Thesis writing tip: Beating writer’s block

Writer’s block is one of the most dreaded parts of thesis writing. There’s little worse than staring at a screen not knowing what to write next, so I’m going to show you an easy way to beat writer’s block before it beats you. Now I never expect anyone to follow all my advice all the time (I certainly don’t), but what you can do is take a step back and look at what you’re doing when things aren’t going to plan. This one really works, and doesn’t just beat writers’ block, but helps to structure your thesis too.

The standard advice when writing a thesis

Most of the advice out there is about pushing through; getting as many words down on the page as possible whether they’re the right words or not. Just sit and type. It doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you’re getting words down. This advice is nonsense, for several good reasons;

· It puts you under pressure to do exactly what you’re finding difficult

· It encourages you to write anything, whether it’s good or not

· It encourages you to leave sections incomplete and work on something else, just as long as you are getting words down

· Once you’ve typed a section, it’s psychologically harder to rearrange or delete completely

· Eventually, you will run out of things to say, and be left with a heap of incomplete sections

All this adds up to extra stress.

How to beat thesis writer’s block: a better way

The “just sit and type” approach to thesis writing can’t work long term. You will run into the ground sooner or later. The thing to remember though is that writer’s block as a condition doesn’t actually exist. It’s a symptom of something else.

It happens when you haven’t sorted out the thoughts in your head first. All the ideas you have on a particular topic are stored in a disorganised mess in your brain, so if you just sit and type, even if you know where to start, you’ll run out of things to say about one idea, then want to write about something else completely. The temptation is to leave one thought incomplete and write about something else, since you can always come back to it later.

The aim, you must remember, is not to churn out thousands of words for the sake of it. That’s the well-trodden path to soul-crushing thesis depression. Instead, the aim is to focus effort where it matters the most.

What do you want to say? What are the most important points (applying the 80:20 principle), and in what order are you going to write them?

If you don’t know this yet, and you sit down to just type, you’re asking for trouble. You’re going straight for the finished article without planning it first.

Your thesis starts on paper

Remember: pen and paper before pixel. The first thing to do is step away from the computer, pick up a pen and paper, and get all the ideas in your head down onto the page. Do it fast, without putting the ideas in any kind of order just yet. It’s best to start in the middle with the central idea, then write all over the page. Do this for about 25 minutes.

You’ll notice that your train of thought will take different directions unexpectedly as ideas arise. That’s fine. That’s the whole point of what you’re doing. It’s way better for this to happen now, than when you’re typing.

Once you’ve filled the page, take a quick break, then take a new sheet of paper and start putting the ideas from the first sheet into a logical order. You’re now mapping out how one idea links to the next.

You’re still free to change things, but it’s much easier to do that during the planning stage than when you’ve already written 2000 words. Think of it like building a house; it’s easier to change the structure during the planning stage than it is after you’ve started building the walls.

Filling the gaps

You’ll also find that there are gaps in your structure. Things you don’t know, missing references and so on. But the strength of this system is that you can anticipate those gaps, rather than falling down them when you’re in the process of writing.

Every time you find yourself staring at the screen wondering what on earth you’re going to write next, take a step back, pick up a pen and do this simple bit of planning. I guarantee it’ll be better for you than “just  getting words on the screen”.
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