S02, Episode 4: Academic Writing with Dr. Anselm Spindler

In this episode we talk to Dr. Anselm Spindler, a writing coach and workshop facilitator. He shares tips and ideas for how to manage academic writing, how to deal with common challenges when writing your thesis, and what to do if you get stuck. We also talk about some of the writing events the DRS offers and how they might benefit doctoral students.


„….share your writing with more people more often and sooner and use other people’s feedback to work on your text and to reflect your writing. Don’t just sit there and work on your own for a very long time and at some point in the end submit it. But yeah, talk to people about your writing and it doesn’t have to be your supervisor or even an expert from your field. In a sense, it could be anyone and it will be useful for your writing process and for your actual text“

from our interview with Dr. Anselm Spindler


Download or listen to the audio version of the podcast here.


Amanda: Welcome. If you could start off by telling me a little bit about yourself, maybe a little about your background and what you do now.

Anselm: Yeah, sure. Thank you for inviting me to your podcast. My name is Anselm. I live in Frankfurt, the southern one from your perspective, not the eastern one. And I got my PhD in philosophy. And I also used to work as a research assistant at Goethe University in Frankfurt, where I used to teach and do my research. Nowadays, I’m a freelance coach and workshop instructor, and I mainly work with PhD students who write their dissertations in any one of a broad spectrum of academic disciplines.

Amanda: Excellent. So, when you think about how you got from doing your doctorate to working as a coach, could you just tell us a little bit about that process or that transition? We’re going to talk about writing in just a moment, but I’d really love to hear a little bit about your career before we get started.

Anselm: I think the word transition is spot on. It was a big transition for me. At some point during my doctorate, especially in the early stages, I was really thinking and wanting to be in an academic career. So, at some point, I really thought that I will be in the university my whole life basically. And that’s why I’m doing the PhD. But things went a different way. And I went a different way. So it’s a combination of these two factors. And I really enjoy what I’m doing now because I’m still in contact with the academic world. And I really like writing and academic writing specifically. At the same time, I feel I’m in a good place because I am no longer working in the academic world. Because I think it it really wasn’t for me in certain aspects of it anyway. And yeah, it was a big transition.

Amanda: Thank you. So when you think about writing, what motivated you to work with students who are stuck or having challenges with writing. And maybe you could tell us a little bit about those challenges that doctoral students face. And a little bit about why do you think that this is something that you enjoy working with?

Anselm: I think the main idea behind my work is that the workshops create a space where you can talk openly and freely about your writing process. And I always felt that this space was missing in the academic world, or at least very rare. People talk a lot about their writing or their text in the academic world, at least in my field in the humanities. But they are typically very complicated and charged situations. So you’re talking, giving a talk at a conference or you’re presenting your work to a funding institution, or you’re talking to your supervisor who will be grading your PhD. And so these situations tend to be a little bit overloaded. And I felt, and it’s my experience from what people report in my workshop, a simple space where you can talk about your writing without having to present your work to others, without being judged or graded is really helpful and is really surprisingly rare in the typical working environment of PhD students and it was in my working environment back then. So the idea was just to create this kind of space.

Amanda: When students come to you and they say that I’m having trouble with writing or I’m stuck, what’s really happening? What are the problems that they’re facing? It’s a big word, I’m stuck. But what is it really that makes people get stuck when they’re writing?

Anselm: Yeah, it is a big word, but I think it’s really accurate in the sense that people do feel stuck. And it’s really unpleasant for them. And the roots of the problem are really varied. You have been asking about challenges. In my experience, there are two main challenges, you could say. The first one is – it’s logistical, if you will. So simply finding the time to write in a demanding working environment, which the university is. And the other challenge is a little bit more psychological, I think. It has to do with dealing with expectations. And also with the simple fact that a PhD is a kind of exam. You and your work will be evaluated. And for most people, the stakes are really high in terms of their academic self-understanding, in terms of academic careers. And also in terms of the personal energy and time that they invest. And that can make the writing really difficult because so much is coming together when you’re writing a PhD. It’s not just any old text.

Amanda: So imagine that I’m a student and I’ve come to you and I have a problem. Maybe I’m having trouble writing the actual text, maybe I’m having trouble finding time. Maybe I feel frustrated as you just said with this feeling of, oh, it’s got to be really good. Do students often know what they’re dealing with, or do they come to you and just say, I don’t know what’s going on?

