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Academic Coaching & Writing

II. How Academic Writers Lose Confidence

Mar 26, 2015 by Amy Benson Brown

Most people might be surprised that academics, a group that by definition is intellectually gifted and highly educated, can come to doubt their ability as writers. But a quick look at the culture of academia shows why academics may lose or struggle to develop confidence as writers.

The Endless Proving Game

Moving through the stages of graduate school, winning a university position, and then seeking promotions can feel like an endless game of proving yourself. Today’s intensely competitive job market pressures even graduate students to publish. Placing articles in top journals and books with respected university presses is essential to advance in the profession. Junior academics, keenly aware of the high stakes and competition, often obsess about the quality of the work they submit. And it is often difficult to disentangle the quality of the research from the quality of the writing that conveys it. When researchers receive peer reviews that critique their arguments and their writing, they may not only feel attacked but bewildered about how to address issues raised. Such experiences chip away at confidence. Many academics also possess a personality trait that makes their problems trickier to resolve.

The tendency of people who go into academia to strive for perfection contributes to their success, for sure. But when perfectionism is combined with intense pressure to produce, it can lead authors to question every word choice and feel paralyzed and unable to finish projects.

Lack of Training in the Craft of Writing

Underlying all of these dynamics that can undermine writing confidence is a more fundamental problem with graduate education. Undergraduates who go on to graduate school often are far ahead of their peers in intellectual ability and are exempt from basic university writing classes. This seeming advantage, though, leaves some students without a rigorous understanding of the craft of writing, from how to build effective arguments to how to build strong sentences. When they later conduct advanced research, they lack some of the tools necessary to understand how to convey highly complex ideas clearly.

Furthermore, very few graduate students receive substantial guidance in decoding the conventions and unstated expectations of writing for academic publication. Since this has long been the case, too few professors are capable, even if they had time, of helping their students become highly skilled writers. And whether or not graduate school courses provide training in the craft of writing is largely hit or miss. Some may argue that situation is acceptable for disciplines that are primarily data-driven and not writing-intensive. Yet, academic success for those graduates still ultimately depends on writing grants and publishing results.

Admittedly, the picture of how the profession prepares young academics for success in writing is complicated. There are indeed professors who are highly accomplished authors and who devote time to helping their graduate students master the craft of writing. But seldom is a serious focus on teaching writing for publication a substantial part of the curriculum.

A common mistake made by even well-meaning professors can also seriously erode junior academics’ writing confidence. In giving feedback on writing, some professors focus largely on grammar and copyediting in an attempt to help their students understand the craft of writing from the ground up. Ironically, the hours they pour into redlining papers often leaves students with a sense of shame since correctness is a minimum requirement for being deemed as capable in academia. What’s worse, the large percent of feedback devoted to copyediting dwarfs the few, general remarks about the content. This can leave writers with the suspicion that their ideas don’t merit serious consideration. Thus, the seeds are planted for later full-blown crises in confidence. This unfortunate scenario, though, is understandable. Just as too little attention is paid to the craft of writing in many graduate programs, too little training occurs in how to provide constructive feedback about writing.

Lack of Training in Providing Constructive Feedback

Professors often rely on techniques their mentors used and that they have picked up from colleagues and from engaging in peer review. I’ll admit the picture is a complicated one. Some faculty members have developed excellent skills in providing truly constructive feedback. I have read, for example, peer review reports that offered specific and detailed assessments of what is working well in the article under review, as well as politely phrased criticisms of areas that need further work with good suggestions for specific steps for improvement. I suspect those peer reviewers offer the same kind of even-handed and constructive feedback to their students. All too often, though, graduate students get much briefer and vague suggestions, such as “sharpen the thesis and clean up the organization.”  Unfortunately, that kind of shorthand is clear only to writers who already have the kind of understanding of the craft that such papers demonstrate the author doesn’t have.

This overview points to only some of the dynamics that can set academics up for self-doubt about their writing ability. This blog series does not aim to provide an exhaustive list of reasons for this phenomenon but rather to move on to the pressing question: How can academics develop or regain confidence in themselves as writers?  The next blog in this series describes essential shifts in thinking and concrete steps authors can take to begin this process.

  • Mrs M says:

    Sep 07, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    A few months ago, I received a particularly nasty response from an academic journal peer reviewer - unconstructive, lacking in evidence for the negative remarks, rude, and aggressive. It's knocked my confidence completely. Even though I'm a mid-career academic and a tenured associate professor with a string of publications, I'm in a state where I start to physically shake now whenever I open a communication from a publisher or a journal. As a result, I am finding it very hard to carry on; I seem to have lost the ability to write, I go dizzy when I look at a paper, and I can barely read them aloud at conferences. Academic bullying of this type is far too common. Ripping somebody's work to shreds is not criticism; it's harrassment. And when careers depend on publishing, it becomes even more serious. If I had been younger when I'd received that critique, I would have given up on academia completely. As it is, I wish I had never gone into it. Peer review nowadays seems more and more like a forum for academics to smash down their competitors. I guess they'd tell me to toughen up, but not everybody is in the privileged position of having the security and confidence to do that.

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