Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers
Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers

Writing Papers and Books Means Battling Emotions – Guest Expert Interview with Dr Jane Jones

Writing Papers and Books Means Battling Emotions – Guest Expert Interview with Dr Jane Jones

I talked to my fellow academic writing coach Dr Jane Jones about why the emotions we feel around our writing are a type of labour, what writing really is, and why a 20-minute slot is long enough for a writing session. We also touch on procrastination, fear of rejection, perfectionism and of course, and writing books, which is Jane’s specialty as a coach. 

Pssssst. Are you a science researcher? You can now register for my free scientific writing training.

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Hi, Jane! Who are you and what do you do at Up In Consulting? 

I am a writing coach and have been doing editing and coaching for about six years now. I run a program called ‘Elevate’, which is a book writing program for people who are writing non-fiction manuscripts, so a single subject manuscript as opposed to a textbook. What we do is we take you through how to write a book, how to project manage a book, and also how to get over your insecurities about writing a book. From those three angles, we work with you for six months to develop a really strong foundation for your book. People come in with the idea for their book, or some people come in with a couple of chapters done and they want to finish the book. So, it can really be at any stage of your book writing process.

Sounds awesome! Do you work with researchers in all fields or do you specialise in specific fields?

We’re pretty discipline-agnostic. People come to us from the humanities, social sciences and communications. Theres a variety! I think that there are some principles of book writing that apply – no matter what discipline you’re in. We’ve been able to have people from history, political science, sociology, film, archaeology, and more. It’s really fun to see all of those different disciplines come together and people exchange ideas from their points of view.

So exciting! What I really like about your work is that you also talk about the emotional labour that academics have to do when they’re writing. Can you maybe explain what emotional labour is and why this needs to be addressed in order for us to be productive and happy writers?

Definitely! I’m trained as a sociologist, that’s where I got my PhD. If you let me ‘nerd out’ for a minute, there’s a sociologist named Arlie Hochschild, and she developed the term emotional labour. It’s about managing your emotions on the job, which means that if you’re in a job where you’re facing customers, or clients, and they’re berating you, or being mean to you, and you have to kind of put on a happy face and manage the situation.

Usually, you must manage your emotions in a very consequential way for your job opportunities and your well-being on the job. For academics, we do a lot of emotional labor, too, and we don’t necessarily do it just in the classroom, when we’re in front of people who we are interacting with. We do it in faculty meetings, in our own offices, when we’re feeling a lot of insecurities about our writing, or feeling perfectionist tendencies. We’re constantly managing our feelings or feeling bad about our feelings. For example, ‘Oh, this is late. And I feel guilty, but maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty, or should I feel guilty?’ Then it becomes a whole other conversation. 

The reason this became really important was because so many people I worked with, when I was editing, were handing things in late. You set a deadline for yourself, then you miss it, and then you kind of panic, or you practice avoidance, and then you have a lot of feelings about that. I noticed that a lot of the people that I was working with just felt bad all the time. They were always apologising. And I thought to myself, ‘It’s awful that you feel this awful all the time.’

That’s how thinking through a lot of the emotions surrounding our writing, what we should be doing, and how fast we should be writing, became really interesting to me. Emotional labour is a big part of the struggle, even before people get words on the page, and it prevents people from getting words on the page. That’s why it became a really integral part of my coaching practice.

When I think back to my own academic writing, I didn’t really reflect on what was sometimes ‘in the way’. But when I was struggling, it was 100% emotions. And when I talk to the researchers I work with, it’s often perfectionism, or sometimes it’s resentment towards the work. Sometimes we associate negative feelings with the actual piece of writing we are having to work on. Maybe because we don’t like our collaborators, or because someone has criticised the data or the project has just dragged on for too long. So, we’re constantly not being kind to ourselves and telling ourselves that we are not doing this well, and that it doesn’t feel right. I believe that acknowledging those feelings and dealing with them can be really powerful.

And it’s not necessarily about eliminating all of the bad feelings all the time. It’s not that we have to be positive about our work all the time, but what’s really important is that if I feel bad about my work, that’s okay. But feeling bad about it for a protracted period of time is not helping me feel better, and it’s not helping me move forward in my work. So, what can we do to get to even a more neutral place about our work? 

We’re constantly managing our feelings or feeling bad about our feelings.

Can we become completely positive about our work? Maybe that’s impossible and I hear that from clients right now. They’re like, ‘I’m not that excited about this and I’m not going to be a cheerleader.’ And that’s OK – let’s get to somewhere more neutral than ‘This was awful. I’m an idiot. I can’t believe I wrote this.’ Like you said, it does lead us to really resent our work. 

When you’re attached to a topic for so long, especially as a researcher, you see things through for a long period of time – if you build up that resentment, it’s going to be just like a bad relationship. I don’t want to anthropomorphise our research, but it is a kind of relationship.

It can feel like that, especially for an academic! The work is so personal and often we put so much into it. Even the whole way that academia is set up, for example doing a PhD is quite personal. We tend to take research a bit more personally than in other lines of work, I think.

I think so. I remember when I wrote on my PC, and I thought, ‘This is like being in a bad relationship.’ But I keep coming back, even when I feel awful about it and I’m not deriving any joy from this right now. It’s time-consuming and it keeps me away from my friends. 

I think part of the reason we feel like it’s a relationship is because it’s really about our relationship with ourselves. Because we spend so much time by ourselves when we’re writing – it’s us with our own thoughts. That’s part of the reason why I think group coaching is so powerful, because you’re able to be with other people who are like, ‘I’m going through this too. You’re not the only person who’s ever missed a deadline.’