Anselm: That’s a really good question. I think, because many people who find that their writing isn’t going as well as they would like, they have a certain tendency to focus on solutions. So what do I need to do in order to get back to into the flow of writing? And I think I find it very understandable because it’s an unpleasant situation to be in. But my approach is to invite people to simply start by talking a little bit to me or to someone else about their problem and really describe it in detail. What is it that’s not working? How often does it happen? What could the possible causes of the problem be? And I think there’s a variety of reasons why people do get stuck and sometimes they are, a bit more mundane. Sometimes they are a bit deeper actually. And it’s really worth spending some time investigating what is my situation, how do I feel? Sometimes people overlook how they feel in a particular situation. And like I said, it’s a challenging working environment and it can have all sorts of effects. I think once you started to investigate a little more closely what the causes of the problem might be, the solutions are really not that difficult to find. It’s more about really spending the time with yourself in a way and explaining yourself and situation to someone. And oftentimes people find those solutions really quickly once they’ve started to describe the problem to someone else.

Amanda: That sounds like it would be really helpful. And I think it’s something that a lot of people probably deal with, being alone, but having the feeling that there’re not so many people around in their work that they can really talk to about these things. And that brings me to your workshops. So what you described sounds a lot like it would work in a coaching setting of one on one, how does it work when you’re in a group of people? And in these workshops that you have at the Dahlem Research School or in other settings, what do you do to help people who are already facing challenges with their writing?

Anselm: Yeah, it really is a different setting if you compare it to the coaching, like one on one situation. And there are different workshops for different challenges, in a sense. So I’m offering workshops on specific writing techniques, for instance, and also on specific parts of the text like the introduction and the conclusion. And also, a workshop on self-organization and academic writing, which in my mind includes writer’s block and procrastination. In my mind these are connected with the broader topic of self-organization. But what my workshops have in common is on the one hand that they are really based on a practical approach so people have a chance to work on their current writing project in the workshop in one way or another. So they typically make some progress with their actual project, and it’s not just theory input to take home. And another thing is that the workshops are designed in such a way that people have the chance to get quite a lot of feedback and input for their specific writing project and their specific situation. Input from me and feedback from me, but also from their peers. And that’s the third point I’d like to make. I’m working under the assumption that the people who come to my workshops are already experienced academic authors. They have written texts, they have acquired quite a lot of knowledge about academic writing in their field, they have a lot of experience already, so they’re not beginners. Part of the idea of the workshop is to really mobilize that experience and share it with others in order to decide what the next steps in my project might be. And a lot of it is already there because people bring so much into the workshops, in terms of writing strategies, things they’ve tried out. Maybe they did work, maybe they didn’t work, but maybe it works for someone else. And so it’s a lot about sharing experience and getting feedback from other people who are also academic professionals and academic authors.

Amanda: I really love that. I think that is so important also for so many researchers early in their career really second guess themselves. And I love the idea of having them support each other because I think that also, as you said, gives them the idea, reminds them that they really are experts in their fields and not all just at the very beginning. You have tons of knowledge and experience already even at the beginning of your PhD.

Anselm: And also, I think it connects to what you said earlier that many people who write their PhD have the feeling that they are maybe not isolated but basically working on their own. Which may be also have to do with the fact that in academic working culture the idea is that you have to do it on your own, which is not mistaken, obviously, but it can lead to a feeling that you’re really alone with your problems and in my workshops and probably in yours as well, people discover that other people, sometimes from completely different academic fields are really struggling with the same problems. That feels good in itself. And you can also share the burden of looking for solutions. You don’t have to come up with all the solutions by yourself.

Amanda: That is so important. And really, I think one of the aims of the workshops at the Dahlem Research School and in the Berlin University Alliance altogether is to get everybody to come together and experience and see we’re not alone, and there’s so much that you have in common with others, even if you feel like you’re really stuck and alone. And so that is one of the things why I really like to encourage people to come to the writing week or the retreat. And for the writing week a benefit of it is that you can join unlike the retreat at any point in your doctorate, that’s correct, right? Do you want to tell us a little bit about the writing week and what you do there?

Anselm: Yeah, sure. It’s a full week. It consists of, on the one hand, writing workshops slot, rather short three-hour writing workshops on different topics that have to do with academic writing or different aspects of academic texts. And in the afternoon, it’s basically writing time for the people. The participants actually work on their texts in writing groups or writing tandems. And they can also attend coaching sessions there, which take place in parallel to the writing sessions. That’s the main idea to have some input and workshops and exercises on academic writing on one hand. And on the other hand, it may sound simple, but just time to write. And to also have connected time to write like a full week. A lot can be done in a full week and typically in their everyday life, these kinds of weeks are, for many people rather rare. They do a lot of stuff in the university and the university is very good at inviting people into all sorts of projects and attending talks and then sometimes it’s difficult to have a concentrated block of time for your writing. In my mind, it’s a way of really prioritizing your writing. My writing project is really important. That’s why I’m spending the full week on it. And that’s what the writing week in my view is really good for.

