For Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature at the University of Brighton, “writing blocks are as common as headaches, and nothing to be ashamed of”. However “de-energising, confidence-sapping and troublesome” it feels to get stuck, she says, there are reliable techniques to get started again.
Although she provides more detailed guidance in her new book, Getting Published: Academic Publishing Success, Professor Wisker has a number of core suggestions on how to “develop your own block breakers”. A crucial aspect is good time management, so “allot your important writing realistic times, on a calendar, and stick to them”.
While some writing “just happens by accident”, and it is worth carrying a notebook or smartphone with you at all times to record passing thoughts, most needs a more disciplined approach. Professor Wisker says: “Plan what you feel you need to write, to improve, to change, to finish, before you sit down. Get ready for the writing.”
Such preparation can involve a number of elements. Before starting a major project, suggests Professor Wisker, it can be useful to try to “explain things simply” to a non-specialist, since this “can help give writers a helicopter view, to see what is important in their thinking”. And don’t get blocked by constantly worrying if you are writing “at the right level”; instead “investigate the style and readership of the individual journal” in advance. It is by no means essential to start a piece of writing at the beginning and proceed methodically through to the end. If you “continue to move forward in all parts of the work”, explains Professor Wisker, it doesn’t matter if you leave gaps for filling in later.
While managing time is essential for all writers, she believes that academics in particular also get blocked by issues of “competence and identity”. PhD students often procrastinate because they feel they have “not yet had a breakthrough in their thinking, have not yet crossed the conceptual threshold”. Others get bogged down by the impostor syndrome, “the feeling that you do not yet have anything important enough to say” or that the real experts “will immediately attack what you do say as rubbish”.
While “further reading can open up your thinking”, Professor Wisker goes on, there is also the danger of “continuing to read and feeling even more disempowered by all the expertise out there”. Instead, adopt a confident tone mixed with “a little sense of humility about the necessary limitations of your views and knowledge”, provide the evidence to back up your arguments – and avoid crippling perfectionism by remembering that your writing doesn’t have to be “world-shattering”, just “good enough”.
Finally, at those ghastly moments when the gears seem to seize up completely, don’t just sit there staring at the screen. Instead, recommends Professor Wisker, “stop writing, go for a walk, do anything other than write, and let your mind flow around the issues when it wants to. The breakthrough in thinking, understanding and expression often comes when your mind is freer. Then catch it, build on it and write.”
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