What is a writer’s block?

The inability to begin or continue writing, one of the most dreaded parts of a thesis writing process. There is little worse than staring at a screen not knowing how to start or what to write next. Writer’s block as a condition does not actually exist, rather, it is a symptom of something else. Writer’s block could have several (or multiple) causes:

  • The sense of failure
    You are afraid that what you write won’t be good enough, so you avoid writing at all. Or you are afraid of your supervisor’s disapproval.
  • Understanding of the topic
    Writing a thesis requires both a broad and detailed understanding of the research topic. Writer’s block may be a sign that you have not assimilated the material well enough.
  • Distractions
    You may not be able to focus on your thesis writing when you are in a bad mood, or when you feel angry, pressured or stressed.
  • Exhaustion
    Endless hours sitting in front of a computer can be exhausting. You may simply be tired or burnt out

A writer’s block may, of course, be an indicator of a flaw in the system itself, i.e. not just in the writing task but in the writing process as a whole: ‘Impatience is the single most important predictor of writing blocks’ (Boice 1994: 28).

How to overcome a writer’s block?

What can you do to break out of your writer’s block? How can you help yourself and continue writing your thesis? Navigate the toggles below to find different strategies to battle a writer’s block.

Organise your ideas visually

Once you’ve got an idea of what you want to say, try to create a visual representation. You can draw a concept map to show how your ideas are related. You can do this on a piece of paper, or you could use online tools such as Mural. And this video explains how to get started with concept mapping (video by the University of Guelph  Library).

Verbalise your thoughts

We are often more comfortable expressing ourselves verbally than through writing, so use this to your advantage. Talk your ideas out with a friend or family member. This can help you structure your ideas and provide new insights on the topic.

(temporarily) Forget about academic language

People very often have difficulty writing, because they can’t seem to translate the ideas in their head into the appropriate academic language. Try to ignore the language and pretend you’re writing to your friend. Once your thoughts are down on paper, you can always revise them in an academic format.

Find your rhythm

Take advantage of your body’s natural rhythms. Schedule your writing for peak periods. For example, if you work best in the morning, then make sure that your mornings are devoted to writing and nothing else. Once you have determined and set your schedule, maintain it consistently.

See writing as a process

Accept that you will go through a series of revisions. Writing is a process: pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing. Accept that everything you write is not going to be, nor should it be, perfect. By focusing on your writing instead of the finished product, you can avoid getting caught up in the quest for perfection.

Add thinking time

Use waiting time (e.g., walking to class, waiting in line) to think about what you have to do in this chapter and how you want to continue. You’ll be surprised how much this extra thinking time can help. And make sure to take (active) breaks during your writing sessions. This can also help you gather your thoughts, develop your ideas and see things in a new light.

Find your spot

Have a certain place to work on your thesis that is the most productive for you. Some students work better at the library than they do at home. Some students want a quiet room while others want television or music on while working. Try to figure out what works best for you, and dedicate a space to writing your thesis.

Flip the writing order around

Don’t waste too much time on finding the perfect opening sentence for your thesis. Just start with the core of your writing: some background information and literature review, and then off to your own contributions. Once these thoughts are out there, it is much easier to write an introduction and conclusion that embody the main ideas of your piece.

Learn from examples

There is nothing wrong with being inspired by a great paper or a very clear thesis. When someone out there has a good and structured setting, it is an ideal opportunity to learn from it and use it as a basis for your own writing. Good examples can transform your final product. 

Let the ideas flow

Try not to correct yourself and reread too much while you are typing out your ideas. This will only slow you down. Emptying your head first helps to let the ideas flow in your writing. You’ll be proofreading anyway later on, so you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to correct and improve every sentence. However, having an entire part written will help you keep an eye on what really matters: the flow of the story, not a collection of perfectly written sentences.

Get support

Seek help early! Sometimes simply talking through a problem can help you find a solution. Pick people whom you know will be sympathetic, will listen and encourage you. Contact details can be found here.

Available workshops at Maastricht University

The Student Services Centre has a wide range of training, workshops and lectures available that can help you with your studies. Take a look at their website for more information, for example on the Fear of failure training.