How do I get better at writing?
I think this may be one of the few questions that plagues EVERY graduate student (and even you high achieving undergrads and post-bacs, in preparation for grad school).
Regardless of area of expertise or specific grad school structure or requirements, nearly all of us have to tackle an extremely difficult task: WRITING OUR THESIS/DISSERTATION (capstone project, honor’s thesis, first author publication, etc.).
And just like many of you out there, I have REALLY struggled with writing. And I’m here to let you in on one of my biggest writing tips:
KNOW YOUR TENDENCY AND APPLY IT TO YOUR WRITING HABITS.
What tendency am I talking about? Where you fall within Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework.
Before diving into this framework, let me demonstrate where I was at before harnessing my tendency to improve writing habits:
It seems like there’s a good reason pop culture depicts professional writers as brooding, dark, home-dwelling, robe-donning vampire souls… WRITING SUCKS THE LIFE OUT OF YOU.
Writing can be especially plaguing on those days when you’re coming up with elaborate schemes to plan, brainstorm, procrastinate, or ultimately avoid the writing. I have had countless “writing sessions” spent vacillating between googling “how to start writing a manuscript” and in a panic, convinced I was admitted to grad school by mistake.
I have often even fantasized about standing on a library table to scream out, “WHY IS WRITING SO HARD???!!!!” Yup. Tantrumming just like a toddler.
It’s not like I didn’t understand the steps to take. Yes, I took an undergrad class that taught us the structure of a manuscript and how to write it. Yes, I took the stats classes that taught me how to describe my results. YES I HAVE READ HUNDREDS OF EMPIRICAL ARTICLES AND UNDERSTAND HOW AN ARTICLE IS SUPPOSED TO FLOW. But all of this “knowledge” didn’t seem to improve my writing.
What I didn’t understand: my habits/patterns and strategies to change them.
My problems included:
- I. COULD. NOT. GET. STARTED. It seemed like an endless ascension JUST GETTING STARTED. A LOT of the time I got stuck here. I’d spend hours at the library, without writing a single word.
- I felt like I didn’t have time to write. Since it seemed to take me HOURS and HOURS to write a damn paragraph, I felt like I did not have the time. I tried the whole “schedule writing time” tip, but that didn’t work AT ALL for me (add in the tendency and this makes sense)
- No matter how often people (including myself) told me “you have to write,” I could not make it happen. It felt like I was on a mission to do the opposite of what I needed to succeed.
- The goal of “finishing a manuscript” was too vague, broad, and unfathomable. I was staring at one paragraph in word, attempting to imagine myself publishing this idea of a paper “some time” down the road.
- Nothing catastrophic happened when I didn’t write. As I’m still learning, graduate school is flexible and encourages autonomy (which I LOVE – add the tendency insights below and this makes a lot of sense). But it also requires a lot self-discipline, and good habits (which I HATE, again – makes sense considering this tendency stuff). Unlike my undergrad days when I knew a caring professor would consult me if I was behind on something (ahhhh… Loma), literally NO ONE freaked out when I was behind on writing. If I was meeting my bare deadlines, staying up on most things, I could get away with a lot of not writing.
Since writing has proven to be a distinct pain in the ass for me the past four + years, I’ve always been on the hunt for strategies to help with the problems above.
Fast forward to Fall 2015 (the start of my second year in graduate school): I was introduced to “The Four Tendencies” framework by science writer and podcaster, Gretchen Rubin.
I’m going to do a more in-depth review of her book on this framework (The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) later this month, so stay tuned for more on this.
In short, her framework explains the four different patterns in which people respond to expectations. In our lives, we face both inner and outer expectations. Inner expectations are those that we expect of ourselves (e.g., “I want to eat healthier,” “I want to meditate,” “I want to publish a manuscript this semester”). Outer expectations make up the things that others expect of us (e.g., “This assignment is due the Monday of finals week at 4pm,” “Thanks for agreeing to pick up dinner tonight – see you at 7!” or “I need a full draft of your introduction by next Friday”).
There are four possible combinations of how a person could respond to (meet or resist) to inner versus outer expectations. Here they are:
- The Upholder: Readily meets both inner AND outer expectations
- The Obliger: Struggles to meet inner expectations, but readily meets outer expectations
- The Questioner: Easily meets inner expectations, but resists outer expectations
- The Rebel: Struggles to meet both inner AND outer expectations alike
Seems simple, right? It IS. But that’s the beauty of this framework.
Graduate school is chock full of both inner and outer expectations. Each tendency comes with both strengths and weaknesses (I’ll cover this in my post on the book). And I’m telling you: knowing yours can SUBSTANTIALLY improve your writing habits (and really any other habit you’re trying to tackle).
Here are a few writing strategies for each tendency:
Upholders: Set a deadline for yourself or utilize your mentor’s deadline. You will make the deadline. You always do. BUT – protect and prioritize your writing time. You know better than anyone else that if you agree to do something, you WILL. So, be sure you’re not over-promising yourself or others in other areas of expectation. Say no to a few things to make sure you can say yes to writing.
Obligers: Create external accountability. “Huh?” What I mean is: structure “your” writing goal/habits in a way that makes you accountable to others in the process. Example: join a writing group/partner and agree to send ___ number of pages/words to them each week. This accountability will drive you to accomplish your goals. Also, create deadlines with your advisor and ask them to hold you accountable to the deadlines.
Questioners: Create your own writing deadline and goals, breaking them down into achievable steps, and continuously revisit your motivation for writing. Questioners often thrive when they understand why they need to do something.
Rebels: This is so tough (I’m a rebel, so I feel you rebels out there). Rebels are driven by values, often by knowing the consequences, but usually only want to do things when they “feel” like doing it (which never happens with writing, but more on that later). Take some time to sit down and reflect on why you are going to write. Try to think about how writing reflects your values as a graduate student (e.g., “I value flexibility – I want to publish ___# of manuscripts to allow maximum flexibility in career choice;” “I value exploration – I want to finish my dissertation before internship so I can enjoy the new city I’ll be living in,” “I value personal responsibility and dependability – I see myself as someone who follows through on their word”). And then just write.
How did harnessing my “rebel” tendency help my writing habits?
- Now I know that I naturally resist ANY expectation outright (this includes scheduling, accountability groups, telling myself I need to write, others telling me I need to write).
- This knowledge (though seemingly dreary) helped me to stop wasting time on strategies that work for most people (asking people to hold me accountable, setting deadlines, scheduling writing periods in my google calendar). I finally understood why I was running into such hurdles anytime I tried these strategies. MORE accountability = LESS follow-through with rebels.
- Instead, I focused on my values daily, worked in flexibility whenever I could (in the morning, creating my schedule for the day so it felt like I was “choosing” what to do instead of planning ahead of time), and reminded myself that I was NOT the kind of graduate student that has to delay a year because I was behind on writing.
- I informed my advisor of my tendency (he’s also a rebel, which makes for some interesting productivity patterns), which helped us to brainstorm together ways to increase my writing.
There is SO MUCH out there about these tendencies, so I encourage you to explore more. As you become more familiar with them, you may even recognize the tendencies of your mentor and professors, which can be SO helpful in understanding what they expect from you.
So – what are you waiting for? Go take the quiz here!
And be on the lookout for my post on the Four Tendencies book, where I’ll share more about how this framework can help you in your own Grad School Grind!
Hang in there, friends!