you can’t always write what you want

I seem to spend a lot of time these days writing things that I don’t much like, things that I don’t want to write now, or perhaps ever. This writing feels like a chore, an obligation, a duty, a necessity. What’s more, it doesn’t feel like ‘me’. It seems mechanical and as if I can’t put anything of myself into it.

My list of writing I don’t want to do includes a lot of predictable bureaucratic essentials: reports of projects; reports of activities of the research centre I direct; reports about research activities for audit purposes and reports on student progress. But it also includes some writing which will make a difference for other people and so I must do this even though I don’t enjoy the writing: references; letters of support; reviews of papers, bids and book proposals; assessments of various theses and assignments.

Both of these – bureaucratic essentials and things for other people – are written to fairly conventional formulae. There is an accepted way to begin, proceed and conclude the writing. These are texts written for known readers with predictable expectations and the writing often feels like just filling in the blanks – and indeed there are often pre-formatted blank boxes. Just insert x hundred characters. There is little opportunity for any writer to play with these kinds of frames, to insert themselves into the writing, to write with any kind of creativity. This writing gets done sometimes with gritted teeth and frequently at the last moment.

But there are other forms of writing that I don’t want to do too. There are things that I’ve committed to. These pieces just have to be done and often to a deadline. They can end up being a bit of a struggle, particularly getting a start on them … book chapters I’ve promised to write; journal articles I owe; contracted research reports for funders. Then there are the things I ought to write – papers from research projects to communicate the results to the appropriate audiences; papers that need to be written so that data doesn’t go to waste; books that might make a difference to policy and practice. Things I ought to write hang around in the back of my mind, or on a list of writing to do at some indeterminate time in the future.

By now I’m sure that you can see that most of the writing that I actually do is writing I don’t want to do. This may come as a surprise since I do write a lot. In fact, I write nearly every day. For example, this year I have first authored four book chapters, three refereed journal articles, three research reports and several op-ed pieces as well as co-written about a third of a book. Another book chapter is underway together with a further research report and a slew of conference papers. So not wanting to write doesn’t equate to me not writing at all – although I do confess to having stalled on a book manuscript for far too long.

The only form of writing that I usually – but not always – want to do is this patter blog, and that’s because I can just make it up as I go along, say whatever I want to say and however I decide to say it. It seems to be, in my case anyway, that it’s the requirement to write that inevitably produces initial resistance, a reluctance to face the blank screen, procrastination, attention directed to other more pressing things.

Now the first thing about dealing with the writing I don’t want to do syndrome is to recognize that this is the norm. Moments of aha, of inspiration, of writing what you really want to do (apart from blogging), are rare. It’s only very occasionally that an idea takes hold of me with great force and I have to write immediately. The I must write this now feeling is the exception. The vast majority of writing that I do – and most academic writers and writers of all shapes and forms are in the same boat, I suspect – is in some way a chore, certainly at the start.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with this must get going on the writing. As I was revising this post I noticed Athene Donald writing about her practice of ‘mulling it over’ before she begins to write. She thinks herself into the piece, mentally sorts her thoughts, makes sure she has a starting point when she sits down to compose. And some people do speed writing exercises in order to get the writing going and to find out what they have to say. Many speed-writers make a social occasion of the start-up practice. For them, beginning writing is a bit like going to the gym with a good friend – finding a way together to make sure that you both meet your separate obligations.

But I don’t mull over or speed write. I do something else again. I’m quite self-disciplined about writing and can generally overcome the pesky writing I don’t want to do. (Except in the case of the stalled book and I do think this is a matter of finding a bigger chunk of time.)

Rather like artists who have a studio routine that they use in order to get the ideas flowing, I start the writing I don’t want to do with a set activity, making a list of key points. These are the things that must be said in the piece. Then I add a few sentences to each of the points so that I have something like a series of short paragraphs. At this stage I might cut and paste something into this new document from a research report that I then rewrite. Or I might write a small piece about methods or literature or play with a bit of data analysis, depending on the type of writing I’m doing. Next I tinker with the points and paragraphs to get them in some kind of order. Generally this pre-writing ends up as a long list in the right order. More often than not, if I am writing by myself or first authoring, I also write a short or long abstract – a Tiny Text – and decide on the title.

By this stage I am committed to the piece of writing. I have things to say, I know the order in which they will be said, and I often have an idea of how to bring a bit of authorial voice to the process. And it is when I start to bring my own ‘style’ into the writing that it transforms – it is no longer writing I don’t want to do – it is now something I am writing. The don’t want and don’t like writing have disappeared and I am now in the process, the writing is underway. And because I’ve been through this process a lot, I know once that once I have started writing in this way, the odds are that I’ll finish it.

The question of wanting to write can get in the way of starting to write, but only if you let it. Sometimes, as in the case of bureaucratic writing and writing for other people, it’s the sense of responsibility that gets it going and done. For the vast majority of other academic writing, it’s a matter of finding a technique and a set of tools that will allow you to start, despite any reluctance you feel. The way to get going will differ from person to person – it might be mulling it over, speed writing, or beginning with a simple list or something else. You just have to try things until you find what works for you.

You can’t always write what you want – but as the song goes – if you try sometime, you might just find you get what you need….

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in writer's block, writing, writing as work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to you can’t always write what you want

  1. Next time I’m stuck I may borrow your list of points idea. Once I get going I’m generally okay but it’s the wanting to do anything else but the academic or freelancing stuff I need to do. My difficulty is that my creative writing wants to take over and I really can’t let it!

  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Very good points on how to get the writing about what one wishes not to going on!

    * Thank you for associating the word “enjoy” with writing. Not much of people realise such association!

  3. Jane Winter says:

    Thank you for another very useful article. I find almost all of your posts valuable & inspiring, but this one particularly so; it is overcoming the inertia between not writing something (yet) and being underway with a project that I find so daunting & time consuming. It is reassuring to find that someone who has so much more experience faces similar issues, and illuminating to discover their tips for “getting the ball rolling”.

  4. Di says:

    What a great piece – and so well written. What of the fear of writing – of exposing yourself? It sounds as though you may never have been afflicted with this, but I’m sure I’m not alone. I’ve thought long and hard about the reasons behind this in my own circumstance – a need for perfection and fearing criticism? – a perpetual crisis of confidence? But I don’t really know the answer… I’m going to try to implement ideas from your process… It might be the advice I’ve been waiting for.

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