By David Blane
Good writing is arguably the most important skill for an aspiring academic to develop. No matter how important your research question, how novel your methodology, how rigorous your approach to analysis, academics are ultimately judged on written work, be it an 80,000-word PhD thesis or a 8,000-word journal article contributing to REF.
Yet despite the importance of being able to write clearly and coherently, writing is a skill which many early career researchers struggle with. A quick search on Twitter using the hashtag #phdchat provides ample evidence of the phenomenon of ‘writer’s block’ (as well as funny pictures of cats and other amusing GIFs).
Writer’s block means different things to different people and is likely a combination of emotional, cognitive and behavioural factors that prevent us from writing. Perfectionism and procrastination are familiar bedfellows for many. For others, writer’s block may be due to anxiety, lack of writing time or unrealistic writing goals.
Whatever the cause, help is at hand. Professor Rowena Murray, author of How to Write a Thesis and Writing for Academic Journals, knows a thing or two about academic writing and suggests these three strategies for avoiding writer’s block:
- Set realistic goals and monitor the extent to which you achieve them
- Create dedicated writing time – when writing is all you do
- Do social writing – write with others
As a third year PhD student, I have found all of these strategies extremely helpful in my thesis writing. In her books and articles, Murray goes into more detail about how to break down any writing task into smaller chunks (down to the level of the key point(s) in each paragraph), which allows you to write in even short bursts of time.
Social writing provides dedicated time and space to write (without distractions) and quickly helps you to set realistic goals, as you soon realise what is feasible to achieve in a given period of time. I have benefited greatly from a weekly ‘Write Club’ with other PhD students and post-docs and have also been on a couple of two-day ‘writing retreats’. Could you set up something similar where you are?
There is institutional support available too. Most universities have writing support teams to help undergraduates, postgraduates, and staff members with academic writing. For PhD students in Glasgow, for instance, specialist advisers offer one-to-one writing support and workshops in every subject area. Here at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing we also have a Grant Writing Group, for more targeted support with grant applications.
So, rest assured that whether you are wrestling with a research paper, gazing blankly at a grant proposal, or about to throw a thesis chapter out the window, you are not alone. And help is out there.
(Or, in Twitter-speak… #ShutUpAndWrite!)
We are keen to hear about your writing experiences… Have you ever had writer’s block? What’s been your experience of social writing? What have you found most helpful in improving your writing?