Even though we know, rationally, that it’s not true that other people don’t miss deadlines. But when you’re sitting alone at your desk, you really do think you’re uniquely incompetent and it’s something that other people don’t have. And that’s just not the case. Your brain is going to play some tricks on you and say stuff like, ‘This is wrong. Don’t send this out, someone’s going to get mad at you.’ Or, ‘If you publish this, someone’s going to criticise you, you have to protect yourself.’ That leads to it just staying on your desk forever, and then you’re mad that it’s on your desk, but you’re scared to send it out.

And then you’re stuck. So, figuring out what to do at that point and saying, ‘Maybe someone will be mad, but I’m still going to send it out. It’s okay. It’s scary, but it’s okay that I’m scared. I’m still going to do it.’

I think part of the reason we feel like writing is like being in a relationship is because it’s really about our relationship with ourselves. Because we spend so much time by ourselves when we’re writing – it’s us with our own thoughts.

Yes, I also find it such a shame that so many people and academics don’t feel joy when they write and that they don’t enjoy the process. I know that it doesn’t have to be that way. 

So, we talked about the different types of emotional labour or emotions that often come up, and one that you mentioned was perfectionism.

I see perfectionism all the time with the researchers I work with. For example, when they want to write a sentence, they get stuck trying to find the perfect word or the perfect way to construct that sentence. So, they edit this sentence over and over again and then they feel bad about how they haven’t really produced any writing.

Another thing I see is that people just continue to edit their draft- they edit, and edit, and edit and can’t seem to find the stopping point when it’s time to submit. What are some strategies to overcome perfectionism? 

This is where some of the mindset stuff comes in. Also, some rules that you need to set for yourself. One of the things we do in Elevate and other coaching that I’ve done is just deciding on a deadline. I had an advisor in grad school, who always told me, you’ll do things in the time you give yourself. I like to adapt that to some situations, especially when it comes to tinkering, – so, when you’re at the point where you are going back in, and re-crafting sentences and paragraphs, you just have to set a firm deadline and tell yourself, ‘On this day, it leaves my desk.’ And if that means you have to tell an accountability partner or email whatever editor or journal editor and say, ‘This is the day I’m giving it to you.’ Then it has to go on that day. And that means understanding that it’s never going to be perfect, because you’ve invented perfect, as something that you can’t achieve. 

That’s why it’s sitting on your desk – because you’ve created a standard for yourself that does not exist. Also realizing that some of that crafting does happen in the editing process, so when the revise and resubmit comes back, some of that’s going to happen. Or also when you do the final copy edit. One of the things about the perfectionism of crafting sentences and paragraphs is that people start doing it way too early in the process. Why are you crafting the sentence when we’re going to revise this?

Yeah, maybe you’ll cut it up anyways! Maybe this whole paragraph isn’t going to make it into the final draft.

Exactly. So, let’s just focus on getting the draft on paper, sending it for a second set of eyes to look at it- whether that’s a writing group or you’re sending it to an editor. And say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to worry about crafting anymore.’ If it’s fun for you, that’s one thing, but if you’re doing it because you think it’s not good enough yet and if you can’t define what that ‘yet’ is, you have to stop. 

If you can’t answer the question, ‘What would make it to your standard?,’ then how on earth are you ever going to know when you’re done? It’s not just ‘I’ll know it when I see it’, because you’re not going to see it, because you’re going to convince yourself it’s never ready.

I used to be very perfectionistic and I still am sometimes. It’s always an ongoing process to deal with those things. And what really has helped me was to really think through ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ and ‘Where is this feeling really coming from?’ And I think in most cases, it is actually coming from a fear of rejection or a fear of criticism. I think to myself, OK, maybe I’m just going to keep editing this, because I’m so afraid that someone will criticise it during  the peer review process or to hear back from the journal editor that it’s a desk rejection.Just acknowledging this took me a  really long time. I now understand that my own perfectionism comes from a fear of being criticised. I needed to address that in order to be able to move forward and to not stall myself like that.

I remember we had a coaching call a couple of months ago in my program, and someone was talking about their book and writing about a topic that is ‘trendy’ or that will have a lot of resonance. And they were asking, ‘Well, what happens if I get negative feedback?’ And my response was, ‘It’s not an if, it’s a when.’ Because in your career, you are going to get negative feedback, and it’s going to be more likely if you’re a woman or a person of color – when you’re a more minoritised member of the academy and you’re going to get negative feedback. Sometimes we hold ourselves back, like you were saying, with fear. And the criticism is probably more about that other person, and their assumptions and beliefs than it is about anything you put on the page.

One hundred percent!

Coach yourself on knowing that there is going to be criticism, and some of it will be criticism that helps me move my work forward. I like to make the distinction between critique versus criticism. I think critique can be really important, for example, ‘Maybe I did make an error.’ or ‘Maybe there is something that I didn’t consider. And now that I have considered it, this is a stronger piece.’ Versus just criticism from certain people, when you can say, ‘OK, I probably have to address that in my review or report, but this is way more about that person than it is about me.’ That’s not to say it’s easy. Criticism can sting when you get it, and it can be really mean-spirited. But so many times it’s not about what you wrote and it’s certainly not about you as a person. 


You are going to get negative feedback, and it’s going to be more likely if you’re a woman or a person of color – when you’re a more minoritised member of the academy.

This was a big aha moment for me, and I think once you realise that, you can start filtering the criticism you get. Then you can decide which criticism to take into account, or as you say, a critique- maybe that’s someone’s opinion that I value. Or maybe it’s from someone whose opinion doesn’t matter. And this is all easier said than actually done. The criticism that stings the most is usually when it hits points that we are unsure about ourselves. 

