Just about every student has had writer’s block at some stage. You open up your laptop, full of good intentions to continue working on your dissertation or thesis, open up Word, and then…nothing. No matter how hard you try to concentrate, you can’t get going. The words just aren’t coming. What you’re left with is a blank page and an eternally flickering cursor, as below. And tonnes of frustration. Not good.
When I was doing my PhD I certainly became acquainted with writer’s block (unfortunately). But as time went by, I managed to find ways to cope with it which I’m going to share in this post. Everyone has different things that help them, but this is what helped me cope with it.
1. Keep calm when you have writer’s block
The important thing is not to panic when writer’s block strikes. If you start worrying or let your emotions get the better of you, you’re not going to be able to write anything worthwhile. You need to stay calm and focused.
I used to listen to music to get into the writing ‘zone’. I remember listening to an eclectic mix of Lady Gaga, Take That, Queen, Michael Jackson, Duffy, The Feeling and Mozart. My favourite album was ‘Relaxation Study Music’ – I wrote the majority of my thesis listening to this. You’ll no doubt have different choices, but if music helps your concentration, then it’s always worth trying to listen to a bit when you’re in a writer’s block moment.
2. Try working on something different
It’s not always possible, but if you’re working on a chapter with different sub-sections, moving onto an easier section can help with writer’s block. Just the act of writing something, anything, is a positive thing. It doesn’t have to be brilliant writing either as you can always edit it later. Once you’ve started work on the easier section, you might find that the more difficult one is easier to tackle afterwards.
Or you could do some formatting work if all else fails. I became something of an Excel chart and table specialist after the many I did in my thesis. It was always easy work to do if I wasn’t in a writing mood – sometimes it’s just nice to do something other than writing.
3. Read more about your topic
Sometimes when you have difficulties writing it’s because you’re not yet 100% clear about the ideas or theories you’re going to discuss. Perhaps you need to read more widely about the topic first and think critically about how other work links back to your own. Just the simple act of reading academic papers can help to activate your brain into writing mode. And even if it doesn’t help immediately, the more you read, the better your work and writing ultimately will be.
4. Write bullet point notes instead of full sentences
I did this a lot. I’d think to myself, “What are my main arguments here?” and then just write short lists of points, not in full sentences. Once I had the the bare bones of my discussion down in bullet point format, I was able to add more content. Sometimes our brains just get so frazzled by composing our thoughts into coherent sentences and paragraphs that simplifying things like this helps a lot.
5. Have a break
Often writer’s block is just your brain’s way of telling you that you need a rest. Writing is tiring, especially writing dissertations and theses, and you need to take proper breaks. Something as simple as going for a coffee with a friend or a short walk in the fresh air can help a lot. Or if you’re not being productive today, taking the rest of the day off is definitely worth doing. Hopefully you’ll return to work refreshed – and there’s a good chance your writer’s block will have lifted too.