Writing a thesis can be hard. Really hard. Most students I know report feeling anxious, paralyzed (not literally, but…) or even terrified at the simple thought of sitting in front of their computer to type words. Others compare it to crying blood. Either way, let’s face it: you need to do finish, so get to it! It is not so painful once you get into it. The first 10 minutes are often the worse.
These strategies might help you to overcome writer’s block. Not all of them will work for you, but some will. You can also overlay them (use two together, for example). Try them, see how it feels, note what works and do it again!
1. Practicing Free Writing
If you feel stuck on a particular task, think about a subject that keeps you blocked (a concept, the introduction of a section, a definition, etc.). Then, sit down in front of your computer or with a piece of paper and write anything that comes to your mind on the topic for a predetermined time (5 to 25 min.). Don’t pay attention to style, spelling, structure or covering everything on the topic. You can even write about your feelings, frustrations, difficulties in writing about it. The goal is to get used to write despite how you feel about it (awkward, uncomfortable, not ready, etc.), and realize that you know more than you think about the topic. So relax and write!
2. Adopting the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro technique is a time management technique that involves breaking a task (in our case, writing) into 25-minute timed chunks. The idea behind this technique is that you commit to working non-stop for 25 minutes. Start the timer and start writing! After 25 minutes (one Pomodoro), take a break for 5 minutes, during which you do nothing related to your task. You can check your emails, Facebook, chat with friends, or, even better, move away from your screen! Repeat this cycle up to 4 times and then take a longer break (10-15 minutes). To help you stay on track, you can use an online Pomodoro timer, such as http://tomato-timer.com/.
3. Developing a Clear Thesis Statement
Often, clutter in your mind translate into… not much on paper! Indeed, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to express before you try to lay it down on the sheet. Keeping your thesis in mind is a good way to make sure that you know what to focus on in your paper/paragraph/section is. Ask yourself one of the following questions: “What do I really mean?” or “What is the point I am trying to make?” Do not just state the topic; focus on the thesis. What are you claiming? Freely write about it, for about one page, if you need to. You can develop it even further by identifying which sections or essential elements need to be addressed in order to demonstrate your thesis.
4. Talking About Your Paper with a Peer
For that strategy, you will need to ask a peer, a tutor or a teacher to help you. Talk about the concept/idea/paper that you have to write for about 15 to 30 minutes. You can ask the other person to take notes and summarize afterward what you said. Alternatively, recording it and listen to it later is another great way to not miss anything important you might say. Lastly, you can also ask your « assistant » what she/he understood. Answer any questions that she/he may have and take notes as well!
5. Changing Audience (Not a Peer)
Sometimes, talking to a peer doesn’t take enough pressure off. If it is the case, try to explain the subject that keeps you blocked (a particular concept, the introduction of a section, a definition, etc.), in writing or orally, to someone completely outside your field of studies. For example, write an email to someone you know well (given she/he does not work in the same field as you), and explain to her/him what your section is about. It could start like this: “Dear mom/dad/grandmother/grandfather, I’m writing an essay for my seminar ‘History of ideas’ on ‘New Rhetoric’. Have you heard of it? Let me explain.” You will more likely feel free of judgment and that you could take a weight off your shoulder, while you realize, once more, that you do know your topic.
6. Changing Environment
Where do you usually work best? If one day you feel stuck, you can try changing environment. For example, you could go in a café, enjoy someone else’s place, visit a public library or write in a park if the weather allows it. After a couple of hours, if your concentration is going down, pack up your stuff and walk to another location. Not only will you have a fresh start, but the oxygen in your brain will help you focus even more.
7. Finding Some Writing Buddies
For that strategy, find a classmate or ideally someone you do not know that well and set up a writing session. The goal isn’t to talk about your weekend! Establish how often you want to touch base (weekly, biweekly, monthly, whenever you need a pep talk, etc.). Also, decide on the services you want to exchange: sitting together to write, reading each other work, helping with translation, etc. Agree on how often you want to meet and where. Lastly, it can be useful to determine what kind of motivation you need: a friendly touch-base? A pep talk? A drill sergeant? That way, you will get the support that is most efficient for you.
Of course, there are plenty of other tips that can help you write better. Other helpful strategies to complement these ones include eating snacks that are rich in protein (eggs, nuts, edamame, etc.) and even listening to Mozart (I am not kidding). Find what works for you and keep on writing!
This article has been inspired by a workshop I regularly give for Graphos at the McGill Writing Centre.