Learning to Love the Process: Finding Joy in Academic Writing

By: Maureen A. Flint, University of Alabama

Entering a PhD program, I did not think of myself as a writer, much less intend to become one. Writing, I thought, was just the output of all the interesting research I was going to do, the summary or report of my findings, an incidental product that would surely happen along the way. I had written plenty of papers for classes in my Higher Education master’s program (although, often hastily completed the night before the due date), and assessment reports as a practitioner in Student Affairs (usually a bulleted list reporting responses to program surveys with a brief summarizing paragraph), and I figured that writing about my own research for academic journals would be somewhere in the realm of these experiences. Four years later, as a PhD candidate considering life as an academic, my view of writing has shifted dramatically. Specifically, I have come to think of writing as a creative, joyful, and dynamic process – a practice that is intimately entangled with my inquiry and identity as an academic and researcher. How I moved from viewing writing as a peripheral (and sometimes dreaded process) to an integral part of who I am as a researcher and academic has occurred through small shifts and practices in the way that I write and thinking about writing. Three of these lessons and practices include: (1) Flip the script; (2) Let it go/flow; and (3) write by not-writing. Below, I expand on these ideas more, accompanied by some visual reflections that I’ve compiled along my doctoral journey 

Flip the script 

This was one of the biggest lessons for me as a writer – becoming self-aware of how I thought about writing influenced how I wrote. This became particularly apparent to me when I read Helen Sword’s (2017) book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and her catalog of words that academics use to describe writing. Helen suggests that thinking about writing as a drag, a slog, or a burden (or any other disparaging, heavy, difficult word that you might personally use to describe writing) makes it significantly harder to sit down and write (because who wants to do something that’s a drag?!) These words create psychological and emotional barriers to writing that extend beyond physical or temporal restraints. Since reading Sword’s book, I’ve become more mindful about the ways that I’m describing my writing or time spent writing, not only in my words but in my body language and tone. For example, I’ve tried to orient myself towards the process more affirmatively – and thinking about writing as a creative practice, as a muscle that I’m developing. Thinking about it this way moves beyond thinking about writing as a product towards a practice, something that you need to work at each day to build, strengthen, and grow.

Let it go/flow 

Anne Lamott (1994) urges writers to embrace the “shitty first draft” and this is something that I’ve found immensely useful in my own writing. When I’m feeling stuck or unsure about where to go next, I begin writing in a stream of consciousness, laying down my thoughts without regard for coherence or fancy academic words. There are times when I find it productive to do this on the computer, opening up a blank word document and typing, while other times I open up the notes app on my phone, hit the microphone/transcribe button, and talk it out. Other times I will write out my thoughts longhand in a notebook, scribbling out, underlining, or drawing arrows or diagrams to map my thinking. Prompts I have found helpful include:

  • I’m feeling really stuck about… 
  • I’m seeing a connection between… 
  • What I want to say is…  

Letting it go by embracing the shitty first draft frees you from the structures and strictures of academic writing, from feeling that everything typed on the page has to be perfect, the first time, towards conceptualizing writing as a process.  

Write by not-writing

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, not writing (and allowing yourself the freedom and grace to not-write) can be more generative than chaining yourself to your laptop for hours on end (Sword, 2017). Feeling stuck? Go on a walk, do yoga, make a cup of coffee or tea and sit in your favorite chair with your phone and laptop in another room. Creating mental headspace and giving yourself the freedom to not-write allows you to return to the page with fresh eyes. Another way to write by-not-writing is to be playful with your materials and data. Struggling with an analysis? Make a found poem from your interview transcript, draw a map of the connections between survey factors, make a collage of your findings. These practices make possible new connections and ways of thinking through your writing that you may not have had staring at a cursor blinking on a blank screen.  

I positioned the idea of finding “joy” in academic writing as a becoming, learning to love the process. As I write this blog post, I’m moving my own way through the final sections of my dissertation, a writing project that has its own unique baggage and stereotypes in academia. I’m reminded, in this moment, of the idea of these lessons as practices, orientations that need to be repeated and returned to write affirmatively and with curiosity and creativity. 

Maureen A. Flint is a PhD candidate in Educational Research with a specialization in Qualitative Methodologies at the University of Alabama. With a background in student affairs and student leadership development, she has worked in a variety of capacities in higher education including residential life, student unions, and intercultural engagement. Maureen holds a BFA from Pratt Institute in fashion design, and a MA in higher education administration from the University of Alabama. Her dissertation incorporates artful methodologies to explore how college students navigate the socio-historical context of race on a college campus through a critical materialist framework.

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