I had a comment last week on the writer’s block post. It was a suggestion that writing wasn’t hard if the writer was ‘at home’ with the material. However when that wasn’t the case, the writer could be blocked. I understand this and have had this experience too. I was asked if I had any ideas for working on the stuff that feels less homely.
Well – yes and no is the answer. I doubt that there is any easy answer. It’s about trying out various strategies until you find one that works for you. There are lots of web based resources with suggestions for getting started. Purdue University’s OWL site and U Illinois’ writing centre provide pretty standard advice on how to get unblocked/get going and these are worth a try.
One of my colleagues, Prof Stephen Mumford, suggests that rather than waste time trying to write a whole paper it’s better to try to sort out the thinking first. I agree absolutely with this. He advises writing an iterative handout to help get the thinking clear and then workshopping the paper until the argument and the angle becomes clear. Click here to find his method for getting started on, and working up, a paper.
I reckon that it’s also pretty helpful to understand that having difficulty in getting going with writing is absolutely normal and it happens to everyone. And most people eventually find their own ways to deal with it.
I have a kind of NIKE solution which works for me… I just have to do it!! I sit down at the computer and write a set of random thoughts. This doesn’t become the actual piece but it usually gives me a clue about where I might start. I then use a structured abstract, smaller than the handout that Stephen M advises, in order to sort out the shape of the actual piece before I start writing.
I know that sounds terribly easy when I write it this way – but it’s not. Sometimes I can be writing random things for a couple of hours each day – for days – until I sort things.
And some things just take longer to sort out than others, so I often put things that aren’t coming clear to one side and go on with something else. The trick here is not to feel guilty or hopeless. I find that I keep working on the writing without being aware of doing that – the subconscious is a wonderful thing – and sometimes that leads to one of those ‘aha’ moments.
But writing can take a very long time indeed. I can think of one journal article that took about two years to sort out! That was because it was a complex argument and it just took me a long time to work it through. It just needed slow thinking.