That’s why you have to continuously tell yourself these things. Make a post-it, put it on your laptop – ‘It’s more about them than me.’ Also, like, give yourself the logical reasons. If it really was about what you were writing, all your review reports would be identical, right? But they’re not. You submit a journal article, you submit a book, you get reviews back, and they might have some things in common, but they’re different, because every person comes to it with their own experience, their own assumptions, their own data. They’re also scholars, so they have their own research history and they’re using that to interpret your work and they’re going to come up with different things. And it’s okay in that you can teach yourself to understand that it is not about you, and that sometimes you’re going to have to respond to things that you don’t want to respond to. But recognising ‘I’m responding to this because I have to get this published’ versus ‘I’m responding to this because I think it’s some type of indictment of me, as a person’- making that distinction is really important, because it’s going to empower you. You can say, ‘I know why I’m doing this. I’m not doing this because I agree with this person who thinks that my work is crap.’ Or ‘I don’t agree with their argument, but I’m going to respond to it and make a decision about how to respond to it.’ We all have the power to make the decision of how we’re going to respond. That might mean that we don’t like the consequences, but we still have that ability.

I think you’re absolutely right. And when we are working on our paper, or book, or whatever we’re writing, it’s important to understand and think through this fear of criticism. We are submitting academic work to academic journals or book publishers, and they are peer-reviewed. So, there will always be criticism.

Another related thing that I have noticed when working with researchers on their writing is that many procrastinate on their writing. Some can’t really start writing, others can’t get a project done. Do you have any recommendations for those who are facing procrastination?

I think they come from the same sense of perfectionism. Often when I hear, ‘I can’t start until I figure this out.’ But figuring that out is starting. If you can’t start until something’s done, then it’s not a start. A start is beginning, but you’re saying you can’t start till after you’ve done something. It’s the same perfectionism. It has to feel easy at the beginning. And if it doesn’t feel easy, then I think people feel like they’re doing something wrong. ‘I can’t figure out where to start’ is something I hear often. I usually ask, ‘Well, why don’t you just write down your ideas?’ Write down a list of what you need to read. Something as simple as that. I think people don’t realise they can start that way. 

They think they have to start with some epiphany- ‘I already have this figured out and I’m just going to sit down and write.’ That’s just not how it works. A lot of starting is writing stuff down and crossing it out and doing some little visualisations or whatever it is that adapts to your style. Some people like to outline at the beginning, some people like to free-write, or to draw something, or starting with their data. The data is the most obvious part to me, I’ve collected it, and I’m going to start with some preliminary analysis of it. Some people like to start with the literature that already exists, then they can read it and interpret it. But for most people, they try to fit themselves into a way of starting which doesn’t compliment their writing and learning style. And that’s where they get stuck because they think there’s one way you should do it, but there’s never one way you should do it.

Of course, there are standards for article writing- you have to hit a couple of notes in every article, and they have a format. But that doesn’t mean that you have to start at one place, when you’re sitting in your office, doing your first draft. The end result has to look like something, but you could start however you want to.

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It’s important to realise that we all struggle with this, and it is not unique to you. It’s really hard to just open a page with no words on it and having the expectation that it is going to become a book or an article – that is incredibly hard.

And it’s okay that it’s hard. I think people think it shouldn’t be that hard. Why not?

It’s important to keep in mind that we all find it hard to start. The way I teach writing papers is very systematic in that way. I’m laying out a process that guides you through the big task of writing a scientific paper step by step. This is not so much about immediately sitting down and writing sentences, but rather defining a few key points about your paper first. I think that really helps, because even though you’re not yet in the writing stage, you’re doing what I call developing. The beauty of that is that while you develop, you are actually putting words on a page. Maybe not in a Word document or whatever word processor you work with, but you still already have something that you then can copy into your word processor. And voilá, you’re not staring at a blank page when it comes to writing that thing.

Exactly! Again, it comes back to our ideas about what starting means. I can picture (because I’ve heard it) someone saying, ‘Well, that’s not starting.’ 

Why isn’t it starting? Again, we are really too hard on ourselves. We think, ‘I haven’t started until I have paragraphs written. It’s not started until I’m actually writing.’ Like fingers to the keyboard, or pen to the paper. No. You’ve already started and you’ve already done a lot in the developing and the thinking and writing out some questions. All of that is part of the starting process. We shouldn’t discount that. 

Another place people run into problems is that they feel like they’re ‘wasting time’ if they write a draft that they have to revise. Revising is what writing is. We all have to collectively agree that writing is revising and it’s not a waste of time. Of course you have to go back and do work on it – that’s not wrong. It’s not a waste of time. Procrastination is a waste of time. If you’re sitting there waiting until you figure out how to write a perfect draft on the first try, you could have written a crappy draft and revised it and have had a better draft.

Hearing this, I keep nodding. Because it goes back to the whole idea of what writing actually is. To me, writing isn’t only sitting there typing words. To me, writing is also the developing stages; the thinking stage, taking notes, maybe when you read someone else’s paper, the literature, or after discussion with your collaborators. And I don’t think anyone, not even the best writers, can produce a great first draft. I just don’t think that’s possible.

You may have a couple of really amazing sentences or even an amazing paragraph in a first draft, but it’s just not going to be perfect. Just like you said, sometimes that work is writing a really crappy draft or writing an outline.

Sometimes people who write really extensive outlines do have good ‘first drafts’, at least it’s the first time it’s in a long prose form


We all have to collectively agree that writing is revising and it’s not a waste of time.

. But that outline was a draft for all intents and purposes, and there’s so much pre-work that goes into it. Even calling it pre-work, it’s not exactly the right way to describe it.

