on himself as he pushed himself to write for 1 1/2, 2, and then 3 hours. Of course, this is contrary to what I advise, which is to write in 30-45 minute segments, with restful breaks in between.

My favorite writer on this, as on many things writing, is Robert Boice. In How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure, he writes about fatigue:

...Fatigue makes writing, now and later, less desirable; it can trigger impatience as productivity lags and as the tempation grows to pick up the pace; it can bring anxiety and its pernicious narrowing; and it heightens susceptibility to irrationality.


...Our attention wanders and we fight back, much like a sleepy driver trying to stay awake and on the road. Next, commonly, we come to sudden doubts about what we are doing; we begin to question the purpose and worth of the writing.(1) Then with equal impulsivity, dysphoria takes hold and with it intrusive thoughts and an inability to suppress them.(2) With that comes a reinstatement of mindlessness in moving to quick, relieving solutions such as putting off writing until a "more propitious time." What happens at worst? Writers settle into the interiorization of self-focus and into reclusion. (p. 225)

(1) Daly J.A. (1985). Writing apprehension". In M. Rose (ed.), When a writer can't write, pp. 43-82. New York: Guilford.

(2) Conway M., Howell A. & Gainnopoulos C. (1991). "Dysphoria and thought suppression". Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15, 153-156.

August 24, 2007

How not to get your stuff done

This reminds me of my typical day. Very cute video on YouTube.

A good reminder for teachers

I've read this before, but thanks to Patricia Crane
and Rick Nichols for a reminder.


Don't bother getting a pen and paper... just read...
if you can't spontaneously answer the question,
just keep going.

1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.

2. Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.

3. Name the last five winners of the Miss America

4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer

5. Name the last five Academy Award winners for Best
Actor and Actress.

How did you do?

The point is, none of us remembers the headliners of
yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers, they're
the best in their fields. But applause dies, awards
tarnish, and achievements are forgotten as the accolades
and certificates are buried with their owners.

Now here's another quiz. See how you do on this one:

1. Name three teachers who aided your journey through

2. Name three friends who helped you through a
difficult time.

3. Name five people who have taught you something
worth while.

4. Think of a few people who have made you feel
appreciated and special.

5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time

Easier? The lesson?

The people who make a difference in your life
aren't the ones with the most credentials, the
most money, or the most awards. They're the ones
who care.

Author Unknown

August 18, 2007

Writing - a "bone-crushing, nausea-inducing festival of self-loathing"

I love this description of the writing process by Tom Shroder, Editor of the Washington Post Magazine:

I'm sure there are writers who don't find writing to be a bone-crushing, nausea-inducing festival of self-loathing. I just don't happen to be one of them. Faced with a blank screen and a deadline for even the shortest, simplest piece, I am seized with the overwhelming desire to clean out my garage. Or do anything other than writing (up to and including root canal).

The problem seems to be standards. I have some. And I'm terrified I can't live up to them. I've found that to make myself write anything at all, I have to begin by lowering my sights, and simply try to write something bad. Don't even write, I tell myself, just type.

He goes on to introduce a piece on Ralph Ellison, who never finished his second book.

As his page count rose, so, too, did his standards. No matter who told him his work was brilliant, it was never brilliant enough for Ellison.

Actually, I like Tom Shroder's weekly "Editor's Notes". But I'm sure no matter how many times I told him they were brilliant, he'll still be cleaning his garage as the deadline approaches.


August 9, 2007

I love Text Block Writer!

I don't know what I'd do without Text Block Writer, a fantastic piece of free software that I downloaded at Software by Brian. A writing club member recommended it in a message board thread about "advanced writing techniques" six months ago (thank you, whoever you are!) and I've been using it ever since.

This picture doesn't begin to do it justice. It is a "virtual index card" system that allows you to arrange and rearrange paragraphs, sections, or chapter headings, in order to get a handle on the overall organization or logic of your argument, chapter, article or book. I don't even use it to the extent that Brian suggests on the site (he's even written a book about how to use it to write a book, which I haven't read.) His recommendation is that you can write the whole thing in the little blocks, then export it all to Word or another program.

You can decide how many columns you want, you can minimize the little blocks until they are just titles, or small blocks, or enlarge them to bigger squares, and then you can move the blocks around. There is also a super-block for headings, and a space for notes and storing unused blocks.

I'm writing a book, tentatively called Do You Deserve a Ph.D.?, which is aimed at graduate students, and explores the psychological blocks that stop them from succeeding. I find that the organization of the book is one of the most difficult areas for me, and Text Block Writer has really helped me get a handle on that. A big thanks to Brian!

So dissertation writers, book writers or any other writers, if you are stuck, confused, or overwhelmed by what you've written so far, download this baby and start labeling your paragraphs and sections. It's amazing what moving some text around can do for the logic of your argument.

Grad Skool Rulz

I've just discovered a great blog: The whole "academia" category makes for interesting reading. But graduate students will particularly like the "Grad Skool Rulz" by Fabio Rojas. There are 13 so far, with such topics as "writing your [bleep] dissertation " (he used characters in the title that won't allow me to hyperlink; hence the "bleep") and "learn the unspoken rules," these "Rulz" offer insights that you don't usually read in the official university manuals. So far the Rulz haven't been given their own category, so your best bet to locate them all is to go to the blog and search "Grad Skool Rulz #." This will give you just the Rulz posts and not mentions of them.

August 2, 2007

Academic success is a muscle

I've just read "Leadership is a Muscle," an article by Chip and Dan Heath in the July 2007 issue of Fast Company Magazine. They review a book by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, who has just published a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

The findings of her research are fascinating to me. Her research with children has shown that if you train them to think of intelligence as something that can be built up with practice, they will perform better on tests in areas such as mathematics.

If the same can be said of academics, then this would put the lie to the "either ya' got it or ya' don't" attitude that many have ascribed to in the past. In other words, if each professor or grad student could tackle her work with the idea that she will continue to get better and better at it each day, it will help with the constant feeling of failure that so many people struggle with. Sure the writing you did today may suck, but it will be that much better tomorrow for having tried.

Few of us go to the gym, try to lift 100 pounds, find it too difficult, then say, "I'm not cut out for the gym." Even the most self-critical perfectionists would start with lower weights, build up slowly, and expect some days to be harder than the next. Yet it is so difficult to have the same attitude with anything that has to do with one's intelligence.

In a professor coaching group yesterday, we discussed the idea of seeing oneself as a brave explorer who was courageous, who faced dangers every day. One prof brought up the fact that it was rarely discussed in academia that you get better and better at what you do. Privately, people looked at something that they wrote in the past and feel chagrined. Instead, the message should be, "Take heart! Your writing will improve! Keep flexing that muscle!"

As the Heaths point out, don't look at today's performance as an exact sample of your intelligence level. Think of your scholarly ability as something that will grow and change, and the very fact that you can see it that way will enhance your academic success.