Shame in Academic Writing

Brian Taylor

August 03, 2011

My advisee came in to the cafe, sat down awkwardly, and looked at me out of the corners of his eyes. He describes himself as having "curious posture" and "British teeth," though he's from the Midwest. He writes well, with energy and imagination and a fine attention to his sentences. It has been a pleasure being his thesis adviser, and I always look forward to our meetings.

For months I had been reading his work and telling him it wasn't quite there. For months he listened to me—asking smart questions, grilling me on general issues about the craft of writing, wondering how other authors got away with moves he was trying to make, and working hard to figure out what was going wrong in his own work. He never got defensive or upset, he just kept at it, doing what the best students do.

The essays he'd given me were revisions of drafts I'd seen before. When I read them this time, I used "track changes" to give him line-by-line comments, edits, and suggestions. Back when I was a book editor, in the first part of my life, I developed a tendency to rewrite, fix, or make better what an author had done. As a teacher, that's no longer my job, and now I discipline myself not to insert my own voice—my particular word choices, my quirky syntax—into the writing of my students. At times I will rewrite a couple of sentences to give an example of what I mean, but generally I simply point out places that aren't working and expect the student to do the fixing.

But at the time of our meeting, his essays were close to being finished, and I wanted to make sure that every line was exactly right. So I did a gentle edit, changing "exacerbate" to "exaggerate" (I could tell that he had just learned the first word and was test-driving it), lopping off the ends of sentences that went on too long, substituting periods for semicolons. My advisee knows how to use semicolons, which is unusual, but he tends to rely on them too heavily. So I wrote "too many semicolons" at the top of the page and expected him to examine each long sentence to see which ones would benefit from having their independent clauses divorced.

After I made those edits, I e-mailed my version to my student. When he came to join me at the cafe, we sat at my usual table, him askew and looking at me sideways, me on my third cup of decaf, as we peered at each other from over our laptops.

He looked serious and more twitchy than usual. He leaned back to pose what I could tell would be a big question.

"Is it normal," he asked in a small voice, "to feel stupid after getting an edited manuscript back?"

I laughed, but I knew this wasn't funny. He was embarrassed by the mistakes he had made, the sentences that weren't perfect, the fact that I had seen him in the intellectual equivalent of his undies. Somehow it had been easier for him to have his ideas battered generally than to have specific mistakes in prose highlighted.

So I launched into a monologue about how we all feel stupid most of the time, especially after getting our manuscripts back. And he was lucky, I noted, that he still had me to point out all this stuff while he could make changes and learn from his mistakes. After graduate school, it gets hard to find someone to pay so much attention to your writing.

As graduate students, we could talk to our advisers about feeling behind. Or inadequate. Or unoriginal. When we had thesis advisers, we (sometimes) got the emotional support we needed to keep going.

Now that I am a thesis adviser myself, I know that, even after meetings where I think I am being helpful and supportive, my students go home and cry. Later they suck it up and get the work done. I've also had students who internalize all their doubts, never voice them, and then blame me when their writing isn't going well. I'm not telling them exactly what they need to hear in exactly the right way. The problem is me, not them. Some become passive-aggressive. Some just become aggressive. Some never learn a thing.

But I also realize something else in thinking back on that conversation with my student in the cafe. I realize that after graduate school, it's not hard just to find attentive criticism of your writing. It's also a lot harder to find someone to whom you can admit your shame. If you're a new assistant professor, an adjunct, or a lecturer, who can you ask, "Is it normal to feel this way?" when you're feeling inadequate? Who can reassure you that yes, it is normal, and encourage you to keep doing what you're doing? Who can promise—or lie—that it will all be OK?

Recently I had the opportunity to dust off my old acquisitions-editor's cap and spend an afternoon talking with academics at a fancy-pants university about their projects. In a morning presentation, I had warned them not to get too excited when editors got excited about their book proposals. Editors, I told the audience, are pathologically interested. They're never going to say "That's a terrible idea for a book." They will just ask to see the manuscript.

Now that I'm out of the publishing business, I said in my talk, I tell writers the truth, or at least my take on it. That makes me less popular than when I was a book editor, able to hand out tenure-winning contracts from the Oxford and Duke University presses. But for those writers who want an honest response to their work, I can be more useful.

The university where I was speaking set me up in a conference room and scheduled half-hour sessions in which I would meet with individual faculty members and dispense advice, kind of like Lucy in her little counseling booth. "That'll be five cents, please," I wanted to say as each person left.

On the long flight home, I realized that most of my conversations with professors at the university had nothing to do with the intellectual content of their projects. The works would rise or fall—be published or not—on merit, on connections, and on flukes like whether the manuscripts were read by the right editors. My role as a visiting speaker was to give potential authors encouragement, to tell them that the anxiety they were feeling about their projects was normal.

On the schedule for my one-on-one meetings at the fancy-pants university, I noted that there was faculty member who had seemed hostile during my initial presentation. She had asked pointed questions that seemed dismissive, and I noticed her conversing with a neighbor when other people were asking questions. I made the obvious leap: She must have thought what I was saying was stupid and obvious. So when she came in and sat down, I expected a confrontation.

A tenured professor, in expensive clothes and trendy shoes, she described her project in crisp and definitive tones. Her first book had been published by a good press, and she had a contract for the second. As she talked about breaking the contract and going with another press, I was having a hard time figuring out why she'd made the appointment to chat with me. She seemed to have it all together. In fact, she kind of intimidated me.

And then she started crying.

She felt ashamed that she hadn't yet finished her second book. It was taking far too long. She felt ashamed she wasn't writing. Why was it so hard? How could she manage this? How could she deal with the shame? The question she didn't ask—my advisee's question: Is it normal to feel this way?—was the only question I could answer for her.

I tried to tell her that everyone feels that way. Most people don't admit it, and many of us don't have anyone we feel safe talking about it with. Tenured faculty members at excellent research universities are supposed to have it together. And if they don't—and most people, wherever they work, really don't—they're not supposed to admit it.

Since that meeting, I haven't been able to stop thinking about that professor. Maybe that's because I've seen versions of her at every university I've traveled to. I remember her, and my student, whenever I talk about writing and publishing. Even those who make it look easy—whose work is good and well published—are still struggling with issues of how to get it done, and with the shame of not doing it, or not doing it well enough, or quickly enough, or whatever they think is enough. I think of the self-satisfied and mediocre and wonder if they're leading happier lives.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program, in Spokane. Her Web site is She welcomes comments and questions directed to