How Can a Researcher Get Over Writer’s Block?

You’ve done your research and you (and perhaps your collaborators as well) are ready to put fingers to keyboard and start writing up your report. Congratulations, you are taking a big step on the road to publication. However, research writers are no different from poets or fiction writers in that they get stuck. Sometimes the words just aren’t coming. Moreover, if English is not your first language, you may also be up against the task of first finding how to say what you want to say. When, no matter what you do you cannot get your writing going, we call it “writer’s block.” We asked our experts for some advice on how to get the ball rolling and get your writing going.

“First, if you are discouraged by rejections, try to view any setbacks as a part of the publishing process. It doesn’t mean that your work is not good, or that you will never get published. Remember that the acceptance rate for manuscripts is only 20%, so everyone must have their share of rejections. Use the feedback to improve your work. If you have writer’s block, see the strategy listed above for getting started. To get started, you must simply start. Write the headings for the paper and start to fill in the gaps. Choose your best time of the day to work on your paper and set a time limit, e.g., the first hour after getting to work. Do as much as you can in that time, and then do the same thing the next day. If you do this for one week, you will have a draft to work with.”

Dr. Jennifer Smith, Environmental Science

“One reason for the blockage can be the perceived sheer difficulty of the task. The best way to overcome that difficulty is to break up that task into smaller, more manageable tasks. By outlining in phrases what the initial writing task involves, one views the small sub-tasks, which are hopefully more manageable. A focus on each sub-task separately eliminates the anxiety that one had initially. Start with the sub-tasks that are easiest, as the confidence in doing those motivates one to complete the others.”

Dr. Richard Haase, Physics

“If you understand what point you are trying to make and know your data, the paper should just write itself. If you are stuck, look at the data. Look at the agendas of your co-authors.”

Dr. Libby Cone, Medical Physiology

“It is always good to discuss your research with colleagues, both from your field and in other disciplines, as well as with non-scientists to gain different perspectives. Such discussions may help focus your thoughts and reinvigorate your enthusiasm for your subject. Something as simple as a change of environment may also help overcome writer’s block and it may be helpful to focus on the message and start conveying your ideas in a rough format to regain momentum rather than aiming to construct the perfect sentences.”

Dr. Kate Fox, Microbiology

“Most researchers I know, myself included, have a number of unfinished manuscripts in drawers. Sometimes you need to take a complete break away from your research to think clearly, though three of my manuscript drafts are now 6 years old, and one is 16 years old, which is probably a little too long. However, if working to a deadline, delays like this are not possible, in which case you’ll just have to accept that you need to submit something that is subpar by your standards. You cannot always produce a Rolls-Royce-quality manuscript. Should you have the luxury of time then just walk away from the manuscript, leave the desk, head outside and smell some flowers, feed the birds, take a stroll, go to the gym, or even have a holiday. Whatever you do, don’t preoccupy your thoughts with your apparent inability to complete a manuscript, as this will only defeat the purpose of walking away from the screen, frustrating you further and only aggravating the problem.”

Dr. Steve O’Shea, Zoology; Environmental Sciences

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