I was talking with a client about writing and motivation recently. We started with “It’s really hard to write with a gun to your head.” which strikes me as a pretty widespread problem. Whether that metaphorical gun is the REF, the tenure process, or something else, external pressure often triggers resistance. At the very least it takes the joy out of the process. Drudgery is not inspiring.
As we talked it became clear that pressure wasn’t the primary problem. Confidence was. I’ve said before that your confidence cannot depend on external validation. But I hadn’t really thought too hard about how you generate confidence internally.
Here’s the advice I gave my client. The context of this advice is pressure to produce things for the REF which is still 3 years out. This is not going to work for you if you are reading it within a year of the REF deadline or if you are going up for tenure or promotion in the next year. But if you have 3 years, take a deep breath and read on.
Appeasing the institution
First, if you need to provide a plan for meeting the requirements about 3 years down the line, the specifics of that plan can change. Think of it as providing confirmation that you are indeed pregnant. You have some evidence (a test result; and ultrasound image) but a lot of development is going to happen before there is an actual baby.
What that looks like in research/writing terms is probably a general statement about your topic and 3 sample article titles. One of those might be in the writing a conference paper stage. Don’t stress about those titles. They are placeholders. Trust that you will write and publish something even if it isn’t exactly what you planned. At this stage it is more important that you are doing research and writing that will lead to publication.
In order to produce those outputs, you need to have a writing practice that includes all the tasks that take something from idea to submittable article. That’s a lot of work. The things that are most likely to keep you moving forward are intellectual engagement and joy.
Reigniting the sparks of intellectual engagement & joy
During the summer, you are able to devote more time to writing and related activities and really immerse yourself in your projects. If you have lost the intellectual spark that got you into this program of research, summer is a good time to focus on getting it back. My client was discouraged. She didn’t feel the sparks of intellectual excitement or joy when she looked at the list of things she was saying she would produce to appease the external pressure.
Go back to the first stage of the Scholarly Writing Process and allow yourself to explore your curiosity about this topic. Don’t worry about where it will lead. Follow the threads. Go off on tangents. Read things that seem interesting even if you don’t know whether or how they will contribute to your project. Write about the things you think no one else will care about; the ones your gremlins tell you are “crazy”. Generate lots of words. Outlines. Mind maps. Diagrams. Freewrites.
Give yourself a time limit for this kind of work. Make it long enough to really get over your resistance and dive into the bits that excite you and bring you joy. A month or 6 weeks would be ideal. If you are at the beginning of a sabbatical give yourself a couple of months or the whole summer.
Yes, you are being self-indulgent. Your primary motivation here is to explore your own intellectual curiosity. Notice what brings you joy and makes you want to go further. Notice what makes you curious and explore. That joy will not always come from the easy things. Sometimes it will come from really tricky conceptual problems or intellectual struggles. Trust that you are excited by and enjoy doing hard intellectual work.
Turning that exploration into plans
In addition to reigniting your intellectual enthusiasm for your research and writing work (which I hope is connected to your teaching and supervision work), this process will generate a lot of ideas. They will not just be vague ideas. You will have grappled with them a bit and have a good sense of where they might lead. You will have notes to yourself about how they connect to other things you’ve written or read. You may have outlines for articles or a book. You may have ideas that require further research for which you might need to write a funding proposal.
After your 6 weeks (or whatever period you gave yourself), take a week to look through all of that and list possible outputs — articles, books, collaborative projects, further research, etc. Make notes about which audiences would benefit from each one. Identify possible journals, presses, collaborators, funders. (Use the questions in The Scholarly Writing Process to help here.)
Then prioritize those specific writing projects and list your next steps. You might want to write a funding application for one, and then start writing another while you wait to hear. Or write a conference paper that will enable you to test the ideas and begin conversations with potential collaborators. Whatever it is, you will now have a list that you want to work on. You will be motivated to get through the parts that are drudgery by your excitement for what that drudgery enables.
Your plans will be better plans
The fact is the REF, tenure, or whatever other external pressure you are facing isn’t just concerned with numbers. Your work will be judged for the significance of the contribution to knowledge. If you can’t get intellectually excited about what you are working on, it is unlikely to be making a very significant contribution. It may make a contribution. And that contribution may be important in a small, moving knowledge forward one step at a time, kind of a way. Furthermore, tenure & promotion decisions also care about a trajectory of research. This process will help you develop a programme of research that will have multiple outputs, and grow and develop over time. That slow plodding kind of contribution feels a lot safer. So does responding to requests to contribute to other people’s edited books, special issues, and research projects.
When your gremlins (or real live flesh and blood colleagues) worry that your self-indulgent explorations are a waste of time, remind yourself that they are the necessary foundation of really significant contributions and innovative work. Then establish a writing practice that ensures you keep doing the work to move them forward. And report on your new, improved, plans next year, with evidence that these plans are moving forward.
Join the Academic Writing Studio for support and resources to establish and maintain a writing practice.