Academic writer's block.
September 27, 2006 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Academic writer's block: tips, strategies, experiences, psychology for dealing with it?

I am working on writing a Ph.D. dissertation, and my writing is going haltingly at best; there seems to be a constant threat of becoming stuck, blocked. So, I'd love to hear any tips or strategies for dealing with academic writer's block. (I'm in a humanities field in which the dissertation will be more about having interesting and original ideas, and writing a compelling argument about well-known texts, than about reporting new findings based on research. So this dissertation is, primarily, a large writing project, unlike in many other fields where the research being reported is at least as important as the writing.)

My writing style up to this point doesn't seem to be a good model going forward. I've usually written to deadline, in spurts of intense activity, after incubating an idea for a while beforehand. And I am not afflicted with logorrhea, like some academics I envy; I tend to write too little and too densely, not to overwrite and have to edit down to a page count. Still, I've produced short papers that I'm happy with, and published; and I am excited about my dissertation idea, so self-confidence would not seem to be the problem so much as procrastination and blocking.

More generally, I'd like to hear suggestions about becoming a productive scholarly writer. It seems like there's a big transition at the ABD stage, where a student who's used to writing smaller papers to given assignments and deadlines is faced with the requirement to produce longer works, write relatively constantly, and work with much less supervision for the rest of his or her career. Suddenly, becoming a productive academic seems a lot like becoming a productive writer of any other kind. How do people make this transition without getting stuck?

Let's assume that the rest of my specifics (topic, advisors, teaching and other responsibilities, institutional arrangements) are outside the discussion; I'm more interested in tips on becoming a productive scholarly writer than in getting therapy for my specific case. I've read a lot of books on this topic, and found most of them not very helpful (beyond delivering the welcome reminder that you need to sit down and try to write every day), but recommendations are still welcome.
posted by RogerB to Education (19 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: one tip i used to get through my dissertation (also humanities-eque), was to leave the writing mid-sentence every time i put it down. somehow picking the writing by just completing that last sentence made the next ones start coming out the next day.

i'd also suggest you be very careful about editing. that is, figure out a time to do it when you're not in the 'creative mode' as i've seen lots of authors dump too much of themselves into editing and subsequently re-write something 9 times rather than working on the next new thing...

[not that any of this is working *for me* at the moment. ahem.]
posted by garfy3 at 2:59 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


i meant humanities-esque...and...picking up the writing...

[why did i have to mention editing?]
posted by garfy3 at 3:01 PM on September 27, 2006

These books helped me:

Professors as Writers

Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day

I had the same issues as you. There is no magic bullet. You can create deadlines by scheduling meetings with your advisor. Another thing that worked is setting a deadline for getting a draft done and making a reservation at a fancy restaurant with a friend/SO to celebrate. You'll feel guilty going without finishing.

I unfortunately found the campus writing center not very useful. If you can get a group together that will read each other's work, that can be great, but the two groups I tried to start both failed within a month.

For me the key was getting this series of thoughts into my head: I could be doing another job right now and earning much more. I chose to do this because I am interested in it. Writing and thinking about this topic is a privilege. Being an academic means being a writer/researcher, not being a student. If I am going to be a successful professor I need to be a regular writer and I might as well start now.

Two last thoughts: do something on your dissertation every single day, even if it's something small. And don't beat yourself up if you miss a deadline--just move onto the next day.
posted by underwater at 3:10 PM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

Something that's helped me in the past is giving up on one section/chapter/etc. and moving on to another. Somehow that helps to develop whatever ideas I was having trouble with, or unsticks me, or something. I end up having to watch out for abandoned bits and pieces scattered throughout the document, but it's worth an extra-careful edit at the end if it means getting the damned thing done.
posted by paleography at 3:22 PM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I'm in a humanities field in which the dissertation will be more about having interesting and original ideas, and writing a compelling argument about well-known texts, than about reporting new findings based on research ...

