Writing a doctoral dissertation is, according to those who have done it, one of the most grueling experiences of student life. After three years of coursework at the highest level in a given field, writing a dissertation takes at least another year if not 2 or 3. It’s safe to say that just about every student working on a dissertation experiences writer’s block, the dreaded condition in which words seem to be jammed somewhere between one’s brain and fingers. This article suggests various steps that may ward off writer’s block along with some ways to inspire writers and smooth the way out of the paralysis.
Clear the Decks
“Clear the decks” is an expression that comes from naval warfare. When clearing the decks, all loose objects on the deck of a ship would be removed or fastened down so that they wouldn’t become an obstacle while sailing. The Cambridge Dictionary definition of clear the decks is “to remove unnecessary things so that you are ready for action.”
Although writer’s block during the dissertation process is a common problem, it may be necessary to identify whether or not the block is being caused by other unidentified baggage in one’s mind. Here are some categories to work through when clearing the figurative decks.
Emotional and Personal Distractions
“When we are caught up in a destructive emotion, we lose one of our greatest assets: our independence.” – Dalai Lama
Everyone who has been there knows the difficulty of maintaining good relationships with friends and family while in graduate school. Personal relationships will be there throughout a future career and life after graduate school. They need to be a top priority alongside the dissertation process. If there are personal or emotional distractions in life that can be handled in a timely way, identify and address them before attempting to write. What seems like writer’s block may just be something niggling in the back of one’s mind that needs to be taken care of. Emotional or personal issues that are more complex and can’t be fixed in the short term still deserve attention through counseling and methods of focus and relaxation to clear one’s mind before writing.
Other emotional distractions include any pent up guilt and frustration at not having progressed as far as one would like in the dissertation process. These negative energies will only prolong the time it takes to write the dissertation. Anger at oneself can be channeled into energy toward the ideas and information that one is trying to express. If one has reached the point of feeling hopeless, remembering that many others are and have felt the same way may help trigger the ascent into productive writing. Talking with an advisor, friend, or colleague may assist one in gaining perspective.
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” -Abraham Lincoln
Although procrastination is self-defeating, especially when tackling something like a doctoral dissertation, rumor has it that more than one graduate student has procrastinated. The discrepancy seems impossible, but graduate students have even been known to complain of writer’s block while procrastinating! The advice appears basic, however, make a rule: Don’t tell yourself you have writer’s block unless actually in the process of attempting to write. For example, don’t spend three nights in a row at a bar discussing your topic with colleagues and complain on the fourth day of writer’s block. Clear the decks by using proper time management to have uninterrupted chunks of time to write.
“The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it.” – Napolean Bonaparte
Other areas in which one may need to clear the decks before beginning or getting back to a dissertation can range from small to large. Some examples might be something that was promised, another project, correspondence, or responsibilities as a graduate student, such as grading papers. People can experience a mental block if they have neglected something that they promised someone, even if fulfilling that promise would only take as little as 30 minutes. Because graduate students are sometimes married, maybe working and also may have a friend or two, they must be careful what they promise. However, even just explaining the inability to follow through may help to clear one’s mind. If the responsibility is urgent, get to it right away, and the dissertation may just begin to flow again. If one promised a small thing such as playing with a daughter or son, or reading them a book, by all means, do it!
Beginnings have often been said to be complicated. At least from the time of Aristotle, 2,300 years ago, who first gave us the saying, “Well begun is half done,” humans have found it challenging to begin. Whether one is beginning at the very beginning (a very good place to start) of writing a dissertation or trying to come at the project with a fresh beginning and new point of view, below are some tips for getting off the ground, hopefully with a running start.
“Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Carefully choosing a topic can seriously hinder future writer’s block throughout the dissertation process. It’s easy in the academic world to look around at what other scholars are writing about, especially famous scholars, and base one’s dissertation topic on what is interesting to readers or colleagues. Though this may be an excellent way to discover an interest, it may also confuse one’s natural tendencies. One of the most important things to consider when choosing a topic is that it interests you. Nothing portends writer’s block more than boredom with the subject matter. Remember that the topic of one’s dissertation not only consumes three to five years of life but also that the subject one chooses is what one becomes an expert in. A future career may be based on the expertise gained while writing a dissertation, so make sure the topic is an interesting one to you! On the other hand, it is also essential to be able to keep some mental distance with a topic to address it free from emotional distraction.
Choosing a topic that is not too esoteric can also be a benefit to the ease of writing a dissertation. Being able to access a sufficient amount of literature on a topic will become an aid to a steady flow of information. Students should not have to spend an excessive amount of time looking for sources or waiting for one’s second source to ship from the Falkland Islands.
Read! In preparation for writing a dissertation, read primary literature, methodology, and research methods, more recent studies, including journal articles, and classic studies in the chosen area of research area. While reading, along with noting down all bibliographic information, also take notes under subject headings. When facing writer’s block halfway through the writing process, referencing those notes may just clear the path toward free-flowing lucidity again. This leads us to how good research can help to boost creativity.
