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Academic Coaching & Writing

I. Have You Lost Confidence in Your Writing?

Mar 19, 2015 by Amy Benson Brown

A crisis in writing confidence seems to be simmering in academia today. And I’m not talking about chagrin in response to the cheap shots media pundits take at jargon-filled conference paper titles. I’m talking about a soul-sucking sense of doubt about whether you can write articles and books you value and your colleagues will respect. Not long ago, a midcareer academic I work with summed up the spirit of this crisis when she said: “Right now, I don’t have a single thing to hold onto that makes me feel like I can do this.”  Though her situation was extreme, she has plenty of company in her struggle with self-doubt.

Increasing confidence in writing is one of the most common goals academics have when they begin to work with a writing coach. Many also come to coaching to get constructive feedback on how to best structure and present their research or navigate peer review. However, once we scratch the surface, many admit to being plagued with self-doubt about their writing. After a decade of working with researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines and at different career stages, I’ve come to see worries about writing ability as almost endemic. This lack of confidence, however, results from many causes.

Some academics once felt fairly confident but have lost faith in their writing ability. I think, for example, of a young scholar I worked with whose writing thrived when she was in graduate school, thanks to a supportive network of readers. But as an assistant professor, she found scant collegial support for developing her ideas. And she felt constant pressure to focus on other things. Without trusted sources of constructive feedback on her writing ideas, she immersed herself in class preparation and committee service. As the ticking of her tenure clock grew louder, she struggled to reconnect to her scholarship and carve out the time necessary to develop her publications.

Other academics trace their confidence troubles back to graduate school. Sometimes graduate students begin to lose their confidence as they try to reconcile opposing expectations and advice from their committee members. Though they may be hanging on in the fringes of the profession, deep-seated insecurities have made them hesitant to submit their work and have thus limited their careers. 

Professional battles can also leave academics bewildered and bruised. Repeated negative experiences with institutional evaluations or peer review can undermine anyone’s confidence. Recently, a brilliant critical theorist at an Ivy League institution, who had been through some tough conflicts, told me that when she begins a new writing project now, every thought is immediately accompanied by a fear.

It’s easy to imagine why people new to the profession, who may have few or no publications, harbor self-doubt about their writing ability. But such fears can also strike award-winning professors, particularly when their discipline begins embracing new trends that seem to marginalize their interests. Not surprisingly, career transition points—getting that first appointment, going up for promotion, or retooling research goals after tenure—seem to be when crises in confidence become acute.

Unfortunately, little research exists on how this problem of writing confidence among academics relates to problems with publishing success and career satisfaction. Though many studies have investigated techniques to help undergraduate writers and K-12 students, those findings don’t readily translate into approaches appropriate for adult professionals. This blog series explores some common causes of this crisis in confidence and ways I’ve found effective in helping writers confront and overcome them.

The next blog in this series argues that these crises in confidence are actually rooted in common dynamics of academic life. The blogs that follow describe shifts in thinking and concrete steps writers can take to strengthen their sense of their own capacity to write well and publish successfully.

Blog II.     How Academic Writers Lose Confidence

Blog III.    How Academic Writers Regain Confidence

Blov IV.    Bad Feelings About Writing Don’t Mean You’re a Bad Writer

Blog V.     The Importance of Recognizing Your Strengths As a Writer

Blog VI.    How to Honestly Assess Your Writing

Blog VII.   How to Get Better Writing Feedback and Make Better Use of It

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