How to overcome writer’s block

You don’t need to spend a long time writing before you experience writer’s block; that deeply frustrating state where you just seem unable to get words out of your head and onto the page.

Probably every writer has experienced writer’s block at some point or another, which is reassuring because it means that there must be ways to overcome it otherwise nothing would ever get published.

But before looking at solutions, we first need to understand what the problem actually is.

Writer’s block: a symptom, not a condition

There are many reasons why you might experience writer’s block, so it is perhaps better to think of it as a symptom of some other problem rather than a condition in itself.

If you only treat the symptom, for example by switching to write about something else or by telling yourself to just “write shit”, then this may not be an appropriate response to the underlying problems.

The post below covers 8 common causes of writer’s block and some partial solutions for different situations. You may be experiencing more than one at the same time!

8 causes of writer’s block

Please note, when I talk about writing, I refer to writing as a means of communication and presentation, rather than idea-generation and exploration. The two are very different!

– Distraction

Writing takes concentration. It takes time to solidify an idea into words, and any disruption to your train of thought can take a long time to recover from.

Distraction comes in many forms. You may be interrupted by people coming to talk to you, by stressful events in your life or just by random thoughts popping into your head. But by far the biggest distraction is the internet.

For me, it often starts with email (easily justifiable), but during the 3 seconds it takes to load I already have a tab open to check Facebook. And the news. 40 minutes later I’m watching videos of cats on YouTube.

Willpower alone is not enough to beat this. I strongly recommend removing the option of going online if you want to get writing done.

Before I started writing my PhD thesis, I cancelled my home internet connection so there was no way to get online while I was at the computer. I now use the program “Freedom” to block the internet for several hours at a time.

– Too many ideas at the same time

Sometimes there are simply too many ideas in my head to be able to write. It’s like having a crowd of 1000 people trying to get through a narrow doorway at the same time- they all get stuck. The best way to solve this is to slow down, hold most of the ideas back, and just let one through at a time.

It is extremely useful to do a brain dump by putting all those ideas down using pen and paper. This gives you a stock of ideas you can come back to, and is useful to help you decide…

– Not knowing what you want to say

If you don’t know what you are trying to say, then you won’t be able to find the words to say it.

But even if you have just a half-formed notion of what you want to say, you at least have a focal point for your attention and can spend some time engaged with the idea until it becomes clearer.

Then the challenge is to find the words to express that idea clearly to the reader.

– Difficult problems of expression

Writing is a process of solving problems of expression, and some of these problems are more difficult than others.

If you are writing about ideas you know well, which you have discussed many times and which you are confident in, then often the words can flow without too much thought. But not everything you write about will be so easy. Some ideas are more subtle, more complicated, more difficult.

This means that sometimes you will slow to a halt because you need to spend some time thinking about the idea and how to express it. This is an inevitable part of the writing process, and it is nothing to worry about. Slow down, take your time, and have the patience to try to solve these problems as they arise.

If you put pressure on yourself to keep getting more words down and switch to writing about something else, all you are doing is saving all the difficult problems for later. This leads to the all-too-common situation of trying to do all the difficult work at the end when you are under the most time pressure.

If you stay with the idea a little longer and manage to solve the problem, it feels really good and your writing pace will increase again.

But what if the problem is unsolvable? At least spending some time thinking about it can help you work out why.

– Missing knowledge

If you spend time on a writing problem but find that you can’t solve it, it may be because you are missing some knowledge or information.

If this is the case, no amount of thinking or “writing around the subject” will help. You need to identify what the gap is, decide whether it is important enough to your work to justify the time and effort to fill, and either cut it or go and get the information you need.

It my be that you need to do some analysis or some reading or go and speak to someone, but this needs to be done before you try to write about it again.

– Half-formed ideas

There will be times when you have an idea floating in your mind, but which isn’t quite solid enough to grab hold of and put into words. It’s like those times when you’re trying to remember the name of a song- you know it’s there but the harder you try the further out of reach it seems to get.

It’s frustrating, but sometimes the best thing to do is to try to relax and let your brain work. I will often spend 10 minutes staring out of the window while I think, or I’ll go for a walk but try to stay gently attached to the thought.

