I’ve recently had the honor of coaching a few graduate students who were struggling with writing their dissertations. They were smart, accomplished students in competitive schools who were completely stalled with major cases of writers block – which I know from personal experience has its origins in fear. In my case, I recognized that procrastination that is my typical way of expressing writer’s block and I overcome it by simply putting words on the page. Beginning the writing process always opens my mind to allow the ideas, and words, to flow.
Writing is a craft, a process, a skill anyone can learn
My confidence writing stems from knowing that writing is a craft that anyone can learn. Like other crafts—sewing or cooking, or bricklaying— writing has a process, or steps, to get the writer from here to there. It starts with an idea, moves into research, continues with placing word after word into a first draft, and finishes with a ruthless edit for meaning, structure, and form. Some people make art with it (just as there are great fashion designers, chefs, and architects) but for most of us writing is a means to an end.
Writing is a necessary skill for any job, for keeping in touch with loved ones, and for expressing important ideas, but for the graduate student writing can be akin to torture. One young grad student told me that nearly a half-dozen of her contemporaries quit their PhD programs in this quarter alone because they were so stymied by writing their dissertations. That is a real tragedy. Quitting denies the community of these student’s talents and potential, and it will only deepen the student’s writer’s block.
Time heals all wounds—and fixes bad writing
Good writing takes more work, more practice, and more time than most people recognize. With the grueling nature of graduate school, students juggling multiple demands often leave writing papers to the last minute. When the rushed result is graded poorly, it creates a self-reinforcing closed loop of writing failures.
In reality, good writing is surprisingly simple; it just takes more time than most people are willing to give it. No first draft of any writing is ever good enough to share. Real writing happens in the editing of first, second, or even third drafts. I guarantee that the most famous and talented writers not only self-edit but then have an editor polish their work into the brilliance of art.
People with a talent and passion for writing who are able to elevate it to art form deserve our admiration, just as any other person who is gifted in his or her field. But the rest of us can learn the craft without fear or intimidation from the art. It just takes practice.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
Good writing is like learning to ride a bike; once you struggle through the crashes and learn how to do it, you never forget it. And it is a skill that will serve graduate students well throughout their careers.
So learn the process, feel the fear, and then write anyway. If you’re willing to give yourself enough time to successfully write those papers, you will destroy the negative feedback loop and find the joy that good writing has to offer.