How to break a writing block

Academic writing can be difficult. When the thoughts don’t quite flow the way you need them to make any sense, academic writing can be downright frustrating.

Recently, I thought I had been (very) patient with a literature review I’m writing. I knew the literature. I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t quite fit the pieces together. So, I turned to something I learned a few years ago that has helped me to break through academic writing blockages. I shared my approach in a #auslibchat about professional development outside library and information work. I thought I’d elaborate a little more here.

Creative writing meets academia

I attended a creative writing workshop (short stories) at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The workshop was facilitated by an Australian author, who had written his latest novel originally as a screenplay.

Similar to possibly more than a few writers, he uses index cards to arrange a story. I personally love index cards, for this reason among others as rarely do my thoughts come out in order. Anyway, what struck me most in this workshop was this one question – what’s happening here?

Somehow I’ve managed to take this approach, or this way of thinking, back to my academic writing. I ask myself this every time I sit in front of my laptop almost wishing for the words to appear.

So, what’s the ‘story’?

Literature reviews never get easier. I had collated my reading notes into themes and categorised what I’ve read into ’empirical’ and ‘discussion’. I had created an outline and pulled reading notes into it. Still, nothing. Gah!

I put the literature aside. I asked ‘so, in the land of a research culture in the LIS profession, what’s happening?’…. Followed up with ‘And so this….’

A ‘story’ begins to unfold.

Sometimes the penny just doesn’t drop when I want it to all come together. This approach to breaking a writing block helps me to better understand and uncover what I know about a topic or a body of literature. Also, it can help uncover concluding and linking sentences to use between paragraphs (or ‘scenes’).

Here’s my example:

The literature suggests drivers for the library and information profession to build and cultivate a research culture. These are the reasons why a research culture is important and why the LIS profession needs a research culture. But what does a research culture look like?

This review of the literature will outline elements of what makes a research culture in the LIS profession and highlight studies that explore how a research culture is experienced and supported through initiatives.

Empirical studies and reports of initiatives in the literature have uncovered elements or themes of what a research culture looks like, contributing to our understanding how might one be enabled in the Australian library and information profession.

The coming together of researchers and practitioners can help enable a research culture in the Australian LIS profession. Researchers and practitioners working collaboratively to solve practice-based problems through research can increase the relevance of this evidence base, increase research’s perceived value to practice and make an impact on the continuous improvement of professional practice and the profession’s ability to innovate in an ever-changing environment.

These studies have also provided insight into what might prevent a research culture from developing and any initiative or program would need to look out for and combat. Though the studies in other LIS contexts provide some insight, what we know in the Australian context is little.

Here in Australia, and because the Australian LIS professional context is different, this is what can be understood from existing literature but there is still a lack of empirical evidence and understanding about how a research culture can be cultivated at all levels of the profession and become ‘a way of practicing’.

And there we go. Nearly 270 words I can work with. It’s not a perfect story. I wrote it within 30 minutes. But with this rough ‘story’ I think I’m trying to tell, I can start filling in the details and incorporate the literature. I also use this approach when I’m writing up findings from research data.

Here are some tips for working with this approach:

  • Talk it out loud. This feels a little weird when you’re sitting alone at a desk, but it works.
  • Use plain language. Forget the jargon.
  • Finish these sentences – What is happening here is that…..but….. OR What is happening here is that….so…. OR What is happening here is that….and then this happens.
  • Forget about incorporating the literature into the writing at this point. You’re telling the ‘story’.

Do you have any other tips for smashing through writing blocks? What have you tried?

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