Last week I wrote about what to expect when you hire a dissertation editor. But what if you’re not even ready to think about the possibility of using dissertation editing services? What if you’ve just begun the process of writing a dissertation, and that intimidating blank page is still staring you in the face, as if challenging you?
Looking at that first blank page can be a terrifying prospect, and many a grad student has succumbed to the paralysis that it can induce in a writer. While it’s completely normal to feel daunted by the task of writing your first book-length project, this particular sort of writer’s block can be especially insidious. Based on my own experience of getting past this first (and arguably most difficult) hurdle, I’m going to offer some do’s and don’ts for overcoming what I like to call “blank page syndrome.”
Don’t substitute reading or researching for writing.
One of the most common excuses for not having begun writing that I hear from fellow PhD candidates is that they feel like they haven’t read enough to be able to write anything of substance yet. Sometimes this will go on for a year or more, with nothing to show for it but a hefty binder full of notes. This isn’t to say you should stop reading once you’ve begun writing—quite the opposite! But if you feel like you still need to do more research, do it as you write. Your mind can only absorb so much material anyway, so it’s actually more efficient to alternate between researching, taking notes, and working on a chapter. And remember, you do have something to say. If you didn’t, your committee wouldn’t have let you move forward to this stage.
Do make writing a social act.
Many grad students start to feel the sting of isolation once they move in the dissertation writing phase. Why? Because most of us have been conditioned to think that writing is a solitary act. The romantic notion of the writer as a solitary genius penning her great work is alive and well in our psyches, even if we realize on a rational level that most writers don’t work this way. Writing is a social, collaborative act.
So seek out a dissertation writing group. My university offers something called a dissertation boot camp. Every week, members of the group meet up to do one thing only: write. The advantage of writing in a group is that you can hold each other accountable—no checking social networks, no texting, no distractions! A writing group also gives you a space in which to receive emotional support. After all, everyone else is going through the same doubts and fears that you are.
Most writers are terrible procrastinators, myself included. And that may have worked for you in the past, when you had to write conference papers or lab reports. But with a project the size of the dissertation, you have to break the habit. Set aside at least an hour a day where you are going to write—it doesn’t matter if what you write is good, just so long as you write. The more writing becomes a part of your daily routine, the easier it gets.
Do give yourself permission to walk away.
Battling writer’s block can be like fighting the hydra: the more you struggle, the more of a monster it becomes. Sometimes you need to walk away from everything. Go outside for a walk or take a trip to the gym, read a book that has nothing to do with your project, have dinner with friends, or watch a television show that you enjoy. If you can, take a short vacation. I find that my batteries are recharged when I’ve given my mind enough time to process whatever it is I’ve been struggling with. Above all, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating well. Take care of yourself, and don’t beat yourself up.
My best piece of advice for overcoming blank page syndrome is this: just do it. Remember, you can always go back and make revisions later. Writing that first sentence is the hardest part, and once you’ve done that, you’re well on your way.