thesis writers block
February 20, 2006 7:35 PM   Subscribe

Thesis writers block: So I have until thursday to get a first draft of the discussion section of my thesis written. I've been working on it for the past few weeks at a snail's pace. I showed my advisor what I had come up with last week and surprisingly enough, he was ok with it. My problem is I just simply cannot muster up the motivation to get any more work done on this.

Basically this project had been painful from the start. My advisor has never really been happy with the direction it's taken and as a result, I've never really had any positive motivating feedback. I know exactly what I need to do to write it, but every time I start, I get a whole bunch of anxiety and end up doing other things on the computer/internet. I only have a couple days left before my next thesis meeting, I know it's just barely enough time to get this done, but every day I get no work done, I feel like I'm shooting myself in the foot.

I know the obvious answer is for me to just stop whining and buckle down, so you don't need to tell me that. Basically I'm just looking for anyone else who has been in this situation, how you overcame it, whatever. Just a bit of good ol' AxMe therapy!

Oh yeah, and it's my birthday today, which in this case, just adds to the suckitude of the whole situation.
posted by garethspor to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
At one large university I attended, the student health center ran several well-attended thesis support groups. One useful tactic: find someone else in the same situation and work either cooperatively ("we'll both meet in the library and write a page each") or competetively ("betcha I can get a page done before you can!") to get pieces done, a paragraph at a time if need be. If you set dates/times to have parts done, and have another person doing the same thing, that can be a motivator - just like having a workout buddy.

When I was doing my first thesis, I had some success with free-writing (no editing, even no looking at the screen if you can touch-type well enough) on the theme of each paragraph or section for five or ten minutes or long enough to fill a page, then going back and editing that down. Going somewhere new - a coffee shop (without wireless!), a different level of the library, a computer lab you're not used to - can break some of the distraction habits and get you into a more focused mindset. Similarly, writing by hand can be unfamiliar enough to break through some of the blocks, and slow enough to help you really concentrate on what you're saying.

Take some time off between chunks of working; if you're really getting nowhere, walk around the block a couple of times or make yourself a good meal. Good luck with the thesis, and happy birthday!
posted by nonane at 7:57 PM on February 20, 2006

I'd start by excluding as many distractions as possible - literally. Unplug your network connection (if you don't need it), unplug the TV, the stereo, the phone, whatever. Then throw on a pair of earplugs and get to it.

Also, set aside some large chunks of time just for writing. I find that after I get moving, the momentum just keeps me rolling until I absolutely have to get up.
posted by MrZero at 8:10 PM on February 20, 2006

Nonane's suggestions are very good. It took me almost 2 years after graduation to finish my thesis. I stayed late at night at work to finish it. After finishing, I noticed that all it took me to finish was 2 weeks working on it full time, non-stop. Another thing I noticed was that I started feeling the pressure when 2 co-workers who had to finish their thesis were working hard to conclude theirs. They also stayed late at night at the office, so we started making bets as to who would finish first. We all presented our thesis on the same week, after those 2 weeks of hard work. Good luck!!!
posted by yugolplex at 8:11 PM on February 20, 2006

Also, stop checking this thread every five minutes looking for inspiration. I find that Metafilter is one of my biggest time-killers!
posted by MrZero at 8:11 PM on February 20, 2006

1.) You need to take breaks.

1a.) The internet does not constitute a "break." Breaks require leaving your house. Go elsewhere. Eat at a restaurant. Have some drinks with friends. Et cetera.

2.) Exercise. Do some push-ups. Stretch. Something about "getting the juices flowing." I don't know jack about human anatomy and I don't know why it works, but it does.

3.) Read this article. Find your degree, and write the salary on a Post-It. Stick that on your desk. If you're the typical broke student, that ought to be a carrot.
posted by cribcage at 8:12 PM on February 20, 2006

Two tricks have helped me at various times:

1) Write a load of crap and get my advisor to tell me how to fix it. Not necessarily an honest way of dealing with things, but I decided that getting it written was more important than any ideas of self-respect.

2) Get a timer; either a physical stopwatch or a computer program such as Minuteur for the Mac. The general idea is that if you give yourself cycles of 10 minutes on and 2 minutes off, you get 50 minutes of work done in an hour.
There are some variations to this; some people say that you should force yourself to take the breaks; I find that sometimes the 10 minutes work gets me 'in the zone' and I'll be full steam ahead for a significant period. Sometimes I need 10 minutes on and 10 off or the panic attacks become uncontrollable.

