Author: Julia Hallas, Doctoral Candidate
If you’re experiencing procrastination, depression, all-nighters and melt-downs… join me in my quest for the best writing tips.
It’s good to be smiling. You’ve been reading and writing, making progress. You’ve found your groove. “I can actually do this” you’re thinking… and then you stop.
Don’t understand what you’re reading? Or don’t know what you should be reading? Perhaps you really want to write, but don’t know what to write, or don’t even know how to begin writing a particular section. At this point you become overwhelmed, even lost. Motivation has disappeared. You’ve stopped reading and writing. Fear has set in. You’re paralysed. You’re stuck.
When you’re stuck, you’re full of self-doubt. You don’t think you can do this. You don’t know how you will finish your dissertation if you can’t write this one paragraph. And when you’re stuck, you’re not just stuck for a few hours, you’re stuck for days and even weeks. Then comes the horrifying realisation that you are working to a schedule and you don’t have time to be stuck. You try to force yourself out of it, but you can’t. It gets worse. You feel worse. Your life is a nightmare. This is going to be really awful.
Are you just stuck or are you really scared of writing?
I think it’s always best to look on the positive side. There are probably some things you can do to help you become unstuck and unafraid. Here are a few suggestions.
If you’re stuck on something like data analysis or developing your argument, you might need to discuss this with one of your supervisors. An experienced researcher like your supervisor will be able to talk through the issue with you and provide the direction you need to move forward.
The Thesis Whisperer explains that tricky PhD threshold concepts might be to blame. You might be stuck because you have something new to learn, or maybe even something to unlearn. http://thesiswhisperer.com/2011/01/18/why-you-might-be-stuck/
For those of you who have become scared of writing, Joan Bolker explains that this feeling is normal. You can deal with these feelings by knowing that it is ok to feel scared or anxious. You don’t have to wait for them to go away before you write. You can absolutely write with these feelings bubbling inside you. Bolker suggests that you confront the stuck place you are in. You can do this by writing about it, researching it and asking yourself when it began. Issues may begin to resolve themselves if you write out all of the things that are bothering you.
For those who panic when struggling to understand a text, Paulo Freire says “Don’t let the fear of what is difficult paralyse you” (p49). Perhaps some of Freire’s suggestions will help:You may need someone else to read and discuss the text with you. Can your writing group help with this?
You may need to read another text that prepares you for the current text. Who else has written about this topic more simply? Has anyone summarised or reviewed the text you have to read?
Always use tools, e.g. dictionary, thesaurus, wikipedia, etc, anything that will help with understanding.
Don’t give up. Studying is demanding and you have to develop the discipline of sticking with it. The more you overcome obstacles, the better you become at studying effectively.
Don’t be ashamed of not understanding. Reread the text many times if that’s what it takes.
When reading, keep focused, don’t read mechanically, and don’t wander off in your mind. Keep sight of your goals.
Reading is a dialogic experience between the writer and the reader. It requires overcoming the fear of reading. It recognises that different readers will have developed different perspectives when they comprehend text. Your anxiety may lessen when you realise that you are free to “invent the meaning of the text in addition to just discovering it” (p56).
This next suggestion is one I like the most. Freire argues “It is not possible to read without writing or to write without reading” (p55). So perhaps you should take Freire’s advice and continue to do what you’ve been doing. Yes, this does sound rather doubtful, but think about it. To get to where you are now and let’s face it, you’ve done an awesome job to get this far, you must have been doing two things quite well – reading and writing.
To write a dissertation, you have to read and you have to write. You also have to explain, but that’s for another post. Reading and writing are the two basic building blocks of research. If you stop doing them, your dissertation won’t get done. So go back to reading and writing basics.
Get a chapter or an article about what you are stuck on and read it. Get an easier one if the one you are stuck on is too hard. Keep a dictionary/thesaurus close at hand. Write definitions, take notes, draw concept maps. Then, when you are in a really bad mood and completely fed up, take those notes and start writing…
Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis
Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Colorado: Westview Press.