Research intelligence: how to get past writer’s block

Getting stuck for words is not just a plight felt by tortured novelists – here, academics share their top tips for productivity

July 11, 2019
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The author Gene Fowler once said: “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

The concept of writer’s block will likely conjure up images of a tortured novelist, tearing up paper and screaming at a wall. But as John Tregoning, a senior lecturer and medical researcher at Imperial College London, pointed out, in academia “most of the job past postdoc is writing grants or papers”. For him, this has certainly meant “a lot of time staring at blank pages…I have definitely spent a whole morning writing and ended up with a crumpled sheet of tea-stained paper to show for it.”

Perhaps a series of top tips from the academic community can help propel scholarly writers out of a slump.

Take a break

“Incubate,” advised David Hughes, a psychology lecturer at the University of Manchester. “Walk around, kick a football, do chores with classical music…Writer’s block is a case of not having the knowledge needed in easy memory access. Reading solves this.”

In a similar vein, Alastair Sloan, head of Cardiff University’s dental school, said that he finds “working from home to focus when writing is very helpful”, as it “keeps me in control of interruptions”. Making time for family and routine is also important to allow a brain some recovery time, he suggested, adding: “I find I can write clearly in the evening when my brain has left [management] mode [and] we’ve eaten together as a family catching up on the day. My head clears and I can think.”

Read outside your subject

“With workload and wanting to be up to date with the latest in particular fields, some feel guilty spend[ing] time reading outside their subject,” said Hoda Wassif, principal lecturer in medical and dental education at the University of Bedfordshire. But “engagement with humanities, fiction and art increases one’s understanding of empathy and understanding of complex issues, which is needed when it comes to academic writing”, she added.

Kristine Szifris, a sociology researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, agreed that it helps to “go left-field with one or two papers” when reading around a subject. “Sometimes I think writer’s block [happens] because I don't fully understand how to shape the paper, so I explore wider concepts.”

Find a study buddy

Hannah Perrin, a former PhD student at the University of Kent, took the initiative during her own studies to set up a group called “Shut up and write”, where fellow scholars gather to sit in a designated space and write together in silence, away from distractions.

According to Jo Collins, a postgraduate development adviser at Kent who still works with the group, “the subtle peer pressure of everybody silently working is a great incentive to get words on the page” – and could easily be adapted across all professional levels.

Get words on a page

Sometimes just writing something – anything – can help to revive muscle memory and unblock ideas, said Hanna Tervanotko, assistant professor of religious studies at McMaster University. “When I am stuck with research I focus on writing about the methodology...[and] accept that I may accomplish just one paragraph," she added.

Anna Bartosik, an English professor at the University of Manitoba, Canada, likes to “add headings into a paper, to populate later”. She continued: “I fix references until something prompts me to write. I have an extra page at the bottom for ‘inspiration’, so as not to forget random thoughts.”

Talk to someone – or not

“I have a scholar friend with whom I regularly exchange work in progress,” Dr Tervanotko told THE, “then we Skype each other and ask each other questions of clarification…it’s helped me countless times."

For Jason Warr, a lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at De Montfort University, “recording my thoughts on a dictaphone and then transcribing [means] it becomes an editing issue rather than a creative one and you're not staring at a blank page”.

Most recently, Dr Warr has been stuck trying to do justice to a particularly sensitive piece of research on prison violence for five years. “It’s only recently by recording myself telling the story that I have begun to find a way through that writer’s block, to get the meaning, the nuance, out of my head and onto the page,” he said.

For Dr Tregoning, discussing ideas with a trusted friend or colleague can be “valuable…but you need to find the right person”. 

He added: “My favourite tip is from Stephen King about writing with the door shut – only showing things to people when the time is ready – if it is too soon then the idea can die.”

All of which supports the best piece of advice: which is to learn what works best for you.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Shut up and write’: blank page remedies

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