How You Can Overcome Dissertation Writer’s Block Even If You Feel Really Stuck

How Writer’s Block Sneaks Up on You While Working on Your Dissertation

Do you every struggle with writer’s block with your Dissertation?

Those days when you just stare at the computer screen not and the words just aren’t coming?

I went through a period of writer’s block last February.

For weeks I was trying to come up with new ideas, butthe words were not coming together  on the paper. 

As I sat at my desk trying to figure out what my next article would be about, my yellow labrador, Shiny, started barking.

“Oh yeah,” I remembered. It was time for her noon-time walk, but we had a a problem.

There was nowhere to walk.

The sidewalks were covered with snow, as New England was hit with a record of over 100 inches of snow.

For the past two months, Shiny had to make do with our backyard.

It then hit me – when was the last time I exercised?

Whether I went to the gym, or on a jog with Shiny, running always gave me fresh new insights for my writing.

But, how do you get outside when you are surrounded my snow mounds?

As I realized how long it had been since I broke a good sweat, I decided it was time for action.

After a brief search I realized how many free exercise apps there were.

So, I changed into workout clothes, and I did 30 minutes of exercise right in my living room (I actually broke a sweat!).

As we got more snow, I continued working out in my living room every day for a week.

I felt better, but more surprisingly, my writing got better.

These simple workout routines helped me to let go of the biggest reasons that cause writer’s block: Fear.

Apparently, I was not the only one who had struggled in the past with literature reviews.

Fears That Cause Writer’s Block

I was a second year graduate student the first time that I experienced a serious case of writer’s block .

After weeks of agony, I realized I was only putting a paragraph or two a day on paper.

I set aside time for writing, but no I did not have much to show for the hours I spent at work.

I realized that time-management alone could not beat writer’s block or any type of procrastination. 

My gut instinct was that “I am just not smart enough for graduate school.” Now I am a thesis coach, I find that this is one of the most commonly held limiting beliefs among graduate students.

Limiting beliefs, as their name suggest, are just that: beliefs. They are NOT the truth.

Doctoral students are at a particularly high risk of developing limiting beliefs.

The reason is that there is a lack of support system, and isolation is common in graduate school. 

In retrospect, the problem was not that I was not smart enough.

The reason that it took me so long to write my thesis proposal was that I was over analyzing too many possible scenarios.

In summary, the root cause of my indecisiveness was fear.

7 Types of Fears That Can Cause You to Feel Stuck Writing

1) Overwhelm: Where do I start?  There is just so much data and literature that I have to write about.

2) Prioritization problems: How can I write my Dissertation and handle all the other important things in my life?

3) “I don’t have any ideas”: Others are creative, but I am not.

4) Imperfection: What if my Dissertation is full of mistakes? (grammar, style, content)

5) Failure: What if people think that my writing is awful? I will feel like a total failure.

6) Criticism: How will others critique my writing? What if they ask me about…and I don’t know the answer?

7) Success: What if my writing is good? Will I be able to handle more responsibilities? What if I am asked to speak at a conference? (Gulp!)

5 Practical Solutions to Overcome Writer’s Block

You may already know that your Dissertation suffers from writer’s block, or perhaps you think that you are immune to it.

Most writers I know have experienced writer’s block. Here are just two quotes from very prolific writers:

ž”A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -Thomas Mann

ž“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”  -Joseph Heller

Symptoms of Writer’s Block

In order to overcome writer’s block, you first need to become aware of it. So, how do you know you have it? Symptoms include:

1) You fill the time you set aside for writing with other activities: cleaning, internet surfing, shopping.

Some of these may be important. You need to clean and shop, but do you have to do it during the time you assigned for writing?

2) You are not producing any writing: either you stare at the screen blankly without writing much, or you put something hastily together right before the deadline.

Jeff Goins, with Goins, Writer, suggests that writer’s block is merely an excuse that takes control of your creativity and prevents you from doing your best work.

I can definitely relate! But, what can you do about these fears?

5 Practical Ways To Finish Your Dissertation

Step #1: Aerobic exercise

We all know that aerobic exercise is good for cardiovascular health and weight loss. In addition, a study at Harvard showed that aerobic exercise also improves memory, learning, and reduces anxiety.

Aerobic exercise reduces stress and this will help you  to lessen the fear  of writing and help you get words on the paper.

Furthermore, exercise will help you to get away from your desk and prevent burnout which is so common in graduate school. 

Step #2: Chunk your writing down into more manageable sections

The most common reason that graduate students have trouble writing their Dissertation is that they feel overwhelmed. It’s no wonder. There is just so much information that they have to put into a cohesive document!

Working on one chapter or section at a time can help you to make progress without the overwhelm.

You do not have to write the chapters of your thesis in order. In fact, leaving the introduction and abstract for last is a common practice. 

Step #3: Write first

Creativity peaks in the morning, and fades away quickly once you allow yourself to be bombarded with emails. Commit to writing first, before doing any other work-related activity.

This might be a tough one if you are used to checking email or social media first. If it is tough to follow through, write for just 15 minutes first, and gradually increase the time you write.

Step #4: Free writing

Writing is a skill, and to strengthen this skill you need to continuously practice it. If you cannot do “formal academic writing” just do free writing. Write about anything, whether or not it is related to your thesis.

You can even write about why it is so hard to write. After a few pages of free writing, you will discover ideas you did not even know you had.

Bryan Collins, a guest writer for The Creative Writer, suggest writing without editing yourself and keeping your hand moving.

Step #5:Establish External Accountability

Your supervisor, another student, or a postdoctoral fellow can help you to gain a new perspective when you feel stuck. They may be able to help you find new references or decide between two research plans.

A support group, can also help you to develop the emotional stamina to  get through the challenging phases of writing.

Focus on the Process of Writing Your Dissertation

Remember that in order to overcome writer’s block, you will need to acquire new habits. In general, establishing a new habit takes 3-4 weeks, so developing a new writing process will be a gradual process.

Assistant Editor at PyschCentral, Margarita Tartakovosky, M.S., lists a few more ideas, such as shifting outlets and giving yourself permission to write badly.

In fact, when you are part of a support group, not only do you get external accountability, but you get ideas about how others make it through those days when you really, really don’t feel like writing.

Just knowing that someone is holding you accountable, and that you are writing alongside other students, can make all the difference to help you finish your Dissertation and get your PhD!

Are you feeling alone or stuck writing your Dissertation? Check out our Dissertation Writing Workshop to get help finishing your PhD

Dora Farkas, PhD

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