May I suggest that you're putting too much pressure on yourself at this stage? You may want to write the ideal dissertation, but obsessing too much over it, and beating yourself up over not being able to produce it, are extremely counterproductive. Indeed, those habits of thought will likely prevent you from writing any kind of dissertation at all.

What you have to do instead is bury the fantasy the ideal dissertation, and simply start working—briskly, regularly—on one that will pass and that you can write now. The truth is that the vast majority of doctoral dissertations—even in the humanities, where, as you say, the prevailing rhetoric is about ideas and originality—are not compelling, compulsively readable stretches of deathless prose, but rather exercises produced by student writers for a particular, limited purpose: getting the thing past their examiners.

The only way to learn how to write a humanities Ph.D. dissertation is, I'm afraid, to write one. And it's a total, infuriating pain in the ass. But eventually, through the simple act of writing large quantities of prose—stuff I can guarantee you'll cringe at at the beginning and think is naive and worthless, but which you'll have to write anyway—you'll find that it gets easier. Eventually, you may end up with a few sections, chapters, even, that are interesting and compelling and perhaps even original. But you can only get to that stage by writing a lot of what seems to you to be unsatisfying kludge. Some of this will end up in your diss., the rest you can revise (revision, I'm afraid, is an unavoidable chore) or discard and replace with the better stuff you'll be able to write later. But only after you've completed a rough draft.

Another tactic that works for me (but perhaps won't for you). Sit down with your primary texts and do simple, extended close readings. I find that I'm never more productive or happy with what I write than when I'm in a Special Collections reading room.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:54 PM on September 27, 2006 [4 favorites]

I do not do humanities, but I'll echo Sunny Jim. Perfection is the enemy of the good WRT dissertations. In any field, the dissertation is really about getting a dissertation approved and moving on. The way that I usually explain this to grad students who want to put together a gigantic, baroque Sistine Chapel of a dissertation that's going to explain everything about everything is that the worst dissertation that was ever passed is better than every dissertation that's not finished yet.

Does your project lend itself to being broken down into 3--5 papers? Then write the papers now. Building them into a coherent dissertation will be easier when you have big, already-coherent chunks to work with.

Also, just write stuff. It doesn't matter, now, whether the writing is good or bad. It's a damn sight easier to write a dissertation that's badly written and edit it to improve the writing than it is to write a perfect or near-perfect dissertation from the get-go.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:10 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think that Peter Elbow has some excellent advice in his short paperback Writing Without Teachers. It will take you just a few hours to read it, and you can give the techniques a try.
posted by LeisureGuy at 4:46 PM on September 27, 2006

I picked up The Now Habit after seeing a bunch of people recommend it in several different AskMe threads about procrastination. The stuff he says about perfectionism, & how to unlearn it, is helping me through a major blockage (as in, paralytic after getting the first draft done and being faced with revisions. also, hiding from my supervisor for the past year). I wish I'd read this book earlier.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 8:00 PM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I agree heartily with the advice that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation. Getting past the idea that you have to make this the best thing you've ever produced can work wonders for productivity. It's not a Faberge Egg.

There were two tactics that for me were the key to finishing a dissertation that had malingered and festered on for too many months on end. One, I made a decision to get up every day before dawn and write from 6 to 7 before work -- something about that hour before anyone else was up became kind of sacred and the writing became almost ritualistic for me, in an enjoyable way. Putting a time limit on it worked very well (I think this technique is expounded upon in the Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day book, one I also endorse).

The other tactic was to view my so-called procrastination techniques not as distractions but as complements to my work. What I mean is this: when working on a project as open-ended and free-form as a dissertation, it seems common to consider any non-dissertation activities as shameful timewasters and to harbor guilt about that. I began a practice of instead viewing all these activities as healthy and balancing, and gave them their due, refusing those guilty feelings. This started as a way for me to maintain my sanity, but strangely what I began to notice was that once I stopped guiltily berating myself for not working on my dissertation, I saw that a LOT of my interests actually dovetailed in interesting ways with my dissertation topic. In the humanities, I think this is particularly relevant (my degree is in literature). My non-dissertation activities --even conversations with friends -- began to produce new ideas and to inflect my work with dimensions that really added to my original concept while keeping me engaged. I don't know if that makes any sense. I guess I would simply say, be open to unexpected sources of inspiration, and don't feel guilty for trying to maintain a healthily balanced life while you're writing. You'll be more productive if you're not locked in your library carrel for hours every day.

