Today’s guest blogger Joli Jensen is the Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication and directs the Henneke Center Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa. She shares insights based on 30 years of helping colleagues and students complete writing projects. She acknowledges that her suggestions are “also based on my own finely honed ability to find all kinds of ways to delay my own writing.”
Writing Myths We Stall By
By Joli Jensen
Writing resistance arises from myths – unconscious, self-perpetuating assumptions about who we are and what our writing should be. Left unrecognized and unaddressed, these myths deflect us from writing.
It’s vital that we learn to recognize these myths, so I’ve compiled a spotter’s guide to the common varieties.
The Magnum Opus Myth: your work has to be extraordinary, world-changing, the best that has ever been. The truth is your writing just has to be good enough to say something interesting or valuable in a way your readers can appreciate. You make a contribution; you are not solely responsible for astonishing or transforming the world.
The Hostile Reader Fear: reviewers, colleagues, editors and readers are eager to shred your meager but beloved effort into bloody little pieces. Critics exist, but most of your readers simply want to find out what you have to say. To counter this myth, assume you are creating your project for the most supportive, interested and kindhearted friend you can imagine, and go from there.
The Cleared Deck Dream: the belief that if you can get all this Other Stuff out of the way, THEN you’ll have the time you need for the project. This is my personal favorite, but the truth is that there are always loose ends and tons of Other Stuff that needs doing, and this will never change. Our in-boxes are always full, which is why spending ten minutes a day on your project is far more effective than waiting for the deck to magically clear.
The Perfect First Sentence Myth: you can’t move forward until you have the first sentence, first paragraph or first section perfect. Actually, you can start on the easiest and most fun part even if it’s at the middle or the end. You really can’t tell what the best opening will be until you’ve written most of the rest of the project, so start where you are. You might not even need the part that you’re stuck on anyway.
The Imposter Syndrome: someday “they” will realize how inadequate and flawed you really are. The truth is that everyone’s talents and insights are incomplete. Instead of trying to hide your inadequacies behind an impermeable façade of perfect competence, pompous writing, grandiose projects or snide remarks, accept that you’re imperfect like everyone else. The best work comes when we seek to express, not impress.
The Wait Until it Comes Together Myth: all the information, ideas, sources, quotes and content you’re flooded with will magically sort itself into a perfectly proportioned project if you wait long enough. This myth can keep you waiting for years. You don’t have to use everything you’ve gathered, so put whatever feels extra aside—it can be the ember for future projects. Today, focus on your current, lively, central question.
Compared to X, I’m Inadequate Fallacy: your writing process and output doesn’t measure up to a specific person or a nonspecific ideal writer. The only way out of this trap is stop comparing yourself with others. Your writing is yours alone, with its own pace, possibilities and contribution to make. It doesn’t matter if your friends are splitting the atom, winning the Nobel Prize or writing their 10th book. Their progress has nothing to do with yours.
In Joli’s next guest post, she’ll explain how we can bypass these myths by Inviting Your Writing Demons to Tea.
This is a revised version of “Myths We Stall By”, an essay by Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa. Her monthly columns on academic writing productivity appear in VITAE, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. Related VITAE posts cover how hard it is to write productively in academic life and the three specific techniques – the project box, ventilation file and daily brief writing sessions – Joli recommends to “tame” our writing projects. She also provides strategies to secure the elusive but necessary writing time, space and energy we need to do our best work. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.