1. The template. The Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, and many other academic research and writing experts (including: Gerald Graff, Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Karen Kelsky) suggest using a template to get yourself started. Here’s one Inger shared with us:
My paper’s main purpose is… (50 words)
Researchers who have looked at this subject are… (50 words)
Debate centres on the issue of … (25 words)
My contribution will be… (50 words)
If you’ve done a decent amount of research you should be able to meet this 175 word target in minutes. And the next step is just to expand on each point. So why not take one of the existing opinions you’ve read about and add roughly 200 words to section 2. And repeat.
2. The blog post. (ahem!) If getting stuck in on a piece of academic writing feels too daunting, there are two ways in which writing blog post can help you. Really, you just want to trick yourself into doing something other than looking at cat pictures so writing any old post for your blog can help here. Depending on the content of your blog, just put together the next installment (is it a conference report? is it about how to search for cat pictures? is it about how hard it is to start writing?). The key is to just get yourself writing anything and once you’re feeling productive you can hop over to the harder task of your thesis, book, chapter, article, conference paper…But another way this can help you is if you take the idea you are working on and try to make a 500-800 word blog post on it. This might align with the recent arguments for a buzz-feed-i-fication of academia (but it’s certainly not a dumbing down of your work). If you can take the pressure off by allowing yourself to write in a different style, for a slightly different audience, it can help you focus. Once you’ve hashed out the idea in web-speak, then copy that text into a new document and instead of having to start from scratch, you have to turn into an editor and convert and expand upon what you have.
3. The baby step. What’s the smallest possible thing you could do to write the next part of your work? Think about the paragraph you need to craft next or even just the sentence. Set yourself a time limit to do just that one small task (the good old Pomodoro Technique works well here) and promise yourself that’s all you have to do for now (and you’ll get a reward afterwards). Maybe you’ll watch a movie, take a bath, eat an entire jar of Nutella…the reward here is up to you. Now, sit down and complete your teeny-tiny writing task. Take that itty-bitty baby-step forwards and see if you don’t exceed your own self-imposed limit.
4. The note-taker. Oh no no no this isn’t academic writing, it’s just a bit of note taking actually! You may already use the Cornell Method of note taking, if so you’ll know this trick pretty well. Instead of sitting down to write, sit down to take some notes. If it helps, don’t even do it in a Word Doc, choose an application that allows you to jot down sections of notes instead (Scrivener, Trello, Gingko all work here). The idea is just that you disregard any thoughts of creating an argument and you simply gather notes on the ideas and concepts you’re dealing with. Believe it or not, this will form the bulk of the end product anyway and the ‘writing’ stage will become more of a ‘drafting/editing’ stage. In fact, if it helps, imagine there is no such thing as academic writing, just taking notes and organising them.
5. The insurance policy. Instead of waiting until you sit down with a cup of coffee on Monday morning to start or continue working on your latest writing project, have a writer’s block insurance policy. Towards the end of every writing session, make yourself a paragraph of detailed notes on what you need to do next. List the points you need to make and which texts you’ll use to help you make them. Be as detailed as you can. Next time you sit down to write, pull out your plan and set to work. Not only will this jog your memory come Monday morning, but you might even be able to use it as a template for writing by separating out each task and replacing it with the actual section of writing that performs that task.