“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein
Writer’s block may be caused not only by being unable to get the information out but by not having enough information to give. Researching for a doctoral dissertation is the highest level of research a student does. It is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Researching for a dissertation takes order and method and requires the writer to have exhausted all of the information available in his or her subject. This is probably why it’s a good idea to choose a narrow topic! Some researchers may conclude that their subject is too broad and decide to narrow it.
Being afraid that one hasn’t researched enough can cause some pretty severe writer’s block since the nagging suspicion is always there that the information being written about is not entirely accurate or up to date. Not trying to cut corners or rush the process of research may save time in the end. Also, the process of writing is partially a discovery that requires one to stop and consider/research new information before continuing. The worst that can happen by researching further is to find that one already knows a topic thoroughly. This should aid the writer in feeling confident, which may just help writer’s block.
On the one hand, not doing enough research can cause writer’s block. On the other hand, doing too much research may also cause writer’s block. It is inevitable that some, if not much of the research done before and during the writing of a dissertation, will not be used for the dissertation itself. This shouldn’t be discouraging since those writing a dissertation will more than likely go on to do more research and writing. They will probably enjoy a lifetime of it. The study that isn’t relevant to the thesis of the dissertation can be filed away for future use. One’s mental faculties will be less likely to get bogged if research completed is neatly arranged and streamlined.
Down in the Doldrums
“It’s OK to be down in the dumps – just don’t stay there too long.” – Catherine DeVrye
Along with many other sailing idioms, down in the doldrums is one we use quite frequently. The doldrums, according to Dictionary online is “an equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms, and light, unpredictable winds.” The expression “down in the doldrums” came to be used by sailors to describe a situation in which no wind was present. This meant that they were going nowhere and were stuck at sea for an indefinite period. Some Ph.D. students have felt the frustration of these sailors in a similar way. However, since sailors had no way of generating wind, the student in the middle of a dissertation project may be at an advantage. Here are a few ideas, besides choosing a good topic, sound research, note-taking, and clearing the decks to get the wind back into one’s sails and move forward.
Remembering the Big Picture
Taking a few moments to remember the big picture can cause one to remember why they are doing a dissertation. Because a dissertation project is so massive, getting overwhelmed is pretty standard. As with any big project, remembering why one tackled the project, to begin with, can become a new inspiration. Writing those reasons down before beginning is a good idea since that will make them easier to refer to later on. Along the same lines, re-visiting the overall picture and main ideas of the dissertation may help to jump-start a writer’s block. For this purpose, writing an outline is a great way to see the big picture quickly and also keeps one on track.
Take a Break
Some people are overachievers. Not struggling with procrastination, these students may need to follow the good old-fashioned advice of taking a break every once in a while. Taking a break when a deadline is approaching may just mean taking a walk, visiting the library (for overachievers this may be dangerous!), or going out for a coffee. If more time is available, take a whole evening to kick back and distract oneself by watching a movie, going out to eat, or just going to bed early. Set the alarm for an early start and work when fresh. At the early stages of a dissertation, when a good deal has already been written, a more extended break or short vacation may be what is needed to be refreshed and tackle writing again. Graduate students have been known to finish a dissertation in good time by only working 8 – 5 every day. A great topic, sound research, and diligence deserve a break. Don’t let other’s dissertation horror stories become yours; break the trend!
Just write something!
This is often the advice of dissertation advisors around the country. Keep writing! Most people experience a feeling of inadequacy while writing. A fresh look at what one wrote previously looks much better than it felt while writing it. What may have felt like a lot of nonsense going on to the page often stands up pretty well under later scrutiny. Even if the writing has to be scratched later, the habit of keeping the fingers flying on the keys keeps the engine humming even while idle.
Talk to a friend or advisor
One may know all the right answers and steps, but when it comes right down to it, he or she is to close to a situation to see clearly. This may happen through fatigue, depression, or simply being overwhelmed by the size of the dissertation project. Talking to a friend in or out of academia (sometimes those outside the vortex of dissertation writing may have some great ideas and perspective!) gives one a perspective that is cool and objective. Talking with an advisor is always helpful. They are the experts who have not only gone through this process, maybe more than once if they have written any books, but have also helped many students through the process. A wise student will take the advice of their advisor.
Use the Pressure
This last paragraph offers a last resort for those whose deadline is looming or has loomed and have no alternative but to finish their dissertation under pressure. This situation could be worse as long as one has not skipped the steps of a good topic and excellent research. Leonard Bernstein, a pianist, composer, and one of the most famous conductors of the 20th century sums it up well: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.” Use the pressure as an intense fuel to see yourself to the finish line. To finish with another sailing analogy, “sail close to the wind.” Sailing close to the wind, according to Wiktionary, means to “sail in a direction close to that from which the wind is blowing, but still making headway.” Sailing into the wind would not allow the boat to make progress, so sailors would “close haul” or tighten the sails and sail at 22 degrees to the wind, which would move the ship forward. Sailing close to the wind was considered dangerous since a shift in the wind was dangerous. The moral of the analogy is to use the pressure as a wind in the sails, but don’t push your luck, just finish it!
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela