Academia, free writing, and the rainbow of guilt

Writing this blog post was an exercise in guilt management in itself.  This month, I’m participating in Academic Writing Month, or #AcWriMo, which means I’m setting myself writing goals for the month of November. I’ve already written two blog posts on how it works, and the benefits it can bring.

AcWriMo is a personal thing. You decide your own goals, and work towards them yourself. There is no passing the buck when it comes to writing. You can’t argue that you were waiting to hear from your supervisor/colleague/cat. That doesn’t need to stop you. You can write about anything. You could even write a blog post on writing.

But for me, that is the problem. I can write about anything. How will I know if it’s worthwhile? When planning for AcWriMo, I tried to set one relatively specific, management goal: To write 1000 words, five days a week. I work as a technology trainer the other two days, and I’m trying to be realistic about managing my time. Blocking out certain times when I won’t allow myself to work is also a guilt-management technique.

To make my goal slightly more specific, I decided that those words had to be related to my PhD, but did not have to be contributing to my thesis. This meant I could do free writing.

So, the goal in full:

To write 1000 words, five days a week, which are (at least loosely) related to my PhD, but do not have to be thesis-worthy.

Turns out that wasn’t specific enough.

I had expected most of my words to be free writing. I had reasons for this (which I’ll blog about on another day). They were good reasons (just you wait).

I imagine you can see where this is going: I feel guilty when I am doing my free writing. And even more acutely, I feel guilty when I update someone on my progress.

“Yeah, I wrote 1147 words today”, I’ll report. But then I’ll feel compelled to add “oh, but it was free writing, so it didn’t really count”.

Because I’m terrified that if I leave it without that embarrassed addition, someone will catch me out. They’ll think I’m progressing extremely well with my thesis. And then I’ll have to confess my terrible free writing sin, and risk them looking slightly disapproving and very unimpressed.

Of course, this reaction is entirely in my head. The #AcWriMo community on Twitter has been unfailingly supportive. I have never seen a single negative comment about someone else’s progress on that Twitter feed. Perhaps I need to teach myself to be that kind about myself.

Sadly, there is no pleasing my subconscious. It is a guilt rainbow. A rainbow of guilt. As soon as a scurry towards the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, beavering away at some aspect of my PhD, that blasted pot moves and my thoughts jump: “Gosh, that other thing is much more important! I should be working on that!”

Of course there is guilt inside me. I try to let it do its thing without upsetting me too much. But academia is nurturing it, feeding it, and teaching it tricks.

Because, and here’s the fun part, if I write about something else for my daily AcWriMo, I still feel guilty. Perhaps I’ll write a blog post, an abstract, notes from an article, a draft of my thesis introduction. And my newly-strengthened guilt sneaks in and mutters, in the tone of voice of an academic questioning your methodology or a mother revealing her child’s superior test scores:

“But you said you’d do free writing. Can’t even do that, can you?”

If you have any thoughts on academic guilt, I’d love to hear from you. Just reply in the “Comments” section below.

Whether or not you’re doing Academic Writing Month, how do you temper writers’ guilt?

Can you set goals and be unequivocally pleased when you meet them?

Do you constantly feel that whatever you do just isn’t the thing you should be focusing on?

Well, that was 669 words towards my AcWriMo word count. Goodness, how guilty I feel…



  1. My writing skills have suffered in the break between my MSc and PhD. I’m treating ANY writing as a success because I’m refining writing skills, like greasing a machine. That said, I much prefer to write blog posts than manuscripts (partially due to guilt about not having results yet!), and this does make me feel guilty. I just keep reminding myself that “writing = success” and it helps a bit.

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