Matthew Henry/stocksnap
Source: Matthew Henry/stocksnap

Writing is practically synonymous with graduate school. As grad students, not only are we encouraged to publish, publish, publish, but we’re also required to write excellent dissertations, compose flawless ethics applications, and hash out insightful term papers.

Not writing is rarely an option.

Yet, writing can be a major source of stress and anxiety for students. In fact, some research has suggested that around 50 percent of doctoral students in the U.S. and Canada drop out during the research proposal or dissertation-writing phases of their degrees before finishing their programs[1][2].

(This, by the way, is not an encouraging statistic for a person who’s currently in the middle of drafting her proposal. But I digress.)

So what’s getting in the way of all this writing? In a study published this month in the Higher Education Research & Development journal, authors Huerta, Goodson, Beigi, and Chlup explored writing anxiety, self-efficacy, and emotional intelligence (EI) amongst graduate students (N = 174) at a large, research-intensive university in the US[3]. Before I dive into their findings, I’ll briefly describe what they mean by each of these three factors:

  1. Writer’s anxiety: Feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure when faced with a writing task.
  2. Self-efficacy[4]: A belief in one’s capability (or confidence) to write in a given situation.
  3. Emotional intelligence (EI)[5]: The ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and use them to guide thinking and action (in the case of writing, using them to guide writing tasks).[6]

I imagine all grad students have faced hiccups in at least one of these areas at one time or another. However, these authors wanted to know more about these constructs, how they were related, and if there were any differences amongst students in how they experienced them.

Results revealed that, perhaps unsurprisingly, self-efficacy exhibited a significant negative association with writing anxiety (that is, higher self-efficacy was related to lower writing anxiety). In contrast, the authors found that EI accounted for very little of the students’ writing anxiety, and that this contribution was not statistically significant. However, the sample included highly emotionally intelligent individuals to begin with; thus, as the authors noted, the lack of variability in EI scores amongst participants may have skewed results.

Additionally, demographic differences contributed to the ways in which different groups of students experienced writing anxiety. For example, higher writing anxiety was reported amongst women, master’s students (as opposed to doctoral students), and students for whom English was not their first language.

So what do we do with this information? The authors of the study concluded by outlining ways in which universities can help reduce writing anxiety and increase self-efficacy amongst graduate student writers. They cited literature that has found tactics such as self-regulating one’s writing, writing regularly, and participation in a writing group as helping academic writers increase self-efficacy and decrease anxiety.

While these suggestions are likely helpful, they left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. It’s also important, I think, to uncover where writing anxiety is coming from. Is it unpleasant experiences with writing during grade school? Or systemic pressures for  academics to be “natural writers” who do not need support? 

Additionally, I can’t help but think about how so much of academic writing is devoid of creativity and personality. In an article written by Antoniou and Moriarty in the Teaching in Higher Education journal[7], the authors stated that:

Where guidance and support on academic writing has existed, the focus has been on technical issues, e.g. structuring journal articles, and procedures and protocols for publishing. Little attention has been paid to the more holistic aspects, such as the lecturer-writer’s sense of self and identity, their emotional orientation to their writing and their creative process.

This quote highlights what I believe are imperative aspects of the writing process; that is, that it is often deeply personal, emotional, and creative. However, academic demands and the belief that academic writing is purely an intellectual task can lead to disenchantment with the writing process, creating resentment amongst many academics. However, Antoniou and Moriarty argue that writing in any genre requires all aspects of the self, and they encourage academic writers to take a step back from the mechanics of writing and ask themselves questions such as: Who am I? What are my values? What does writing mean for me? Only after that should they ask themselves what they want to say through their writing and how they want to say it.

Furthermore, the authors suggest several beliefs about writing that can be used by faculties and graduate students to support writing anxiety:

  • Writing is a skill that can be taught: Given practice, guidance, and support, the authors assert that anyone can write academically. However, faculties need to commit to offering this support to their students, as students should not be solely responsible for developing their writing skills. 
  • Writing well involves building confidence and establishing safety: Because writing involves “emotional risk-taking,” writing groups should prioritize creating a safe space where vulnerabilities and worries can be voiced. Academic writers often struggle in silence about their writing concerns; however, seeking help with one’s writing should be supported and encouraged amongst academic communities.
  • Successful writing requires community: While creative writers often share early drafts of their work with other writers, there is a stigma amongst academic writers that their work should almost always appear polished. However, writing groups can help academic writers share the more raw versions of their work with others, eliciting precious feedback, helping them let go of perfectionism, and allowing them to get into the flow and joy of writing.

Antoniou and Moriarty also note that, “the most important lesson in developing one’s writing is to WRITE.” With this quote, I’m reminded of an undergraduate journalism course I took many years ago. My instructor reminded us that we wouldn’t expect to learn how to play an instrument without practice; similarly, we cannot expect to develop self-efficacy for writing without putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard).

References

Council of Graduate Schools (2008), PhD Completion and Attrition: Analysis of Baseline Program Data from the PhD Completion Project. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

​Huerta, M., Goodson, P., Beigi, M., & Chlup, D. (2017). Graduate students as academic writers: Writing anxiety, self-efficacy and emotional intelligence. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(4), 716-729.

See Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.

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