writer's motivationIn No Sweat, How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring you a Lifetime of Fitness, my friend Michelle Segar explains that the intellectual knowledge that exercise will provide future benefits such as weight loss or better health does squat for actually getting us out of bed and into the yoga studio, gym, or onto a bicycle. What motivates us is the immediate payoff of how good it feels to stretch, move, or feel the wind rushing by as we pedal the bike, and the knowledge that we will be in a better mood and have more energy afterwards. Seger writes, “What sustains us, we sustain.”

This is also true for academic writers. Of course people want to be published and promoted, but that is not what sustains them. The stimulation of grappling with interesting ideas and the feeling of satisfaction at having moved a piece of writing forward are far more motivating.  But writing is not always immediately easy or satisfying, so how can academic writers come to see their writing time as a gift rather than a chore?

Here are three strategies that have worked for my writing clients:

  1. Shift your mindset from “I have to write” to “I get to write.” You get paid to explore questions that you find interesting. You get to choose what to work on, when to work on it, and who to work with. How cool is that?
  2. In the early stages, imagine a friendly audience. This could be a friend from graduate school, a supportive colleague, or an advisee. Some people even start out by writing a letter, for example, explaining, “in the literature section I am going to show how the works of x, y, and z laid the foundation for our study. We chose this methodology for these reasons. Here’s what we found and this is why it matters…. Once they have a draft written in letter form, they go through and adapt the tone to fit the journal they are aiming for, and consider likely criticisms that need to be addressed.
  3. Choose a positive metaphor for the writing process. The best metaphors draw from activities that are both challenging and satisfying, such as climbing a mountain. The best way to climb a mountain is not a single vertical climb, but using switchbacks to break up the hike into manageable chunks. There may be obstacles along the way – a rockslide that must be scrambled over or detoured around, mud to trudge through, or the hot sun. But there is also the sweet smell of pine trees, blueberry bushes, and a spectacular view at the top. Likewise, writing is more manageable when broken up into shorter chunks, and it can be slow and trudging one day and an experience of flow and discovery the next day. My clients have identified metaphors from surfing, running, knitting, cooking, and much more. Once you’ve chosen your metaphor, find an image that represents it, and post that image above your desk, or use it as a screensaver. But if you spend more than ten minutes looking for an image, you are procrastinating – and should go back to writing!