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Frustration: The essence of good writing?

Everyone in academia can empathise with that feeling of frustration that accompanies lengthy writing tasks, such as theses, journal chapters and edited books. Words, phrases and syntactical choices are pored over; paragraphs are experimented with, adapted and sometimes cast away; and whole sections are worked and reworked until there emerges a coherent and beautifully crafted piece fit for the most erudite and discerning of audiences. Given the level of attention and mental acuity required when writing academically, it’s perhaps not surprising frustration is felt regularly.

But what is frustration and how often is it felt by academic writers? How is it realised and is there a cure? Most importantly, is it essential to academic writing or a useless emotion that gets in the way?

These are some of the questions guiding one of the “engaging, well-written articles” shortlisted for the Higher Education and Research Development Journal Article of the Year. Written by Helen Sworda, Evija Trofimovaa and Madeleine Ballard, ‘Frustrated academic writers’ begins with a familiar scenario for those in academia:

“You were supposed to have the article finished two months ago. But one of your co-authors has been ill, and other commitments have jostled their way into spaces reserved for writing: an overdue book review, an emergency staffing meeting. Your Masters student has just sent you her fifth draft; your partner called to say the roof is leaking. Still, here you are at last, seated in front of your computer on a rainy Friday afternoon, ready to take on that recalcitrant introductory section.”

‘Recalcitrant’ is an apt word to describe academic writing endeavours. Crafting dense, well-researched and cohesive sections of an article is a tricky – even slippery – task; it’s a tiring and at times frustrating experience that reflects the difficulty in bridging the (sometimes fleeting) ideas in one’s mind with the written word. Indeed, according to the authors of the article, frustration is, by far, the most common emotion felt by academic writers.

Some of the questionnaire responses below highlight how intimately bound frustration and academic writing are:

Frustration when I don’t get time for [writing].

Frustrated … [that I] can’t seem to find the right words.

Bit of frustration – why can’t I write things faster? How hard can it be?

I often go through periods of frustration (anger!)

When I don’t respect my planning, I get frustrated.

Frustration [that as] a non-native speaker I feel … limited in my vocabulary.

But what is frustration? And do academic writers need it? The authors of the study contend that neuroscience can offer us some clues, providing some relief for “tormented writers”. They argue frustration is hard-wired into a reward-seeking system that is mammalian. As they explain:

“Mammals and humans alike feel arousal in anticipation of their reward, an addictive and pleasurable feeling that can be self-stimulated. Perhaps, when we start to write, we anticipate the reward (a finished chapter, an academic publication) too soon or too much?”

The article then argues that language is “frustration exemplified: a shifting yet intractable barrier between our ideas and our expression of them, between where we are and where want to go”.

To sum up the difficulty in academic writing and why it’s often accompanied by feelings of frustration, the authors construct the act of writing as a maze, a “multicursal structure” full of “false leads, wrong turns and dead ends” in the pursuit of a reward.

The full-text versions of 'Frustrated academic writers' and the other shortlisted articles can be viewed at Taylor and Francis Online for three weeks.

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