Because what happens before we get the long blocks of text? Because that part is writing too. So much of that has to happen for you to get to the long blocks of text. A part of it is because the academy just demands speed. I get that we often feel like we don’t have time to do all that pre-work, but that pre-work is what actually saves you time in the long run to build a more solid foundation for your text.

Totally agreed.

I think another reason people hesitate is because they’re comparing their early drafts to other things they’re reading that are published manuscripts. They’re wondering, ‘Why doesn’t it sound or read like this thing?’ Well, that thing is in one of the top journals in your field, has probably been through multiple rounds of revision, has been copy edited by a professional, and is now on your desk. It’s great that you have that because that’s how we move scholarship forward, but please don’t expect that your first draft should look like that, or even your second draft or third draft, or when you submit to the journal. Because even when you submit it, it goes through a revision and resubmit. It’s just not there yet. Whether you think that’s ok or not, that’s the reality. Sometimes we have to constantly remind ourselves of these things.

I agree. What mistakes do you see people make when they are working on a longer project? Because you work with people who want to write books, which are really huge projects that most of us can’t even fathom to complete. I know that most researchers who read my blog will probably never write a whole book because it’s not so common in the natural sciences. But they tend to write book chapters or review articles or a PhD thesis, which are also often quite long and you have to read and synthesise a lot of material for them. So, what are some mistakes that you see researchers make when embarking on these bigger writing projects? 

We often feel like we don’t have time to do all that pre-work, but that pre-work is what actually saves you time in the long run to build a more solid foundation for your text.

I would say, if you’re in the sciences, you should also write a book. Science books are great – we need more science books! That’s my own personal bias because I like to read science books. But for the mistakes people make most, number one is procrastination. Books are long-term projects and they have very little urgency. This makes writers think that they don’t have to start now.

That’s akin to taking a cross country trip in the US and telling yourself, ‘I don’t have to get started, I don’t have to get on the road yet. I don’t have to be there for three weeks.’

Well, how long does it take to drive across the United States? Probably pretty long. So, you should probably get on the road. Just because you don’t have to be there tomorrow, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start. So, I would say that is one of the big problems. 

The second one is not breaking your book into smaller chunks. I think these problems are related. The book seems very overwhelming, but also far off, so you don’t get started, and because of that, I don’t know where to start. It’s not an emergency in the way some other writing feels but if you’re able to break it down into smaller parts, it’s much easier to get started because you can see smaller end points. 

It’s not a rule in my coaching program, but kind of a philosophy — you’re not writing a book, you’re writing a chapter, or you’re writing a section. But you’re not writing a book. Because nobody sits down and just writes a book. Reminding yourself, ‘I don’t have to finish my book today. All I have to do is write for 25 minutes, like one pomodoro.’ Or, ‘All I have to do is fill in the section or read this amount of literature over this many days. That is my task right now. My task is not the book.’ 

When we start talking about the book, we are completely overwhelmed, and very disoriented about what we actually should be doing. So, break it down into smaller parts and make it a consistent part of your work week. Maybe not every day, and it doesn’t have to be those long blocks of time. But for long-term projects, consistency is the most important part. Don’t believe that you can only write a book if you have these four hour chunks or if I have a sabbatical, or I can only write it in the summer. No. You have to work on it regularly, even if that means one day, you just spent 20 minutes on it. Consistency is the most important part.

It’s kind of amazing when I think about how much you can actually accomplish, even if you just work on something for 20 minutes every day. I don’t have a good work example, but I’m trying to learn Czech, which is the language of the country that I live in, Czech Republic, and I just do like 10 to 20 minutes a day. So, I still don’t speak Czech, but I do see progress, despite it being a very short amount of time I can usually squeeze into every one of my days. Suddenly I can read things that I couldn’t read before or I understand what someone says on the phone. That is quite amazing to me, how much you can actually accomplish. 

Yeah, just a few times a week, we really do discount that. ‘Oh, I only have 20 minutes, I’m just not going to do it.’ Or ‘What can I get done in 20 minutes?’ That’s why I think it’s really important to have a loose agenda for yourself, so when you sit down for 20 minutes, you’re not spending the first 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do. If I’m going to spend these 20 minutes downloading articles or ordering books, or free writing or taking a walk and thinking about my book. That’s really important, too. Scheduling that into your calendar so that you can’t avoid it. So, you can’t say ‘Oh, the whole week went by and I didn’t find those 20 minutes.’ No. That’s because you have to find them one day.

Yeah, they’re not popping up and saying, ‘Hello! Here are those 20 minutes!’

Right! Your book will never say ‘HEY, can you pay attention to me?’ People say, ‘My book is like my baby.’ A book is nothing like a baby because it is never going to demand your attention. Ever.

It’s not going to wake you up in the night, demanding your attention.

No – not until it’s way too late. That is when it will start demanding your attention. Otherwise, you just need to give it your attention.

Awesome. Thank you so much, Jane. If people want to work with you, or connect with you, where can they find you online?

You can find me on Instagram @JaneJoannPhD and my website is UpInConsulting.com, and that’s where you can find out about my programs, register for my weekly newsletter. It’s full of tips and tough advice sometimes, but all from a place of love!

I can really recommend Jane’s newsletter. They feel really authentic and they’re also just nice, good reads. And do check out Jane’s book coaching program, called ‘Elevate’ if you are planning to write a book. Thank you so much, Jane!

Thank you!


Note: The interview was transcribed and copy-edited for clarity and concision.


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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific writing coach and editor. I help scientists to write better papers in less time. I’d love to support you beyond the blog, please click here for more information.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably hiking with my dog/assistant Zuza or sipping an oat flat white in one of Prague’s many cosy cafés.