2a) As cribcage says, Metafilter is not a break. Stand up, look out the window, run a couple of flights of stairs, kick some furniture apart, whatever helps you, but get away from the computer.

Also, I think yugolplex's answer is a good one; it doesn't take that much work to write a thesis compared to the amount of time it can take to learn to deal with all the associated traumas.

I also felt I was getting little or no positive feedback from my adviser; the overpowerring need to get it finished before it finished me became my motivation. I can tell you that when I handed the finished thing in, it felt like my feet didn't touch the floor for days, and people met a whole new me who was capable of smiling! That feeling is not far away for you now.
posted by nowonmai at 8:29 PM on February 20, 2006

Meh. There is only one reason for real writer's block, and that is that you don't know what to say. The cure for that is research and outlining.

If you really do know exactly what to say, then the answer is simple, and it is in fact rule #1 of writing. Here it is in full:

Seat of the pants to seat of the chair.

And unplug the fucking internet until you're done.
posted by unSane at 8:31 PM on February 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

ALSO try doing the following equation:

W = No. of words you have to write
D = No. of days left
H = No. of hours you are willing to work per day

now let

X = W/(D*H)

that's how many words per hour you have to write between now and then. Your choices are:

a) write that many words an hour
b) miss your deadline

up to you
posted by unSane at 8:36 PM on February 20, 2006

Happy Birthday!

Instead of thinking about writing your thesis (big, scary, anxiety inducing task) try breaking it down into smaller chunks that are more easily to accomplished, then set those smaller chunks as goals and give yourself rewards after they've been completed. Sadly enough, giving myself a sticker next to an item on a check list works as a reward for me.

You might enjoy (and possibly find it helpful) John Perry's essay on Structured procrastination

Caveat: I'm checking metafilter as a distraction from doing work.
posted by kechi at 8:44 PM on February 20, 2006

You don't need to feel motivated to work. You can just work without feeling like you want to do it. Action comes before motiviation.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:45 PM on February 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I studied for the bar as follows, 12 hours per day--55 minutes on, 5 playing Age of Empires II. 1 hour for lunch and dinner. I passed.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:46 PM on February 20, 2006

Find a friend that you really don't like to disappoint (another student in the department that you really respect is perfect). Ask them is they would mind receiving about 1-2 pages of work from you, via -email, per day. (They don't have to read it.) That page per day really adds up.

I did this, and it was really the only thing that got me to finish my thesis. The thought of having her think badly of me was way more incentive than getting the degree. (But finally getting the degree sure did feel nice.)
posted by oddman at 9:00 PM on February 20, 2006

Over the last three years I've written dozens of essays for subjects I had no interest whatsoever in (it was compulsory for us to take non-my-main-degree subjects to 'expand our learning'). By no means do they compare to a thesis, but they were hard to get motivated to write. That said, by the third year I was pretty good at it.

My method involved writing crap (starting with a broad outline) and then gradually making it more detailed. So I'd write the main points I wanted, and put them in a logical order. Then write exactly what I wanted to say for each point -- not well written by any means, simply the words that needed to be there strung together. Mine would follow a "point: example/proof" format. For example: "Ultrasound measures of carotid arteries are linked with cardiovascular risk, but operator dependent, only looks at posterior artery wall and not whole artery. E.g. Teo et al did x study."

That way I had the bare bones. If I did no more work on it from then on I'd have at least a high fail. But it's much easier to edit and expand things than it is to write them in the first place, so with that stuff written I could just go in and expand a bit here, rewrite something there.

When I got really stuck I'd move away from the computer and try to write my outline out by hand. It was messy and not very good, but quite often I got the momentum I needed. It wasn't simple, most of this was done late at night, and bloody hell it was boring, but it happened where it would not have otherwise.

Best of luck with getting it done. Oh, and Happy Birthday!
posted by teem at 9:15 PM on February 20, 2006

garethspor: every time I start, I get a whole bunch of anxiety and end up doing other things on the computer/internet.

anxiety about what? I'm currently writing my thesis, and i find that i get anxious (and stop writing) for a few different reasons (and i'm going to just go ahead and assume that they apply to you too). Firstly, when i'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by the size of the task in front of me. Secondly, when i get to a bit of writing where i know where i want to go, but not how to get there. And finally, when i feel like my work needs improving. Here are a few tips that i use to try to overcome these problems (if you have them).

