Tips to stop avoiding your academic writing

Malini DevadasWriting

Tips to stop avoiding your academic writing

You know you need to be publishing your research and yet you seem unable to get started or make time to work on your papers. Working as an academic writing coach, I see various reasons for my clients not getting their writing done. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m too busy’ and avoiding your academic writing.

But let’s look at some deep-seated reasons for putting things off:

  • Fear of failure — If you have a fear of failure you may say things to yourself such as, ‘What if I put in all this time and effort and the paper is rejected by the journal? What will my boss, colleagues and students think of me?’ By focusing on the worst-case scenario, you are protecting yourself from future pain by not writing the paper in the first place.
  • Fear of success — People find it odd to think that anyone would have a fear of success, but believe me, it exists! You may worry about things like, ‘What if other researchers disagree with my findings and try to discredit me? What I publish more and get a promotion but then can’t keep up with the additional workload?’
  • Fear that it’s not perfect — This is a common one, particularly when it comes to writing (any type of writing). First, I would say that there is no such thing as perfect writing. Give one sentence to 10 people and they will probably all make different changes to it, even if there was nothing technically wrong with the sentence! Writing is subjective. Second, typos get past the best of us (including professional editors) — we are human after all. So, if you find yourself avoiding finishing your paper by fiddling with each sentence ad nauseum, be brave and submit the thing. Or at least, send it to a colleague for another opinion.

Write down the answers to the following questions:

  • If I don’t do it, what the worst thing that could happen?
  • If I do it, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • If I don’t do it, what’s the best thing that could happen?
  • If I do it, what’s the best thing that could happen?

An example is shown here:

Worst thing Best thing
Write the paper It gets rejected by the journal It gets published and helps others working in the field
Don’t write the paper It doesn’t get published and my time collecting the data was wasted I avoid the risk of my paper being rejected

Of course, this is just an example that I made up (since I’m no longer an academic) — your answers may well be quite different. But let’s work through this example. According to my answers, the best thing that can happen by me not writing the paper is that I’m protected from the possibility of my paper being rejected. Not much of a win, but we are all pretty good at protecting ourselves, which is why this instinct can be quite strong. The worst thing that can happen is that the data never sees the light of day and I miss out on having another publication, as well as time wasted by doing the work but not publishing it. The question I need to ask myself is whether I’m happy with this outcome. 

By writing the paper, the best thing is that it gets published and I contribute to the field, which of course is something that I really want. The worst outcome is that the paper is rejected. Knowing that rejection rates are significant can help me prepare and mitigate the feelings of failure that may arise if my paper is rejected. But is that rejection guaranteed? No. And even if is rejected, I can possibly improve my paper by taking on the reviewers’ comments or I can submit the paper to another journal, so all is not lost. 

The question now becomes, am I willing to give up on this publication (which is what will happen if I don’t write it)? If so, it’s not worth wasting any more energy stressing about it and I should move onto another project! However, if I do see the benefits of publishing then I need to press on.

This may seem like a simple exercise, but many of us avoid the emotional aspects of our work — I certainly do. By writing down all our fears (of rejection, of success, of something not being perfect) we can analyse them and decide if they are founded. If not, we can discard them and choose to think differently. Rather than assuming that our paper will be rejected, we can be realistic and think that we have a 50:50 chance of success if we try, but a 0% change if we don’t write it in the first place. 

So, if you’ve been avoiding your academic writing, think about why that might be and how much you really want that publication. Hopefully, this will give you the motivation you need to get it done.