PhD Life

Pushing past PhD writer’s block.

Writer’s block shows up for almost everyone during their PhD. This post provides some guidance on how to push past it and improve your productivity.

Writer’s block is a common obstacle we all face and it can be really frustrating to work through it, especially when you have a deadline for a paper, publication submission, or your thesis. Before we start, it’s important to normalise this feeling – it’s common, if anything it’s expected. Experiencing writer’s block isn’t a bad thing or a sign of things falling apart. It’s normal and sometimes you just have to sit with it and ride the wave. For many of us, writing doesn’t come naturally. Which is ironic considering writing is the yard stick used to evaluate the competencies of all PhD students. The more publications and accolades you have, the more impressive you appear to be as a researcher. Therefore, it’s imperative that you aim to write throughout the course of your PhD and not just at the end. Although writer’s block is a normal and common part of the PhD journey, it can sometimes show up for other reasons.

As discussed elsewhere, sometimes when you’re worn out, depleted or just don’t have the mental capacity to put your ideas on paper it’s due to burnout. Writer’s block can show up because you’re just so exhausted from operating at breakneck speed for too long and in need of a break from your PhD. When the time comes where you need to have a clear head, sit still for a few hours and put some words down on paper, you can’t. Before you start to think about how to get through writer’s block, it’s equally important to think about what’s causing the mental block in the first place. It’s not sustainable for the duration of your PhD if this is a regular occurrence. The sooner you can nip it in the bud and figure out what’s causing it the better. Burnout is often one of the key culprits responsible for writer’s block, but imposter syndrome and analysis paralysis might not be too far behind either. Imposter syndrome in the context of writer’s block is likely to show up where you doubt your ability to write, think you’re not good enough, or deep down just don’t really want to have your work exposed for others to critique and analyse. This is likely to lead to procrastination, writer’s block, and reduce your productivity.

Another offender that is likely to contribute to your writer’s block is analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis is that feeling when we overthink a situation so much that stress kicks in, it makes it difficult to start or make rational decisions. It’s the state of over-analysing and overthinking so much that nothing happens (i.e. paralysis). With so much pressure and importance being placed on your written work in academia, it’s completely understandable. You want the next piece of work you produce to be publishable or presented at a conference. Whatever it is, there’s an expectation that your work needs to be at a really high, if not a perfect standard. This expectation places a lot of pressure on your writing, and so we attempt to try and make sure our first draft meets this standard. You might find yourself sitting in front of a blank page until you come up with the perfect title, or perfect opening sentence. Of course, this is unrealistic and not a logical approach to writing. Nonetheless, we all do it and trying to compose the best opening line doesn’t go down well, nothing gets written and before you know it, you’re face to face with writer’s block.

To overcome writers block there are a few strategies or approaches to consider. First and foremost, when it comes to writing, not just pushing through writer’s block, you do not want to wait for the ‘right time’. This literally never comes, and with the nature of research or a PhD there’s a constant stream of work that needs to be done. Because of this, waiting for lulls or quiet periods to start writing isn’t sensible. Similarly, waiting to be in a ‘good’ state of mind for writing may happen occasionally, but these good days are few and far between. You simply cannot rely on you ‘being in the mood’ to finish a PhD and start writing.

When it comes to pushing past writer’s block, this is the golden rule – you must make writing happen. It is within your control and you must take ownership of being productive. This is the fundamental missing ingredient to overcome writer’s block and the sooner you ensure you have time blocked out within your week or month to start writing and you stick to it – the writing will take care of itself. Other strategies that people often find useful when it comes to pushing through writer’s block includes, trying to writer consistently and ensuring you just get something down on paper – no matter how bad it seems.

A useful technique to help with writing is to reduce the quantity but up the frequency. Targets of trying to write 200-300 words a day is likely to be more fruitful than trying to write 1,000 – 2,000 words a week. The main reason being is that it just reduces the cognitive load required. You end up writing in smaller bursts. It’s also a great strategy to push through those days when you aren’t in the mood or motivated to write. It’s way easier to force yourself to write 300 words when you’re not feeling it than force yourself to write 2,000. It also means that for the days when you’re not doing your best writing it’s only going to impact a small section of you writing – no big deal. Extending this point further, if it wasn’t obvious already, you want to focus on just getting things down on paper, irrespective of the quality. Hyper focusing on trying to produce the best piece of work isn’t a productive strategy, it’s way better to just get something down and then tweak it later.

Majority of people, if not all, find it significantly easier to edit a piece of work that is in front of them than write something from scratch. To get through writer’s block at this stage you want to just get something down. It doesn’t have to be good, but once you have a something you are then able to come back to it, edit it, and improve it on the next draft or iteration. No great paper or contribution to your field was produced on the first attempt.

The final few techniques that can be useful to overcoming writers block is to leave your writing incomplete when you finish writing for the day. Don’t finish sentences. Don’t finish paragraphs. If you’re able to leave your writing mid-thought you set yourself up for success the next time you plan to write. Next time you open the document up and start writing you’re able to dive straight back in where you left off. This helps reduce the cognitive load required to get starting and will help reduce the chance of you running into writer’s block again. If this doesn’t quite work for you, you can try writing down your thoughts, ideas, or bullet points that you plan to cover in the next sentence or paragraph. This again helps with reducing the cognitive load and enables you to pick things up relatively seamlessly.

Overtime, the more you attempt to face your writer’s block and intentionally shift through the gears to try and get things down on paper, no matter how good your writing is, the easier it will become. Eventually writing becomes a habit and a key skill. The quality of your work will improve just due to the amount of practice you’re getting.

If this post has resonated with you, be sure to try these tips out, and start pushing past your PhD writer’s block.

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