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Deal with writer's block

Getting stuck

It is common to get stuck from time to time with a particular piece of writing. Writing is a complex process, and constantly involves making decisions at many levels: order of ideas, sentence structure, word choice, etc. Often, getting stuck means not being able to make a decision, or having to make too many decisions at once. When this happens, it can help to go back a stage, and concentrate on one set of decisions at a time:

mindmapping by writing down all your points on a big piece of paper
  • Can't get connections right? Step back from writing sentences. Think about the planning again. Does this section really fit where you're trying to write it? Should it go somewhere else? Should you leave it out?
  • Can't work out the right order for your ideas? Step back from linear order, and write down all the points you want to make on a big sheet of paper. Use mindmapping techniques to work out the best order.
  • Can't get the words right? Step back from formal academic style, and write what you want to say in everyday language. Concentrate on the ideas, and put off the decisions about word choice until later.

Sometimes the best course of action is to take a break from the problem and let your unconscious mind work on it. Make a cup of coffee, do some other thesis-related work, and come back to it tomorrow.

Trouble getting started

Some writers have more persistent problems getting words onto the page. The most difficult point for many is getting started on a new chapter or section, especially if some time has passed since the last one was completed. There can be a variety of reasons for this:

  • perfectionism: 'I'm not ready to write yet because I need to get my ideas all worked out first.' 'I need to read more before I can write anything.'
  • impatience: (failure to invest in pre-writing and planning): 'I started writing and it just didn't work.'
  • too long between writing sessions: 'I just can't get back into this.'
  • need for inspiration: 'I can't write unless I'm in the right mood.'
  • burnout: 'I've been working on this so long, I can't work up any enthusiasm for it any more.'
  • guilt: 'I should be doing more, but I can't bear to think about it!'

Rowena Murray sees problems of writer's block as being closely related to bad writing habits and the tendency to see writing as something we do after thinking, intead of as a tool to help our thinking. She advises writers to

  • use techniques like freewriting to get words down on paper
  • develop good writing habits:
    • write regularly for short periods rather than in intensive bursts with long breaks in between
    • make connections between writing sessions (when you finish one session, set yourself a specific writing task for the next session)

Read more about Rowena Murray's strategies for overcoming writer's blockOpens in a new window

Finally, here are some tips from Monash students.

Tips from some Monash students:

"Start a new file and just write. Stop trying to second-guess yourself and just get it down."

— PhD student in Education

"Exercise (e.g. treadmill, jogging outdoors). Definitely clears my mind and enhances the stamina."

— PhD student in Business and Economics

"Identify your 'special times' in which you are especially productive."

— PhD student in Business and Economics

"Put the complex concepts into simple words first so that you are actually certain what you want to say."

— PhD student in Business and Economics

"Share the problems where you are stuck with supervisors and other academics and PhD students - not necessarily experts in your area."

— PhD student in Business and Economics

"Sometimes being stuck is an indication a particular idea or a concept does not really contribute and makes a discussion vague."

— PhD student in Business and Economics

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