Sometimes the idea escapes, sometimes it leads to a new and deeper insight, and there’s no way to control or predict which it will be.

In this situation, it is absolutely crucial that you don’t go online. The internet is death for creative thought.

– Not knowing what comes next

Writer’s block can occur if you have reached a point where you just don’t know what to write next or what direction you want to take the writing.

Some degree of planning helps. As a writer your job is to guide the reader from one idea to the next, so knowing roughly where you want to go is a good idea.

One useful strategy is to type out four or five bullet points outlining the key points you want to cover next. These may change- you can add or remove points or change the order as you write- so it’s not about planning everything rigidly but rather giving yourself a flexible short-term plan.

If you have done a brain-dump on paper, then you can dip into this stock of ideas to select the next points.

– Fear

Finishing a piece of academic writing usually means showing it to someone else for review, whether that’s submission to a journal, your supervisor, or for the final examination of your thesis.

This can be terrifying. What if it isn’t good enough? What if I have missed something crucial? What if it gets torn apart?

Sometimes it is easier to just keep revising a document rather than submit it, because as long as it’s unfinished you can’t fail. Sometimes it’s hard to motivate yourself to finish off those last few easy things, because it’s difficult to let go, to submit.

This is where a deadline helps, but it’s also good to get into the habit of finishing whatever you are working on.  Get each section into a submittable state before moving on to the next. You may still be reluctant to submit, but it does help to lower the barrier somewhat.

Ultimately you can’t know what the result will be, you just have to be bold, submit it, and trust that whatever happens it will be OK.

By Pawel Wozniak - http://freestocktextures.com/texture/id/690, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18603544
By Pawel Wozniak – http://freestocktextures.com/texture/id/690, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18603544

Writing: why practice doesn’t always make perfect

It’s often said that you should write as often and as early as possible in your PhD, in part because practicing writing will make you a better writer.

This makes intuitive sense- after all, you can’t improve without practicing- but not all practice is equally effective in improving your writing skill and simply engaging in the activity of writing on a frequent basis is not enough.

The learning curve and the plateau

If you started playing tennis every day, you would probably improve quite quickly in the first few weeks. But if you continued to play every day without adapting your training, your rate of improvement would slow to the point where you are no longer improving with practice.

The same is true of many skills. You can drive a car every day without becoming a better driver, you can go to the gym every day without becoming stronger and you can write every day without becoming a better writer.

The relationship between practice and skill is not linear. You may experience a rapid improvement early, but this improvement slows and your skill level reaches a plateau. This is known as the learning curve.

learning-curve

Sometimes your skill level can even decline with practice, so it’s important to understand how to practice well.

Avoiding the plateau

To keep your skills improving, you need to adapt your practice. Usually, this means deliberately focusing on a specific aspect of the skill you are practicing and setting a clear objective.

A tennis player doesn’t just practice tennis and hope they improve. Instead, they may spend an entire training session working on their serve, perhaps with the specific goal of improving accuracy by aiming for a small target on the court.

As a writer, you shouldn’t just write and hope that your writing gets better. Instead, it’s far better to focus on  a specific aspect of your writing, such as;

  • use of a specific tense
  • clarity of expression
  • rhythm and sentence structure
  • structuring an argument

Good writing is a the result of many individual and complementary skills working in combination. If there is a weakness in your writing game, you have a far greater chance of improving if you make a conscious effort to focus on that weakness while you practice.

The crucial elements: feedback and adaptation

Two crucial elements of effective practice are feedback and adaptation. When you make an attempt at something, you need some kind of feedback to assess whether, or to what degree, you were successful.

This means reading what you have just written and assessing your own work, and then adapting it to try to make it better. This isn’t always easy to do- because assessing and adapting your writing is a skill in itself- but it’s a vital part of the process. You can always get someone else to read a short section and give you feedback if you really struggle, you should try to assess your own writing first.

It is important that you do this on a small scale, reading and making small adjustments to short sections of work, rather than writing thousands and thousands of words. A single paragraph is enough to work with!

Take your time

It is difficult to improve skill under pressure or if you are working at speed. Slow down, take your time, and think.

