Get back to writing: Tips for grad students with “writer’s block”

It’s amazing what we can busy ourselves with to avoid writing. Every grad student does it. Browsing social media feeds, reading useless articles online (not this one though, this one is not useless), sending pointless text messages and emails, organizing your sock drawer – sometimes we’ll do anything to avoid writing. Most of the time though, it’s not because we don’t want to write, rather it’s usually because we don’t know how to get started or we’ve ran into some kind of block.

Writer’s block? Actually I’m not so sure writer’s block is a real thing for grad students. I recently read Paul Silvia’s (2007) book How to Write a Lot, and I was struck by what he claims about writer’s block: “I love writer’s block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures—they’re charming and they don’t exist.” You see, to write novels or poems or short stories, an author often has to wait for some magical inspiration, a spark, something that triggers the imagination. For academics, the act of interpreting data and discussing results in the context of some theoretical framework is not the same kind of creative act.. we don’t really need to wait for inspiration in the same way a novelist does. Instead, our obstacles are most likely to be lack of motivation, a crisis of confidence, putting off scary data analysis, or just plain procrastination.

If you’re having trouble writing that term paper or doing that lit review, or if you find yourself continually delaying getting to that dissertation chapter that you really need to get done, here are a few tips that have worked for me…

Remove distractions

This is something that you need to do ahead of time while you are actually feeling committed to writing. Once you get bogged down in the writing process and encounter a “block”, the distractions all around you will lure you away from your word processor or keyboard. Put your phone away! You don’t need to keep track of your friends’ Instagram feeds while you are trying to write. Leave your phone in another room or put it in your backpack. Clear your desk of anything you are not using for writing. The only things you really need are your laptop and a cup of coffee. You might have printed journal articles or books on hand too, but anything else is just going to be a distraction.

Schedule time

Be intentional about scheduling time in your calendar for writing. Treat your writing like an appointment. Mark it in your calendar and stick to it. You might schedule a few hours at a time, or just thirty minutes. Without a schedule though, you’ll find yourself putting it off by saying “now is not a good time.” Well, it’s likely never going to be a good time, so schedule it in advance and commit yourself to sticking to your schedule.

Find a new location

If you’ve been sitting in the same dingy grad lounge for days and still have a blank screen in front of you, get up and move already! I find that changing my location every few hours is helpful for staying focused. Sure, if you’re really in the groove and writing like mad, then stay there are keep going. But most of us either tire, get distracted, or lose focus after sitting in the same space for hours or days. Find a new corner or your library, ask around for some favorite writing spots on campus, or get out of your apartment head for a nearby coffee shop. A new location can refresh your perspective and kick-start your creative juices.

Kill that blank page

That bright white blank page you’re staring at is like a curse. It will eat away at your confidence and drive you mad. If you are attempting to turn that blank page directly into a fully composed piece of academic writing then you’re probably going about it the wrong way. I suggest filling up that blank page with words, ideas, quotes, citations, an outline, a data table,.. anything really other than a blank page. Then you can work on turning those loose thoughts or that rough outline into a more developed draft. Maybe you’ll find it easier to draft the middle part first, or even the ending. Sometimes the introductory paragraphs can be the hardest to write, so skip them for now. Move on to a section that you can start writing and make progress with, and then once you find your groove you can go back and complete the whole thing.

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Kyle Massey

Kyle is a current PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin in the College of Education.

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