As I mentioned in my last post, I'm working with Sally Schmall, an academic career coach, to scaffold "Future Dr. Mel" development. ADHD and academic writing are a combination that I could, ah, handle better -- so my last post talked about the ADHD, and this one will talk about the writing. I've paraphrased the questions she asked and provided my answers below.

First word that comes to my mind when I think about writing:

Simultaneous ties between “freedom” and “self-expression.”

Why I want to work on my writing:

I've always been a happy, prolific, and pretty good writer (see blog). It's more a matter of finding ways to productively channel that writing-energy into academic venues and formats now that I'm a graduate student – and those targets are unfamiliar territory that move a lot more formally and slowly than I'm used to. I hoped I could pick up on the “rules of the game” by hanging out in that environment for a while and reading a lot and writing and getting feedback (as I've learned writing-rules for other formats and in other places in the past), but the “rules” and conventions of academic writing aren't always explicitly spoken or written down, and the edit/revision cycles for formal feedback are so agonizingly slow, and so far down the stage of “you already have a thrice-polished formal draft,” that I'm feeling a real lack of formative feedback that will help me figure out how to develop into an excellent academic writer. (I don't think I'm absolutely terrible; I think my current abilities would allow me to survive – but I'm looking to do way better than survival.)

Post-mortem of a recent writing project:

I recently finished writing my quals – about 50 pages in an isolated 2-week writing sprint – and it was the least coherent 50 pages I've ever written; though the document has good ideas, I'm not proud of its structure in the slightest. So... what went well and poorly that led to that?

  1. Research went well; when I was given an unfamiliar topic to write on, I was able to hit the library, use databases, crawl backwards through bibliographies, and use many other strategies to find and triage materials to read. (This is something I specifically asked some of the librarians to coach me on multiple times during my first year in grad school – a great investment.)
  2. Reading went well. I have a system for taking notes as I read that preserves page numbers and distinguishes between direct quotes, paraphrases, and my own thoughts – some examples are at (I share my notes publicly as zotero groups; this group is for readings from one of my classes this semester.)
  3. Synthesizing topics and themes across readings went reasonably well. I'm a qualitative researcher and do a lot of grounded theory analysis, so I treat my reading notes as “data” and write “memos” to explore ideas spread across them. Usually I do this on my blog as part of trying to be a transparent researcher ( is one of my projects). I don't have as good a system for doing this off my blog – I haven't needed to set one up, but maybe I should.
  4. Going from those memos to a longer paper was an instructive disaster. Halfway through my writing period, I looked at my memos and panicked that I didn't have “The Paper!” yet – sat down and wrote an outline utterly separate from the memos I'd been writing, and glommed a paper together off the top of my head that didn't use my notes and memos very well (although the notes and memos made it far better than it would have been otherwise). So: lesson learned! I can outline as an independent/stand-alone skill, but clearly I need to find a better way to integrate outlining/road-mapping into my actual scholarly writing process.

I think one thing that might be happening is that I can set and reach small writing targets (outlining a paper that's just several pages long, then writing to that outline – not a problem!) and I can also reach large writing targets in an emergent manner (sit down every morning and read/write about topic X – not a problem, actually my preferred mode of output!) but setting and reaching large writing targets in a predetermined manner is harder – how do I set those targets in the start so that they're loose enough to allow flexibility, and how do I recalibrate my progress against that target (and recalibrate the target) as I write (inevitably in an emergent manner) so that I do hit things at the end without panic?

Is writing hard/tiring/something I dislike?

On the contrary, I love writing – it energizes me and is one of the main things that gets me into a flow state. It's only tiring or difficult when I'm writing something I don't want to write, or in a manner or style I don't want to write it in, or when I “have to” write to hit a target I think is humanly impossible for me to achieve (like in the panic moment during quals when I went “wait, I have a week to write 50 pages? GAH!”)

That's probably part of the problem. I'm used to writing being this wonderful, enjoyable craft that I've chosen to spend a lot of time and effort honing because I love it – and now it's actually my job. It's like being an excellent street basketball player (who's used to hard work to develop that talent, spending hours practicing jump-shots to improve) who suddenly gets drafted into a college team and finds that now there are these practices, and drills, and competitions, and diets, and all these things – and doesn't want to have their love for the game and the feel of the court swept away, and longs for those pickup games in the alley again, and that flow.

Is writing something I have too little, too much, or poorly managed time for?

I'm an ADHD kid, so whenever “poorly managed time” is an option, I should probably be choosing it, yeah? :) I think I have enough time, but don't like the pressured feeling I get when I schedule in specific writing blocks (“nooo, ruining my flow state!”), so I sometimes avoid doing that and thus end up with “too little time.” Working with Boice's book has been helping me recognize and start to alleviate that, though.

On writing confidence:

I feel like I'm a good writer in general. I don't think I've figured out how to become a good academic writer yet, and am at the point where I think I've gotten as far as I can on my own and need some help, because in the absence of mastering writing in this particular domain, then yes, I do sometimes get hit with Impostor Syndrome. I know I've got good ideas and the capability to express them well in academia, I just don't know exactly how to tap that capability consistently yet. I also don't know what it means to write “like a Mel” (which hopefully means, among other things, “well” – but also “colloquially/informally” and other things usually not associated with academic writing) and “in a scholarly manner” at the same time. I strongly associate “scholarly writing” with “bad writing,” but know this is false and that I need to figure out what “good scholarly writing” means and looks like, and then what the Mel version of that is.

