Simple Strategies, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2004 (© 2004)
SIMPLE STRATEGIES FOR OVERCOMING WRITER’S BLOCK
WHILE WRITING YOUR DISSERTATION OR THESIS
Jeffrey W. Braunstein, Ph.D.
dissertation students struggle with writer’s block while writing their
dissertation or thesis. Writer’s block can be extremely frustrating and can
delay many students during the dissertation or thesis process. Writer’s block
often occurs when students are feeling pressure to work on their dissertation or
thesis and have not spent enough time planning the sections of their
dissertation or thesis. This issue of Simple Strategies will address
ways to overcome writer’s block while writing your dissertation or thesis.
- Choose a topic of
genuine interest for your dissertation or thesis.
Choosing a topic of
genuine interest for your dissertation or thesis can help motivate you to get
through the writing of tedious portions of the dissertation or thesis (e.g.
literature searches, literature reviews, statistical analyses). Genuine
interest in your dissertation or thesis topic facilitates your understanding of
the material. Take a minute to compare your performance in classes where you
were interested in the subject area and your performance in classes where you
found the material to be very boring. Did you tend get better grades or have an
easier time completing assignments in classes where you had an interest in the
subject matter? Your dissertation doesn’t have to be your life’s work, but
it’ll certainly help if you have at least some interest in your dissertation or
- If you’re unable to
choose a topic of interest for your dissertation or thesis, find a way to
personalize the topic or subject area.
If you have accepted a dissertation or thesis of
“convenience” (refer to Simple Strategies – Vol. 1, Issue 1 for a review of the
positives and negatives of choosing a dissertation or thesis of convenience),
and do not have any interest in your dissertation topic, you will need to find a
way to personalize your dissertation topic to increase your interest and
motivation. For example, you can personalize your dissertation or thesis by
choosing a particular subpopulation of interest within of your data to focus
your attention on (e.g. gender or specific cultural issues of interest). You
can incorporate these interests into either the primary analysis or post hoc
analyses of your dissertation or thesis. Focusing on a more interesting part of
your dissertation or thesis can increase your motivation for completing your
Breaking your dissertation or thesis
into a list of small manageable tasks can help you to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Breaking your dissertation or thesis into a list of
small manageable tasks can help you to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Constructing
and regularly reviewing a master list of the tasks needed to complete your
dissertation or thesis actively reminds you that you need to just focus on
accomplishing one task at a time to achieve your goal of a completed
dissertation or thesis. When in doubt, break up a small task on your list
into an even smaller list of tasks to help you cope and conquer a particularly
difficult part of your dissertation or thesis. For example, when
constructing your task list for the methodology section of your dissertation or
thesis, you can first divide the section into the major components (e.g.
participants, instruments, procedures) and then you can break down one of these
sections (e.g. procedures) into smaller sections (subject recruitment,
instrument administration, reimbursement for participation). If needed, you can
break down one of these smaller sections into even smaller sections (e.g.
outreach to organizations, independent advertising, order of instruments
administered, funding issues).
- Stop insisting on
perfection! Write simply and informally. You can always revise what you’ve
Just write something
related to you dissertation or thesis topic down as fast as you can and accept
that you will probably have to revise it numerous times throughout the course of
the dissertation or thesis process. Try to train yourself to write whole
concepts and simple phrases instead of “perfectly tight” well-worded sentences.
Writing whole concepts down quickly, without putting a lot of thought into
grammar and punctuation, helps increase the fluidity of your thinking and can
help you to avoid writer’s block (obsessive and rigid thinking) while writing
your dissertation or thesis.
- For severe cases of
writer’s block, purposely write grammatically incorrect.
Severe cases of writer’s block can be successfully treated by purposely writing
grammatically incorrect. Purposely writing grammatically incorrect completely
by passes your need for perfection and helps you to accept that what you are
writing will eventually need to be revised. This task can jump-start your
creativity and increase the fluidity of thought while writing your dissertation
or thesis. Writing bulk content and fleshing out your topic area are the most
important parts of writing and can help you to avoid writer’s block. Editing
and grammatical revisions are the more technical parts of writing and can be
focused on later during the writing of your dissertation or thesis.
