PhD & Writer’s Block

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

by Jessica Day


The average PhD thesis is 80,000 words. Other than that non-negotiable detail, the rest is an open playing field: the structure, content, and objectives are all decided on and organised by you, the independent scholar left in charge. In many ways, and for most of the time, the autonomy and intellectual freedom possible within doctoral study is great – there is something very rewarding, as well as liberating, about being able to research a set of ideas you’re interested by in so much depth. However, having complete governance over a research project this large (and long-winded) is, at times, very isolating and troublesome.  Although you may have colleagues or friends working in similar fields, and there are of course your supervisors who are closely involved and well-informed on the objectives or content of the thesis, no one knows the intricacies or final vision of the project in the same way you do. You hold the reins, and it’s only really you who can decide what you’re going to read, research, and write next. And, the decision-making and writing processes aren’t always straight-forward. It is almost inevitable that at some point on the PhD journey – regardless of how many ideas you have stirring around in your head – you will be faced by both short and prolonged periods of writer’s/ research block.

Despite how much I knew I had to say, in the first year of my PhD I dealt with various moments of writer’s block, and then, towards the end of the year, was faced by research block – I had (finally) finished a first, short draft of a chapter and had no idea where to start for the next section.  Looking back, here is a short list of tips that I used to overcome these hurdles:

  1. Stop panicking or overthinking. Putting together a concise and synthesised argument in an 80,000word thesis is going to be hard (we knew that from the start), but fear doesn’t help anything. Don’t let yourself be completely side-tracked by how well everything will fit together in the end. Instead, focus on each chapter as you tackle it, have faith in your creativity, and remember you’re going to have to spend a lot of time editing and proofing at the end anyway.
  1. Momentum and quantity can come before quality. Similar to what I’ve said above, it is easy to find yourself unable to move forward with writing an article or a chapter because you’re not fully content with something you’ve already said and you want to make it sound better. When this happens, eliminate the need to be perfect and the fear of what you might not say, and just enjoy putting what’s in your head to paper (or screen). It’s easier to construct a clear argument or point when you have more to work with, so free-write as much as you can to start and fine tune it after.
  1. Eliminate distractions and give your brain a chance to ponder. An easy and common pitfall I had when experiencing writer’s block was to (subconsciously) pick up my phone and glare at social media or to start replying to my emails. Everyone’s distractions or secret procrastination habits are different, but it’s important to give your brain the mental space it needs to formulate ideas. Taking a walk outside or sitting away from your desk in silence/technology free are simple but effective ways to overcome writer’s block.
  1. Go back to what you know and start in a place where you’re comfortable. Okay, so you’ve just finished a first draft of a chapter, for example, now what? Although you might have one hundred and one ideas of what to look at in the next section, this doesn’t always mean you know where to start with it all.  Don’t be scared to re-read or pick up secondary material you’ve already looked at, it will undoubtedly spark new ideas and you can go outwards from there.
  1. Speak to people and don’t hide. Despite what I said at the start, other people’s opinions on your research can help and are worth seeking out. Discuss your ideas with a colleague or friend and explain what it is you’re having trouble with – even without their input, speaking problems aloud can help you to clarify what it is you’re trying to say or think about. Likewise, don’t hide that you’re stuck from people, especially your supervisors. If you’re struggling, tell them – no one will judge you, as fighting with your ideas is part of the PhD process and everyone experiences it. Friendship and outside help have been my biggest saviour when lacking inspiration, remember to speak up.