Getting Started Writing your Thesis and Beating Writer’s Block

Hand holding pen in front of blank white surface

Generally, when I sit down to write something new – whether that be my thesis or a blog post – it feels huge and daunting. I just don’t know how I could do it. It feels like I’m in a rowboat, in the middle of the Antarctic Ocean, 20 metre high waves surrounding me, and in front of me a wall of ice, stretching from the horizon to horizon … and it’s moving towards me. I’ve got to break through it. How?! It’s massive! I’m so tiny, and I’m being knocked about. If I don’t do something, I’ll be crushed by the wall. What do I do? I put it off. I think of something easier. Anything easier. 9 hours of YouTube videos. A 10km walk. 11 different snack meals. Anything. It is officially too hard, while the deadline (like the wall of ice) gets closer and closer.

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The thing is, I do this every. single. time.

And every time I have to remind myself how to get started, and how to manage the process.

All I do is to think about what the tasks necessary are, and start to break things down. Soon I find a crack in the ice that I could cleave. Suddenly I realise, it wasn’t a huge ice wall … it was just a line in the sand I could’ve stepped over, or even just kicked into submission. And I was anxious and stressed out for hours/days/weeks over something so easy!

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The first step is to think about a structure, a skeleton for whatever you’re working on. When I was writing my methods chapter, I knew that it needed to include the three phases of my mixed-methods approach, and an introduction, and some kind of summary. 5 sections already! Then I realised (reading other people’s theses) I’d also need to cover how I was going to collect and analyse the data, and a comment on the theoretical and methodological approaches I was using – 7 sections all up.

Now I’ve got the crystallisation points to build a beautiful gem.

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My notes were a jumbled mess. They were written in the order that I’d read things or thought of connections (or did revisions on my ethics application), not the order that my examiner needed to make sense of my thesis. So, I worked through my notes in the order written, and put keywords, references, and notes down in bullet points below each of my section headers.

I love bullet points for drafts. Seeing a concept in a bullet point helps me think about the order of things, and indicates to me that it is an incomplete idea. As I work through my notes, the bullet points get longer, and layers start to build up.

Pen resting on notebook

When I finish my notes, I look back through the document I have now, a merry mess of bullet points and sentence fragments. First thing I do is look through the sections, one at a time, and make sure the sections are in the right order. Then I do the same thing within each section, dragging and dropping bullet points, adding or removing things as I see fit.

I follow this by filling out the ideas so that they make complete sentences. Then build them into paragraphs. Sometimes a paragraph is just a bunch of sentences with linking words.* I’m not very methodical at this point, and go with the first thing that comes to mind or that I see next. If nothing comes to mind and I’m stumped, I pick something, and figure out how I can finish it. Once I’ve gotten a few sentences in, I can usually feel it coming a little easier, and the writing just keeps going.

I repeat this until my little scrap of writing has turned into an uncut gem, and I have a draft of something worth reading.

Typewriter with paper displaying the words: "Something worth reading"

What happens, though, when writer’s block (cue scary music) strikes? I have three main tricks up my sleeve:

  • Schedule time for writing. Doesn’t have to be good writing. Just has to be writing. Block everything out and make time for writing. Shut Up And Write groups are good for that. AUT is running a digital SUAW group, with details on Student Digital Workspace and on Thesislink (currently just Mondays but can be other days and times if we get enough interested people).
  • You’ll never feel like writing. Just sit down and do it. A concert pianist doesn’t feel like practicing every day, nor does a dancer want to rehearse every day. But they do. And as a professional writer, you just need to get on and do it. As I mentioned before, sometimes just sitting there and doing a bit is enough to get the ball rolling. It’s like going to the gym and really not feeling it, but saying you can go home if you just do 10 minutes on the spin bike and a stretch … and suddenly you feel like doing your whole normal workout. If you can do just 15 minutes a day (or even one hour of pomodoro), not only will you be that bit ahead of where you were yesterday, you’ll suddenly find the whole writing process is easier, and you’ll get more done with less sweat and blood!
  • Know when you’re beat. Sometimes the writing isn’t gonna work right now. I go off, try to do some exercise, get some fresh air, drink some water, and try again later.

Of course, I’m not the first to suggest some fixes for getting started, and beating writers’ block. Courtesy of the University of Auckland, here is a list of common problems and some solutions. In her blog post at Times Higher Education, Ingrid Curl gives some similar advice, and its like she’s looking over my shoulder right now, because her first point is not to let your task daunt you! In her blog post at Inside Higher Ed, Stephanie Hedge gives some tips about getting started and keeping going.

I realise, of course, the irony of writing this because I’m putting off restructuring a chapter of my thesis. But as that chapter seemed to be building up, and reaching as far as I can see … I’m remembering that I just need to break it down, and put things where they need to be. I have the skeleton already; I just need to block it out!

Where can you go for more help?


*Please note I’m not a learning advisor!

About Scott Pilkington

Scott is a Postgraduate Coordinator and Health, Safety & Wellbeing rep at the Graduate Research School. His hobbies include museums, campanology, history, anthropology, cats, dance, fibre crafts, science communication, and gin. He’s a graduate of University of Auckland, University of Otago, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, and of course AUT. His current research projects include how we use museums to communicate science, and the form and function of doctoral academic dress at New Zealand universities. Past research includes the Albert Park tunnels, taphonomy of burnt human skeletal remains, and the sex-politics-law dynamics of 13th C England. He is weirdly passionate about palaeoecology and urban spaces. He uses the pronouns he/him. You can often see him at GRS events being our resident photographer.

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