A solution to feeling overwhelmed by your thesis is to have a timetable and to measure your progress. My supervisor made me write out a timetable, where i plan how much time each chapter will take, and how many pages constitute each chapter. Knowing how many pages i should have written by now, i can get a feel for how i am going.

My solution to getting frustrated while writing tricky bits of prose is just to write dot points. For each chapter, i (ideally) start by writing a list of things i want to cover. Then, i just sit down and try to write with as little interruption as possible. When i hit a section that i'm not sure how to approach, i write down some dot points on what i want to cover, and continue where i feel comfortable. Mostly, writing the dot points clarifies things for me to the point where i just start writing the hard section anyway. Otherwise, i allow myself to leave a bit of a mess in the text, and come back and fix it up later. Don't get caught up insisting on perfect writing.

My final issue occurs when i look at my work (typically from a couple of years ago), and feel like it needs to be improved. While it's possible to go back and redo some of the work going into your thesis, you should probably just forget about it and present what you have. Even if you think you really should revisit sections of your work, you should write up what you current have first, since you probably don't have enough time to do everything that you want to.

And lastly, some words of wisdom from my supervisor: writing is a habit. Get used to writing some text every day.
posted by nml at 9:44 PM on February 20, 2006

What is the level of the thesis that you are writing?

You actually have honest-to-goodness scheduled thesis meetings, instead of having to track down, corner, and harass your supervisor to even read the bloody thing?

It sounds like you're in a bit of a rut; here's a possible way of turning that into a groove.

Step back.

Read your introduction in the morning. Take a nice lunch. Read the materials/methods. Have a snack. Read the results. Go have a nice dinner. Do something low intensity like taking a night walk at the beach or the park or something. Think about why you went and researched what you did. Think about what's cool about what you came up with. Think about what's uncool/problematic/horrible/BS about the results.

If you had the time, I'd say take a day off - completely off and be a slacker, but you don't have this privilege.

Sit down, take a stack of (scrap) paper and your favourite writing utensil (pen/pencil) and try to recall your thoughts from the previous evening. Number the pages. Title (and unerline it) sections/subsection.

Odds are, a structure (for the discussion section) will start to precipitate in your mind. Go ahead and start typing. Whenever you're stuck, go back to writing down the thoughts from your evening walk.

Also, it may be easier if you divide your discussion into several parts instead of having it as one big "top of the world, mom!" type dealy. Deal with one thing at a time. You can always summarize it later.

The important thing is to figure, in your mind, what you want to write - or at least, the structure of what you want to write. Odds are that you already know what you're going to write, the trick is to start writing and keep at it - and this can be done if you have a semblence of a plan.

Good luck.

Now the difficult part is what to cut...
posted by PurplePorpoise at 9:44 PM on February 20, 2006

Rereading your question and the 'whole bunch of anxiety' stuff, it sounds to me as though you don't really know what you should write. That means you have not planned it out properly.

The secret: outlining.

Even the shortest piece of writing can be outlined.

First you write it as one sentence.

Now you turn that one sentence into three sentences. You can call these beginning-middle-end or introduction-body-conclusion or thematic entry-thematic development-thematic recapitulation or whatever you like. Beginning Middle End is simple and works.

So now you have three sentences.

Now you do the same thing to each of those three sentences.

If you keep doing this, two things will happen:

1. You will always have, even if in very skeletal form, a finished document which expresses the idea you want to express. It is *always* an improvable draft. You can show this to someone and they will know that even if you haven't finished, you can.

2. At a certain point you will suddendly discover that your outline has turned into your thesis. At a certain point the beginning-middle-ends turn into the paragraphs of your final document, and you discovered that by outlining -- which is a relatively painless process -- you have actually avoided the writing process entirely.

I have used this method to write to deadline for 15 years in print journalism, TV current affairs, TV documentary and film screenwriting, and never missed a deadline yet.
posted by unSane at 9:51 PM on February 20, 2006 [7 favorites]

Happy Birthday!

