Why can’t I write? Understanding factors underlying difficulty with writing

By Jennifer Boyle, Writing Adviser for Postgraduate Researchers at the University of Glasgow

Fingers on a keyboard

As writing adviser, I work with postgraduate researchers from across all Colleges and disciplines, from a variety of different backgrounds, and who might be at any stage in their studies. In workshops and in 1:1 appointments, one thing that is constant across all of these different researchers is how rarely any issues with writing are to do with writing alone, or with one aspect of writing alone. There might be occasional researchers who, for example, are having difficulties with one particular aspect of language – tense, for example, or correct use of prepositions – but more often that not, someone who says that they are finding it hard to write is likely to have various factors underlying this difficulty.

Time-management, for example.  A researcher who has taken on a number of extra responsibilities: editing a journal, organising a conference, might find it hard to fit writing into their list of commitments.  A researcher might have caring responsibilities, or they might have taken on part-time work alongside their research.  A part-time researcher might find it difficult to shift between roles.  There might be a larger issues at play in terms of project management, where the researcher is finding it difficult to break tasks down and prioritise them appropriately. 

Work environments can also play a role.  Someone working in an office alone in a small department might have space and quiet in which to work, but might also feel isolated, without other researchers to talk to and to help them contextualise and normalise their own writing experience. This was especially evident during the pandemic, with researchers working at home.  For other researchers, writing at home might offer different challenges: competing demands on attention and other priorities which are immediately more pressing, or simply not have a suitable set-up that enables them to write comfortably for any length of time. Those without office space on campus or at home might be working in shared environment over which they have little control: the library, or a café.

Online environments can also be problematic. Emails and notifications drain concentration and make constant requests or demands on researchers’ time and effort.  Social media presents a formidable challenge, designed to divert attention.  Twitter can be a supportive and inspirational space, but it can also be toxic and draining. 

There might also be deeper issues at play.  Self-beliefs carried over from previous experiences can play a significant role.  Someone who believes that they’re not a good writer is unlikely to enjoy writing, and even less likely to be keen to sit down every day and take time to write.  Negative feedback on previous work might have dented confidence, and ill-designed feedback might have given them no real sense of how to address issues.  ‘You need to work on your writing’ doesn’t give any researcher a clear idea of how to actually start to improve their writing, and simply presents them with another hurdle. 

Other related issues along these lines include perfectionism and procrastination, two topics that are frequently raised in workshops and 1:1 meetings, as well as in more general online discussion. 

Procrastination is a particular source of stress for many researchers as well as a particularly complex issue that can have different causes and forms in different people. For example, if someone lacks confidence in their ability to tackle a task, then they’re likely to continually put it off, fearing confirmation of their lack of ability when they begin the task and encounter difficulties. Harsh feedback on previous drafts might make someone procrastinate over both writing a draft and then making an appointment to get feedback.  Some people may have procrastinated more generally over assignments in the past yet still have attained good grades, leading them to believe that they need the stress of procrastination to produce good work. Online habits might feed procrastination. Procrastination can also sometimes be a more general pattern of behaviour for some people, with academic writing only one of many places that it manifests. 

Perfectionism can often appear too.  Some researchers can set enormously high and demanding standards for themselves which can be virtually impossible to meet, and/or bind their entire sense of self-worth to their progress and to the feedback they receive, so that any failure to live up to their standards or the imagined standards of others generates enormous stress and threatens their whole identity as a researcher. 

There’s also unspoken expectations and assumptions.  For example, someone undertaking a project in a new or adjacent subject might already have an understanding of what criticality means for them, or what good tone and structure look like, but supervisors in their new subject area might have quite different ideas on what makes a well-structured piece of writing, or the correct tone to take, or how literature ought to be critically evaluated.  This can obviously lead to very different expectations of how drafts should look, which can lead to stress if these assumptions aren’t examined. 

Writing, then, is a complex issue in itself.  For both supervisors and researchers, it’s of enormous benefit to sit down and talk over the topic at the outset of the project and to check in at specific milestones, reflecting not only on progress, but also on the various complex issues that we have seen can influence it.  A discussion of expectations, assumptions, beliefs and current habits allows everyone involved to create a individualised practice based on shared understanding and expectations which can be reflected on and adjusted throughout as needed. 

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