 

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Writing Papers and Books Means Battling Emotions – Guest Expert Interview with Dr Jane Jones

I talked to my fellow academic writing coach Dr Jane Jones about why the emotions we feel around our writing are a type of labour, what writing really is, and why a 20-minute slot is long enough for a writing session. We also touch on procrastination, fear of rejection, perfectionism and of course, and writing books, which is Jane’s specialty as a coach. 

Pssssst. Are you a science researcher? You can now register for my free scientific writing training.

Graphic promoting a free scientific writing class for researchers

Hi, Jane! Who are you and what do you do at Up In Consulting? 

I am a writing coach and have been doing editing and coaching for about six years now. I run a program called ‘Elevate’, which is a book writing program for people who are writing non-fiction manuscripts, so a single subject manuscript as opposed to a textbook. What we do is we take you through how to write a book, how to project manage a book, and also how to get over your insecurities about writing a book. From those three angles, we work with you for six months to develop a really strong foundation for your book. People come in with the idea for their book, or some people come in with a couple of chapters done and they want to finish the book. So, it can really be at any stage of your book writing process.

Sounds awesome! Do you work with researchers in all fields or do you specialise in specific fields?

We’re pretty discipline-agnostic. People come to us from the humanities, social sciences and communications. Theres a variety! I think that there are some principles of book writing that apply – no matter what discipline you’re in. We’ve been able to have people from history, political science, sociology, film, archaeology, and more. It’s really fun to see all of those different disciplines come together and people exchange ideas from their points of view.

So exciting! What I really like about your work is that you also talk about the emotional labour that academics have to do when they’re writing. Can you maybe explain what emotional labour is and why this needs to be addressed in order for us to be productive and happy writers?

Definitely! I’m trained as a sociologist, that’s where I got my PhD. If you let me ‘nerd out’ for a minute, there’s a sociologist named Arlie Hochschild, and she developed the term emotional labour. It’s about managing your emotions on the job, which means that if you’re in a job where you’re facing customers, or clients, and they’re berating you, or being mean to you, and you have to kind of put on a happy face and manage the situation.

Usually, you must manage your emotions in a very consequential way for your job opportunities and your well-being on the job. For academics, we do a lot of emotional labor, too, and we don’t necessarily do it just in the classroom, when we’re in front of people who we are interacting with. We do it in faculty meetings, in our own offices, when we’re feeling a lot of insecurities about our writing, or feeling perfectionist tendencies. We’re constantly managing our feelings or feeling bad about our feelings. For example, ‘Oh, this is late. And I feel guilty, but maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty, or should I feel guilty?’ Then it becomes a whole other conversation. 

The reason this became really important was because so many people I worked with, when I was editing, were handing things in late. You set a deadline for yourself, then you miss it, and then you kind of panic, or you practice avoidance, and then you have a lot of feelings about that. I noticed that a lot of the people that I was working with just felt bad all the time. They were always apologising. And I thought to myself, ‘It’s awful that you feel this awful all the time.’

That’s how thinking through a lot of the emotions surrounding our writing, what we should be doing, and how fast we should be writing, became really interesting to me. Emotional labour is a big part of the struggle, even before people get words on the page, and it prevents people from getting words on the page. That’s why it became a really integral part of my coaching practice.

When I think back to my own academic writing, I didn’t really reflect on what was sometimes ‘in the way’. But when I was struggling, it was 100% emotions. And when I talk to the researchers I work with, it’s often perfectionism, or sometimes it’s resentment towards the work. Sometimes we associate negative feelings with the actual piece of writing we are having to work on. Maybe because we don’t like our collaborators, or because someone has criticised the data or the project has just dragged on for too long. So, we’re constantly not being kind to ourselves and telling ourselves that we are not doing this well, and that it doesn’t feel right. I believe that acknowledging those feelings and dealing with them can be really powerful.

And it’s not necessarily about eliminating all of the bad feelings all the time. It’s not that we have to be positive about our work all the time, but what’s really important is that if I feel bad about my work, that’s okay. But feeling bad about it for a protracted period of time is not helping me feel better, and it’s not helping me move forward in my work. So, what can we do to get to even a more neutral place about our work? 

We’re constantly managing our feelings or feeling bad about our feelings.

Can we become completely positive about our work? Maybe that’s impossible and I hear that from clients right now. They’re like, ‘I’m not that excited about this and I’m not going to be a cheerleader.’ And that’s OK – let’s get to somewhere more neutral than ‘This was awful. I’m an idiot. I can’t believe I wrote this.’ Like you said, it does lead us to really resent our work. 

When you’re attached to a topic for so long, especially as a researcher, you see things through for a long period of time – if you build up that resentment, it’s going to be just like a bad relationship. I don’t want to anthropomorphise our research, but it is a kind of relationship.

It can feel like that, especially for an academic! The work is so personal and often we put so much into it. Even the whole way that academia is set up, for example doing a PhD is quite personal. We tend to take research a bit more personally than in other lines of work, I think.

I think so. I remember when I wrote on my PC, and I thought, ‘This is like being in a bad relationship.’ But I keep coming back, even when I feel awful about it and I’m not deriving any joy from this right now. It’s time-consuming and it keeps me away from my friends. 

I think part of the reason we feel like it’s a relationship is because it’s really about our relationship with ourselves. Because we spend so much time by ourselves when we’re writing – it’s us with our own thoughts. That’s part of the reason why I think group coaching is so powerful, because you’re able to be with other people who are like, ‘I’m going through this too. You’re not the only person who’s ever missed a deadline.’