On writing anxiety:

I rarely feel nervous while writing. When I do, it is usually because (1) I am writing something right up against a deadline, and am stressing out about being able to submit it before the clock runs out – I was surprised to learn that the “last minute work rushes for focus!” may actually be an ADHD coping strategy, but every single book I've read describes it perfectly – or (2) because it's an email to a person I don't know and might have interesting political consequences depending on their reaction. Writing things related to academic politics, or writing things in a way that takes them into account, would be another weak point of mine; I simply don't understand them, so I just try really hard to avoid them, but sometimes you can't.

Do I ever get stuck with starting?

Yes, but I have ways to get around those (though I sometimes fail to use them consistently). During my quals, when I got stuck and felt like I had a hard time starting, I would eventually get to the keyboard and start writing that I was having a hard time starting because of XYZ – and gradually that would turn into a dialogue of “well, I could try this...” and then eventually I'd be writing my actual paper again. (Incoherently, though – because of my outlining failure as described above. Oh well. Can't do everything perfectly. But I have ways to get my momentum back, in any case.)

Do I ever get stuck with finishing?

Hyperfocus can be a problem, yeah. It's why that 50 page quals document starts out with 16 pages of lit review that I didn't actually need (and which therefore contributes to the incoherence of the paper by starting it out with extraneousness). I started writing it and kept on writing and writing and writing it without pulling out and realizing “wait, I don't need this! Write the sections you need to write, Mel!” When I did pull out and write those sections that I needed, I had less time and energy to write them well.

The struggle to finish writing also interacts with my last-minute-deadline-running tendencies; “maybe I'll have a better idea for how to improve this paper later, so I won't turn it in now” is a common rationalization (because, alas, it's frequently true – I have a hard time assessing diminishing returns with any accuracy, which is another skill I'd like to improve). This compounds when I'm trying to incorporate feedback, and even more when it's from multiple people, and even more when it's conflicting feedback.

My most common writing problem:

Struggling to finish – particularly when I have multiple writing projects to juggle and lose sight of how to prioritize/load-balance them. I've been trying to train myself to finish things whenever possible, and used to close-the-loop and get things out of mental RAM by simply doing things start-to-finish the moment they were assigned. This works brilliantly for undergraduate assignments, which are smaller, shorter-term, and often don't depend on anyone except for you, so it was theoretically possible to have close to nothing on my Things I Am Responsible For queue. However, in graduate school and beyond, that close-the-loop completion so often depends on other things – you're not “done” because it's under review, you're not “done” because you can't submit this for another 3 weeks until the CFP opens, and so forth – and my Things I Am Responsible For queue has a lot of things to monitor, and I don't monitor them well. (I don't have a system to monitor them well, and need to build one.) Consequently, I forget to finish, end up racing to hit deadlines when I remember, and too often get sucked into hyperfocus when I'm racing.

Bonus Mel section: Sally didn't ask for this, but I've gone up and pulled out specific goals/weakness-areas I wanted to address from the text I wrote above, then tried to rank them in priority order (highest first, lowest last) and then indicate difficulty (my best guesses for both – it's open to discussion, since I'm not actually sure which ones will have the largest impact on an academic career, nor which ones may be easier/harder to work on than I'm guessing now!)

Goal Hardness
Managing the queue of Things I Am Responsible For – including decisions on what can go in there in the first place / saying no, ongoing triage, and keeping track of external and long-term dependencies. Need to build system. Medium – lots of work, mostly upfront with tweaks after
Figuring out what “good scholarly writing” means and looks like, and then what the Mel version of that is – I'm likely to be a quirky and nonstandard academic, so what does Future Dr. Mel look like? Hard, probably long-term
Spotting the Pareto Point (80/20) beyond which additional effort will be met with diminishing returns, and stopping there – and not feeling guilty about it. Strongly related to counteracting the tendency to hyperfocus on writing things I don't actually need to write. Medium, relies on knowing “good scholarly writing” target
Designing a systematic rhythm/routine/process/plan for writing that still lets me enjoy writing and the pleasure and flow I get from it. A lot of the pieces I need to build that process are there, just not hooked together fluently – but one missing part is the skill of outlining/road-mapping in a way that can be integrated into a larger process. Medium, but will probably take a lot of iterating to tweak. A pretty large-scale project.
Figuring out venues, especially nontraditional ones, for my work – how to find them, assess them, pursue them. (This is not from the text above, but along the theme of “Future Dr. Mel will probably always be a bit odd in her department.”) Not hard, but might take a couple iterations to develop strategy.
Figuring out academic politics – what I need to know about them (especially as non-standard Future Dr. Mel in terms of tenure and promotion and whatnot) so that I can stay out of their way. I have no idea. This is a blind spot. I don't think it should be too hard though.
Systematically incorporating conflicting feedback from multiple people on an ongoing piece of work, especially when I do not know when that feedback might be coming in. Easy. Come up with a plan and do it.