My (Writing) Fortress of Solitude

Fortress of Solitude Secrets

This weeks post is a reflection on my writing process and what I need to get those term papers, grant proposals, and thesis statements finished. You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about Superman, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

From undergrad, to masters, to PhD my writing process has, not surprisingly, changed. It used to be that I could sit down and write a 15 page paper in a single night and hand that in for an A, no problem. Of course, in undergrad I rarely worried about whether I was citing the “right” author and I especially never worried about an instructor judging my intellect based on a single piece of work. Typically my main concern was whether my writing was “good”, that is, was my thesis clear, did I support my thesis with enough/adequate evidence, and was my spelling/grammar passable?

This all changed for me, and I suspect many others when they started Graduate School. Now in addition to worrying about my writing style and skills I worry about whether I have enough sources researched (and the correct ones), whether I’ve properly understood their arguments, not only whether my argument makes sense, but does it contradict or confirm the prevailing thoughts within the discourse? This is in truth only a partial list of the things I worry about during the writing process. This change in attitude has affected my writing process. I tend to spend a lot more time on the research phase, convincing myself that I am not ready to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) until I’ve read a few more sources. This works all right for term papers, but will not serve me well when writing my thesis later on. There’s no possible way to do “all” your research before writing and then expect to sit down and hammer out a few hundred pages. The second-most important change has been how closely I refer to other sources while writing. In undergrad I read the sources and thought about how I could make them talk to each other, then I sat down and did it. Now, I have to constantly check and double-check what the authors said to carefully include their thoughts into the prevailing topic of the paper. This often means having the source up on my screen during the writing process.

One thing has remained fairly constant, however is: My Writing Fortress of Solitude.

In order to mentally prepare myself for the task I require an environment that is my own sanctum. This is why I can’t write in libraries or at my office, typically I prefer writing at home where I feel the most comfortable. More than that, though I need a large block of time (preferably the whole day/night) that is devoted to myself and my writing with no concerns about interruptions. This is typically the biggest obstacle because as you can imagine finding an entire day, let alone multiple entire days, where minor distractions or errands don’t come up is more than a little wishful thinking. What tends to happen is I will ignore those minor distractions as much as possible, for as long as possible. BUT, those minor distractions can be used as an excuse to derail my writing process when my desire to get that paper started early trumps my desire to, well, NOT work on that paper. Plus some things can’t be ignored such as when you get an urgent e-mail requiring your immediate attention.


I’d like to keep my fortress of solitude and not have it go the way of the “ancient relic”. It’s comforting to have my material possessions around me to look at while I write as a minor distraction from the inside of my brain. It would, however, be nice to sit down when I have even a couple hours and work on my writing assignment. I’d get little bits done over a longer period of time that would improve not only my mental state, but my writing as well, because it would give me time to think about what I am writing/have written.

I could go on in minute detail about my writing process, but these are some of the major issues I encounter that I will be attempting to tackle before getting too far into my PhD and finding that my old ways are too antiquated.



8 thoughts on “My (Writing) Fortress of Solitude

  1. Hello,
    Thank you for the insights into your writing process -I feel a little voyeuristic reading what others do to produce academic writing. I also feel that creating a relaxing, calm, and serene environment is an important part of the writing process, therefore try to maintain your ‘fortress of solitude’ as it appears to work very well for you. We should not feel guilty for taking breaks to re-establish a thoughtful state of mind, so keep that in mind as you write your PhD thesis. You mention that you were able to produce a 15 page paper in a single night and for that I admire you! I have never been able to just sit down and write a paper that quickly. I tend to agonize over every nuance instead of settling down and writing it. You wrote very insightful comments about the sources or authors that you use, saying ‘you constantly check and double-check what the authors said…’ I think this is an important point when writing academic papers and I try to write as if that author were to read my paper, so I try make sure that what is said is very accurate -adds extra stress to the writing process. You have an astute perception on your own writing process and I think that this self-knowledge is important and will help you in your career.
    Love the Superman comics-very appropriate.

    • Lori, you mention that “we should not feel guilty for taking breaks to re-establish a thoughtful state of mind.” I think this is so important and something that I personally need to work on. When I am writing, I will sit in the same spot for hours and become so enveloped in the writing process that I forget to eat. I am mentally and physically exhausted when I finally emerge from my writing “coma”. I am going to keep this little piece of advice in mind next time I am about to start a writing marathon.

  2. Hi Sally,
    No need to feel guilty about your Fortress of Solitude…everyone should have one ( I think the idea of parcelling out some writing every day may be a good thing to work on, particularly given your current need to write all day and your comment on another blog about difficulty outlining. No one can write all day, which probably suggests you are spending lots of time psyching yourself up?