Dissertating was a hard, lonely experience for me. You just have to do whatever you can to get through it.
posted by butternut at 8:27 PM on September 27, 2006 [5 favorites]

Best answer: What sonny jim said; what butternut said.

I'm in the same state as you - ABD, humanities, a think piece, and laborious process akin to 'breaking stones'.

What has helped me so far is a) making regular meetings with advisor, just to chat: this forces some production; b) what i recommend wholeheartedly: getting into a dissertation writing group with just 2 or 3 like-minded, generous people who are in the same stage as you. They dont have to be from the same field; in some ways its better if they're not.
Both (a) and (b) force you to write for an audience and present to an audience in narrative and force regular production.

It seems like there's a big transition at the ABD stage, where a student who's used to writing smaller papers to given assignments and deadlines is faced with the requirement to produce longer works, write relatively constantly

Absolutely correct: Becoming ABD really IS a very different phase of life - and I DONT think that most ABDs realize this upon becoming ABDs. I wish someone had told me, too. They didnt. I discovered this fact painfully, slowly, and with a fair amount of surprise. For what its worth, I think most grad students find out in the same way, and endure the discovery alone and in silence, afraid to vocalize it in case they're the only one. Theyre not! Its a nearly universal experience as far as I can tell. So we can take some comfort in THAT anyway.

And lastly, I guess for me the most suprising thing about the writing phase, (as opposed to the thinking phase), is just how *physically* demanding writing at this level is; and what a *discontinuous* process it is: references, quotes, versions, everything interferes regularly interferes in the 'flow' that one got used to during the thinking phase. This experience - the writing part - is thus different from the thinking part in both of these ways.
It requires new skills to be developed (often, for many people, from scratch- and quickly!). For example, skills of allowing the flow to be disrupted but being able to pick up with minimal recovery time. Skills of sitting at the desk for most of the day (instead of, say, coffee shops, libraries, or walking/reading in the park - all of which I used to be able to do in the thinking phase, and can no longer afford to do now). Being tied to the keyboard is strange, as a transition from the thinking phase. But thats what it takes now.
posted by jak68 at 9:26 PM on September 27, 2006

whoops, forgot the quote marks around your quote.
posted by jak68 at 9:27 PM on September 27, 2006

Sometimes reading what other people have written on a similar topic can inspire ideas and get you past a block. Be careful with this one, though. Otherwise, the advice about giving yourself permission to write a first draft that's just OK, instead of perfect, helps a lot in just getting the words on the page. I think every word in my papers end up being changed multiple times by the time it's all done. Another tip for when you can't quite figure out how you want to say something is to write about 5-6 different versions of a sentence, without stopping to consider what the best words would be, just writing it as if you were talking about the idea to someone. You can do the same thing with paragraphs, shuffling the sentence order around without stopping to think about it much until you've generated 5-6 versions, then you can go back and compare, without having to worry about composing at the same time.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:09 PM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: The thing that worked for us was a writing group. Five of us met once a month for a year, at each meeting reading a chapter by a group member. Obviously, we did not read all of anyone's dissertations, but the periodical deadline motivation meant that we all got one or two "finished" chapters out there publicly; and the knowledge that others were working meant that we were all more likely to get the rest of the work done even when we weren't in the spotlight. The proof of the efficacy of this system, for me, was in the fact that two of the five of us had written nothing for over a year before the group started; then they both graduated within the writing-group year. In fact, by the end of that year we had all graduated.

