Writing about writing means you also do a lot of reading about writing, and you listen to lots of people talking about writing. I read peer reviewed articles and published books; but I also read Twitter posts, blogs, journalism, and listen to TED talks, podcasts and just to ordinary people. I chat to successful published authors and researchers, but also to undergraduates and new research degree students.
It will be no surprise to anyone that I hear a lot of writing advice—some good, some less helpful. But some of it is just literally untrue, and yet the myths are so pervasive that people believe they are terrible writers because they are not following that advice.
The sneaky thing about myths is that, they are only true-ish. So these myths often have a grain of truth in them, but they often aren’t fully logical, or include a part that is just straight up wrong.
If you only have a data set of one or two (like you and your supervisor), it can be hard to see your writing experience as part of a pattern, or to get enough evidence to disprove something you suspect might be a myth. But I’ve been doing this for a very long time and have thousands of writers’ experiences to draw from.
In workshops and individual sessions, students are often deeply relieved to find out that these myths aren’t true. Maybe you will be too!
So here is a quick rundown of the most damaging myths I see circulating as ‘writing advice’.
- If you don’t write every day, you aren’t writing properly
Many full-time authors do find that it’s helpful for them to have a regular daily habit of writing. That doesn’t mean it’s the only productive way to write.
I am currently keeping a writing diary, and I am not writing every day. In fact, I am, as usual for me, feast writing and then not touching my manuscripts at all. Yet I am still on track (sometimes early) for all my ambitious writing projects.
Like many of you, I’m only a part-time writer. Most academics who also have large teaching loads, and even full time researchers who have to do research as well as writing it up are also only writing part time. People with significant caring responsibilities, for themselves or others, will also need to prioritise stuff other than writing frequently. So it’s not surprising that I’m not writing every day; many days I am focusing my best creative energies on my management job, or another part of my life.
Why this myth is attractive: It is absolutely true that a regular writing habit is more productive than waiting to feel inspired, or having to cram it all into the summer holidays when you are exhausted. Breaking a task down into smaller chunks is definitely motivating and effective. And many people’s lives do suit a daily routine.
The truth: It doesn’t matter if you write every day, every week, or every fortnight. You just need to have a regular, sustainable habit of writing that meets your medium term goals. If your chapter gets into your supervisor on time, it doesn’t matter what your writing pattern looks like.
- The only kind of writing that ‘counts’ is ‘word count’
This is a big one. I was recently working with a PhD student who was completing the first full draft of her PhD. One chapter required significant new words, and the other chapters just needed some editing. When we reviewed the progress of her days, it quickly became clear that she felt confident she’d met her target on days where she wrote 2,000 words; and felt like she’d failed on days where she rewrote, and cut, large sections. Yet both of these strategies are essential for making progress towards a submittable thesis!
Why this myth is attractive: For many people, the part of the writing process that produces word count is the hardest, so it’s the bit that looks most like work. And early on in your journey to the first full draft, word count is a great way to track progress.
The truth: Making progress on your writing might mean writing, editing, polishing, waiting for feedback, taking a critical distance break, brainstorming, formatting, managing your references… writing is complex and all the parts are needed to get to the end. So you need to be able to ‘count’ words edited, pages reviewed and judged complete, references updated or any other kinds of work.
- If you aren’t writing, you must be procrastinating
I hate this myth so much (and have written about why here).
Sometimes I’m ahead of my goals, so I take some time to make progress on other areas of my life (from sleep, to cleaning the shower, to hanging out with friends, to helping other people). Sometimes I have a big goal coming up, but I know I can do it in a day, so I leave the day to closer to the deadline. The question isn’t, are you writing today, right now… it’s, will you meet your big goal (as long as your goal is realistic!)
Why this myth is attractive: Our society tells us we should be working all the time, so if we believe that, but know that we aren’t writing all the time… then there needs to be something wrong with us that can be fixed. Every delay or break gets labelled as a problem.
The truth: There are lots of reasons why people do actually procrastinate, but it’s more useful to go to the cause than worry about the symptom. If you are putting off working in a way that makes you miss realistic deadlines or puts your health at risk—then you definitely need to address the underlying issues.
But, if you are meeting your deadlines, and aren’t always working, that’s not procrastination, that’s just time management.
- If you write and enjoy it, you aren’t doing real work
There is a widespread belief that if writing is enjoyable, then it isn’t a real job: it doesn’t count as labour that could be tiring or deserve to be paid or deserve respect. Uncles, random people on Twitter and large corporations all espouse this theory—but none of them are writers, so they don’t have much experience or evidence.
Why this myth is attractive: look, so there is this important cultural myth called the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ which is prevalent in America and many parts of Europe, and therefore globally, that sad grinding work is how we atone for being bad humans. If you are having fun then you will stay a bad human. Plus, there is only a limited number of humans who have the opportunity to be saved—so other humans are reassured if they can judge you as less worthy, because it ups their chances of belonging to the salvageable bunch.
The truth: Work is work, regardless of your feelings about it. Every human is worthy, whether they work or not.
Also, most people do not subscribe to this particular kind of Protestant theology (I certainly don’t), so you might want to align your beliefs about writing more closely with your actual values.
- But, if you write and find it hard, then you aren’t good enough to do this
On the other hand, there is also a myth that writing is a basic skill, so if you find writing hard then you must be bad at it. If you can’t even write, then you don’t belong in academia. This is particularly true for students who choose to write their thesis in a second language.
Why this myth is attractive: Learning to write is something you do in primary school; and writing emails, text messages and shopping lists are things many of us can do all day, even half asleep or distracted. If you haven’t tried to tackle a major academic writing project, it’s hard to see that ‘writing’ is a range of text-producing practices, which need a range of different skills, and some are easier than others.
The truth: This whole blog is about how academic writing is hard, but also that you are totally able to do it. Noticing when and how it is hard is the best first step to developing your skills, pushing forward knowledge, or finding the time and energy to do it.
I’d like to have been able to write this post once and for all, and smash the myths… but it’s been nearly a decade and I’m still finding something that needs to be said, every week!
So don’t beat yourself up if you get caught up in a variation of one of these myths in the future: keep listening to people who give honest advice and you’ll be able to adjust your thinking again.