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"I’m sick of sitting ‘round here trying to write this book*" - A case of writer's block

Here's the scenario. You have spent the fall semester trying to finish a chapter of your dissertation. Maybe you are trying to finish so that you can graduate. Your writing space is a war zone with papers, Post-it notes, books, assorted Sharpies, and wrappers from chocolate, Twisters, or whatever snacks all over the place. You have not slept well in weeks, and you are exhausted. You sit down and try to write but cannot find the words. No matter how hard you try, your writing doesn't make sense. Finally, anxiety and frustration set in, and you stare at the ceiling, wondering how you will finish.

The above scenario happened to me while writing my dissertation. I had come down with a case of writer's block.

Every writer, whether it is a dissertation or academic paper, has experienced some form of writer's block. Sometimes, it is temporary. But for some people, it is an ongoing struggle that is crippling and keeping them from crossing the finish line.

Many see writer's block as a condition when it is really a symptom of an underlying problem. The good news is that once you identify the underlying issue causing writer's block, you are on your way to defeating the enemy!

Lack of clarity of the process

A dissertation is not like any paper you have written in graduate school. You are not sure what to say or how to say it. Or, you have so many thoughts at once that it is hard to know where to start. Discussing with your chair or others who have been through the process can give you some perspective. Also, consider looking at sample dissertations like your field and methodology will give you some examples of structure.

Perfection and analysis paralysis

Many of us in graduate and professional programs have perfectionist leanings. We want every word and every sentence to be perfect. Any deviation from that standard releases that little terrorist voice in our heads telling us that we are failures or our work is not good enough. We are afraid of the feedback we receive because we believe it is an indictment of us as a person or aspiring academic. Ever heard the saying, "A good dissertation is a DONE dissertation?" Well, it's true. Our dissertation is not the last great thing we will ever write. We must aspire to be good enough.

Goals and Habits are not working or lacking

Just like any project, you need a plan. A plan broken down into goals and milestones can help you focus on a specific task. SMART goals and project plan spreadsheets help create an action plan. In addition to goals, creating habits is necessary for any plan. As James Clear said, "You do not rise to the level of goals; you fall to the level of your system. Without a system of habits, your writing goals will suffer, leading to writer's block.

Creative juices need a boost

The dissertation process is stressful and can take an emotional and mental toll. However, having an outlet can help alleviate stress and get the creative juices flowing. For example, I wrote most of my dissertation while running on the greenway near my home. Running was always a stress reliever for me, but it also allowed me to focus on myself while giving my brain a much-needed boost. Of course, I'm not suggesting that everyone run, but some form of physical activity can make a huge difference.

Focus, Focus, Focus

It can be hard to get going and focus. Setting a timer for short sessions allows you to ramp up to longer writing stints. I love an app called Forest. It's a focus timer where you grow trees and plants in your forest. It's a fun way to keep track of your time and watch your forest grow, just like writing. I'm also a huge fan of the Pomodoro party. You can use this great technique alone or with friends to stay focused.

The good news is that writer's block is not fatal. If you are willing to dig deep to get to the root cause, you can find strategies to help you. The most important takeaway is not to panic or fall into disaster thinking. Talking about it to your chair, classmate, or even a therapist or counselor is the first step in defeating writer's block.

If you are suffering from writer's block, I can help you with some strategies to get back on track; please email me at

*Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen from Born in the USA (1984)

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