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The emotional journey to clear research writing

· 3 min read
Taylor Krohn

Better writing

My academic writing classes start with skeptics and usually end with converts. The path between can be uncomfortable.

Some participants hate writing. Some have had bad past experiences, which they describe as "frustrating" and even "traumatic".

frustration Photo by Elisa Ventur

The beginning of a class is uncertain; the participants are exposed to ideas that they have never encountered before; it's normal to be skeptical.

The end is rewarding and hopeful. They have seen their writing transform. They have learned things they never thought to ask. And I hope that they feel empowered to make their own decisions about how they communicate their research, grounded in science and logic.

thoughtful Photo by No Revisions

During the course, as we open our minds to new ideas and practice new skills, we usually have to work through some uncomfortable emotions: fear and vulnerability. It is extremely uncomfortable to be confronted with everything that we do not know.

Most PhD students in my classes are mature, self-aware, reflective and emotionally intelligent.

But occasionally young people will struggle to be so far out of their comfort zone. The students who are most susceptible to struggle are usually those who feel less confident in their position and who fear making mistakes.

Younger and less experienced students can have a hard time managing this discomfort. The fear and vulnerability may come out as arrogance: a defense mechanism.

When we are too afraid to acknowledge our fear and discomfort, we block our learning by closing ourselves off to the first and most important stage of the learning process (Shu): the one where we feel the most discomfort. (Shu is the first stage of learning according to the Japanese concept of Shuhari, which I wrote about here.)

Fear and vulnerability may be disguised as defensiveness and arrogance

If you refuse to even try a new technique, it can look like arrogance. You might say you don't believe in it or claim that you have your own style--but really, deep down, you are just afraid to fail.

If you have been expressing your fear and vulnerability as arrogance, you are not alone: arrogance is a common obstacle in this first stage of learning according to Shuhari1:

"Arrogance and overconfidence will urge you to skip SHU. This is impossible to do and attempting to do so can be dangerous. SHU is necessary. Sometimes, certain people tend to be ignorant and don't realise all the work, the effort and focus that is required to master something. They see skilled people (but not the effort they put in) and assume they are able to emulate these people, without the work and effort that is needed to achieve that skill.

Put simply, you can't "break the rules" if you never learn what those rules are in the first place. It's wandering blind. A person who tries to skip SHU is highly likely to make dangerous mistakes, for themselves and others around them.

To think that you're able to skip the most important lessons when you don't even know what those lessons are is the very definition of Arrogance.

Don't be arrogant, be patient and take your time, learn everything you can about the system and the rules. Only then can you consider progressing into HA [the next stage of learning]."

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  1. The quotes are taken from this site.