Sometimes you sit down and try to write and you just can’t. Resistance may show up as procrastination, or writer’s block, or gremlins shouting louder than usual about how you are not qualified to do this, or something else. The root of your resistance may be emotional, or you may just be really unsure how to articulate your ideas.
Here’s a strategy a friend of mine told me about:
Open a 2nd document and write about the resistance in there as you go.
That second document might contain a transcript of whatever the gremlins are saying, your own reactions to that, and/or just journalling about why this is hard. Or you might be okay writing half formed thoughts with not-quite-the-right-words if you know it’s not your “official” document.
It seems inefficient.
You are writing a whole bunch of things that don’t need to be in your article when you could just be writing the article. But this strategy keeps you writing. And it helps you process whatever it is that is making it hard to write the article.
Sometimes there are very good reasons you are struggling. Another friend never published his PhD thesis because so many of the people he interviewed had died and going back to the text activated a lot of grief. That’s an extreme case, but you might associate a particular topic or draft with a difficult supervisor or colleague. Or with a job that you are glad you got out of. Those difficult emotions are preventing you from doing the work you want and need to do.
Some days your gremlins are just really loud and all the shouting about how stupid your ideas are and how badly you are articulating them gets in the way of using writing as a cognitive process that will allow you to articulate them better. Your gremlins have good intentions but bullying doesn’t help anyone. If writing down their admonitions helps you move on and write, do it. (If it doesn’t, suggest the go out for coffee while you get on with doing your work.)
Your 2nd document notes don’t have to be negative.
Journalling about why you started work on this topic might remind you of how meaningful it is for you. Or write about how much you love doing this work. Or write about how important your findings are and how much you want to get them out there into the debate.
Next time you are struggling to write, try opening another document and writing about the struggle. It probably won’t hurt. And it might help.
Enjoy your writing!
The Scholarly Writing Process (A Short Guide) has other strategies and prompts for getting your writing unstuck.
A version of this post was sent to members of the Academic Writing Studio as a newsletter on February 17, 2017.