how to get going with writing

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.


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to how to get going with writing

  1. leroyhill says:

    some sage advice here Pat. I think being in a comfort zone motivates good writing but at times need additional tools to motivate. I used a free service to remind me of my pending 750 words needed at the end of day. It worked for me. Certainly there were many days that i would double that amount.


  2. Thank you so much for this blog post.


  3. Lee says:

    Million thanks for your blog, it’s a treasure island 😀

    I’m a EdD student who is stuck at the last two chapters of the thesis.
    I wrote the first 6 chapters in 4 months by sending a chapter (in turns) to my supervisors for weekly comments. Though the content of the last two chapters (reflexivity and conclusion) have been presented and accepted verbally, I just feel sleepy whenever I turn on the word document. This blocking has been 3 weeks already. All I can do is typing out the transcript and save it in the related chapters as a draft. As the deadline for submitting the complete thesis draft is approaching in two weeks and my supervisors are out town… instead of forcing the words out, I want a change of strategy – I think I will revise the first 6 chapters then write the last two chapters with the re-organised mind… would it work? what do you think?



    • pat thomson says:

      Well I think that revising might get you back into it. Another tactic might be to try speed writing to pomodoros just to get text down so that you can include them in the revisions. Two weeks isn’t long, so very best of luck!


  4. Pingback: writer’s block | patter

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