Do you think of yourself as a bad writer? Or just not a writer? Is writing a task that you’d rather avoid in your academic career? Take a minute to consider whether this resonates with you. Many of us are surprised by how important writing is as graduate students in STEM, and it can be a big mental hurdle to start to integrate writing into our professional identities. This gets easier with practice! Although thinking of yourself as a writer mostly requires you to spend more time writing (see my colleague’s excellent post on how to get writing), there are also ways to directly address this internal belief that you’re not good at writing.

Step 1. Identifying reasons

Ask yourself: why are you bad at writing? What experiences have led you to think that writing is not a skill you possess, or not an integral part of your work? What reasons do you give yourself for not being a good writer? Write down as many answers to these questions as you can think of.

Step 2. Examining reasons

If you have scissors, get them out. Cut each of these reasons out so that you have a pile of small pieces of paper. (Scissor-free alternative: find two highlighters or differently-colored pens.)

On a new sheet of paper, make a table with two columns. At the top of the first column write “FACTS” and at the top of the second, “THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS”.

Go through your list of reasons that you’re bad at writing, and for each one, decide which of these two columns it belongs to and place it or write it down in that column (alternatively, color-code accordingly).

Before you go on, take a moment to observe what you have in this table. Does one column have more items than the other? Are the items in the two columns related? Do the items in one column come from farther back in time than the other?

Step 3. Taking action

Based on the lists you’ve come up with, it may already be obvious how you can proactively work to either change, address, manage, or accept some of these.

  • For the items in the “facts” column, can you change any of the facts or any of the circumstances surrounding them? Or, are they past events that you can’t change?
  • For the items in the “thoughts and feelings” column, it’s usually helpful to start by just acknowledging these. While they won’t actually prevent you from writing, they can make it very difficult to get started and to stay focused. There are lots of strategies you can take to reframe or replace negative thoughts with more positive ones – the next exercise is a start.

Step 4. Navigating thoughts and feelings

  1. List three of your accomplishments. For each, describe why you’re proud of it. Write these down!
  2. Then, write down three skills that you possess and three personal qualities that you like about yourself.
  3. Finally, read what you’ve written and compare it with any thoughts and feelings you identified in Step 2.
  4. Choose one to three of these skills, accomplishments and qualities to write down. Place reminders of these near where you work – maybe on your desk, on your home office wall, or on your computer. This way, any time a thought or feeling arises that makes it challenging to start writing or keep writing, you can balance it with a reminder of something you’re proud of.

Step 5. Try it and reflect!

When you go through these exercises, you’ll likely notice unexpected results. One of my reasons that I’m bad at writing is that I think I’m easily distracted; one of my proudest accomplishments is that I once trained for and ran a marathon. Although running and writing are very different activities, they both require large amounts of undivided focus. I placed a post-it note that says “I ran a marathon!” next to my laptop, and I find that seeing this reminder helps to counteract my thought that “I’m easily distracted”.

Finally, know that you’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is common and hard to deal with. Be sure to ask for help and support if you need it, whether from peers, friends, writing fellows, mentors or advisors, or anyone else you trust.