The group also spent a lot of time talking about other issues around being ABD -- in fact it grew out of a study two of us organized of the ABD experience in our department. Specifically, we had concluded that isolation (from faculty and fellow students, attributable to a variety of issues) in the ABD stage was the most direct contributing factor to the alarmingly lengthy times-to-degree in the department. Since the faculty weren't overwhelmingly responsive, we organized the writing group to serve as a kind of "ABD support group." In addition to the writing meetings, we gathered weekly or so for coffee/drinks and just talked through common issues ranging across money, writer's block, time management, job applications, and all kinds of other things.

For years before, and simultaneously with the "big" group, I worked extremely closely with one of my colleagues -- we met weekly, exchanged writing almost that regularly, and spent a couple of hours at each meeting laying out short- and long-term goals and generally discussing our progress. She and I have continued to work together even as we've become faculty at different institutions, and I think both of us would happily say that we owe our academic careers to each other.

There are online equivalents to this type of group (the one that comes to mind immediately is phinished), but I think the local element is critical. Someone upthread said that writing a diss is a lonely process -- this does not have to be true, particularly in the humanities where the excitement is all about the ideas. All of your fellow students will have something useful to say to you and your work at some point; milk this to create a better dissertation!
posted by obliquicity at 11:03 PM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I suffered badly from writer's block as a philosophy graduate student I share your tendencies towards concision, and towards working in spurts on deadline. My department allowed me to spend 7-8 years in the ABD stage, until I finally acknowledged to myself that it was never going to happen and withdrew without a Ph.D. That proved not to be a bad thing for me, but my subsequent career has taught me a few critical things about moving forward on large projects that I'd wished I'd known at the time.

Whenever you are threatened by block, think "what is the next thing I can usefully be doing?". Break it down into discrete, very finite tasks: "working on my dissertation" seems impossibly daunting, but "reading and making notes on source X" or "writing up my views on subpoint Y" is stuff you already know you can do. Don't let more than a couple of days go by without actually writing 300-500 words--without holding yourself to the standard that those words will actually need to form part of the dissertation. I had always believed that thinking needed to precede writing; I now believe that writing is an important mode of thinking (which usually needs re-writing and re-thinking, of course). And of course, sometimes a few of those words will sneak into the dissertation, which is good. Every three or four weeks you'll want to schedule an overview of what you're doing--how are all the small tasks you've been undertaking fitting into the whole. But it should only be that infrequently. I became productive when I stopped thinking of myself most of the time as "working on the project" or "needing to work on the project", and instead thought of myself as "doing small subtask X". Good luck. . .
posted by muhonnin at 11:13 PM on September 27, 2006 [3 favorites]

Best answer: RogerB, a year ago I could've written your posting. I sympathize completely with how shocking the transition is between writing papers at the end of each semester and having a much bigger project to undertake. I was also used to exhausting bursts of writing, and my dissertation was humanities-esque as well, and, in part, about writing itself, so style was something that mattered in my case as well.

I have a few thoughts to add to this thread. Some of them come from one of the books that underwater recommended "Write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day." This book is, in fact, really useful--don't let the ridiculous "six-pac abs in 15 minutes a day"-style title fool you.

1. For those of us who acquired the habit of writing in bursts, in order to write a dissertation, we simply have to change our process. Those were hurdles, or sprints, and this is a marathon. Respecting a delineated stopping time, even when you're feeling inspired, may seem counterintuitive, but it makes a huge difference, because if you exhaust yourself unduly one day, it may take a couple days to get back on your rhythm.

2. During the days when I had less momentum and was more tempted to derail myself with random distractions, instituting a guideline of 45 minutes of work/15 minutes of whatever I want to do. At first, I thought that 15 minutes an hour was an excessive amount of breaks, but it turned out that if I did it, I could go much longer, and get much more done, than if I were beating myself with the rationale that I only deserved breaks if I was being supremely productive. That way, if you get an impulse, like say, compulsively reading ask metafilter, you're never more than 45 minutes away from being able to do it, at least for a few minutes.