Set aside some time, disconnected from the internet and other distractions, and be patient while you write. Try out different ways of phrasing things. Play with different ideas. Stop, assess, and adapt.

Practice alone isn’t enough, and it can be deeply frustrating if you try your best and don’t seem to be improving. If that’s the case, more practice might not help, but changing the way you practice may be the answer.

What goes in the introduction, what goes in the conclusion?

You’ve probably heard the common advice that you should write your thesis introduction last. If you follow that advice, you’ll be writing your introduction and conclusion around the same time, and it can be difficult to know what to put where.

It can feel like you are just writing an overview of your research twice under different headings, so what do you put in the introduction, and what do you put in the conclusion?

The difference between introductions and conclusions

The simplest way to differentiate between the intro and the conclusion is to think of the introduction as the state of knowledge prior to your research, and the conclusion as the state of knowledge following your research.

intro-and-conclusion

Introductions

In your introduction, you should outline the problem(s) you are trying to solve and the question(s) you are trying to answer.

You should also place those problems or questions in context by describing some broader situation (whether that is a brief summary of research or a “real-world” problem).

This needs to be structured in such a way that it leads the reader towards your research topic, for example;

X is an important issue… Two key problems are A and B… In order to do A and B, we need to understand C… A great deal of recent research into C has focused on the use of variations on method D… however, D is limited in it’s ability to fully assess C… This thesis investigates the potential use of method E

There are many ways to do it, but as a general rule the introduction only needs to go as far as describing the problem. You don’t need to summarize the results: there will be plenty of time for that later.

Conclusions

What do you know now, that wasn’t known before? Why is this significant?

Does your work confirm or contradict other published work?

What questions does your research raise, and is there potential for further research?

Try to keep the conclusion simple, and focus on the most important things you want the reader to remember from your thesis.

Why some perfectionism is a good thing

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to “just get words down on the page; don’t worry about detail, and don’t think too much”. This is often given as a way of overcoming writers block, or the “fear of the blank page”.

Perfectionism is seen as a bad thing, because it can lead to constant and never-ending revision of every sentence.

But in academic writing, accuracy of expression matters, and there are some things you need to get right.

Crucial ideas

If you write a sentence starting, “the purpose of this study is…” then it is absolutely essential to express yourself accurately, because the examiner will judge everything that follows based on their understanding of that one sentence.

Be patient. It is worth spending some time to perfect it.

Deep concepts

Your pace should vary naturally with the difficulty of the concepts you are writing about. Obviously, difficult ideas take more time and work to express in writing than easier ones. So if you only write fast, you can only cover easy concepts. If you have to slow down to think and find the right words, that’s OK.

Be patient. It’s worth spending time to clarify the idea.

perfectionismDeal with problems as they arise

I think of writing as a problem-solving process; finding solutions to problems of expression.

There are always difficult problems to solve, which break up the flow of the writing, but it is is important to try to solve these as they arise.

If you put yourself under pressure to keep producing and jump to writing about something else, then all you are doing is saving all the difficult stuff for later (when you might be under immense time-pressure).

So try to stay with the problem a little longer. Be patient. It’s worth spending time to find a solution.

The sweet spot

Total perfectionism, where nothing is ever good enough, is clearly a bad thing. But total carelessness is a bad thing too.

The ideal approach lies somewhere between the extremes, where it’s OK to take care over your writing. It’s OK to slow down and think. And sometimes it really is OK, even necessary, to be a little bit perfectionist.

The pleasure of finding things out

If you focus too much on the outcome, on targets and deadlines and examinations and success or failure, it’s easy to forget why you started doing research in the first place.

It’s easy to end up burned out, stressed and resentful of the very subject that once inspired you.

This can happen to the very best researchers! Richard Feynman, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist widely revered as one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, if not all time, described his own experience in his 1985 autobiography, “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman”

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing – it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference. I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate – two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is …” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” – working, really – with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

For the fun of it

The best researchers are driven by curiosity. Feynman described it as “the pleasure of finding things out”, and it seems to be a good way to stay engaged and interested in your work.