Amanda: Can you tell us a little more about tandems? You mentioned that before, but I would love to hear about that. And maybe a little bit about why you think they’re useful and helpful for doctoral students.

Anselm: I find that question really interesting because my impression is that sometimes people have different views about why they are useful. One thing some people say very quickly is that a writing group or writing tandem is good because it stimulates their discipline, so they stick to whatever their writing plan was. And to be honest I’m rather skeptical of the term discipline in this context because it suggests to me anyway that people are somehow unwilling to do their academic work. And that’s just something I don’t see. It’s people are doing a lot of stuff and they are certainly not lazy and that’s somehow in my mind connected to the idea of discipline. What I think, and that’s my alternative suggestion, an alternative to the discipline discourse, if you will, I think writing groups and writing tandems provide structure and resonance. And by structure, it is very simply, when will I write this week and for how long? And by resonance, is there anyone out there paying attention to what I’m doing? And I think many people who have difficulties in their writing project. They are not lacking discipline, but they are lacking and what they want is structure and resonance. Some feedback from other authors and really some structure in which to work. And if I can add just one more thought to this. Many people many PhD students are also engaged in teaching. So they’re teaching seminars and obviously and naturally they have an arranged time for the seminar. So my seminar is on Thursdays at 10 o’clock and that’s very natural because they want others to come to the seminar. And for some reason people don’t do that as often for their writing. So why not say my writing time is on Tuesdays from 10 to 12. These kinds of structures are really helpful to support continual writing habits and a writing group is the easiest way to do it because it’s fun to meet others, you have a chance to talk, you don’t feel alone. It’s very easy to arrange in times of video calls. And yeah, it’s just another way of sharing the burden of self-organization.

Amanda: That’s fantastic. I love this idea that students shouldn’t think that they don’t have this discipline because I hear this a lot in my work as well. People say I’m good at this. I’m bad at self-organization or, I don’t know what I want from my life and my career. And I often think, how much time have you given yourself to actually sit down and think about these things? Or do you have time to be organized? If you don’t give yourself the time, then it can be a huge challenge. It doesn’t mean that you’re not good at it. I think this is so important. And so I want to pick that back up. It’s not that you’re not doing a good job. It’s that you’re so busy that you haven’t actually have to sit down and make space for writing in order to be able to say that you are stuck.

Anselm: Yeah.

Amanda: I want to ask you, what would you suggest? What kind of, we mentioned a lot of mindset, ideas or how would you change the way you think about it? Are there, setting time aside and maybe a writing group, other techniques or tools that you would suggest that students try if they’ve gotten stuck? Anything else where you’d say this, maybe one or two small things or big things that you say would be worth trying out if they feel like they’re having trouble writing?

Anselm: I’ll start with my favorite one. I’m not sure if it works really well for most people, but for some people in my experience, and it’s creative writing. And it’s something that academics, in my experience, don’t do so often. And it’s something that is not just fun to do, but I think the deeper truth behind it, if you will, is that writing really is a matter of training. So if you see an academic who is pretty good at writing something, an academic text, under pretty much all circumstances, like between two seminars or between a seminar and a conference, I have one and a half hours to spare and some people are able to write something during these one and a half hours. And it’s not that they are geniuses. They might be, but I think they have a lot of experience and a lot of training. It’s a bit like like juggling or speaking French. The more often you do it and the more stuff you try out, the easier it gets. And this is also true, I think, of the transition from non-writing to writing, and that’s what many people find difficult. And creative writing, just, for instance, writing a short story, a really short one, just without any preparation, just gets you into the flow of writing, the words begin to come, and then it might be easier to work on an academic text. And it also introduces it may introduce some variety into your writing just like trying out stuff with really low stakes. And it’s fun, and I think it’s instructive.

Amanda: What ideas do you have to get someone to start doing creative writing that maybe has never done that before? Because that sounds like a really great way to get into writing if you’re maybe having some trouble with it to take the pressure off of it. What are some things that you might suggest that students could do who don’t know where to start? And they say, oh, creative writing, that sounds great, but how do I do it?