Even though we know, rationally, that it’s not true that other people don’t miss deadlines. But when you’re sitting alone at your desk, you really do think you’re uniquely incompetent and it’s something that other people don’t have. And that’s just not the case. Your brain is going to play some tricks on you and say stuff like, ‘This is wrong. Don’t send this out, someone’s going to get mad at you.’ Or, ‘If you publish this, someone’s going to criticise you, you have to protect yourself.’ That leads to it just staying on your desk forever, and then you’re mad that it’s on your desk, but you’re scared to send it out.

And then you’re stuck. So, figuring out what to do at that point and saying, ‘Maybe someone will be mad, but I’m still going to send it out. It’s okay. It’s scary, but it’s okay that I’m scared. I’m still going to do it.’

I think part of the reason we feel like writing is like being in a relationship is because it’s really about our relationship with ourselves. Because we spend so much time by ourselves when we’re writing – it’s us with our own thoughts.

Yes, I also find it such a shame that so many people and academics don’t feel joy when they write and that they don’t enjoy the process. I know that it doesn’t have to be that way. 

So, we talked about the different types of emotional labour or emotions that often come up, and one that you mentioned was perfectionism.

I see perfectionism all the time with the researchers I work with. For example, when they want to write a sentence, they get stuck trying to find the perfect word or the perfect way to construct that sentence. So, they edit this sentence over and over again and then they feel bad about how they haven’t really produced any writing.

Another thing I see is that people just continue to edit their draft- they edit, and edit, and edit and can’t seem to find the stopping point when it’s time to submit. What are some strategies to overcome perfectionism? 

This is where some of the mindset stuff comes in. Also, some rules that you need to set for yourself. One of the things we do in Elevate and other coaching that I’ve done is just deciding on a deadline. I had an advisor in grad school, who always told me, you’ll do things in the time you give yourself. I like to adapt that to some situations, especially when it comes to tinkering, – so, when you’re at the point where you are going back in, and re-crafting sentences and paragraphs, you just have to set a firm deadline and tell yourself, ‘On this day, it leaves my desk.’ And if that means you have to tell an accountability partner or email whatever editor or journal editor and say, ‘This is the day I’m giving it to you.’ Then it has to go on that day. And that means understanding that it’s never going to be perfect, because you’ve invented perfect, as something that you can’t achieve. 

That’s why it’s sitting on your desk – because you’ve created a standard for yourself that does not exist. Also realizing that some of that crafting does happen in the editing process, so when the revise and resubmit comes back, some of that’s going to happen. Or also when you do the final copy edit. One of the things about the perfectionism of crafting sentences and paragraphs is that people start doing it way too early in the process. Why are you crafting the sentence when we’re going to revise this?

Yeah, maybe you’ll cut it up anyways! Maybe this whole paragraph isn’t going to make it into the final draft.

Exactly. So, let’s just focus on getting the draft on paper, sending it for a second set of eyes to look at it- whether that’s a writing group or you’re sending it to an editor. And say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to worry about crafting anymore.’ If it’s fun for you, that’s one thing, but if you’re doing it because you think it’s not good enough yet and if you can’t define what that ‘yet’ is, you have to stop. 

If you can’t answer the question, ‘What would make it to your standard?,’ then how on earth are you ever going to know when you’re done? It’s not just ‘I’ll know it when I see it’, because you’re not going to see it, because you’re going to convince yourself it’s never ready.

I used to be very perfectionistic and I still am sometimes. It’s always an ongoing process to deal with those things. And what really has helped me was to really think through ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ and ‘Where is this feeling really coming from?’ And I think in most cases, it is actually coming from a fear of rejection or a fear of criticism. I think to myself, OK, maybe I’m just going to keep editing this, because I’m so afraid that someone will criticise it during  the peer review process or to hear back from the journal editor that it’s a desk rejection.Just acknowledging this took me a  really long time. I now understand that my own perfectionism comes from a fear of being criticised. I needed to address that in order to be able to move forward and to not stall myself like that.

I remember we had a coaching call a couple of months ago in my program, and someone was talking about their book and writing about a topic that is ‘trendy’ or that will have a lot of resonance. And they were asking, ‘Well, what happens if I get negative feedback?’ And my response was, ‘It’s not an if, it’s a when.’ Because in your career, you are going to get negative feedback, and it’s going to be more likely if you’re a woman or a person of color – when you’re a more minoritised member of the academy and you’re going to get negative feedback. Sometimes we hold ourselves back, like you were saying, with fear. And the criticism is probably more about that other person, and their assumptions and beliefs than it is about anything you put on the page.

One hundred percent!

Coach yourself on knowing that there is going to be criticism, and some of it will be criticism that helps me move my work forward. I like to make the distinction between critique versus criticism. I think critique can be really important, for example, ‘Maybe I did make an error.’ or ‘Maybe there is something that I didn’t consider. And now that I have considered it, this is a stronger piece.’ Versus just criticism from certain people, when you can say, ‘OK, I probably have to address that in my review or report, but this is way more about that person than it is about me.’ That’s not to say it’s easy. Criticism can sting when you get it, and it can be really mean-spirited. But so many times it’s not about what you wrote and it’s certainly not about you as a person. 


You are going to get negative feedback, and it’s going to be more likely if you’re a woman or a person of color – when you’re a more minoritised member of the academy.

This was a big aha moment for me, and I think once you realise that, you can start filtering the criticism you get. Then you can decide which criticism to take into account, or as you say, a critique- maybe that’s someone’s opinion that I value. Or maybe it’s from someone whose opinion doesn’t matter. And this is all easier said than actually done. The criticism that stings the most is usually when it hits points that we are unsure about ourselves. 