But there is another benefit. Just as Feynman’s Nobel ultimately came from playing around with the physics of a spinning plate, many of the greatest discoveries have emerged from simply playing with an idea for the fun of it.

Not everything you do has to be useful. Invest some time in exploring ideas just for the sake of curiosity, for the pleasure of finding things out.

Some of it might turn out to be useful in the long-term, just as some of the things you do for a specific purpose might turn out to be useless. It’s difficult to predict the long-term value of the work you do, but you might as well have some fun while you find out.

 

Your final PhD year: moving towards submission

The final year of your PhD is all about pushing towards submission of your thesis.

So in order to reach that point, you need to go through a process of consolidating and finalising the various aspects of your work.

Complexity vs time

Throughout the course of your PhD, most of the things you do will create more work. The more data you gather, the more analysis you have to do. The more reading you do, the references you find to read. Every question you answer raises many more, and so the complexity of your research will tend to increase over time.

complexity-vs-time

This is a perfectly natural aspect of research, and it can take you to places you never could have planned for, but it also increases the uncertainty involved as more options present themselves for further research.

If you want to finish your PhD then this upward trend has to stop. At some point, you have to stop gathering data, stop investigating new ideas, and you have to start finishing things.

Aiming for submission

Once you submit your thesis, there is nothing more you can do to change it. You can’t add anything, you can’t take anything away. If you have a brilliant new idea, it’s simply too late to include it.

If we work backwards in time from that point; the day before you submit you only have time to make a few small changes. All the central ideas and conclusions need to be in place.

One week before you submit, you might be editing, and there might be a few sections you want to tweak, or maybe you are wrapping up the conclusion, but nothing fundamental is going to change.

So the general trend is that the closer you get to submission, the smaller the changes become. You are no longer exploring new ideas, but consolidating and finalising what you already have. This means that the uncertainty over what you are going to present has to decrease (until it reaches zero)

approaching-zero

The tipping point

So the general trend is for research to become more complex and uncertain over time, but in order to finish you need to reduce the complexity.

Therefore, there must be a tipping-point somewhere. A point where you stop creating new work and put what you have into a submissible form.

This means you have to be decisive about what you are going to include and what you are going to leave out. You need to be absolutely certain what your research questions are, what theories your work relies upon, what kind of analysis you are doing, what your main arguments are, and so on.

Only once you have made those clear decisions can you start the process of finishing. It is about reducing the uncertainty about what you are going to say.

tipping-point

When does the tipping point occur?

The amount of stress in the final months is determined by how close the tipping point is to the submission date.

If you are 2 weeks from submission, and you are uncertain about your analysis, then there is a high degree of uncertainty very late. Since your discussion and conclusions depend upon the analysis, then you won’t be able to commit to anything!

tipping-point-stress

So the earlier you get some certainty about what you want to say and how, the better.

How to apply this practically

  1. Analyse data as early as possible, don’t leave it until you have to write about it
  2. Present and discuss your work early, get feedback
  3. Decide on your strongest material
  4. Decide what not to pursue
  5. Have a rough thesis structure in mind; focus on gathering what you need
  6. Set a date to stop gathering new material/ data
  7. Set a submission date if you don’t already have one
  8. When you write, try to finish each section so that it looks submissible
  9. Stick to what you know best!

How do you know you have enough?

After several years working in the field, you should know what other researchers around the world have done.

Is your work comparable to the average published work in the field? Is it competitive? Does it add something of interest to other academics?

You have to believe it is good enough in order to convince anyone else, and the only way to do this is to look at the published literature.

The risk…

Submitting a thesis means facing the judgement of the examiners. This can be a terrifying thought, but it’s unavoidable.

I dealt with this fear by telling myself that I didn’t care what the examiners thought, and that if I failed then it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen and that I would be OK.

Trust in your ability to cope with whatever happens. It will be OK!

 

 

Procrastination hack: get to zero

If, like me, you have a habit of procrastination, here’s a little trick you can use to get yourself going.

When you procrastinate, you probably find yourself engaging in some kind of substitution task. You’ll suddenly think of something else that needs doing (like checking email for example) which you’ll find a way to rationalise.

