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How to overcome writer’s block in your PhD?

Writer’s block can significantly delay, or even derail, your research project. Find out about the tools that can help you overcome writer’s block!

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Stephen King

Do you enjoy writing?

I noted that many researchers usually consider writing as the least exciting part of doing research, usually dedicating too little time to this important activity in their research project.

After all, you’ve done your experiments or derived a new mathematical model that helps to solve a specific challenge.

This is truly the most electrifying part of your work as you’ve pushed the boundary of knowledge. Well done!

But what’s the actual value of your discovery if you don’t share it with others?

Although there are many ways to share your research (remember to check out our free ebook!), writing down your research is still the main way to do so.

You usually include “writing time” in the plan of your research project. But once you gather all your research data and sit down to get some writing done, you hit the wall.

The white page of your document scares you, and you don’t know where to start. You feel unable to write anything, feel uncomfortable or even sick to put a couple of words together.

You’re experiencing writer’s block – yes, it happens to researchers too, and it’s inevitable.

Definition and causes of writer’s block 

According to Patricia Huston, writer’s block is “a distinctly uncomfortable inability to write”. But each one of us experiences it differently.

When I experience writer’s block, I delay writing at the expense of doing some mathematical modelling or generating new ideas for research. But I only do this if the timeline of my research project allows me to do so. If there’s a deadline I need to meet, I apply some of the techniques I discuss in the next section.

Writer's block is a distinctly uncomfortable inability to write that can happen in any research project
Regardless of the plans you’ve made, you may hit the wall with your writing and experience writer’s block in your research project.

Although there can be many reasons that cause writer’s block, here are some most common ones:    

  • looming deadline – instead of getting motivated by the time-pressure, you may get overwhelmed by the task you’ve got to complete;
  • incomplete data analysis – you may not have put sufficient time to analyse your data to understand it and draw clear conclusions;
  • fear of rejection – you may be worried (sometimes subconsciously) that you work is just not good enough, and you don’t want to be criticised;
  • perfectionism – you try to get it perfect on the first effort and entering the editing mode rather than writing mode.

How to overcome writer’s block in a research project? 

Writer’s block can get your work stuck for a while and, unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet that we could all apply.

There are many ways to overcome writer's block and unstuck your research project
Each case of writer’s stuck is different. Therefore, you may want to try different ideas to overcome writer’s block and unstuck your research project.

However, I’m happy to share some of the ideas and activities that have helped me to overcome the writer’s block in research project.

Plan your document

this may seem like an obvious one, but setting out the content framework or outline for your document will help you focus on what’s important in each section. Break your work down. You’ll also not need to think what to write next when actually writing.

Read journals

Reading publications related to your work may spark the inspiration you need to start writing your piece. This is something you need to do in your research project anyway, so try make most of it. Make sure you read something of high quality – you may start with ScienceNature or Energy and Environmental Science!   

Freewrite and hammer through

Try to start writing your thoughts as they come to your mind, don’t think or evaluate what you’ve just written – just keep on writing and enjoy. Just keep writing about anything can get you out of the writer’s block in no time.

Change your environment

You may try to write in a different room in your apartment, a balcony, or even a park nearby. Changing your environment can do marvels to your creativity and productivity. (P.S. I do write this article from my sofa rather than the desk where I usually do most of my writing.)

Exercise and get some fresh air

Going out for a short, but intensive walk can get your blood pumping, even if it’s just a couple of minutes. It’ll take the mind of your writing and will let your subconsciousness do its work. Once you’re back, sit to your writing straight away.

Turn off distractions

Seriously, do you need your phone on 24/7? Switch off anything that can distract you, especially if you work from home. Unfortunately, we cannot multitask efficiently so try to make most of your writing time by creating an environment that supports focus and motivation.

Reward yourself

We all like to be rewarded for our work. If there’s anything that you enjoy the most, like a night out with friends or shopping, let yourself have it only after you finish your document.

Get creative and write about your hobby

Brainstorming and creative work can be a great remedy for writer’s block. The same applies to writing about your hobby or thins that you care about. Since Magda and I launched Motivated Academic, I found myself much more productive in writing research proposals and papers.

A final word…

Writer’s block can significantly delay, or even derail, your research project.

However, I don’t want you to stress about it – it’s normal and it happens to all of us!

You may get stuck for different reasons. A looming deadline, incomplete data analysis, fear of rejection, perfectionism – you name it.

Therefore, there’s no single cure to writer’s block. Each case is different and needs a different approach.

From exercising, through reading, to rewarding yourself – there’re many ways to overcome writer’s block and unstuck your research project.

Try some of the ideas I shared here and reflect on what works for you!

Remember to share your tips to overcome writer’s block!

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David

David

Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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