Overcoming the fear of academic writing

January 27, 2021

A few days ago, I received this email:

I have a problem in my PhD. I don't write. Before I start writing I think I will write but when I open MS Word I feel lost I may write a sentence and after that I cant continue. How can I overcome this?

A lot of people experience this fear of writing. Some think that it’s just the nature of writing, that writing is inherently stressful and difficult. And some people think the same of a PhD, that it’s something you have to suffer your way through.

But I don’t think this is true. I think that academic writing is difficult, but difficult things aren’t stressful if you know you have the skills to cope with the challenge.

This applies to anything. If I were to find myself piloting a plane and I had to land in bad weather, I’d be absolutely terrified- and with good reason because I’ve never flown a plane before. But it’s not the situation that’s terrifying. If you take a pilot with years of training and experience, they might actually enjoy it, because the weather makes their day a bit more interesting.

The only real difference between a terrifying situation and an enjoyable challenge is your level of skill.

So how can you build your skill and confidence in academic writing?

For someone who’s completely stuck and terrified of writing, we want to simplify.

When you think about an entire thesis, or even a whole chapter or paper, it can be overwhelming because you have so many ideas in your head, there’s so much you could include, and there are so many different ways you could put it all together.

So let’s just focus on one small part to start with.

What I’d like you to try is to describe a situation; a set of circumstances that give rise to a problem or a question.

Since we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, I’ll use that as an example. I’ll start with a very general statement;

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in late 2019 and early 2020, there have been severe impacts on almost every aspect of society.

Now I could give some examples- I could write about the human impact and give examples of mortality rates or lasting health effects, or I could write about economic impacts, but I want to keep it fairly brief here, especially because most people know about these things, but the key is that any statements I give must serve as examples of the impacts on society, because I’ve set that up in the first sentence.

The mistake I often see is people cram in information, sometimes randomly, just to fit in an extra citation. But, if you can filter your knowledge and make sure you only say what’s relevant to the point you want to make, you’re already ahead of most other writers.

Now, within that opening sentence, we have a really simple structure. We have a cause, the pandemic, and we have effects. We can use that to build out a structure.

So we could say,

“In response, governments around the world have attempted to slow the spread of the virus through travel restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns, as well as enforcing other measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

Here, we have responses to the situation. So we have a situation or an event, which causes some effects or problems, which people then respond to in different ways. After setting up the real world responses, you can write about the academic responses to these government interventions-  what academic questions have been raised about the effects or effectiveness of these interventions? what’s been done and what hasn’t? You can hopefully see how this can lead to your own research questions.

When you structure writing this way, everything is a consequence of or response to whatever came before. One thing leads to another, so it’s really easy for the reader to follow.

You can apply this principle of structure to the whole thesis, but to keep things simple, I would say to start with this as an exercise. Think about a situation, its effects, and how people have responded to it. That should give you a foundation to start with and then you can build from there.

See also:

The blank page is your friend

How to tame your inner writing critic

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