Writer’s Block

A Texas Doc-Talker wrote
Help. Here I sit reading news groups and procrastinating. The dissertation needs to be in by June and I have this paralyzing attack of writer’s block. Do any of you PhDs or soon-to-be PhDs out there have any suggestions for overcoming this problem? They’d be greatly appreciated.

Dr. Davé answers:
Dear Doc-talker, The standard approaches to dealing with writer’s block are to:

  1.  Make working on the dissertation routine. Schedule a regular time five days a week (2-6 hrs depending on what you have) to work on the dissertation and force yourself to spend the time involved with your dissertation in some way. Recognize that doing a dissertation (from start to finish) takes about 2400 hrs for a 200 pg dissertation, of which one third is actual writing. So you have about 800 hrs of writing (I’m assuming writing is “all” that remains) between now and the end of May. Look at your calendar and find those hours.
  2. When you sit down to write, identify what stage of the writing you’re in (drafting your argument, summarizing literature, revising (the content), editing (the format, spelling, grammar, etc.). Unless you know what stage you’re at, you won’t know what to do next. Many students (especially smart ones) have never gone through the process of writing a draft, rewriting and rewriting the draft, and then editing it for the advisor. They’ve been smart enough to whip out papers in a single draft and edit them lightly for submission. The dissertation REQUIRES rewriting because that’s how you get insight about what you’re writing. So you need to rewrite the same chapter several times to ensure you gain insight.
  3. Use “gimmicks” to get yourself into your writing. Pretend you’re writing the dissertation as a letter, to anyone you’d like to read it. Start by writing, “Dear Reader, I’m doing this silly thing Ronda Dave’ told me to do, writing you a letter. The dissertation is about [so and so]. Well the piece I’m trying to write is [such and such]. What I think I’m trying to do with it is [thus and so]. The theory I’m using is [blah blah blah]. What I’m now working on is [etc. etc.] When you finish writing for the day, say, “I’m going to sign off for today. Looking back at what I wrote, I realize I forgot to tell you [so and so] and I’m going to go on with this tomorrow when I pick up.” Alternatively, try saying something along the lines of . . . “I don’t know anything about this stuff and I have no ability to say this, however I do know one thing which is  . . ” then complete the sentence and sort of sidestep into it. Later cross off the personal stuff and revise the remaining writing.

Many students have writer’s block because what’s going on in their heads is, “I’m scared. I can’t do this. I hate this. Why did I ever enter a doctoral program? I’m a fraud. I’m a terrible writer,” and so on. They’re busy trying to suppress these thoughts in the back of their minds, which has the effect of suppressing the writing in the front of their minds.

Anybody else have any good ideas for Lisa? –rd


From: A Virginia Doc-talker
At the end of every work session (research sessions too but most necessary in writing) jot down the questions, or sub-questions, that (a) still need to be answered even given what you’ve done that day; (b) arise from the answers you found that day; or (c) generally interest you that you may NOT have gotten to that day. These question-sets, as I call them, help me feel that I have choices on “what to do tomorrow” and also serve as a log of my progress I can look back on and analyze for dropped threads, missed connections, new/old insights, etc. Also, they give me clear direction, “tasking” (to borrow from bureaucratese) for the next day’s writing. Good luck–it hits us all, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Oh, yeah, PS–sometimes writer’s block is my clue that there’s a conceptual problem lurking that I haven’t dealt with yet; sometimes it heralds a real breakthrough. “Writer’s block is our friend,” eh?


An Anonymous Doc-talker reply:
Howard Becker’s book Writing for Social Sciences is a gem we read in an advanced qual class. His suggestion to just start writing anything that comes into your mind, organize it another time, helped me with the paper due for that class… I was overwhelmed by the lack of themes in my field notes, then bunches just popped out.


From: A Canadian Doc-talker.
Sometimes getting away from your work is helpful. The longer you sit in front of the computer paralyzed with writers’ block the more tense and blocked you become. Do something that requires you to focus on an entirely different aspect of life, something physical or washing windows or your car. Often the sense of accomplishment from that can be a launchpad for something else like cooking a fab meal for a friend. Also don’t give yourself a deadline when you have writer’s block. You begin to dwell on the deadline and not on your work. Just remember, this too will pass and we’ve all, every one of us, been there!! heather


From: A Boston Doc-talker
I HIGHLY recommend the following book: Thinking on Paper Howard, V. A. and J.H. Barton 1986 New York: W. Morrow The book contains concrete, usable suggestions that work. It was recommended to me by another grad student in my department, who knew of the book through another grad student whose advisor recommended it.

Divide writing into three phases–generation, composition, and editing–punctuated with “incubation” breaks. They suggest you devote about equal time to each phase.

Generating Ideas

  1. Begin by thinking in writing–without any logic, make notes, list terms, ask questions, write anything you can about your topic.
  2. Rewrite in whole sentences or phrases, and group thoughts into paragraphs.
  3. To generate sentences, try gimmicks like:  using stock beginnings (e.g., “My thinking on this topic is…” or “My feelings about this are…”), and then write whatever comes to your mind answering journalistic queries of who, what, when, where, why, and how, and recording “pro and con” sides of arguments.
  4. Think quantity and let quality take care of itself later. Continue writing until you start repeating yourself and can think of absolutely nothing more of merit to write down.
  5. Take a break–a fairly long one, if you can afford it–while you do something mildly but not completely distracting, to allow ideas to germinate in your subconscious.

The Topical Draft
In the composing phase you’ll create a topical draft to determine which ideas to categorize into which topics, and a sequential draft to organize your ideas by topic.

  1. Gather the material you wrote in the generation phase, and number the pages. Print it out with generous margins.
  2. Read it paragraph by paragraph. Ask yourself questions such as, “What am I saying here? What’s my point?”
  3. In the margin, label each paragraph with a topic name, and write any new thoughts you have. From the topics in the margins, the elements of an outline start to emerge.
  4. Take a second “incubation” break.
  5. Review your draft to find which topics can be combined, and where you need new topics or subtopics. You will have a growing sense of what to keep, what to eliminate, and what to reorganize.
  6. Now rewrite the original (starting with a blank screen), combining paragraphs and phrases by topics, incorporating notes and new thoughts.
    Howard and Barton say not to worry about the sequence of topics, just get related material grouped. This is your topical draft.

For the Sequential Draft

  1. Take a third “incubation” break.
  2. Print out and review your topical draft. Make marginal notes to indicate a logical sequence of topics.
  3. Rethink, reorganize, and rewrite once again, this time putting your paragraphs in a logical order.

When you finish, you have your sequential draft. Howard and Barton suggest you sleep on this draft. When you next pick it up, you are ready to begin the final phase.

Editing and Style

  1. Read your draft aloud, preferably recording it. Replay and listen critically; note new ideas.
  2. Answer reader-centered questions such as, “Who are my readers? What do they expect? What do I want them to know? What do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do?”
  3. Seek possible reader objections or questions.
  4. Reorganize and rewrite the manuscript (again), making your ideas accessible, understandable, sharp, and persuasive.
  5. Polish the writing, check spelling, grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary. When you’ve finished, you have a FIRST draft ready to submit to your advisor.

From: A Minnesota University Doc-talker
Go directly to your five chapter perspective on the dissertation, do not pass go; look at the research questions in chapter 1, how do the findings in chapter 4 relate to those questions; write chapter 5 as the response and interpretation. What about chapter 2 (review of literature) elements, surely after all this work, you have something to say about this stuff!!!!!!?????? GET TO WORK, this is the easiest part. GOOD LUCK, do not let down, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.