If you try to force yourself to work, you may feel a lot of resistance; like trying to force an oil tanker to suddenly change direction. So try this instead…

Get to zero first

The first step is to stop yourself doing the substitution tasks. Close the browser. Get to zero. Try to do nothing.

You will inevitably start thinking of all kinds of other things you should do to fill the vacuum, but calmly resist. Just do nothing. It may take some time, but if you are patient enough your thoughts will gradually settle so you can start to focus on your work.

If you create the space first, you can then start to bring your attention to bear on the work.

Quick tip: How to use reference management software

One problem you’ll have to solve at some point in your writing is how to insert references into your thesis.

There are many options in terms of software to do this, but it can be a nightmare trying to get them to integrate with your word processor.

I can’t give specific instructions for how to use each program (I’d rather be force-fed Lego blocks than do tech support for referencing software), but here’s a quick tip that could save you a lot of pain.

Start early, start simple

If you leave your referencing to the end, then you will have potentially hundreds of references across several chapters to insert. If you then try to figure out how to get EndNote to synch with Word for the first time, then you’ll be trying to learn something new by starting at the hardest level, under the greatest time pressure.

So take some time to solve the problem as early as possible in the writing process. Get it working by just starting with 2 or 3 references, making sure they are displayed in the correct format and that the numbering works.

It might take some time to figure out, but once it’s solved and you have a working system on a small scale, it is easy to add references as you go.

 

Productivity comes last

You’ve probably tried to be more productive at some point. If you aren’t getting the output you want for the effort you put in, then it makes sense to look at ways to improve your productivity.

So you can try;

  • Being more organised
  • Managing your time better
  • Setting goals and deadlines
  • Optimising your processes

There are countless systems and tools to help you do these things, and all of them work. Or rather that should be, all of them work sometimes.

If you’ve tried increasing your productivity using any of the above, you probably found that you got an initial boost but then slipped back into your usual habits. This can lead you to the conclusion that you are the problem, rather than the system (after all, the system worked while you stuck to it).

But usually it’s neither you nor the system that’s the problem, it’s just that you are using the wrong tool at the wrong time.

The language of productivity

Much of the terminology we use when we talk about productivity, and indeed the very concept of productivity, comes from industry.

When you have a production line, you want to have as efficient a system as possible. You will have production targets, schedules and procedures to make sure the output consistently meets demand.

This is fine when you have a defined product and a defined, repetitive production process. But the same way of thinking does not work when there is even the slightest requirement for problem solving or creativity.

language-of-productivityProductivity and creativity take different approaches

Creativity is often inefficient. It requires open and playful exploration of a variety of ideas, many of which you may never use. It is difficult to set targets, because you don’t know how it’s going to work out, and some of the things you try might fail.

This is the opposite of productivity, but is essential as a precursor.

Although it is difficult to quantify the output of creative time – because it doesn’t produce immediately measurable results – many companies still recognise its value. 3M, the company behind post-it notes and scotch tape, developed a “15% time” rule, where their R&D staff could spend 15% of their time working on anything they liked, without the pressure to “produce”. Google took concept this a step further, with “20% time”.

There is a lot of creativity in the design of, say, an iPhone; many of the ideas the design team considered will never go to market. But then following that experimentation comes the creatively constrained phase of production- you don’t want someone on the assembly line of your iPhone expressing their creative urges.

How this applies to PhD work

When you are writing your thesis, if you are 2 months away from submitting then you should be focused on productivity, with the clear goal of getting the thing finished on time.

This means that you should not be spending much time exploring new ideas, but rather consolidating the ones you have already explored in depth.

At earlier stages, you should explore dead ends, waste time daydreaming, take risks and make as many mistakes as possible, and be less focused on rigid productivity.

Productivity comes last

Productivity systems and tools are useful, but only when applied at the right time.

Because research so often requires finding creative solutions to difficult problems, we need to give equal consideration to the skills of creativity, letting go of the rigid timetable-and-goal-oriented approach, and taking time to play. It’s only once you’ve done that exploration that it’s time to narrow your focus and get productive.

See also: Productivity vs Creativity