Olga Zeveleva
March 2017.

I need to finish a paper and I'm stuck in the middle. How do I get over writer's block?

1 answer

Writer's block is a pretty common problem, however, writers have collected a lot of tricks which allow them to resolve it. I have read up on this issue and experimented with some of the techniques people have come up with, and here is what I have learned:

  1. Writer's block derives very often from a sense of responsibility toward potential readers and aspiration to do the best possible job right away. The irony is that if one wants to do the best job and to impress their readers with it, one should forget about quality and readers. How can this be done? Through writing nonsense. Open a document and start writing anything that comes to your mind: 'I am sitting here, in the attic, birds are very loud this time of the year, I want to finish Ferrante's novel tonight, I am not sure I want to go to London tomorrow, is my computer making too much noise...' This trick will liberate you from the aspiration to write something perfect from the start.

  2. Strictly separate the writing stage from the editing and formatting stages. When you want to write, only write. Do not change the order of words, do not move sentences, do not format the document. Start with writing and do editing and formatting later, when you are a bit tired, or when you are in the train or in the plane.

  3. People who like digital technologies and who travel a lot enjoy the idea that everything they write can be easily accessible from every device any time. They tend to put a lot of effort into find the best piece of software which will cut all destructions, will be nice and functional, will be working everywhere. After finally having found this software, they are puzzled with the question of what to write there and they are afraid of spoiling this nice software with silly words. The solution is not to think that your document or your writing software is the only place where the text should be. Do not try to put all you think in one place. Instead, have several notebooks. Take some of them with you when you go for a walk. Write on your phone. Write in Zotero. Write on napkins. Write emails to yourself. On restaurant menus. On cinema tickets. Write the same idea in different places. Use different pens and pencils. Put everything together later. You will be surprised to learn that leaving this fear to loose what you have written and to mania of putting everything in one place actually liberates your mind and you will be less afraid of paper and of screens and, even more importantly, you will have more ideas. 

  4. Buy a large sketch book and draw mind maps, pictures, diagrams, tables, word chains. Think about what you are working on in different modes. This will help you to sharpen your ideas. When you have sharp ideas you do not think about writing, you just write.

  5. Create rituals. For example, set a goal to write every day, from 10 to 12. Every time make a strong espresso, put on your favourite hat, look through the window for 1 minute a tree, and write. Install a habit tracking app (for example, there is one called 'Productive'), write in as an everyday task writing from 10 to 12, and mark this task as done when you finish. Striking out finished tasks is a great motivation. Do not check emails after you finish this. Do not look at your phone before breakfast. Start with the most important tasks. You can also use an app called 'One big thing'. Do not open social networks when you write. Block them by installing the 'LeechBlock' app in your browser and using a 'Forest' app on your phone.

  6. Divide up your large task into small bits. If you need to write an article, tell yourself in the morning: 'Today I will write just one paragraph. If I write just this small paragraph, I will think of my day as a successful day'. The trick is that when you complete a small task successfully and you still have time, you want to keep going. It means you will most likely write much more than just one paragraph.

  7. Stop writing before you get tired and celebrate the end of writing by doing something pleasant: by a walk or an episode of your favourite tv series. Make this into a ritual too.

  8. Count the number of words you write every day. You can make a spreadsheet and put dates and words in it, along with remarks about what you have done really well and what could be done better. You can find more on this in this wonderful book: Silvia, Paul J. 2009. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. APA LifeTools.

  9. If you regularly write texts which all have similar structures, create a template in your word processor with stable sections, some recurrent phrases, and questions to yourself to which your text will be an answer. Turn on the structure view in Word and at first write only general claims under each section. Then write arguments for each claim. Then add supporting details. Then connect everything. Do not write in a linear way.

  10. Constantly write and rewrite in a notebook the main idea of your text. Think about this description as an answer to an imaginary question 'What is this shit about? What do you want to say? Why do you think it is really interesting?'

  11. Always have a 'Cuts' document, keep everything you delete in it. Even if it is just short phrases you have erased from the main document. Important: using titles in MS Word, create the structure of the main document in the 'Cuts' document. It will help you find relevant fragments, to recycle them later, or to return them to the main document if you need them. Sometimes, just a couple of fragments from the cuts document can end up being a whole chapter in your new document.

  12. Create a document with a plan. I usually draw a table with two columns. In the left column I wrote tasks for a 13-week period, in the right column I put intermediate and final conclusions and thought which I got while implementing tasks from the left column. It helps to split a big, difficult, and unmeasurable task such as 'to finish an article' into a number of small, easy, and measurable tasks such as 'check the book X for facts about Y', 'check what Z wrote about T'. Sometimes I also have a writing diary where I write about how my writing affected my thinking. I stole this tip from Bruno Latour's book Reassembling the social where he recommends to reflect on how writing itself acts as an actant in a research project.

  13. Write your own thoughts in very simple and informal language about anything you have read for your paper. If I read electronic documents, I usually extract citations from big PDF documents using PDF Expert and add them as notes in Zotero, and from articles using ZotFile plugin on Zotero, and then immediately write a note with my own thoughts, like 'this is a silly book, not really useful', 'chapter 2 contains a very good lit rev on the issue X'.

  14. Read fiction because it makes your scholarly writing smooth. Read at least one page per day, for example, just before going to bed.

  15. Do not use the word 'procrastination'. It is a tasteless silly word which is very useful to legitimize laziness. Do not use the word 'laziness' either. Get things done instead of naming the absence of action.

  16. Read these articles about writing:

Do not think of your text as a fixed form, think about it as a process and as a network which includes your ideas, pieces of paper, files, your mood, sounds of coffee machines, of cars, of fire alarms, of pens and pencils, of tea mugs, of walks and eye contacts. Allow the text to always change, to be flexible, to de slightly different in different places.

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