- For severe cases of
writer’s block, “Write As You Speak.”
exercise of “writing as you speak” helps to overcome writer’s block in the same
way as writing grammatically incorrect. When you “write as you speak,” the
emphasis switches from perfection to the most important part of the writing
process: the content of your dissertation or thesis. Grammar and punctuation
can always be completed later after you’ve gotten the majority of the content on
“This guy named Dr. X did some really cool
short-term treatment for panic disorder with people and a lot of them
got better by the end”
After a couple of edits and revisions becomes…
Seventy-five percent of patients completing 10
sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy for panic disorder reported
significant symptom reduction upon termination of treatment (Dr. X,
“A lot of the stuff I’m reading seems to say that
anxiety and depression are very much related to each other”
After a couple of edits and
A review of the literature suggests a strong
positive correlation between anxiety and depression (Dr. B 1982; Dr. P
1998; Dr. A 2004).
In addition, if you’re really stuck, audiotape your
ideas about your dissertation or thesis and then take notes upon playback.
Try writing in different settings to
figure out the ideal place and time to get your work on your dissertation or
Do you tend to work better in complete silence or
do you write better when there is a little bit of activity around you? Some
people require silence and subsequently need to search for an environment that
can fulfill these needs. Other people find silence to be distracting and need
to be “slightly distracted” to focus on their work. Finding an environment that
is conducive to writing helps to avoid writer’s block and may lessen your
anxiety about writing. Are you more alert (or calm) in the mornings,
afternoons, evenings, or late at night? You’ll need to decide what time of the
day you feel most alert and calm so that you can effectively focus on your
dissertation or thesis. Through trial and error, these are the kinds of things
that you’ll begin to understand about yourself that will facilitate the
dissertation or thesis process.
Construct a regular routine and
schedule to work on your dissertation or thesis. Take frequent breaks to avoid
fatigue and frustration.
Once you figure out what time of day is best for
you to work on your dissertation or thesis, construct a regular schedule to work
on your dissertation or thesis. Routines are preferable to chaotic “cramming
sessions” that are more anxiety provoking. Taking frequent breaks helps to
avoid fatigue and frustration. Fatigue and frustration interfere with the
ability to concentrate, subsequently making it harder to focus on your
dissertation or thesis.
Think of dissertation and thesis
writing as creating “manuscript templates.”
Take a moment to skim through a few articles
written by the same author. Have you noticed that the author uses many of the
same “stems” or beginnings of sentences across various articles? For example,
notice the similarities in phrasing across several literature reviews, methods
and results sections. How about the way they phrase their research questions
and hypotheses? Let me know if you still have writer’s block after you
complete the following exercise:
Try This Exercise Now!!!
After you find several articles written by the same
author, make an extra copy of only the method sections and “white-out”
all the numbers, statistical notations and specific names of things
(e.g. names of instruments, procedures, tests) throughout all these
sections. Now examine the simplicity of verbiage from that prolific
researcher you’ve been reading a ton of during the course of the
dissertation process. Have you noticed that these method sections look
very similar to each other? Notice how these sections have a very
similar “shell.” Take some time to create your own “shells” or
templates for each section of your dissertation. These templates can
also be used for your own future research. This exercise takes the
mystery out of writing research and is bound to break right through
Re-read what you’ve already written
and write notes on the margins.
Re-reading, editing, and note taking can facilitate
the writing process. Writing notes on the margins have the potential to
embellish what you’ve already written and add substance to your dissertation or
thesis. I have found that notes written on earlier drafts of my manuscripts end
up being the most important “connection statements” that were needed to tie
together my subject matter. Since dissertation and theses are very
comprehensive, these connection statements keep the reader oriented to your
dissertation or thesis and help the reader avoid becoming lost.
- Discuss your
dissertation or thesis with a colleague, friend, professor, or consultant.
Reviewing your dissertation or thesis with others can shed a different
perspective on your project. Gaining a different perspective can help generate
new and unique solutions to overcome impasses and problems throughout the
dissertation or thesis process. For example, if you’re having problems with
picking out measures or instruments for your dissertation, discussing this issue
with an expert in the field can help jumpstart the writing process. An expert
in the field could be your dissertation chairperson, dissertation committee
member, or a consultant who has an established research track record.
these simple strategies can help you to overcome writer’s block and manage the
anxiety commonly experienced by students who are writing their dissertation or
thesis. Practicing good time management skills, having a lot of patience, and
asking for assistance when reaching an impasse are important skills to practice
throughout the dissertation or thesis process.
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