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The Writing War

Writing often feels like trench warfare, and the blank page is our field of war. We struggle against the enemy as we push forward in the hopes of making progress. Writing can become constant battles of small gains and losses over a long period of time. Consequently, the battle of progress is wearing and draining. Those constant gains and losses of "two sentences forward and one sentence back" destroys our motivation to continue. The war of progress is one that pits us against our ultimate enemy: ourselves.

I very much understand the war of small gains and losses that characterizes dissertation/thesis writing. While writing my dissertation, I frequently fought against my dissertation. I strove to conquer it with a constant bombardment of words, sentences, paragraphs, and my own sense of perfection. In my mind, I made the dissertation an enemy I needed to conquer. In my mind, conquering meant perfection. Consequently, in an effort to make it "sound right," every word and sentence suffered heavy scrutiny and tinkering. Inevitably, the battle wore me down. My gains grew smaller and my losses greater. As my frustration increased, I regularly contemplated the "nuclear" option: deleting what I had and starting over.

Does this sound familiar to you? Has your writing become a never-ending war of attrition? Thankfully, writing doesn't have to be this way. Moreover, fighting against our own work is counterproductive. It's a war that we can't win. We can't win it because it's a war we fight against ourselves. Making progress in our writing requires that we shed off that warring mentality. Writing is not a war or an adversary to overcome. We must instead learn to let go of those adversarial tendencies.

Let go of perfection. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being detail oriented. Any writer will need to pay attention to the details at some point. However, perfection can inhibit progress. Constant debate over every single word, sentence, and paragraph makes writing slow and cumbersome. It's also mentally taxing. Long-term arguing with yourself over the use of a certain word or phrase blocks your mind from seeing the whole picture. Perfectionism keeps you from doing the important stuff. The time you spend debating over small words or phrases is time better spent writing and finishing your chapter or section. Highlight the phrase or sentence for later if you really can't make a decision. You can always come back to it later. Remember, an imperfect chapter is better than a perfect sentence! So save the debate for the editing stage.

Let go of deletion. Related to perfection, constant deletion of the same sentence or paragraph will frustrate you to no end. It drives me crazy to hear when writers delete and start over large portions of their papers. Never delete anything unless you're sure that you're not going to use it! It makes no sense to rewrite the same sentence a thousand times. Thankfully, technology makes writing incredibly easy. Instead of deleting, keep a running reserve of the unused phrases and sentences at the bottom of the page. With this reserve, you can cut and paste these phrases or sentences into different areas. In addition, it's especially helpful when starting a new paragraph or section. Keeping those unused words or phrases provides choices and alternatives while you sort out how your paper should sound. Remember, you'll probably change your mind several times. Rewriting the same thing you've already deleted wastes valuable writing time!

Let go of self-criticism. You are not the enemy! Embrace yourself and resist the urge to be self-critical. Yes, you will be unhappy with your writing from time to time. Few of us are ever 100% satisfied with everything we write. You must learn to recognize that and let go of the urge to go to war with your writing. Acknowledge your imperfections, accept your limitations, and embrace your work. There will always be room for growth and improvement. Your dissertation, thesis, or paper will not be perfect! There's no such thing as perfect work. The sooner you can embrace this, the happier you'll be. And the more progress you'll make!

Make writing, not war!

Photo by Mert Talay on Unsplash

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Nathaniel Grubbs
Nathaniel Grubbs
Oct 21, 2021

I've never felt the war-like approach to my own writing. I actually tend to have a fault against deleting in a detrimental direction, wanting to keep everything I write, and to edit text as minimally as possible, even if it no longer serves me. I've had to learn how to recognize the lack of service and be willing to restart from scratch. But, as you recommend, even then I don't delete completely. I might save the old sentence or paragraph elsewhere, out of sight, while I start with a fresh page to reinvent what I am trying to say, because there is always that word or phrase that was a brief moment of inspiration in the first go that I…

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