You sit in front of your computer screen and try hard to write something but nothing comes to mind.
This is the infamous “writer’s block” episode, and very common among writers in all sorts of professional settings, and not a privilege of graduate students.
Susan Reynolds wrote about the causes of writer’s block, in Psychology Today, in a very provocative manner. She states that writer’s block is a myth created by tormented 19th century poets who claimed to be suffering anxiety from their art and unable to communicate to finicky spirits. Reynolds pokes fun at this outdated explication and clarifies that writer’s block is the result of a certain state of mind or other external factors that we can act upon. A “writer’s block” episode is not a disease but simply a temporary state of “not being prepared to move on to the next level”.
Reynolds’s insights into the challenges of writing and the hard world it encompasses is illuminating. She claims that “writing is not for sissies” - if you committed yourself to write a thesis than you should consider yourself a brave human being.
Reynolds’s claim that writer’s block is a myth inspired us to propose some tips that can help you to be “prepared to move on to the next level” with your writing process.
1. Learn to ask for help from your supervisor
Your thesis is a partnership between your original contribution to scholarship and your supervisor’s expertise. Therefore, a minimum dialogue has to be established so that you both can succeed in academia.
Grad students are often afraid to tell their supervisor that they are off track with their writing. This happens because students blame themselves for not knowing all the answers to their research question, nor how a thesis should actually look.
A successful relationship with a supervisor requires demonstrating that you are proactively trying to accomplish your degree. Don’t forget: they have also been in your shoes so do not be afraid to ask for some guidance. You might want to draft your thesis outline, with a list of chapters, and bring it to a meeting with your supervisor. Printed ideas get people engaged and feedback becomes more productive.
2. Commit to writing goals
As you meet your supervisor to discuss your thesis outline, ask if they would be available to meet with you monthly to review your writing progress. Moreover, it is productive to agree writing goals for the next meeting. If you commit to deliver a certain amount of writing you are likely to keep on track as you do not want to look unprofessional. If you have difficulty getting your supervisor to make this commitment consider pairing up with a fellow grad student who is at a similar stage in your program. The key is to be accountable to someone other than yourself.
Be realistic with your goals! Setting yourself unattainable goals causes unnecessary stress and harms your productivity. Bear in mind that under promising and overdelivering will not harm your reputation!
The relationship with your supervisor needs to be managed professionally like in a corporate job. Supervisors are busy so be organized to take full advantage of your meeting. Send them your written drafts at least a few days in advance, so they have time to review it in advance of your meeting. This will help make efficient use of your limited time together. The work flow has to be constant so you do not lose momentum on your writing progress.
For strategies on how to work productively with your supervisor see our workshop - GPLL18 - Building an Effective Graduate Student - Supervisor Relationship.
3. Know what are you trying to answer
Knowing your research question or hypothesis might seem like a basic tip, but as we get bogged down in the research and writing, we can easily lose sight of the big picture.
Often grad students go astray with off-topic research or get overwhelmed by the self-imposed goal of producing their best piece of writing. A mind filled up with anxiety and fear becomes unfocused and you lose track of your main goal: answer a specific research question or hypothesis. If you need guidance to make your research question more obvious, then you need to clarify this with your supervisor.
It helps to print your research question and keep it in front of you. So that you work to answer it with the support of your research results and the bibliographic review.
4. Try new forms of organizing your thoughts
It is daunting to start with a blank screen in front of your and lots of ideas in your head. You need to just get them out and organize them after.
How about trying to organize your ideas the old-fashioned way? A piece of paper and lots of colored pens might help you to unleash fantastic ideas that you can express with charts, outlines and drawings. If you prefer an app, plot your ideas out in a mind map tool like MindMeister. There are also plenty of voice to text converter in mobile apps so if you are taking a walk or doing your shopping you can get your idea registered before you forget them.
5. Free writing!
Now that you have an idea of your thesis outline you can give yourself some slack. How about just writing anything that comes to your mind for 10 minutes?
This is different from answering a specific question. You just enjoy the writing, no matter what comes to your mind. You forget your worries because it’s not meant to be a “perfect” paragraph. It helps if you abolish from your vocabulary the word “perfect” and try to use “good is good enough” – overcoming the risk of being stuck in the same paragraph for ages trying to find perfection. Even if you cut most of what you write, there is a good chance that you will keep a couple of sentences from your free writing, and choosing these sentences will give you some clarity to move forward.
6. Creativity might come out of the blue!
Writing for eight to ten hours nonstop over time makes you an overworked grad student. We tend to work whenever there is slot of time available, and feel guilty for not writing. But being exhausted is a sure way to stifle your creativity. Don’t forgot to unwind!
It might be helpful to add an exercise routine that pleases you. It can be anything from 30-minute walk, a kickboxing class, or a guided mindfulness exercise. Alternatively, there are plenty volunteering activities on campus. Committing to something fun for a few hours per week, will give you a chance to meet new people, enjoy yourself and take your mind off your thesis.
You might be surprised how new ideas can come when you are least expecting them!