Written by Nudrat Siddiqui, Research Staff Development Officer, Centre for Research Staff Development
Have you ever had those days when you sit down at your computer to write a journal article or book chapter only to spend the next few hours transfixed by the glow of a blank Word document, willing the words to come without success? With the advent of the REF and the importance of a steady publication record in securing a lectureship position, it’s no wonder that writing is often seen as an onerous and daunting rite that can make or break our future in academia. This pressure to produce high quality research outputs makes it tempting to shelve our writing plans for another day and to face the paralysis of writer’s block on the occasions when we do sit down to write.
Studying for a writing-intensive Arts & Humanities PhD, I’ve experienced the blank Word document scenario many times, but have picked up a few strategies along the way that unclog my thoughts and get those words and sentences flowing. Whether you are a seasoned writer who already has a list of publications to your name or are preparing to write your first journal article, considering the tips below can help overcome writer’s block:
Brainstorm in Advance
Doing the thinking about the broad ideas and points that you want to get across in your piece before you sit down to write can kick-start the writing process. Take notes to capture your ideas using arrows, flow charts, stick figure cartoons, holding off using complete sentences until you actually sit down to write.
Who says you Need to Start at the Beginning?
Starting at the beginning of an article or chapter may seem like a logical approach, but it can often be the most challenging. This is especially true if you are a writing perfectionist who inflicts pressure on yourself to produce a faultless article. What sections are you most interested and enthusiastic about? Is it the results, the methods, the recommendations? Start there instead. Once you’ve eased into the flow of writing with the paragraphs that come to you more fluidly, revisit the trickier beginning.
Don’t get Stuck on the Wrong Word
Is there a word or sentence you have written that doesn’t look right? Don’t spend lots of time lingering on it trying to come up with alternative ways of rephrasing it. Highlight it so you can easily identify it later, move on, and return to it in your second draft to make alterations.
Set an alarm for five minutes and during this time write anything and everything that comes to mind. If what you’re writing is relevant to the topic you need to write about, great, but even if it is far removed from it, that’s fine too. Getting those unrelated, preoccupying thoughts out on paper can free up the mental space you need to concentrate on writing about your research. This strategy is an excellent warm up and once the five minutes are up it’s often easier to write more freely without inhibition.
Plan When you Write – And Where
Schedule fixed days and times of the week to write and stick to them. If you struggle with concentrating for extended periods of times, make them short, easily surmountable fifteen-twenty minute slots. Try writing at different times of the day until you find a time that’s optimal for you.
When you need to spend more time on your writing, think about where you are most likely to succeed. The sight of my desk at home is often enough to send ripples of anxiety and procrastination through me. If like me, writing from home or your office is counter-productive, check if you can arrange a weekly working-from-home morning or day and venture out into one of the many inspiring spaces around London. Some of my favourite spots to write include the Barbican and the Hoxton Hotel lobby café which are relatively quiet, have free, fast Wi-Fi and lots of laptop sockets. The British Library Reading Rooms are also a fool-proof venue in which to write without noise or interruption.
Try Social Writing
Writing can often feel solitary, but it doesn’t have to be. There are various ‘Write Together’ and ‘Shut-up and Write’ groups on Meetup.com that encourage people to get together and write for an allocated period of time. Being surrounded by other people busily tapping away on their laptops can be a motivating factor to spur on your own writing. The writing is often followed by pub/café socials where you will have the opportunity to share your writing challenges and hear other people’s experiences. The Centre for Research Staff Development will also be running Shup up and Write sessions in the near future so look out for these in our weekly newsletter or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
I hope these tips boost your writing practice. While it certainly can be challenging at times, writing can also be rewarding and enjoyable and is a fantastic activity to reflect on your research and organise your ideas about it. So settle down and get writing!