I’m going to start this post with an apology (a classic conversation starter, if you ask me). You see, my headline gives the impression that I can help you beat writer’s block—and I’m not sure that I can. Don’t leave yet, though! What I hope that I CAN do, is convince you that writer’s block isn’t really the problem you think it is. Before starting my PhD I had a tendency to leave writing until just before the deadline came crashing down on top of me. Deadlines were good. They provided an external incentive to pour some words on the world. But why didn’t I start writing before that feeling of Ultimate Impending Doom? Was it writer’s block? Reflecting on my process, it becomes clear that I just didn’t want to write. The question then becomes: why not? When it comes to writer’s block, the first thing is to realise that in giving something a name, you are also giving it power (humour me). Try pretending that writer's block doesn’t exist and, during those periods when you’re not writing, you’re just not writing. Can you think of a cure for that? Sure you can: write. Just do it.
Ok, so it’s not always as straightforward as that: sometimes there are genuine issues getting in the way of putting pen to paper. One of my daughter’s favourite phrases at the moment is ‘I can’t find the words’. The point is that you need to recognise and address any issues instead of focusing on writer’s block. In my experience, there are a number of reasons that we don’t write when we feel like we should.
Do you know what you are writing about? Do you have the necessary resources to complete your task? Do you understand what is actually required of you? If the answer to these (or similar questions) is no, then you are going to have a hard time making progress with your writing. Luckily there are some relatively simple fixes for this one.
Ask for help
There are lots of people and resources within the University to help you with whatever aspect is getting you stuck. Who to ask depends on the problem, though: with your supervisor(s) being the likely first contact for project specific queries; while Student Learning Services are available for more general and technical questions.
Write with others
A good way to create built-in support is to write with other people. It’s unusual for everyone to have the same opinion and writing with other people is a good way to get perspective and to broaden your own abilities.
Some people feel that they just don’t have time to write—I’ve been there myself—but writing is an important part of your research. After all, what’s the point of changing the world if you don’t tell anyone about it?
Schedule your writing
Set aside some time on a regular basis where you do nothing but write. If you build it into your working routine, you will find that it quickly becomes as important as other tasks.
Anxiety / Stress
Do you feel too stressed to write? Are you worried about the task ahead?
Set realistic goals
The trick is to break any larger tasks into smaller chunks. Set realistic goals: aiming for 200 words a day is a good start. If you think you have nothing to write about every day, why not start your thesis? I already have a rough outline of what is going into mine, but only because I have scheduled some writing every day.
Don’t worry if you don’t achieve them - they are but guides
This is important. Setting goals is supposed to relieve anxiety, not increase it! Your goals are there for guidance only—things change. I aim to write every day but I’ve yet to score a perfect week.
For help with all aspects of writing, including tackling writer’s block, Jennifer Boyle (our dedicated Postgraduate Research Advisor of Writing) is on hand to help. Jennifer works through the Student Learning Service to provide a range opportunities to improve your writing. I asked Jennifer for some advice in preparation of this post. She likes to use the Process/Product Model to help people start writing. Don’t worry if you are unfamiliar with this model as it is easy to understand. Most people are taught that writing is a product: you follow some rules, take some specific steps, turn the handle and out pops a perfect piece of writing. The idea behind the model is that this approach can actually cause writer’s block. Instead, we can choose to view writing as a process where we start off with something rough and gradually shape it into the desired form:
- Forget all of the rules you learned at school: don’t worry about grammar, spelling or eloquence. Just write.
- Practice Free Writing: put pen to paper and write whatever comes to mind. Don’t try to perfect your piece—just drain your brain.
- Evaluate your Free Writing: start a new document, look over your Free Writing and select those sentences which you think most accurately articulate what you want to say. You are looking for concepts that you can expand upon later.
- Create a draft: use your evaluation above to create a draft of your writing piece.If you don’t like how it looks, simply go back to step 2!
- Revise, revise, revise: this is the stage where you can worry about grammar and punctuation.
- Once you have an almost completed piece, share it with others. The best way get an honest appraisal of your own work is to ask someone else to do it.
The steps above are just a guide and might not work for everyone. There are different takes on the Process/Product Model and I only included this particular one as I have had success using it in the past (although I didn’t know the name of it).
On top of all of the above, there are some really useful courses offered by the Research Strategy and Innovation Office. There are different options from each of the colleges, so you should have a look through your specific school brochure to identify any courses that will help. What do you do to improve your writing productivity? Let us know in the comments, or over on Twitter, and we can compare notes!