Getting past the blank page – and tackling ‘writers block’

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Whenever I talk to anyone about their thesis, the actual process of writing is ALWAYS described as one of (if not THE) hardest aspects. There is something about sitting down in your chair (or on the couch or ground, laptop in lap), and looking at that blank page that seems to paralyze people.Writers block – it feels real, right?

And I get it: the white spaces freaks me out too, as does all my internal critical thoughts about whether this is going to be good enough, why didn’t I listen to my English teacher and learn the grammar rules, is there a new book or missing reference I need, is my statistical analysis the right one, how can I make my first sentence more interesting, why did I chose to do research on this topic, when clearly I know very little….  I could go on, but I think you get the idea: self-doubts are common and writing paralysis is a real thing, and there is only one cure I know of: write through it.  As Nike say: Just Do It!

While I would like to end the post here, and leave you writing madly thanks to my advice to “just do it”, I know that it is not enough. So, below are some tips to motivate positive and productive thesis writing – and because I love iteration (I hope that is the right grammatical word?!), I am using the word WRITE as my guide… :

W: Write. 

My first tip has to be Just Write. Ideally, schedule a time that you write every day, or at least a few hours every week. The more you write, the easier it becomes and the better writer you become. Trust me – and all the research that shows when you work at something, you improve.

R: Read

Yes, you need to read in your field of research. You already know that. But you also need to read some books on academic writing. Trust me: they help! I will do a separate post on some great books to get you started, but to start check out the very funny Paul de Silvia (How to Write Alot), Patricia Goodson (Becoming an Academic Writer) has 50 exercises to help, and anything by Pat Thompson (Detox Your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers). Most of these are online for free in the university library, so download it on your iPad NOW and read it on the train/bus.

I: Inspiration

You need to be inspired by good writers. Read a novel and appreciate the use of language. Then search for and read 2-3 theses (they do not have to be in your field, we are looking at layout, structure and writing style: check out QUT e-prints, which has a specific thesis search area). Patricia Goodson (2012, pg82) suggests physically “copying” good writing very slowly, as a rich technique for improving our writing; to familiarize ourselves with good writing and common phrases – copy as practice, not plagiarism. 

QUT Thesis E-Prints: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/cgi/search/archive/thesis/

T: Time 

This is perhaps the most important tip I can give you: create a “mutual enemy” of an external writing deadline. Most people work better to deadlines, and it is why most universities have significant milestones throughout your research journey that you need to meet. At QUT, we enact a project management style approach to completing your thesis, with multiple milestones to facilitate progress and written drafts: Stage 2, CoC and FS (a separate post defines these acronyms).

I also like to search for CfP (calls for papers) in my research field every few months or so and write to those deadlines: there is nothing like a non-negotiable deadline to facilitate progress and create some urgency/stress that ensures you GET SOMETHING DONE!   So create a writing deadline – and met it. Believe, me a week later you will have forgotten getting up at 4am to write for 2 hours before you go to work or the kids get up.. but you will LOVE the progress you have made.

E: Early 

Seek feedback early. I know some supervisors only like to see complete chapters or papers, but my view is that it is important to clarify expectations/ the direction of the paper  (and change track if needed!) early. And, the longer you hold on to something, the harder it is to share it – and the more closed off you are to any suggested changes and constructive (you might interpret it as negative) feedback.  So I encourage sharing (or at least discussing) early drafts to (1) tackle a fear of imperfection and (2) that sense that your writing will never be good enough – you know, that Ms/Mr Perfectionism inside you.  If your supervisor won’t look at anything before it is compete, then make sure you have a good long discussion about your paper/chapter plan – brainstorm a mind-map or table of contents structure outlining the logic and where your writing is going. Get feedback, and share drafts and ideas EARLY.

I hope my WRITE acronym helps you –  at least a little – with fighting the blank page and writers block.  I will leave you with this wonderful quote by de Silva (2009 –How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing): “Writing is a grim business, much like repairing a sewer or running a mortuary. Although I’ve never dressed a corpse, I’m sure it is easier to embalm the dead than write an article about it. Writing is hard, which is why so many of us do so little of it.[But] as an academic, you are a professional writer, just as you are a professional teacher”. 

Writing is part of the job description of being a research student:

…. so stop avoiding it and JUST DO IT! 

Until next time,

Your friend and HDR mentor,


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