Anselm: That’s a great question because it has to do with creative writing specifically, but I think it’s also connected to an interesting aspect of academic writing. I think what’s really challenging is the situation where you are sitting in front of an empty sheet of paper and you have a pen and you think now I’m going to write something creative. And this in itself can be a really challenging situation because like you said, you don’t know where to start. And what I find makes this transition from not writing to writing easier is to provide some structure and a specific task just in order to get started. For instance when I do creative writing in my workshops, there are really strict time limits. Sometimes one of the exercises we do is called five-word stories and it’s short stories that people write in 90 seconds, which is an amazingly short amount of time. And the good thing is that you don’t have time to think too much. You simply begin to write and that’s actually what most academics or many academics in my experience find really difficult to simply start writing without thinking first. Oh, I have to read 68 books about the topic before I can even begin to think about writing, then I have to come up with a really good project outline and so on and so forth, which is in for academic writing. It’s the natural process but it can make it really difficult to connect with your creativity and to say, I’m simply going to start writing something and I will later look at it and see what needs improving or what might still be missing. Just setting yourself and coming back to creative writing, setting yourself small and simple and doable tasks. Yeah, a short story, for instance, which contains five keywords that you’ve picked earlier. And it makes it easier to choose from the infinite variety of possibilities that are out there. And once you have more experience, you could decide to write more freely and just go to the park with your notebook and write whatever comes to your mind.

Amanda: I have a question about this idea of just writing. I know a lot of people when they start or they said, Okay, when I started writing, I felt stuck because I was thinking. Okay, this has to be really good, and I have to use it. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the benefit or not ,however you see it, of writing. Stuff that you’re going to get rid of, needs everything that I write to be good or is it okay, in academic writing if I find myself writing tons of material that I don’t use or is that not a good approach. What do you think about that?

Anselm: Again, that’s a good question and a difficult one, I think, because on the one hand this idea that my text has to be really good and it has to be a text that others approve of my fellow researchers, the fellow experts in my field. I want them to maybe, even if they don’t agree with me, agree with what I want to say specifically. I want them to say that the text is simply good academic quality. And this expectation, which is justified, makes sense in the system, but it can really block up your creativity and really limit the scope of possibilities that you even consider in your research. And maybe you have tons of ideas, but you’re really narrowing down the range because you think all people won’t like that. And that’s a silly thought and it’s not going to work anyway. And getting yourself to simply start writing might be a way of exploring these possibilities and only later to really edit the text and produce what will be the finished product. And I think that’s only one side of the issue. The other is you mentioned that some people choose to write a lot of stuff that they will not use in the end. I find that a really useful technique. Partly because you’re probably be writing in two documents, if you will, literally or metaphorically. So you’re writing stuff under the assumption that not necessarily everything of it has to go into the finished text. And this can make it easier to explore things and to really find what you want to say in the writing process. And sometimes people get stuck because they are writing text under the assumption that the actual sentences they are writing will be the ones that the readers will later read and evaluate. And this adds a lot of stress to the writing process. And I think it can help to really divide the different stages of the writing process and say, I’m in the early stages. It’s about exploration and not about polishing the text or revising the text or checking it for mistakes. And yeah, that can help get into the flow of writing and really explore your ideas. And at the same time, there’s one more thought I’d like to share because some people also do use this technique of producing a lot of text and then they themselves in a situation where they have produced a ton of notes and find it really difficult to decide what goes into the text and what not – what does not go into the text and this too can be a real challenge too, if you overdo it with this technique and, so to speak, if you reduce a lot of notes, you might feel lost at some point snd may make it more difficult to come up with a text that leaves certain things out. For some people it’s hard to leave stuff aside.

Amanda: I really enjoyed hearing you talk about the possibilities of doing things maybe one way or another way and I think that’s really important for students to hear because it’s often possible for students to feel like, „I’m doing it this way, but someone else is doing it that way. And am I doing it the right way?“ or, „I’m writing a lot and my colleague is only writing when they know exactly what they’re going to say.“ And I think that it’s good to hear from others that there are many ways to get to the same goal. And in connection to that, I would love to know the answer to a question. There are a lot of students in my workshops that come up and ask me, „What digital tools do you use?“ I get asked, „I don’t do writing workshops, but I get asked this question a lot anyway. What writing tools should I use? And how should I approach tools?“ And I would love to hear from you a little bit about what you think about writing tools. Do you have digital tools that you love to work with and that you suggest students test out or try, or are you more of a pen and paper person, and what do you think the benefit is of both of those or either of those?

