Overcoming writer’s block for academics
You have decided to write an academic paper and submit it for review. You feel excited to have completed your research study and are ready to share the results. You have selected a journal; read all the submission requirements and you are ready to write. But you hit a wall and you are not sure how to move forward – you have writer’s block. All academics hit blocks when they are writing. Sometimes beginning can be challenging. Sometimes the writing is flowing, and you have plenty of ideas, and then suddenly your mind goes blank. Having a toolkit of strategies for overcoming writer’s block is essential.
Have a writing plan and schedule
Set a time for writing every day, or every other day, and stick to this schedule. Plan backwards from the time you want to submit the paper and be generous with your estimates of how much time it will take, writing and editing always takes more time than we think it will. Develop a plan for how you will approach writing the different sections of your paper, knowing that you might revise this plan over time. In addition, set deadlines for when you will give your drafts to colleagues for feedback and editing. Don’t plan to write at a time when you are holding office hours or might be interrupted by colleagues.
Don’t tackle everything at once
Focus on different parts of your paper at different times. Planning to sit down and write a full academic paper can be overwhelming, so set your sights on smaller goals. For example, on one day decide you will tackle the introduction, on another day a description of the participants and context. When you set your schedule, make the tasks small. For example, you can decide you that you will complete the introduction over 2–3 days.
Creating an outline for your paper can help you to break the writing into pieces, and to move more smoothly through writing different sections. Include all headings and subheadings and use bullet points to list information that will go under each of these headings. Set yourself questions to answer about each section and start answering the questions. Later you can turn your bullet points and/or answers into narrative text with connections. There are templates available online that provide an outline for the type of paper you are writing, so you can always use one of these to help you get started.
Find a physical space for writing
Finding the best space where you can write is very important. You want to try and find a space where you will not be distracted or interrupted. Often the office space we have at our institution is a place where colleagues and/or students drop by. It is also the place where we answer phone calls or respond to emails. At many institutions these are also shared spaces. So, having somewhere different that you go to when you are writing will help you to find uninterrupted, dedicated writing time. Many libraries have rooms that can be reserved for this very purpose. Academic institutions often have rooms across campus that you can use for writing. Public libraries will often offer these spaces also, and even when they don’t, the common area is generally quiet enough for you to write. If you have a space at home that is quiet, and where you will not be interrupted, this can work well also. Try to turn your phone and email off during your dedicated writing time.
Alternate between writing and editing
Alternating between more substantive writing, and editing can help you to move forward with your writing. When you are writing a piece that is substantive, and you hit a block or need a break, switch to editing a different part of the article. Shifting gears in this way often frees up your thinking, and you will find it easier to start writing the substantive piece when you come back to it. If this does not work and you are still stuck, find someone to bounce ideas off and talk through your thinking.
Look for inspiration and tips to help you move forward
When you really hit a roadblock with your paper and are unsure how to move forward or how to write a specific section, reading other academic papers can provide you with inspiration. It is always a good idea to read articles from the journal you are submitting to before you start your paper. You can also read articles that use the same methodology used in your article, or on the same area of research that you conducted. Such articles can provide you with useful ideas for how to structure your paper.
In addition, you can look to professional services, such as The Charlesworth Group, for webinars and articles about how to approach a specific section in your paper. These will often provide you with a set of questions to consider, or the subheadings that should be included in different sections. Using these questions as a guide and drafting answers, or using the subheadings and listing relevant information in bullet points underneath them, can provide the bridge you need to move your paper to the next stage.
Reach out to colleagues and seek input often. Send them drafts of your paper to read and ask them to provide actionable feedback. You can also talk through sections of the paper with them if they do not have the availability to provide more time-intensive feedback. Be strategic and decide which section of the paper you will send to which person. For example, sending your methods section to someone with deep methodological expertise in this area is a good idea. Select some colleagues you will elicit feedback from for specific sections and some to provide feedback on the overall coherence and organization of the paper. You can also use professional services, such as Charlesworth Author Services, to provide feedback on the structure and format of your paper.
Create a writing group
Finding dedicated writing time with colleagues can be a great way to stay motivated. You may all be working on different writing tasks, but meeting together to write can hold you to your schedule as well as provide opportunities for feedback. Early career academics often form these writing groups and sometimes plan writing retreats where they block out a few days working together. In these settings, each person works on their own task, but there are times when those in the group read a draft of your paper and provide feedback. At other times, one person can bring up an area they are stuck on and a group discussion about how best to move forward can take place. Another similar approach is to write a paper with co-authors. Collaborative writing can be a very useful experience, especially if you choose to write with more experienced academics. This can serve as a form of mentorship and is a great way to begin your academic writing experience.
Overall, one of the best ways to overcome writer’s block is to write. Even if you use bullet points to list information, write down thoughts, respond to questions, or pose questions for yourself, getting words on paper is the most important step. You can come back later and connect ideas to form paragraphs, structure and organize your writing, and polish your paper.
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