What to write? Dealing with PhD writer’s block

Many PhD students struggle with writing at one stage or another during their PhD journey. One of the attendees at the 2015 CREST Summer School, Kirsteen Laidlaw from the University of Cumbria, shares her story about tackling writer’s block.

I attended the 2nd CREST Summer School in September 2015. I actually applied for it nearly a year earlier and once I was told I had a place I put it to the back of my mind until the week before when I returned from annual leave. I did not feel particularly well prepared and shuddered when I read about blogging. That was all I needed as writing was proving to be a very difficult process for me at this time.

Since I had applied to go to the summer school somewhere along the line the writing became like a cold, old car engine which stuttered, limped, and stalled before, finally, totally stopping. The more I thought about it, and believe me it was one of the constant topics running through my head, the bigger this tangled mass of anxiety and inertia became.

I tried different strategies, writing differently, being creative in my approach, re-reading articles, buying a goodly number of books that I carried around with me or left at the side of my desk and bed. None of it was helping. If anything, all of the reading and non-reading only served to emphasise just how I would never be good enough to get published or complete my PhD. So then I tried a completely different tack and ignored it totally and had a summer holiday with my family where we all had a glorious time. I hoped I would return fresh and re-energised. I didn’t.

Kirsteen

Enter CREST Summer School. Lots of interesting people, some who scared me silly, and some who were lovely and supportive and really helpful with their suggestions. There were lots of suggestions. The one that stuck with me was one of the speakers sitting in a small group and suggesting I write for 15 minutes a day. That sounds really reasonable but on my return home I still was not writing at all. In fact my anxiety grew.  What to write? All I could think off was this huge PhD and how was I ever going to make sense of it never mind make sense of it for others.

This could not carry on; I worried about what a fraud I was going to be to the returning and new students, advising them to work out a timetable and stick to it in terms of planning and preparing as well as writing their assignments. Not only that but my supervisors were getting in touch, I was asked to re-register as a PhD student and I needed to put in a plan for my scholarly leave. Lots and lots of internal and external pressure… something had to change.

What changed was a book, a book about becoming an academic writer (Goodson, 2012: 2nd edition, 2016). A book that has exercises that you have to do every day for at least 15 minutes. A book based on some credible data of previous courses delivered to others like me. I do not want to be evangelical about this book, but it works for me. It is a structure that helps me take apart all the overwhelming enormity of a PhD and breaks it down with no responsibility on my part for choosing the method. It’s what I need right now. The anxiety is still there but manageable and I am writing at least 15 minutes a day. It will take time but at least there is some space for hope, which for me, before I attended the summer school, was in short supply.

Kirsteen Laidlaw is a Programme Lead for the Masters in Social Work. Her research interest is in working with local organisations on the impact of service delivery on identified needs of young people with additional caring responsibilities experiencing life transitions. For more about Kirsteen, please visit her University of Cumbria webpage


If you are struggling with writing, the following online resources might help you:

The Thesis Whisperer is a blog newspaper dedicated to the topic of doing a thesis and is edited by Dr Inger Mewburn, Director of research training at the Australian National University.

PhD2Published boasts hundreds of blog posts on various aspects of academic publishing from writing book proposals to dealing with reviewers comments on a journal article; presenting papers at conferences; publishing with open access journals; and professional networking – as well as countless tips on writing productivity. Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo for short, is a month-long academic write-a-thon initiative that happens every November.

If you’re interested in studying at University or College in an English-speaking country, you’ll need to learn how to write using academic English. Future Learn offers the free online course A Beginner’s Guide to Writing in English for University Study.

Alternatively you could try the Coursera online course on Academic English : Writing Specialization (from £48) The skills taught in this Specialization will empower you to succeed in any college-level course or professional field. You will learn to conduct rigorous academic research and to express your ideas clearly in an academic format.

Finally, academic publisher Wiley is supporting research-led communities through their Blog- Wiley Exchanges. Tips on improving your writing are also available.