We’ve all seen the image of the tortured writer in front of the typewriter, immobilized by an unforgiving blank sheet of paper. Scenes refuse to take shape. Themes evaporate like morning dew off a car’s windshield. Characters remain as ghosts, roaming the author’s consciousness, waiting to take material shape, to be given a voice. While not as romantic a picture as that of the struggling writer, the dissertation student’s writer’s block occurs just as often and just as easily.
The above scenario would suggest that writer’s block is simply an inability to put words down. However, dissertation writer’s block goes beyond just the power of the blank page. Writer’s block can be characterized by inappropriate word choice, repetitious ideas, jumbled thoughts, poorly developed concepts and paragraphs, and a lack of support for ideas. In short, writer’s block is signaled not only by a lack of writing but in many cases, by confused writing.
Writer’s block is caused by many things, some of which, surprisingly, may not be related to the dissertation at all. Work, relationships, poor sleeping habits, stress—to name a few factors—can drain the mental energy needed to focus on writing. If, for example, the student is not getting asleep, when it comes time to put words to paper or to try and understand a peer-reviewed article, that person may not be able to muster enough energy to write clearly. If you are experiencing such off-the-page issues, examine what’s happening in your life beyond the writer’s desk.
Still, some reasons are indeed related directly to the dissertation writing process itself. For one, writer’s block may be a sign that the student has not assimilated the material well enough. Writing a dissertation requires both a broad and detailed understanding of the research topic. There may be crucial facets of the primary topic which the PhD student has only skimmed, and therefore, when it comes time to write about a particular facet, the student ends up making vague or confusing statements about the topic, or falls into repetition. More than creative writing, dissertation writing is dependent on explicit knowledge about a previously developed body of knowledge.
Another cause of writer’s block is lack of organization. Outlines with supporting notes go a long way in helping the student focus on putting down concrete, connected sentences that form coherent paragraphs. A well organized dissertation structure eliminates the pressure of needing to “make it up as you go along.” One tool in preventing writer’s block, then, involves careful planning. That does not mean the student needs to have every section and dissertation outlined in absolute detail. There’s usually a play between a formal structure and the act of putting sentences to paper, with outlines being organized at various levels. A more experienced writer will often have that organization in his head to help guide him in the process. A less experienced writer should always work with an outline.
Finally, dissertation overload or burnout can hinder the ability to think or write clearly. You know you’re experiencing dissertation overload when you’ve been working on the dissertation for a few hours and you don’t seem to be making any progress. Overload and burnout can really decrease motivation. Some ways to avoid dissertation overload is to take short breaks—preferably at least one an hour—as well as more substantial breaks. Taking a day or two off can really clear the mind. Also, working on more than one project can refresh your perspective, alleviate boredom, and give you new energy to tackle your dissertation.
If dissertation overload combines with the problems mentioned above, namely, poor understanding, lack of organization, or outside pressures, then the PhD student may find it extremely difficult to overcome writer’s block. Perhaps you need to return to the literature in order to grasp the material better. Or perhaps you are not using your dissertation-writing time appropriately. Are you experiencing a lack of motivation, do you feel tired, or do you seem to be meandering through the topic? Multiple factors may conspire to weigh you down. By taking the time to reflect and figure out both on-the-page and off-the-page reasons, it becomes easier to develop the appropriate strategy for mitigating whatever the specific, real causes may be.