3. I was surprised while writing my dissertation (I just finished in August) how athletic it was. I'm not usually a very fit person, but when I upped my morning exercise, whether just taking a half-hour walk or run or working out on the weight machines, my writing felt more clear-headed and my endurance for writing was far better.

4. Zero drafting is a very useful tool that Bolker outlines in detail. Essentially, it is based on the premise that most writers lock themselves into a structure prematurely, and that some stuckness is due to the impression that you should sit down and put something onto the page already fully-formed. By calling something a zero draft, and giving yourself a daily page count (say 3 or 4 pages of material that can be utterly preliminary brainstorming) you can free yourself to explore the nooks and crannies of your arguments before having to commit them to chapter form. Then, after you have, say, a week's worth of zero drafts (or two weeks...whenever you feel like you're ready to shape the material), then you can print them out, read through them, separate out the useful material from the junk, and move toward a structure that begins to look like a chapter. I found this liberating.

5. A dissertation group with people you trust that are committed to the group makes an enormous difference. After trying to meet with a few different groups of people, (and briefly enduring one nightmarish group) the best configuration in my case ended up being working closely (weekly) with one friend only.
posted by umbĂș at 5:51 AM on September 28, 2006 [3 favorites]

Lots of good stuff in this thread.

My answer is this: you should immediately buy Advice for New Faculty Members, by Boice. It has many helpful exercises for overcoming writer's block. The author studied assistant professors, and compared the ones who write a lot (and get tenure) to the ones who don't write enough (and don't get tenure). So all the recommendations are based on the habits of prolific academic writers. Also, having concrete exercises to work on each day has been enormously helpful to me.
posted by betterton at 10:34 AM on September 28, 2006

Response by poster: Almost all the posts so far have been worthy of a "best answer," so thanks to all who have contributed so far. In continuing the discussion I'd be especially interested in hearing more practical writing tips and tricks, like "zero drafts," stopping in mid-sentence, et cetera, and more concrete details on things like how to schedule and organize writing groups.
posted by RogerB at 10:02 AM on September 29, 2006

Boice has an article that summarizes his writer's block research called "work habits of productive scholarly writers." I'd request it and read it. The above book is expensive, but not as expensive as an extra year in graduate school.

It took me from 1999-2005 to write my dissertation, including the prospectus. I was working full time for three of those years, and part time for two, and we had three kids druing that time.

Once my original adviser left for another job and I got an adviser that was also a writing teacher and who was very conscientious, I finished in six months.

The Now Habit is very good (I am rereading it as I prepare for tenure) and I also got lots of support and advice (under the name grokosaurus) from

Please write a shitty dissertation that you can defend. It will be better than you imagine, and better than the perfect dissertation that you will never write. Get the losers off your committee now, if necessary. Surround yourself with good people.

Also, the book "Feeling Good" is filled with great ideas on constructive self-talk that meshes well with Boice. If you want me to scan a copy of that article by Boice lemme know via email and I'll do it Monday.
posted by craniac at 7:47 PM on September 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What cranian said:
Please write a shitty dissertation that you can defend. It will be better than you imagine, and better than the perfect dissertation that you will never write.

not to simply repeat, but this is SO worth repeating. This is exactly correct.

Get the losers off your committee now, if necessary. Surround yourself with good people.


As an ABD, I wish someone had told me these things too. You can ALWAYS go back and perfect the dissertation before its published. The dissertation phase, quite honestly, is simply not that important, its not worth perfection. At all. its only just one more step in what is a VERY LONG process of editing, re-writing, getting feedback from different and diverse groups, in a gradual and circular way. You should not ever see it as a 'one shot' project. Its not and cannot be; no project of this scope and size can ever be a one shot deal. Lose the perfectionism right now if thats partof the problem.
For me that was one of the things I had to painfully learn. I was a total perfectionist and it took me a long time to change those habits and 'be ok' with writing crap -- which is another way of saying, "I learned to trust the writing process, as a process."

