Whether you are writing your thesis, a manuscript or a grant, there will come a time when you need to write, but getting words onto the paper will be like trying to get DNA from a rock – you are pretty sure it ain’t going to happen.
Luckily there are a few tricks you can try to get yourself out of the rut. Here are some of my favorites:
Stop Staring at a Blank Screen/page
It is intimidating and discouraging to stare at a blank page when you feel like you have nothing to write. Overcome “blank page syndrome” by just getting something on that page. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter what you write, just as long as the page is no longer empty. Things you can try:
- Make an outline for your manuscript, thesis or grant.
- Copy and paste relevant information from something else you have written (just make sure you change it later to avoid plagiarism).
- Take notes on the blank page while you read about your topic.
- Write the materials and methods section.
- Work on figures and legends.
- List references.
Forget about Being Perfect
Recognize that it is going to take many drafts to perfect your writing. Don’t waste your time trying to create the perfect sentence the first time.
If It Is Flowing, Let It Go
Don’t stunt your writing flow by stopping to fix every mistake or look up every reference. Make notations or highlight things that you are unsure of and get back to them when you need a break from creative writing.
Know Your Circadian Rhythm
Everyone has different times of day when they are more creative and other times when they can only tackle menial mental tasks. Figure out when your creative time is and use this time for tackling new sections of your document.
If your brain is turning to mush, get up and move around. Exercise will get your blood flowing and increase your mental acuity.
Do a Rote Activity
Sometimes ideas come when you are doing an activity that is completely unrelated to writing. I find that when I am doing a task on autopilot, such as routine splitting of cells, mowing the lawn or taking a shower, my mind wanders and I find myself coming up with ideas for writing.
Read, Read, Read
The Bulgarian writer and author of brainpickings.org, Maria Popova, said, “… in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”
I love this quote because it reminds me that scientific ideas are not created in a vacuum, they are built on the work of others. If you are stuck in your writing, read about your topic and anything related to your topic. It will help you gather new ideas for your writing, make connections and focus your mind.
Talk to Colleagues AND Lay People
You can also gather ideas by talking to people. If you are having trouble getting your thoughts on paper, talk to colleagues to hammer out the intricate details, but talk to a person not intimately involved with your project to work out the general flow. I often use my spouse for this. Sometimes just voicing what I am trying to write makes it easier. And if you are alone? Feel free to read your writing aloud or talk to yourself. It may seem silly, but hey, if it works, it’s worth it!
Work in a New Medium
I grew up in the 80’s and transitioned from doing everything on paper to working primarily on a computer. I used to have to start all my writing with pen and ink – it was the only way I could begin. Then as I typed it into the computer, more ideas would flow and I could finish with a keyboard. These days I start my writing on the computer, but when I get stuck, I print it out and work on paper. Somehow the two different mediums keep me productive.
Sometimes you need more motivation than a finished paper to get things done. Promise yourself that if you get a certain section done, then you will do something you enjoy. This works especially well if you are working from home and can reward yourself with a favorite activity, like 15 minutes of gardening (which, by the way, will also help your writing).
Set a Timer
If you are really stuck, you can use some reverse psychology on yourself. Set a timer for about 20 minutes, and make yourself write for those 20 minutes, but no longer. Then take a break. Repeat. Eventually you might find that you no longer want to stop after 20 minutes and your writer’s block will be gone.
And most of all, relax. Writer’s block is usually temporary. It too will pass.