Research

4 ways academic researchers can avoid writer's block

Christoffer Augsburg
4 ways academic researchers can avoid writer's block

Blink, blink, blink…tap, tap, tap… delete, delete, delete… We all know that dreadful feeling of the blinking cursor on a blank screen, then writing a few words, only to delete those thoughts again. And suddenly it seems like a better idea to get a snack, clean the room or organise your mail. Writer’s block can be devastating to face, and especially in the field of academia where written publications are fundamental to any professor's or student’s work.

The reason for writer’s block in academia often comes down to the challenge of sorting out the thoughts of sophisticated research, and how to communicate it. Even the more seasoned professors will experience this blockade, so facing this shouldn't be discouraging for students or early PhD’ers. The good news is that there are ways to conquer this, and tools to use for inspiration and getting new perspectives. So without further procrastination, let's look at some strategies to unblock ourselves.

1. Start early and write every day

Make sure you start writing early, and avoid cramming the work into painful long sessions in order to meet a deadline that’s approaching faster than it has to. Starting early allows you to write a moderate amount every day, getting your cognitive thoughts rolling and giving room for digesting these thoughts into new perspectives. 

A good place to start is to work on the outline, to help organise your thoughts. Outlining in your mind simply doesn't cut it, as academic writing entails mapping out rather sophisticated research and providing strong arguments backed up by multiple sources. Having the outline on paper also helps you discover potential gaps in your arguments that might need additional attention and gives you a new writing opportunity. Once the outline has been drafted, a good rule of thumb is to start writing the easy bits first, whether it's the introduction, the conclusions or anything in between. 

Should it still be difficult to put down the words, many academic writing advisors suggest the ‘free writing’ technique. The goal here is to simply start writing for a set period of time without giving thoughts to rhetorical concerns or conventions and mechanics. This technique often provides raw, and at times unusable material, it however helps you overcome blocks and builds confidence by practicing text-production. Helen Kara’s suggestion for freewriting, is to spend 5 minutes writing out the following three points:

  1. What I want to say is…
  2. In this chapter, I want to argue that…
  3. I am writing this thesis, because...

2. Stepping away from the desk

Taking breaks and moving away from the desk once in a while is a great way to rejuvenate yourself. Whether its a walk outside in the woods or a strenuous exercise, breaking free from the screen to do an activity not related to writing is a great way to boost endorphins, reduce fatigue, and clear the mental clutter that can occur when spending hours at a time on the same project. 

It’s also a good practice when tackling larger projects such as academic theses, to set a personal deadline a week before the project is actually due. This allows for that time to break free from the screen and build perspective, and gives you an overview to see how much editing is needed.

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3. Sparring partners and support

There is a common fear in the world of academia called the imposter syndrome; that is the feeling of not being qualified or competent enough on a topic yet having somehow fooled other people into believing we are. Especially in the longlasting world of research where argumentative writing is key, it can be difficult to put ourselves in a position where we suddenly become the teacher on certain topics and new knowledge. It is estimated that around 20% of students suffer from this syndrome, which can be a big blocker to writing the paper and putting it into the world of academia where it surely will be judged. 

This is where sparring partners can be extremely helpful in overcoming this anxiety and clearing the blockade. Having trusted lecturers or tutors to talk to, might be able to give you advice on how they coped with it, and assure you that you are not alone with this feeling. Having outside perspectives can also add clarity and creativity to your writing, and make you more productive. So don’t forget to reach out to them.

4. Use Lateral

Working on complex projects such as a thesis can feel overwhelming and it's easy to lose the overview, as there will be a plethora of academic journals you’ll be reading through and the intensive note taking that follows. Having a clear and systematic approach to finding and later extracting the information that is crucial to your research, will help determine the structure when you need to do the writing and eliminate the potential of a writer’s block.

Lateral is a revolutionary new tool for academia that will help you get organised in your research, allowing you to:

  • Keep all academic documents in one location
  • Search through all documents at once
  • Categorise and save all notes and important findings into a table view
  • Explore and inspire you with new perspectives through machine learning based suggestions

If you see a benefit in organising your research better, you can sign up to the Lateral app already today.

Sources

https://www.aicpa.org/interestareas/accountingeducation/newsandpublications/overcome-academic-writers-block.html

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/03/23/writers-block-is-not-a-struggle-with-your-writing-but-with-your-thinking-write-your-way-out-of-it/

https://portlandpress.com/biochemist/article/42/3/62/225249/Coping-with-imposter-syndrome-in-academia-and

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/students/success-guide/pgr/professional-development/imposter-syndrome/

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