I dont think there are any secrets in terms of the mechanics of writing this; do whatever works for you, both psychologically and in terms of daily habits and regular production. Learn to view your own behaviour with some detachment; learn to train yourself like you're a 6 month old puppy. Dont have any pride when you do this: manipulate yourself. Everyone has to; its the road to wisdom and self-knowledge, frankly. Learn and figure out what your mind and body responds to, in terms of tricks to get yourself in front of the computer and typing, typing, typing. What you type wont come out perfect in one shot; the point is, OVER TIME, it will accumulate and it WILL get there, where you want it to get. But you have to take those little steps every day for the long journey. There wont be any bus coming to pick you up: start walkin'.

Breakdown the job into little bite-sized chunks. For me, starting with a broad outline and drilling my way down to individual chapters, and then down to individual sub-sections, helped immensely. The individual sub-sections are easy, quite frankly. The roadbloack isnt that we cant write the subsections; and it isnt that we dont know what we want to say in the big picture. Usually by the ABD stage we know both of those things. The roadblock usually is in getting from detailed knowledge TO that big picture presentation, IN NARRATIVE FORM. That, primarily, seems to be a problem of organization of the narrative. To help with that, the only way through that problem, seems to be the *process* of writing, editing, correcting, re-writing: regular production. This is where a generous writing group and/or a non-judgemental advisor - ie, those who *understand* that writing is a process in which you HAVE TO MAKE ERRORS IN ORDER TO EVENTUALLY SUCCEED -- very much like learning to ride a bicycle: You havent learned if you've never fallen off it. Falling off isnt a sign of failure but an integral part of the learning process, absolutely integral to it. Funnily, in the hyper-judgemental environment that is higher academe, this simple fact is often denied to students and grad students (not to mention colleagues). So you may have to hunt around for the few good people who inevitably exist on every campus, hunt them out and make them your friends and your true colleagues. They'll see you through this.

In terms of forming a writing group, here's how it happened for me: Bumped into someone I once was in a class with, tho he's from a different discipline and area. He mentioned he was putting a small writing group together and invited me. Initially I was very wary: I didnt want any additional pressure on my writing. I joined under the agreement that some weeks if I didnt have any complete chapters to present, then I'd just *talk* in a general way about my ideas. Funnily enough, that took the pressure off and in turn I've written continuously since then. Our group is a good one; if a member doesnt have completed writing that week, we show up anyway for them to talk in a general way about their ideas. That in turn stimulates them to go back to the writing process. They can also just talk specifically about the particular roadblocks they're having (psychological or narrative). The point isnt to present writing so much as to get the presentation/narrative juices flowing in front of an audience of one's peers.
Its been immensely helpful in forcing us to *narrate*. And in terms of having a 'sanity check' as to whether our outline and overall presentation strategy is making sense.

In terms of the process itself, some of the tools I use (which I dont know if are somewhat unique or not) are:
-I bought one of those very large post-it Easel Pads (3 feet by 4 feet or so in size) and I do a lot of sketching out the big outline of my narrative on them. Its great to have a large surface like that to work on in the initial planning stages. Then I check off parts and subparts of it on the pad as I write. Its also been helpful in terms of drawing up long chronologies (historical or bibliographical) and organize them. I've tried using mindmapping software on the computer for this (like Inspiration or Mindjet) but I always return to these Large Easel Pads from staples and a pencil.
I also bought corkboard (lots of it) on ebay for cheap, stuck it on my wall, and stuck envelopes on it that hold my rudimentary outline written up on index cards. Whatever works for you, do it.
I finally learned how to use Endnote. I got all my computer files in order, organized pretty well on my computer. Get organized if thats a roadblock. Get a 'flow' you can work with.
Most of these things are obvious parts of the overall process. The point is: do them. There's no substitute for getting into the banal everyday detail of the editing process, however boring it is, the process needs you to get into the trenches with it and hand hold it. No substitute for that. Make your mistakes, write and rewrite. But you have to be there for it; its like a child, so to speak. It aint gonna grow up without you. ;)
posted by jak68 at 11:50 PM on September 29, 2006 [4 favorites]

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