Writing in Difficult Times? Learn from Sharon Zumbrunn

Categories: Academic Writing Month, Other, Writing and Editing


For the 2020 MethodSpace AcWriMo we aimed to catalyze new thinking about Publishing Trends (and what they mean for academic writers.) See the whole series here. While the month is ending, the writing continues!

In the AcWriMo webinar, comments by Dr. Sharon Zumbrunn struck a chord with attendees. She spoke about the challenges of writing in isolation, finding acceptance of “good enough” to overcome perceptions of perfection that can keep us from making progress. I wanted to hear more, so asked to interview her.

JS. In today’s Covid-19 situation we are all feeling a bit on edge. You write about writers’ stress and anxiety—can you offer suggestions to those who are struggling to stay focused?

SZ. These days, stress and anxiety are strangers to no one. And, for some of us, our productivity demands didn’t get the memo that we are in a pandemic. Trying to keep up with productivity demands of “normal times” during times that are anything but normal is enough to make anyone feel pretty spinny. Fortunately, there are tricks to heading off such spinny feelings.

The best trick I know is to be super – I’m talking super-duper – realistic about the goals we set to achieve for our work. My overarching goal? I try to write a little every single day. Seriously, a little. If I can work on even one project for 20 minutes each day, then I feel successful. #progress Sure, I might write more if my tiny humans don’t need help in virtual school or if my teaching and service responsibilities (that also didn’t receive the pandemic memo) allow me to do so, but really, I’m content with the 20 minutes that I logged on my project that day. That 20 minutes helped me move the project forward. That 20 minutes was progress. And, to make sure that I keep making that progress, I try to schedule my mini writing block at the same time every single day. First thing in the morning before my littles are awake and all up in my hair is usually best for me.

The next important thing for me is to keep my (mostly virtual) writing village on speed dial. My writing village consists of clients and colleagues who join me to write at scheduled times during the week. When we meet, we share our writing goals for the session and quickly get to work behind our respective zoom screens. We take time to check in on each other, celebrate our wins, and lament our writing struggles. More than anything, this virtual village time gives each of us at least one other human to write alongside, alone, but together.

JS. The blank page can be intimidating, the half-finished project can be hard to complete. How can writers get started and keep going?

SZ. That blinking cursor on a blank page is the WORST! So often, it feels like it’s talking to me, saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you’re doing.” And then I find myself nodding along and soon I’ve shimmied straight up the bananas tree. In times like these, I lean on writing ninja apps to write without lifting my pen (or having to stare at that awful cursor). In particular, I love the Voice Dream Reader app, which reads my draft to me. I also use the notes app on my phone and dictate ideas I have about the draft while I listen. Other times, I begin my writing session in my notes app to dictate my early ideas for a writing project that I’m stuck on. I find it especially helpful to do this while taking a walk outside. Then, after my walk, I send the notes to my email inbox and voila—a draft (aka, the opposite of a blank page).    

JS. What tips can you offer to writers who are struggling with negative feedback? 

SZ. Receiving criticism about our writing can put us into a feedback funk, and in this space it’s easy to feel ratty about ourselves or the person offering the critique (or both). In my book, I focus quite a bit on the important roles that both the feedback giver and feedback receiver play, but here I’ll highlight a few strategies that feedback receivers can use to lessen the blow of criticism. The first thing to do before opening any commentary on your work is to take a deep breath and remind yourself that the comments typically will not be 100% rainbows and unicorns.

Also take time to remind yourself that the feedback is given to help move the work forward, not as a personal attack (especially since most academics were not trained on how to give feedback (!)). Then, after reading the comments, put it away—far away—and set a calendar reminder to come back to it in a few days. This will give you the space to process any negative feels on your own or with someone from your writing village. When the calendar reminder alerts you that it’s time to get back to the project, simply take it comment by comment. What can you do to strategically address each suggestion? What questions arise as you work through the comments? Don’t be shy about asking clarifying questions about the feedback you receive. After all, feedback is only effective if we use it and learn from it.  

JS. Where can new academic writers turn to for help with the basics of organization, structure, and grammar?

SZ. I’m a big fan of Helen Sword’s work. Her books, Stylish Academic Writing and The Writer’s Diet are two of my faves. I also really like Patricia Goodson’s book, Becoming an Academic Writer.

JS. How can writers benefit from reading Why Aren’t You Writing? Research, Real Talk, Strategies, & Shenanigans?

SZ. I wrote Why Aren’t You Writing to help academics understand the psychological, social, emotional, and motivational hurdles that can get in the way of writing progress. From the inner shenanigans, such as anxiety and the imposter phenomenon, to the contextual shenanigans, such as what we write, the feedback we receive on drafts, who we write alongside, and how we work with collaborators, this book offers strategies to engage readers in building a healthier relationship with writing. And, because I find traditional textbooks terrrrribly boring, I’ve included actual shenanigans in the form of mildly absurd quizzes and activities (e.g., Dress Your Writing Monster paper doll cut-out, Perfectionism Voodoo Doll) throughout to offer a bit of comic relief oft-needed in times of writer duress-distress.

JS. Anything else you’d like to add?

SZ. Whenever I work one-on-one with clients or lead writing workshops and retreats, I always emphasize the power of grace—for yourself as a writer, for your writing, and for the other writers at your side. By grace, I mean operating in the space of support and nonjudgment. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to be annoyed. Grace is critical on the journey to becoming a more peaceful academic writer. So, the next time you pick up your pen or start typing next to that blinking cursor, make sure you’re first wearing your grace googles.

Sharon’s new book is now available!

See Why Aren’t You Writing? Research, Real Talk, Strategies, & Shenanigans.

(It might be a great gift for the struggling writers on your gift list!)

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