Writer’s block: nine tips to overcome it when you write your thesis

PhD student suffering writers' block©Drobot Dean

You know what you want to write, but you’re incapable to write? The page remains blank? Nothing to worry about. This is a writer’s block. Writer’s block is normal. It belongs to the writing process. Specially when you write such challenging text such as a paper or your thesis. This paper explains how to deal with it.

Actually, you know exactly what you want to write, but you just cannot start.

Perhaps you try a first sentence, but you delete it immediately…

And you try another one.

Again you delete it… and so on.

The screen remains blank.

The page, bare.

The situation seems insurmountable.

Nearly everybody has struggled with writer’s block at one time or another.

Nearly every writer has experienced how dreadful it is.

Even the most experienced authors.

“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone”. Erica Jong

 

WHAT ARE THE CAUSES FOR WRITER’S BLOCK?

The most common causes for writer’s block among PhD candidates are:

  • Fear: e.g. fear of critique, of one’s own ideas, of the reader, of failing, of success.
  • Perfectionism: the text is never good enough; it needs to be rewritten and improved again – and never gets finished.
  • Delusions of grandeur:  My PHD will save the world!
  • The environment:  e.g. financial problems, conflicts, uncomfortable working space.
  • The targeted reader: e.g. a professor who intimidates you, the anonymous mass of readers.
  • The topic:  e.g. it is  boring, makes you angry, or you feel so passionate about it that you cannot think calmly.
  • The inner critic: an inner voice which denigrates what you do.
  • Isolation: being alone in front of your blank screen, facing your fears and constantly hearing your inner critic only worsens the problem. It does not help.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IN CASE OF  WRITER’S BLOCK ?

  • Start with the easiest part of your text. You will progress quickly and get motivated to continue.
  • Brainstorm your topic before writing your first draft: It is easier to structure your thoughts when you can see them in black and white.
  • Change the tool: If you cannot write with the computer, try with a pencil or talk on a Dictaphone.
  • Change the location: If you cannot work in the office, try in the kitchen, in a pub, or in a park.
  • Address your text to a friend: by targeting this reader you will be able to forget the readers who are blocking you.
  • Tell a friend what you want to write about: Sometimes talking is easier than writing.
  • Be aware that a good text is the result of many revisions: Do not try to write it perfectly the first time.
  • Seek help: Don’t spend too much time staring at your empty Talking with other people often helps  you recover self-confidence and overcome a block.
  • Join a writing group: This is a group of PhD candidates sharing the same aim (to finish their thesis), same problems and solutions. In such a group you can ask for help, ask for feedback while helping others and giving feedback as well, which will surely empower you!

In any case, remember that writer’s block is normal. It  belongs to the writing process. It is nothing to worry about, and no reason to question your intelligence.

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40 Comments

  1. Myriam

    Thakn you for your Tips. They’re simple, yet effective. Outstanding Blog !

  2. Ali Mustapha

    Thank you very much for your blog. This post particulartly helps me understand why my block…

    • Martha

      I’m glaid it helped, Ali! Have a great continuation with your thesis 🙂 !

  3. I thank you
    for your blog. This article helps me a lot. I am a PhD student in Physics.

  4. Antonio

    Thanks for your inspiring posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, Prof. Martha 🙂
    have a nice evening!

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    I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your blog.
    It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often.

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    I have saved this article and have a look every time and again. It is very helpful! Thanks a lot! Cristina

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  9. Hongxia Yan

    “Do not try to write it perfectly the first time.” Great tips, thank you very much!

  10. Barton

    I’m really enjoying the topics of this blog. A lot of times it’s very hard to get that “perfect balance” between usability and appearance. I must say that you’ve done a great job with this. AOutstanding Blog!

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  14. Carlos

    I really appreciate this post. I’ve been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thx again

  15. Honoré

    Merci beaucoup pour cet article, Martha! C’est toujours un grand plaisir de vous lire!

  16. Bernadette

    Thanks for making me to achieve new strategies about personal writing. I also hold the belief that certain of the best ways to maintain your writing in primary condition is to write as regulartly. Routine helps to make writing less scaring. Once more, thanks for your recommendations. 🙂

    • Martha

      Regularity helps, for sure! It is a matter of training. The more you train writing, the more self-confident you become, the easier writing becomes. Thank you for your comment, Bernadette :)!

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  18. Charles

    Thanks a lot for your tips. It is so liberating to write faster than usually and white in white! 🙂

  19. I’m at the other end, suffering from writer’s diarrhea . . . or something like that. Words just keep coming. The peril is that I slide off topic and just keep plunging ahead. Happens every time I want to make an editorial submission. Always turns out to be more about me and less about the topic. Arrrgh.

    • Martha

      Hi Jenny,
      The process you describe is quite usual. You have 2 options:
      – Write everything you can think of and then restructure your draft
      or
      – Write all this in your PhD Notebook. This will help you to get idesas clarified and structured.
      When you want to write a paper, proceed step by step:
      1. Design a concept answering following questions: What is the goal of your paper? Who is the intended audience? What is the message your paper should convey?
      2. Design an outline. I guess this article will help you : http://www.scriptoria.org/en/4-steps-to-design-your-outline/. It helps you to stay focused on your goal.
      3. Write a first draft, keeeping 1 & 2 before eyes, in order not forget what you want to focus on.
      4. Revise your paper (first of all: delete all superfluous).
      I hope, it helps. Feel welcome to contact me if you have any comment! 🙂

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