3 reasons I hate writing sometimes (but do it anyway)

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There are times I hate writing with the heat of 1000 flaming suns, as my sister would say.

Take this week as an example. I have been editing a 105 page report filled with statistics. It’s the kind of writing job that makes me want to stab my eye out with a pen…

Before I start

Once I get into it however, I find it strangely satisfying. My report writing hell has made me reflect on the psychology of hating writing – and getting over it. I realised I have a number of ‘tricks’ I use to make me write.

Even when I hate it.

Here’s my top three reasons I hate writing and the tricks I have learned which help – do you have more? Love to hear about them in the comments.

1) Writing is hard work and I don’t like hard work.

In an earlier post I pointed out that one of the reasons that being a researcher is so difficult is that it doesn’t really look like work. To anyone watching me write this, I seem to be just staring at my screen, further developing my collection of frown lines. Inside I feel the churning mass of ideas crowding at the edge of my fingers, wanting to get out.

I’m an experienced writer now – I know that once I hit a ‘flow’state I will be fine, but I avoid it like mad. Writing is a bit like exercise: you know there may be a certain amount of pleasure in the activity once you get going, but there will also be pain and discomfort. If you are a fundamentally lazy person, like me, any deferment activity will do: email, Twitter, cleaning the toilet… well, I’m sure you can relate.

Routine helps of course, but the role of emotion is often overlooked. Desire, curiosity, interest, jealousy, anger and excitement: they make me want to write. From all I have read on the psychology of writing I know that many of you will be the same.

How can you use this insight?

Research on thesis examiners shows that one of the reasons they agree to examine in the first place is ‘interest’. Examiners want to learn about new developments or what is happening in an adjacent field. If you think about it for a moment, this means that you are giving a gift to the examiner. I love giving gifts! When I get excited about giving the gift of writing I will do it.

Even when I hate it.

2) Other people have so much to say

Have you gone onto those online databases lately? Oh my Lord! The amount of stuff you could read is infinite. Well – nearly. Many now have “‘if you like this you may like…” recommendation engines, which only makes the problem of obsessively collecting articles but not actually reading them worse.

Recently I did a back of the envelope calculation of the number of articles written each year, based on the latest estimate of the number of academic journals in the world. Assuming each of those only has 2 issues a year with 4 articles in it (and many publish much more than this), I get a total of around 362,400 papers.

Even a tiny field like mine – research education – can have a LOT of literature. When we had a new staff member arrive last year it took her weeks, reading full time, to get her head around the major themes. And that doesn’t count all the adjacent fields such as adult learning, peer to peer learning, informal learning, academic writing support, to name but a few, which are relevant to our work as research education scholars.

It takes a long time to accept that there is no way you are going to be able to read it all. Then you have the next problem: what do you have to say that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes it can feel like you are drowning in a sea of squabbling voices; other times you can get so caught up in the ideas of another person that it’s hard to feel like you have any of your own.

This is a difficult problem and one which I don’t think really has a cure. The only thing I’ve found that works is to close your eyes (so to speak) and just start writing. You will find that you have ideas and opinions inside you somewhere. That’s why I force myself to stand at the end of the writing high diving board and just jump off.

Even when I hate it.

3) Writing can be boring.

There were about 30,000 words of my thesis which were excruciating for me to write because, not to put too fine a point on it, they were dull. These words were describing data I had collected and providing basic interpretations; the guts of the thesis really, but to me it felt like eating dry toast. There was a lot of unpleasant and unproductive chewing. Knowing whole days were going to be swallowed up by this was depressing. It got to the point where I would do anything – ANYTHING – to avoid it.

How do you get around this problem? Well, watching Mr Thesis Whisperer, who is a big World of Warcraft fan, helped. A lot of WOW involves doing mundane ‘errands’ in order to build your character’s powers and talents. It’s boring and repetitious but you have to do it to get the ‘pay off’ of battling and beating the Bosses when you go off on Raids (sometimes I worry how much of my brain is taken up with WOW knowledge. And I don’t even play. Mr Thesis Whisperer calls this ‘grinding’ – which is a perfect way to describe the ‘dry toast’ section of my thesis.

Mr Thesis Whisperer doesn’t love grinding, but he sticks at it for amazingly long periods of time because he knows there will be a pay off. Finishing is probably too abstract a pay off to help you through your thesis, although it may work if you are close to the end. It’s better, I reckon, to think about more immediate ways you can get a pay off.

I used to work on my writing in the mornings and have the afternoon off before heading back into more writing in the evening. That afternoon off was filled with stuff I wanted to do: coffee with friends, a visit to the art gallery, shopping for new shoes – you get the idea. I made a deal with myself that the afternoon off was only allowed if I did my grinding in the morning. Giving myself a reward which is immediate and tangible makes me write.

Even when I hate it.

So I’m wondering: why do you sometimes hate writing? What do you do to get over it?

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