Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Writer's Lab: 30 Ways to Tackle Writer's Block

We've all been in this awful situation: you need to write a paper or work on a chapter of your dissertation, but 20 minutes pass, and you can't write anything. You go surf the internet for a little bit, return to your white screen and blinking cursor, and quickly get sucked into the internet again. Suddenly it is 5pm and you have not done anything. An entire day wasted without doing anything...

Writer's block - it can strike us all at any given time.

If you feel that your writing is not moving anywhere, don't sit through the day hoping that things will change. Take action, make some course-corrections, and save the remaining hours of your day.

Here is a list of 30 things you can try to get your juices flowing again:

1. Reuse some old material

Your first draft is not the paper that you are going to submit. Feel free to copy and paste some material from a previous paper or report, and start from there. I usually write down the research steps that I followed in a research report, and use that as the rough basis for my papers. Not using research reports? How about browsing through your lab book and just typing out some of the material that is in there? You will edit later anyway.

2. Go for a walk

If you look at the habits of highly creative people from the past, you will see that almost all of them made time to go for a walk and sort out their thoughts during the day. So, leave your desk and enjoy a brisk walk around campus.

3. Try pen and paper instead

Are the internetz distracting you too much? Why not ditching the text processor software, and writing by hand? Some (older) researchers still write their papers entirely by hand first, and then either type up the material themselves or give it to a secretary/typist. Since most of us don't have a typist handy, you might have to type it up afterwards, but really, just typing goes super fast. Typing is a different action than writing.

4. Talk out loud

Stuck on forming sentences? Why don't you try talking out loud instead? Talk to a friend or office mate, or even an imaginary friend and explain what your paper is going to be about. Try the same technique when you can't find the right words for a sentence: just talk out loud: "What I want to say here in my own words is,... ".

5. Look at an example

Take a paper which you consider to be written in a very good way. Study it as an example of good writing. Study the structure of the sentences. What did you learn from that? Now try and apply this newly observed writing technique for your own work.

6. Read one of your reference papers

Need to refresh your thoughts with regard to your research topic? Reread one of the papers that you are using as a reference for your work. This action might help you especially in writing your introduction.

7. Hit the gym

Are you just hypnotized by your computer screen? Break away and hit the gym: pump some iron, run on the treadmill, work up a sweat - you will come back to your desk feeling very different.

8. Freewrite or journal

Can't get your thoughts together? Try freewriting in a blank word document, on 750 words, or in your journal. Just write, just get started writing, or get your rant out. Then, return to your document, as your writing muscle woke up.

9. Go outside

Take your laptop and sit under a tree. Listen to the birds, smell the fresh air, and see if a change in scenery inspires you.

10. Go to a different place

If outside doesn't work, move to a different place, such as a library or a coffee store. I've noticed that moving between places during the course of the day is what keeps me alerted. I give myself 1,5 hours to grade from a patisserie, for example - and that works wonders.

11. Meditate

Try an energizing meditation, for example as used in the Silva technique at the end of a meditation. You will come out of your meditation more energized and alerted than before.

12. Organize your desk for productivity

Sharpen your pencil. Get everything out of the way that you don't need for writing. Only leave your reference papers on your desk, a writing pad and pen, and maybe something to eat and drink. Start with a fresh slate, then commit to getting your writing done.

13. Make a plan for writing

If the writing itself won't work, try making a planning. Estimate how much time each part of the paper or chapter will take you, assess how many figures you need to draw, and see if you are missing any references and allot time for looking up these references. Put designated parts of time into your planner, starting tomorrow, and from then on, stick to your schedule for writing.

14. Make an outline

If your paper or chapter only has subsection 1. Introduction so far, you need to make an outline of the paper before you continue working on your introduction. Are you going to use a methods - results - discussion outline or a theorem - proof style of outline? Check out this post on constructing effective outlines.

15. Use music

I do my best writing when I listen to the albums The Gallery and Projector by Dark Tranquillity, Reroute to Remain by In Flames, and sometimes some Opeth or Amorphis. For calculation work, I prefer futurepop, and for reading either silence, instrumental music, or post-rock. Figure out what type of music helps you for which situation.

16. Try binaural beats

Not a fan of music? Try one of those study tracks on Youtube featuring binaural beats. I don't think the binaural beats change my brain waves, but the action of putting up my headphones and committing to writing seems to set the stage for some productive work.

17. Just one pomodoro

For just one pomodoro you commit to get a certain paragraph written. And then you don't need to continue writing for the rest of the morning, or even for the rest of the day. Just do one pomodoro, just commit for 25 minutes to your task at hand. It'll be over before you realize.

18. Start with the body text

Leave the introduction for last. You know that the introduction is the part in which you try to catch the attention of your reader, and that thought might be putting pressure on yourself. Start from the middle section. Go to your safe ground, and do the easiest part of your paper first.

19. Leave proofreading for later

Do you often start typing, only to end up erasing the unfinished sentence that you were working on because it is not good enough? Focus on getting the ideas out first, and leave the proofreading and rewriting for later.

20. Wash the dishes

A repetitive action like washing the dishes (in case you don't feel like hitting the gym), can help you calm down your mind and make good ideas surface. Taking a shower might work as well - we all tend to get our best ideas when we are in the shower or biking to work.

21. Go to the library and read

Look up a few additional new references on your subject, and read them from the library. Take some notes, and see if you can use that material in your paper.

22. Try a different schedule

Is your usual schedule not working because your office gets too busy? Try writing early in the morning like Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, or write late in the evening, depending on what works best for you.

23. Shake up your routine

Change the way you organize your days. You can try to do some exercise in the morning before going to work. You can to take a 2 hour lunch break and take a nap at noon. You can try to get in early, churn out your work and go home at 3pm to spend time doing some craft works.

24. Try something new

Try a new text editor. Bring something different for lunch. Bike home via a different route. Enroll for a course on a subject you know nothing about in your university or join a MOOC. Learn a new language. Join a meetup group for expats. Doesn't matter what you do, just shake up your brain a little bit.

25. Let go of planning

This piece of advice is the opposite of number 13. If you feel like you are planning very tightly, and your planning is causing stress, then let go a little bit and try a schedule that leaves you more freedom.

26. Don't fear the reviewers

If you are paralyzed by fear of writing something that is not good enough and that will be rejected by the reviewers, then relax a little bit. In most cases, your work will be subject to many rounds of rewriting and discussions with your supervisors before it goes to the reviewers anyways. What you are writing in your first draft is not set in stone.

27. Drink your best fuel

Get your favorite beverage to sip during your writing. I like green juice and rooibos tea, and I don't advise sugary sodas or caffeinated drinks, because they just give you a spike of energy for a short amount of time, and leave you sluggish an hour later into the day.

28. Take a break from writing

If all else fails, postpone the writing for a little bit, and go spend some time on your research and/or teaching duties instead. You never have just "writing" on your to do list anyway.

29. Hang out with a friend or family

Need some social time maybe? Writing, especially writing a dissertation, can be lonely journey. You might just need a shot of social life into your routine. Go see your friends and family. Maybe call someone up for having lunch.

30. Take a nap

You can't be productive when you are tired. It's a frustrating situation: if you have limited time left to finish writing, you might feel tempted to work late into the night. But then, the next day, you might just be feeling really tired and unable to focus.

These are 30 things you can try when you have writer's block. What do you do when your writing is not going anywhere? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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