That’s why you have to continuously tell yourself these things. Make a post-it, put it on your laptop – ‘It’s more about them than me.’ Also, like, give yourself the logical reasons. If it really was about what you were writing, all your review reports would be identical, right? But they’re not. You submit a journal article, you submit a book, you get reviews back, and they might have some things in common, but they’re different, because every person comes to it with their own experience, their own assumptions, their own data. They’re also scholars, so they have their own research history and they’re using that to interpret your work and they’re going to come up with different things. And it’s okay in that you can teach yourself to understand that it is not about you, and that sometimes you’re going to have to respond to things that you don’t want to respond to. But recognising ‘I’m responding to this because I have to get this published’ versus ‘I’m responding to this because I think it’s some type of indictment of me, as a person’- making that distinction is really important, because it’s going to empower you. You can say, ‘I know why I’m doing this. I’m not doing this because I agree with this person who thinks that my work is crap.’ Or ‘I don’t agree with their argument, but I’m going to respond to it and make a decision about how to respond to it.’ We all have the power to make the decision of how we’re going to respond. That might mean that we don’t like the consequences, but we still have that ability.

I think you’re absolutely right. And when we are working on our paper, or book, or whatever we’re writing, it’s important to understand and think through this fear of criticism. We are submitting academic work to academic journals or book publishers, and they are peer-reviewed. So, there will always be criticism.

Another related thing that I have noticed when working with researchers on their writing is that many procrastinate on their writing. Some can’t really start writing, others can’t get a project done. Do you have any recommendations for those who are facing procrastination?

I think they come from the same sense of perfectionism. Often when I hear, ‘I can’t start until I figure this out.’ But figuring that out is starting. If you can’t start until something’s done, then it’s not a start. A start is beginning, but you’re saying you can’t start till after you’ve done something. It’s the same perfectionism. It has to feel easy at the beginning. And if it doesn’t feel easy, then I think people feel like they’re doing something wrong. ‘I can’t figure out where to start’ is something I hear often. I usually ask, ‘Well, why don’t you just write down your ideas?’ Write down a list of what you need to read. Something as simple as that. I think people don’t realise they can start that way. 

They think they have to start with some epiphany- ‘I already have this figured out and I’m just going to sit down and write.’ That’s just not how it works. A lot of starting is writing stuff down and crossing it out and doing some little visualisations or whatever it is that adapts to your style. Some people like to outline at the beginning, some people like to free-write, or to draw something, or starting with their data. The data is the most obvious part to me, I’ve collected it, and I’m going to start with some preliminary analysis of it. Some people like to start with the literature that already exists, then they can read it and interpret it. But for most people, they try to fit themselves into a way of starting which doesn’t compliment their writing and learning style. And that’s where they get stuck because they think there’s one way you should do it, but there’s never one way you should do it.

Of course, there are standards for article writing- you have to hit a couple of notes in every article, and they have a format. But that doesn’t mean that you have to start at one place, when you’re sitting in your office, doing your first draft. The end result has to look like something, but you could start however you want to.

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It’s important to realise that we all struggle with this, and it is not unique to you. It’s really hard to just open a page with no words on it and having the expectation that it is going to become a book or an article – that is incredibly hard.

And it’s okay that it’s hard. I think people think it shouldn’t be that hard. Why not?

It’s important to keep in mind that we all find it hard to start. The way I teach writing papers is very systematic in that way. I’m laying out a process that guides you through the big task of writing a scientific paper step by step. This is not so much about immediately sitting down and writing sentences, but rather defining a few key points about your paper first. I think that really helps, because even though you’re not yet in the writing stage, you’re doing what I call developing. The beauty of that is that while you develop, you are actually putting words on a page. Maybe not in a Word document or whatever word processor you work with, but you still already have something that you then can copy into your word processor. And voilá, you’re not staring at a blank page when it comes to writing that thing.

Exactly! Again, it comes back to our ideas about what starting means. I can picture (because I’ve heard it) someone saying, ‘Well, that’s not starting.’ 

Why isn’t it starting? Again, we are really too hard on ourselves. We think, ‘I haven’t started until I have paragraphs written. It’s not started until I’m actually writing.’ Like fingers to the keyboard, or pen to the paper. No. You’ve already started and you’ve already done a lot in the developing and the thinking and writing out some questions. All of that is part of the starting process. We shouldn’t discount that. 

Another place people run into problems is that they feel like they’re ‘wasting time’ if they write a draft that they have to revise. Revising is what writing is. We all have to collectively agree that writing is revising and it’s not a waste of time. Of course you have to go back and do work on it – that’s not wrong. It’s not a waste of time. Procrastination is a waste of time. If you’re sitting there waiting until you figure out how to write a perfect draft on the first try, you could have written a crappy draft and revised it and have had a better draft.

Hearing this, I keep nodding. Because it goes back to the whole idea of what writing actually is. To me, writing isn’t only sitting there typing words. To me, writing is also the developing stages; the thinking stage, taking notes, maybe when you read someone else’s paper, the literature, or after discussion with your collaborators. And I don’t think anyone, not even the best writers, can produce a great first draft. I just don’t think that’s possible.

You may have a couple of really amazing sentences or even an amazing paragraph in a first draft, but it’s just not going to be perfect. Just like you said, sometimes that work is writing a really crappy draft or writing an outline.

Sometimes people who write really extensive outlines do have good ‘first drafts’, at least it’s the first time it’s in a long prose form


We all have to collectively agree that writing is revising and it’s not a waste of time.

. But that outline was a draft for all intents and purposes, and there’s so much pre-work that goes into it. Even calling it pre-work, it’s not exactly the right way to describe it.