If it's any consolation, it is 1am and I am staring at my own thesis on my computer screen. Not sure what degree you're doing, but the most awesome website for any graduate degree is Phinished. The site has a ton of helpful links and articles and a very supportive forum where you can make pacts with other struggling thesis writers and then check in with each other.

I also find the Mind Mapping System by Tony Buzan really, really helpful. Feel free to roll your eyes at something that looks really simple and really stupid - I did the same. But when I am stuck with deadlines and writers block, I mind map what I need to write and am constantly amazed at how easy the process becomes. Give it a go and good luck!
posted by meerkatty at 10:07 PM on February 20, 2006

I also really like unSane's idea...I'm going to try this myself! It looks like a great way to not only get something down on paper, but to be clear and precise in the first draft of the paper, as opposed to painful re-writes later.
posted by meerkatty at 10:09 PM on February 20, 2006

From the perspective of writing theses, i needed to get The Fear. it sounds like you are working on this but haven't properly harnessed it. You need to properly link up failure with its repercussions and use this as motivation without letting it overcome you.

On a practical level, unSane's idea is very useful, you can break down the whole thing that way and then just build it up. nowonmai suggests writing crap and getting your advisor to sort it out. This may seem kind of copout-y but it is better to have written something than nothing, so keep motoring on even if it seems like you're writing crap, if you write enough crap quickly enough then you maybe able to edit it into something better and remember: your advisor isn't looking for the finished article, they'll be expecting to have to have an input into it, if you could do the whole thing in the time you've got up to your first deadline then they wouldn't bother giving you the extra time. Plus, just attempting writing stuff down forces you to consider your ideas and how to frame them so you will be moving along even if you don't feel llike you're getting stuff done because the stuff isn't properly working out on the page. (Doing it over and over is part of the process until its done.)

Don't try pulling all-nighters and loading up on coffee (ok maybe on the last day) it won't do you any favours and the work will be worse as a result.

Do go out tonight.
posted by biffa at 2:09 AM on February 21, 2006

If AskMe had existed thirty years ago, I could have written the exact same question (substituting "dissertation" for "thesis"). I was baffled and increasingly upset. Eventually (talking to someone who asked good questions) I realized an important fact: I hated not only my dissertation but the entire grad school experience. I dropped out and felt a huge weight off my shoulders, and I've never regretted it for a minute. Not saying (obviously) that you should follow in my footsteps, but in the unlikely event you do decide to chuck it all, you're not stepping off the edge of the world, you're just moving on to something new. And now, back to your regularly scheduled advice... and good luck!
posted by languagehat at 5:19 AM on February 21, 2006

To second someone earlier, what are you anxious over? Do you like your topic? If so, examine why you enjoy it and apply that to your writing. Preparation also goes a long way towards getting over that writing block.

I'm currently working on the last chapter of my thesis, and I've learned over the process of writing the other chapters, that if I have the resources and knowledge of them, the paper virtually writes itself. Perhaps the problem is that you haven't adequately prepared your current research? Take some time off and just go through your sources and as you find them, mentally or physically record them in sequence of how to use them in your paper. I'm not chastizing, either. More than a few times I've come to a blank, only to stop, dig through my material, find exactly what I need to continue, and voila.

As others have pointed out, outlines in any form help. Outline your thesis, outline your chapter, outline the first few pages, etc.

I also agree with the suggestions to remove your distractions. If your resources allow, go somewhere like the library to work on your paper and get out of your apartment/dorm room/house.

Anyhoots, good luck on the writing!
posted by Atreides at 7:35 AM on February 21, 2006

I've found that a "sprint" sometimes helps get over the hump. Set a timer for 10 minutes and do nothing but writing on your thesis during those 10 minutes. Turn off every other bit of software you have running as well.

Frequently, 10 minutes will become 20 minutes or an hour.

A friend frequently started with something with a paragraph like, "this topic sucks because..." That gets the frustration and ill-will out of the way before moving on to actual writing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:44 AM on February 21, 2006

My sister has taken to giving this book out as a gift to her fellow grad students.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:49 AM on February 21, 2006

Hope you made your Thursday deadline.

For future benefit, I heartily recommend The Now Habit. Its author worked in the UC Berkeley Counseling Center with thesis procrastinators.

As a procrastinator, it has my number to an uncomfortable degree.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:35 AM on February 22, 2006

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