    One idea you might want to try is to cut back how much time you need, but to do it more often. So you might designate three days a week where you spend 3 hours a day on writing work…then cut back the time, but increase how often. Although it certainly doesn’t work for everyone, some of the most productive writers work between 30 minutes and 2 hours (that’s it!) but most days.

  3. @ Lori

    Thanks for the comments! I used to agonize less in undergrad which is probably why I could write a term paper in 1-3 days. I think agonizing over the details is a sign that it is also a lot more personal or important that the quality of your writing be up to a high standard. But, it can be disheartening at times. When I worry about writing “as if that author were to read my paper” it causes a fair bit of anxiety for me and I don’t do well with anxiety. I internalize my anxiety and it is harder to produce anything. Which is why it’s great when someone else who is more knowledgeable than me can proof read and can point out problems with how I have cited.

    @ Andy

    I do like my Fortress of Solitude, it just means mentally it is harder to write outside of it and can cause me to procrastinate. Sometimes I do psych myself up, but not always, It depends on how difficult it is for me to get my thoughts on the screen. I like working as soon as I wake up, I usually set a goal like “I want to write 5 pages today” and if I have either met, surpassed, or gotten close to the goal I’ll usually stop writing for the day. So I don’t actually spend the entire day agonizing in front of the screen working on the paper, but I just like to have the option of a full day without any possible distractions to derail myself.

  4. I like the idea that Andy has for allocating smaller chunks of time to writing rather then making sure your whole day is free. It just seems like a system that will be beneficial to follow, once we can break free of our dirty habits. I will definitely be trying to incorporate this.

    I agree with you about the amount of time that goes into research now. I feel like it is impossible to ever have it all done. There will always be some other article that could be related to your topic. In class Andy discussed the infoglut and how we can have so many sources at our fingertips within minutes. However, the biggest issue I have with that is that even though you have all these sources, there is no way to work your way through them all. So you have this constant pressure that you haven’t done enough. It is like when you are surfing the internet and have 20 tabs open of content you are meaning to look at. 20 tabs of internet articles is a lot less intimidating to go through than 20+ tabs of academic journals.

    And on one personal note, I find it interesting how we all identify with having major anxiety issues related to our schooling. What a huge issue, and although it is often talked about, very little is ever done to change a system to try and make it better. It’s frustrating to think about all the energy that we waste working ourselves up about things.

  5. I enjoyed reading your post. Like others have suggested, breaking your writing routine into shorter but more frequent writing ‘blocks’ might prove to be more productive, and less worrisome for you. I often wondered why my PhD friends kept telling me when I started my PhD to “write everyday, if even for an hour’. I stubbornly thought this was just their dissertation nerves talking. Turns out they were correct all along. As I have documented, I have committed to an early morning schedule to think , read and write. While this might not be for everyone, I realize now that given the amount we feel compelled to read (info-glut is my word for 2014. I have already used it a class I taught last week!) a consistent daily schedule is very helpful. Like you, I value having a day free from distractions to think, write and read. My lifestyle doesn’t allow for this anymore. However, I have started to treat my car commutes as my version of your ‘fortress of solitude’ (though, mine is a tad more turbulent!). I turn on the voice recorder on my iPhone and I ‘talk through’ my ideas while I travel from point A to B. On most occasions my drives are quite meditative, so the context give me the mental space to ‘free style’ and talk through my ideas. Though the drivers who pass me think that either I am a) using a hand free phone device or b) a little ‘touched’ for talking to myself, I realize there is value in finding ‘fortress’ moments where ever they present themselves to me.

  6. I’m glad to see someone else has the same marathon writing habits that I do. Not that it’s necessarily a good habit but it’s nice not to be alone. I like the suggestion that Andy posted on both your blog and mine of parceling out smaller bundles of writing time. This might be a nice lower-stress alternative to binge writing!

    I also get anxiety over both the quality and quantity of my research. With online journals being as prolific as they are, it’s so difficult to tell when to draw the line and stop looking for more related sources. I usually try to set a deadline for when I stop researching and start writing. Sometimes this helps but often I panic at some point during the writing process and look for more authors to back up my information!

  7. As I read your blog, I felt like you were speaking directly to my experiences with writing as a graduate student. I too am plagued by worry throughout the writing process. Like you, my worries go far beyond my writing style and extend to my use of sources, my interpretation of the literature, and the clarity and strength of my argument. These endless worries have not only led to many sleepless nights, but have often inhibited my ability to write.

    I have struggled with how to overcome these anxieties for several years now. You offer some good suggestions that can help me to overcome some of my worries, including having the source on hand during the writing process to check and double-check what the author is saying. You also mention that you begin to write before all of your research is done. In the past, I have hesitated to do this, but I think this is a great strategy and is absolutely necessary for writing my PhD dissertation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s