Because what happens before we get the long blocks of text? Because that part is writing too. So much of that has to happen for you to get to the long blocks of text. A part of it is because the academy just demands speed. I get that we often feel like we don’t have time to do all that pre-work, but that pre-work is what actually saves you time in the long run to build a more solid foundation for your text.

Totally agreed.

I think another reason people hesitate is because they’re comparing their early drafts to other things they’re reading that are published manuscripts. They’re wondering, ‘Why doesn’t it sound or read like this thing?’ Well, that thing is in one of the top journals in your field, has probably been through multiple rounds of revision, has been copy edited by a professional, and is now on your desk. It’s great that you have that because that’s how we move scholarship forward, but please don’t expect that your first draft should look like that, or even your second draft or third draft, or when you submit to the journal. Because even when you submit it, it goes through a revision and resubmit. It’s just not there yet. Whether you think that’s ok or not, that’s the reality. Sometimes we have to constantly remind ourselves of these things.

I agree. What mistakes do you see people make when they are working on a longer project? Because you work with people who want to write books, which are really huge projects that most of us can’t even fathom to complete. I know that most researchers who read my blog will probably never write a whole book because it’s not so common in the natural sciences. But they tend to write book chapters or review articles or a PhD thesis, which are also often quite long and you have to read and synthesise a lot of material for them. So, what are some mistakes that you see researchers make when embarking on these bigger writing projects? 

We often feel like we don’t have time to do all that pre-work, but that pre-work is what actually saves you time in the long run to build a more solid foundation for your text.

I would say, if you’re in the sciences, you should also write a book. Science books are great – we need more science books! That’s my own personal bias because I like to read science books. But for the mistakes people make most, number one is procrastination. Books are long-term projects and they have very little urgency. This makes writers think that they don’t have to start now.

That’s akin to taking a cross country trip in the US and telling yourself, ‘I don’t have to get started, I don’t have to get on the road yet. I don’t have to be there for three weeks.’

Well, how long does it take to drive across the United States? Probably pretty long. So, you should probably get on the road. Just because you don’t have to be there tomorrow, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start. So, I would say that is one of the big problems. 

The second one is not breaking your book into smaller chunks. I think these problems are related. The book seems very overwhelming, but also far off, so you don’t get started, and because of that, I don’t know where to start. It’s not an emergency in the way some other writing feels but if you’re able to break it down into smaller parts, it’s much easier to get started because you can see smaller end points. 

It’s not a rule in my coaching program, but kind of a philosophy — you’re not writing a book, you’re writing a chapter, or you’re writing a section. But you’re not writing a book. Because nobody sits down and just writes a book. Reminding yourself, ‘I don’t have to finish my book today. All I have to do is write for 25 minutes, like one pomodoro.’ Or, ‘All I have to do is fill in the section or read this amount of literature over this many days. That is my task right now. My task is not the book.’ 

When we start talking about the book, we are completely overwhelmed, and very disoriented about what we actually should be doing. So, break it down into smaller parts and make it a consistent part of your work week. Maybe not every day, and it doesn’t have to be those long blocks of time. But for long-term projects, consistency is the most important part. Don’t believe that you can only write a book if you have these four hour chunks or if I have a sabbatical, or I can only write it in the summer. No. You have to work on it regularly, even if that means one day, you just spent 20 minutes on it. Consistency is the most important part.

It’s kind of amazing when I think about how much you can actually accomplish, even if you just work on something for 20 minutes every day. I don’t have a good work example, but I’m trying to learn Czech, which is the language of the country that I live in, Czech Republic, and I just do like 10 to 20 minutes a day. So, I still don’t speak Czech, but I do see progress, despite it being a very short amount of time I can usually squeeze into every one of my days. Suddenly I can read things that I couldn’t read before or I understand what someone says on the phone. That is quite amazing to me, how much you can actually accomplish. 

Yeah, just a few times a week, we really do discount that. ‘Oh, I only have 20 minutes, I’m just not going to do it.’ Or ‘What can I get done in 20 minutes?’ That’s why I think it’s really important to have a loose agenda for yourself, so when you sit down for 20 minutes, you’re not spending the first 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do. If I’m going to spend these 20 minutes downloading articles or ordering books, or free writing or taking a walk and thinking about my book. That’s really important, too. Scheduling that into your calendar so that you can’t avoid it. So, you can’t say ‘Oh, the whole week went by and I didn’t find those 20 minutes.’ No. That’s because you have to find them one day.

Yeah, they’re not popping up and saying, ‘Hello! Here are those 20 minutes!’

Right! Your book will never say ‘HEY, can you pay attention to me?’ People say, ‘My book is like my baby.’ A book is nothing like a baby because it is never going to demand your attention. Ever.

It’s not going to wake you up in the night, demanding your attention.

No – not until it’s way too late. That is when it will start demanding your attention. Otherwise, you just need to give it your attention.

Awesome. Thank you so much, Jane. If people want to work with you, or connect with you, where can they find you online?

You can find me on Instagram @JaneJoannPhD and my website is UpInConsulting.com, and that’s where you can find out about my programs, register for my weekly newsletter. It’s full of tips and tough advice sometimes, but all from a place of love!

I can really recommend Jane’s newsletter. They feel really authentic and they’re also just nice, good reads. And do check out Jane’s book coaching program, called ‘Elevate’ if you are planning to write a book. Thank you so much, Jane!

Thank you!


Note: The interview was transcribed and copy-edited for clarity and concision.


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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific writing coach and editor. I help scientists to write better papers in less time. I’d love to support you beyond the blog, please click here for more information.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably hiking with my dog/assistant Zuza or sipping an oat flat white in one of Prague’s many cosy cafés.

 

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