Writing and Well-Being

Writing a PhD dissertation (or Master’s thesis) is a complex and lengthy process. As graduate students complete these writing tasks, they are socialized into their chosen professional field or discipline. Paradoxically, writing in graduate school is often an isolating activity where many students establish negative writing behaviors that they may carry with them into their long-term professional careers—behaviors that decrease writing productivity and generate writing aversiveness, both of which have negative consequences for academics who need to publish for professional success.

To make writing a more pleasurable, comfortable, and focused experience, many researchers have begun to advocate for a holistic approach to writing that embraces activities like mindfulness, yoga, and other forms of exercise—in other words, caring for the whole self rather than just the thinking self.

Here, we’ll cover a few tips for integrating holistic writing behaviors at the beginning of your writing sessions, during writing, and after finishing for the day.

Before a Writing Session

  • Incorporate some form of physical activity into your morning routine—running, cycling to work, taking the dogs for a walk, going for a swim, etc. These activities will help boost your energy for the writing session.
  • Take a few minutes at the beginning of your writing session for mindfulness practices. In short, the concept of mindfulness is to be aware of what’s happening in the present moment. This sounds easy but is usually easier said than done. For writers, mindfulness is a technique for calming the mind, moving past the internal critic, and focusing on the here-and-now of your writing. It’s especially useful for writers who feel overwhelmed or whose minds feel “cluttered” before or during the writing process.
    • A simple mindfulness exercise is to begin with your breath. Sit in a comfortable position, take three deep breaths to settle in, and spend a few moments just being aware of your breathing. If you notice that you’re thinking about lunch, other tasks you should do, or an upcoming vacation, come back to your breath again (and you will get distracted, so the key here is to practice coming back to the present, time and again). Use this same behavior during your writing: If you find that you’re thinking about your next coffee break or what you’ll do when you go home, take three deep breaths and refocus on the present moment.
    • Similarly, writing researchers have identified the role of self-talk in writer’s block. In one study, Boice (1997) found that common self-talk of blocked writers included thoughts like “Writing is too fatiguing and unpleasant; almost anything else would be more fun” “I’m not in the mood to write; I’m too depressed or unmotivated to write” “I feel impatient about writing; I need to rush to catch up on all the projects that I should already have finished” and “My writing will probably be criticized and I may feel humiliated.” Start by noticing the thoughts that arise, either by monitoring when you begin to feel discomfort about writing or by starting a writing session by jotting down the thoughts you have about writing. Then, begin to work toward more positive self-talk by saying “Stop. I can worry about this later” and supplanting the thought with something like “The sooner I get started, the sooner I will finish.” The goal is to eventually eliminate self-talk except for the generation of prose for writing.

During a Writing Session

Image of rocks by the ocean with tips to take a deep breath, unclench your jaw, do a few shoulder rolls, and take a break.

  • Writers often experience stress in the body in the form of physical pain in the shoulders, neck, eyes, lower back, and hips. This stress can inhibit creativity, lead to shorter writing sessions, and, over time, lead to writing aversiveness.
  • Many productive academic writers work in moderate sessions and take breaks. If you plan to write for 3 hours in the morning, plan to write for 45 or 50 minutes and then take a 10-15 minute break. Use that break to move away from your desk and move around; you might do some stretches to help alleviate stress.
  • Another quick way to monitor and deflect tension that arises from writing is to note the position of your tongue: Tense people keep their tongues at the roofs of their mouths. Move your tongue, stretch your jaw, and take a deep breath before returning to your writing.

After a Writing Session

  • Especially if you don’t find or make time for physical activity before you begin writing in the morning, try to take 30 minutes or so to exercise after your writing session. Again, this can take any form you want—the main idea is to find something that gives your brain a break.

In sum: Take a deep breath. Unclench your jaw. Do a few shoulder rolls. And celebrate your more comfortable and, we hope, enjoyable writing experiences!

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