This semester, I took my first
fiction workshop in Princeton’s Creative Writing Program. I had taken two
poetry courses in previous semesters and wanted to try something new. (Pro-tip:
if you haven’t yet taken a CWR course, definitely consider applying for one
Creative writing is, in many ways,
a break from academic writing. It does not center on data, analysis, or
argumentation. Instead, workshops focus on developing compelling images,
characters, stories. Creative writing also has access to a wider variety of
forms than academic writing, which tends to adhere to a narrow set of
relatively conservative styles.
However, some of my workshop instructor’s writing advice has translated well to my academic writing. After all, writing is writing, and many of the same challenges confront both creative and academic writers. Below I’ve collected five of her best pieces of writing advice:
I meet with my JP adviser every other Monday morning. No matter how hard I try to beat procrastination, the weekend before each meeting is always an anxious scramble to complete a draft. On Sunday night, I worry that I’m unforgivably behind schedule, that my topic was a bad choice, that my writing is incoherent.
From conversations with my friends, I’ve realized that wanting to avoid our advisers is totally normal. It can be scary to share our work—especially when it’s unfinished, and especially when the reader will eventually be grading it. But as I’ve learned over the past semester, though it can be terrifying, meeting with my adviser has only helped and reassured me in the research and writing process.
When I feel anxious the Sunday before an adviser meeting, I’m not actually worried about what my adviser will think. I’m worried about having to confront my own work. If I send only a two-page draft, I have to admit to myself that I’m behind schedule. If my argument isn’t fully baked, I have to admit that I haven’t yet figured out how to approach my topic. If my writing is confusing, I have to admit that it needs a lot more editing.
Admitting mistakes or weaknesses is always hard. It feels so much easier to pretend they don’t exist—to convince yourself that you’ll be on schedule soon, that there are no holes in your argument, that your writing needs no editing. However, as difficult as it may be, confronting these questions regularly not only improves your work, but prevents a flood of buried anxiety at the end of the project.
I’m not overly stressed right now … and it feels weird. Last semester, I got used to the combo of my procrastination and taking three seminars, so I was always drowning in last minute readings and response papers. But this semester, things changed: I’m deliberately managing my time better because I don’t want to experience the frenzy I went through in the fall.
It feels odd not to be under crushing stress. It’s almost as if I fear things will get gradually harder and I won’t be able to keep up. That said, I discovered I really like this calm state I’m in. I’m more focused and engaged, probably because I’m making an effort not to put myself in the same procrastination- stress-burning out cycle. My work is getting more demanding each week, but I’m still maintaining an equilibrium.
I realized I’d like to maintain this mentality as long as possible, especially when midterms and finals weeks hit. Here are some tips I have–whether you feel crushing pressure or just feel like you’re coasting through–on how to stay relaxed and optimistic even as your work becomes more demanding.
“We can all remember a time we procrastinated and it really paid off. We hang onto that like gold.”
My ears perked up. I was driving home from the supermarket when Dr. Tim Pychyl, director of Carleton College’s Procrastination Research Group in Canada, appeared on NPR to discuss “Why We Procrastinate.” My thesis, never far from my thoughts, immediately came to mind. I listened closely as Pychyl explained procrastination: what it is, why we do it, and whether it gives us what we want.
Pychyl highlights a common misconception: that we work best under pressure. I know graduates who wrote the bulk of their theses in the final two weeks, justified by the notion that productivity and creativity are most accessible when facing a tight time constraint. Stress, however, according to Pschyl, doesn’t produce the best work — it just forces us to complete tasks. He discusses an experiment where students were made to text in their feelings about work throughout the school week. Earlier on, students justified their procrastination with the common myth of last-minute creativity. However, as deadlines approached, nearly all wished they had started earlier.
So why is procrastination such a common practice? Pychyl says it has to do with rewards processing. If we do well on a task that we complete last minute, that behavior is reinforced. Success remains fresh in our mind, while stress fades in our memories. It masks the fact that we might have done even better — and slept a whole lot more — had we allowed ourselves more time.