Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter @erinellyse.
I have a confession: right now, as I write this blog post, I should be writing a chapter of my thesis. And it’s not the first time that I’ve put off writing this chapter by doing something else. I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’re reading this when you should be writing something as well. I’ll tell both of us to get back to work soon, but first, I want to look at why this might be happening and how to keep it from happening again.
Why aren’t we writing? If you’re going to tell me that we have writer’s block, I’m going to argue that academic writer’s block doesn’t exist. In Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, he states, “I love writer's block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures—they're charming and they don't exist.” Unlike poets and fiction writers, we can’t claim that we’re waiting for “inspiration”—writer’s block in academics is simply failing to engage in the act of writing. Therefore the way to remedy it is to write.
While we might not have writer’s block, I will argue that other blocks can exist. For grad students, some common blocks are crises of confidence, messy data due to bad organization, or being stymied by how to interpret weird results. These motivational traps are legitimate reasons to be stuck; we may have to work through them before we can start, but identifying them is a first step.
These blocks aside, writing is still not easy. Here are some strategies to help:
Get rid of the blank page
While we might not be able to claim writer’s block, we can still claim fear of a blank page. That bright white screen staring back at us is practically the stuff of nightmares. So get rid of it! Fill it up with outlines, references, plots, tables, and figures. Fill it up with ideas and lists. Start in the middle of a section, start in the middle of a paragraph. Whatever comes to mind, just make the blank page gone. When that blank page is covered with thoughts, then you can turn it into a coherent piece of writing.
Writing takes a lot of mental energy, so it’s easy to say that now is not a good time and put it off until later. Unfortunately, this can lead to putting it off until the next day, or the day after that, and before we know it, the deadline is here and we’re still staring at a blank page (and calling it writer’s block!). To avoid this, make a schedule and stick to it. There are strategies that can help: keeping a record of your writing schedule or joining/making a writing group will help keep you accountable and motivated, and the Pomodoro technique (in short, 25 minutes of writing with 5 minute breaks) can help you stay focused.
Set small goals
Divide your writing goals into chunks and accomplish them one step at a time. This strategy works well in combination with scheduling writing time. Set short-term goals like finishing certain sections by the end of the day. Silvia suggests keeping a record of your writing schedule and what you’ve accomplished to hold you to your goals.
Scheduling time and setting small goals work really well if there’s a reward for success. Finish a page? Have a cookie! Or whatever it is that will keep you going.
Change your location
Not everyone will agree with me here, but I find that for long writing sessions, changing my location every few hours helps me stay focused. Having a change of scenery, noise level, and seating seems to wake up my brain. This nomadic writing style doesn’t work well if writing is replaced with constant moving and settling in, but sometimes a change of environment can give us the kick that we need to keep going. Check out GradHacker’s tips on working efficiently in any location.
Leave enough time for revision
A great strategy for writing is to start with a crappy rough draft (get rid of the blank page) then to go back, pull out your Strunk and White, and only then begin editing. The idea is to focus on the ideas first, then worry about structure, style, and grammar afterwards. If you’re doing this, make sure to leave enough time to do a really good job of revising because it will almost always take longer than you expect. Ideally, I like to also leave an additional day when I don’t look at my work to get some distance from the project—it’s easier to edit with a “fresh” set of eyes.
Finally, remember that writing is hard. It’s a skill that we have to work at to develop, but there are some great resources out there to help. I highly recommend the free online course (aka MOOC) offered by Stanford University, “Writing in the Sciences” (on Coursera or OpenEdX) for a great overview on writing well and strategies for writing, Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, and others recommended by GradHackers (here, here, and here).
Okay, now it’s time to get back to work. Happy writing!
Looking for another way to procrastinate? Share your writing tips with us!
[Image by Flickr user daitoZen and used under Creative Commons licensing.]