Not letting go of the text


A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I had any advice for someone who struggled to let go of their writing – they wrote but then it was really difficult to send the writing off to their supervisor. And clearly, this was an issue. Sending the stuff off is part and parcel of doing the doctorate, and part and parcel of any subsequent scholarly work too.

So I’ve been mulling over this not-wanting-to-part-with-the-words feeling.

And I must confess, letting go of a text wasn’t an issue I had thought about much. So I did what I always do when in doubt, I googled to see what might already be out there.

Well, there was nothing particularly appropriate. A lot of stuff about giving up on relationships. But I wondered whether this angle had anything to offer.

The giving up on relationships advice largely seemed to focus on sorting yourself out: checking that your expectations are realistic, understanding that you can’t control other people, avoiding getting fixated on particular outcomes, being open to change, not being afraid of negative emotions, doing what works for you and so on… Well, all very well, and I am sure that some of this is very good advice.

And I am sure that letting go of the words could be to do with negative emotions like fear, and worry about being scrutinised. But you know, I’m a social scientist and I know that emotions and behaviours are formed over time, and they are generally also relational and structural. Feelings come from somewhere and that somewhere often matters a great deal.

Thinking more about the social aspects of academic writing, I began to jot down some alternative lines of thinking about reluctance to part with writing:

In general, writing is high stakes academic work. We are judged on the apparent quality of our writing by examiners, referees and our institutions. So being concerned about how our writing will be seen has a firm and rational basis in the realities of academic life.

And just as important is the nature of supervision. Pedagogical relationships, particularly those in supervision, are evaluative. The job of the PhD supervisor is to offer constructive critique which will help the PhDer achieve their floppy cap and gown. But this relationship can, depending on the person and their individual life experiences, feel a lot less than supportive. For example –

  • If you are used to getting the equivalent of all gold stars then getting the supervisory track changes treatment can feel a lot more like never being good enough.
  • If you are used to being critiqued, then it’s just more of the same and maybe you just wish it might be different.
  • If you haven’t experienced this kind of evaluative pedagogical practice before, or for a long time, then it might feel like an unwanted belittling of what you know and who you are.
  • Or maybe you just want the text to be so perfect nothing can be said about it – and that really isn’t going to be the case, ever.

And of course, supervisors can be more or less skilful, and more or less patient, in what they do.

All those possibilities suggest an open conversation, between PhDer and supervisor, about the best way to deal with critique. This might be needed sooner rather than later in the supervision relationship – and certainly if things are going wrong. But conversation is often easier said and done because of the power relationship embedded in supervision. However, discussing the issue of not wanting to let the writing go might be easier than discussing critique per se. And worst might come to worst – it may be that it’s just not possible to change interaction patterns and you have to find ways – preferably in the company of other PhDers – to deal with the process of critique.

But maybe there is something else going on – some other combination of history and relational-structural issues that I can’t quite imagine in the not wanting to send off the writing feeling.

And it does seem that whatever I imagine might be going on ultimately still needs the reluctant text writer to do something themselves. Ultimately it appears that the PhDer who hangs on to the text has to decide to do something. (Yes, all very 12 steppish!)

So what might there be other than just sucking it up?

Well, I do wonder if finding a writing partner mightn’t be a useful thing to do. Get someone you trust to read through what you have to send off, before you decide to step away from the send button. Or perhaps you could set up some kind of reward system for yourself when you send off the text when you don’t want to.

But I confess, I really don’t have a lot of advice that is helpful for this problem. So, in the classic social media move, I now want to say – maybe some of you reading this post, might have things to add. If you have experienced not-wanting-to-send-off-the-writing, what worked for you? What did you do – or do you do- in order to deal with this problem?