Don't Stare at Blank Screen

July 1, 2009

I’m writing this column because: (1) I used to stare at a blank screen, and (2) I’d like to save you a modicum of misery while you are writing your dissertation. Truth be told, I don’t want to save you a modicum of misery. Rather, if you struggle with writing, I hope that you will learn to love writing (yes, this is possible!). If you already enjoy writing, I want you to increase your enjoyment and fluency.

When I look back at my graduate days, I was required to take courses in advanced statistics, psychological theories, and research methodologies. My department did not offer a course on how to write a dissertation — the task that too often stands between doctoral students and their degrees. Meanwhile the vast majority of us had never written beyond a 50-page manuscript; let along a 100+ page self-initiated research project. My department was, and is, not alone. Graduate departments, with wonderful exceptions, focus on the subject matter, theories, and methodologies needed to complete a dissertation, not on the process of writing. Why? I can only speculate. But I knew that if I did not learn habits of writing fluency, I was at risk of being ABD.

So I did learn these habits. I learned them from a patient and wise dissertation adviser: Robert Boice, professor emeritus at SUNY Stony Brook, one of the foremost experts on faculty development and the writing process. Now I teach them to every graduate student or new faculty member who has the patience to listen while I excitedly tell them about techniques of fluent writing. I lead seminars for doctoral students and workshops for new faculty members. The outlines for my seminars and workshops became the basis for a book titled Demystifying Dissertation Writing. So grab your large caffeinated beverage if you haven’t already; I am passionate about teaching habits of writing fluency to anyone who will listen or who will read what I write.

Before we address directly the issue of blank screens, I would like you to notice that I use the term habits of writing fluency. I don’t use the term writing skills. By the time students are accepted into a graduate program, they pretty much know a well-written grammatically-correct sentence when they see it. And, given enough time, they can edit their own work so that it is full of well-written grammatically-correct sentences. Ah, the key is given enough time. When this does not occur, too often it is not the result of writing skill but writing habits. When you finish a paper at the last minute and do not have the necessary time to revise, revise, revise, then no matter what your writing skill level, you are not living up to your full writing potential. Starting with this article and in my forthcoming articles, I will suggest ways to improve your habits of writing fluency. Your end product will be better than before and your professors may say something along the lines of, “Wow, your writing skills have increased dramatically.” Please, don’t correct them and go into a monologue about the difference between habits and skills. Just say “Thank you.”

Staring at a blank screen occurs when writers write before they are ready. To be able to sit down at your computer, open up your document, and put meaningful words on the screen takes hours and hours of preparation time. What I call prewriting. Prewriting starts with reading in an active manner so that you interact with the reading and continues through to the development of a Long Outline with References. The steps in between include taking useful notes, distilling notes into small building blocks that can be grouped and categorized, writing a succinct focus statement then a One-Page Outline and Long Outline, and then slotting the small building blocks (representing your references) into your long outline. Staring at a blank screen occurs when uncertainty and anxiety prompt your internal critic to question your ability. Staring at a blank screen can be caused by perfectionism, impatience, or depression and dysphoria. Staring at a blank screen may cause you to procrastinate by putting those final flourishes on an already finished lecture and may prevent you from sitting down and looking at the blank screen altogether.

The good news is that staring at a blank screen can be rectified. I assure you that it will not take daily psychotherapy for five years to overcome procrastination; or regular cognitive behavioral therapy to overcome perfectionism. Mind you, I am all for getting professional help when necessary and will address this in a future column. For now, I want you to know that you can learn the skills necessary so that you can say goodbye to your days of staring at a blank screen. It will take time, effort, patience, and the support of your peers. The other bit of good news is that I have found doctoral students learn these habits quite readily. Doctoral students have a lifetime of succeeding at learning. Since you have learned effective work habits that have translated into good grades and high test scores, you can learn habits of fluent writing.

Through this column, and the resources I suggest along the way, I will teach you habits of fluent writing. If you have a history of staring at a blank screen, I can assure you, someday you will Stare at a Blank Screen No More. If you are a comfortable writer, you can learn techniques that will increase your productivity. Starting in two weeks, I will introduce techniques for harnessing your reading, taking useful notes, and creating building blocks from which you can organize your reading. We will discuss how to develop useful outlines so that you can engage in a Regular Writing Routine. Along the way, I will encourage you to recruit writing partners so you can support one another as you write your dissertations and manage your dissertation committees. My next column will be titled Piles of Articles. Stack of Books. Files of PDFs. No Problem.

If you have questions, disagreements, or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.

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