Anselm: I get that question too, in my workshops: „Which tools can I use?“ or „Should I use even?“ And I believe that you should use the tools that are useful for the specific task you have or for the specific challenge that you want to overcome. And I have two examples for that. The first one is the difference between handwriting and machine writing, if you will. You were talking about handwriting in your question, and I think it is a useful tool or it can be. Writing by hand in specific situations, because one feature of machine writing with my computer or with my laptop, is that I have the ability to edit my text while I’m writing it, and I still have a clean document. It still looks very good. And if I do that in handwriting, if I keep crossing out words and then writing something new, it gets messy really quickly. And one way to take advantage of this difference could be that you say it’s a good thing in handwriting that I can’t edit my text all the time. And that could help me to tell my inner critic to spend some time in the cafe and come back later. And during that time, I have time just to write something and to write a complete version of the text before going back and rereading it and editing the text. Handwriting can really help to differentiate between different stages in the writing process. The second example that I thought of is collaborative writing where you’re writing a text together with others. And there’s a ton of digital tools out there for this and they all have different features. In my view, it’s really useful to spend some time in the group to figure out which tool is best suited for the writing purpose and the kind of group you are. Maybe you want to work in a document simultaneously. Then there are some tools that provide this service or this function and others that don’t. So make your choice on the basis of the kind of task that is ahead of you and the kind of group you are. That would be my general thoughts on writing tools. Try to describe what you need and then pick your tool.

Amanda: I think this is great advice. I feel like it’s really easy to get excited about all these apps that are out there. And then, in the end, do we actually need all of the functions? This is a huge issue in productivity. You can really easily feel like, „Okay, now I’ve got to learn this app and I don’t actually need it, or do I even need all the things that it’s offering me?“ So fantastic.

Anselm: Can I add something to this? Because you’re making a really important point, in my view, because sometimes it is suggested that these tools are useful and making things easier, but sometimes it’s the opposite. They make things a bit more difficult, and it’s only later in the process that I even know or learn about that. And one example that just came to my mind is that I once had a PhD student, or she was a postdoc actually whhen she was in my workshop, and we were talking about digital writing tools. And she said that she was writing her PhD with Google Docs and it was really late in the process when she discovered that it’s not possible to download the document once you have crossed a certain number of pages, and it caused her several heart attacks and it was nerve-wracking. She only discovered it really late in the process and it can be really unpleasant. And just the thought of having all your text deleted because of some software glitch is terrible. And so like you say, it’s not evident that all the programs help all the time. So it’s a really good idea to think about what do you want it to do, and which software really does what you do want it to do.

Amanda: This is very important advice and a good approach. I think a solid approach to digital tools. So I have just two more questions for you. And the first one is. What do people say when they leave your workshops? And I’m going to ask you this, I know it’s a little bit of a challenging question to answer as a trainer, as a workshop facilitator, but I think sometimes students are hesitant to participate in workshops because they don’t know what am I going to leave with knowing how to do. What takeaways do your participants have when they leave your workshop? What do they say about their writing process or about their experience?

Anselm: One thing many people do is point to a specific writing technique or an idea or a tool that they learned about or rediscovered in the workshop, and they say that was really useful for where I am right now in my writing process. And what most people say actually is that it was a good group experience for them. It renewed their motivation to work and think about their writing project. It’s a lot of encouragement and a lot of feedback they take away. And just a lot of inspiration, and that’s typically what’s coming from the group as a whole and not simply or even mostly from me as a workshop instructor. And that’s actually what most people say. It was a good group experience and it connected me again to my writing and my research.

Amanda: That’s great. And I think I would say it is not always easy to do that. So I would say it does come from you as a trainer and that also underlines what you said earlier about the importance of working together in groups or group experience of talking to each other about writing. That’s great. So I have one more, my very final question for you. We usually like to ask our guests on the podcast if they were to go back to the beginning of their own experience in writing or in the university or in your case in your doctorate if you could give yourself advice. So you’re time traveling back to the very beginning, what advice would you give yourself, maybe about the writing process. Maybe about the whole thing from where you are today. And obviously we can’t change what we do in the past, but what would you tell yourself if you could time travel?

Anselm: Let me think about that. Maybe, yeah, there’s a number of things, but the one that stands out really is to share your writing with more people more often and sooner and use other people’s feedback to work on your text and to reflect your writing. Don’t just sit there and work on your own for a very long time and at some point in the end submit it. Talk to people about your writing and it doesn’t have to be your supervisor or even an expert from your field. In a sense, it could be anyone and it will be useful for your writing process and for your actual text.

Amanda: Thank you very much and thank you for the wonderful advice that you’ve given.