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The Thesis: Overcoming Writer’s Block

The words aren’t coming.

I’ve been sitting for days, fingers poised over keyboard, papers and numbers before me, yet somehow the sentences aren’t flowing.

Funny that this has to come at a time when I’m trying frantically to put words to page as quickly as possible. It’s the final home stretch of my degree – thesis-writing. Once I manage to form a coherent document, revise, and defend it, the goal of the last two years of my life will have been completed.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite coming together fast enough.  I’ve had several friends already go through this process, and for many of us, it can be a difficult task. We hum and haw, sit reading and re-reading articles, give ourselves small prizes for writing pages, paragraphs or even sentences.  Various friends within my environment studies program have alternately described the experience as:  “slow-going,” “painful,” “frustrating” or even “an exercise in questioning the entire validity of my project.”

Of course, there are those at the other end of the spectrum – the super-humans among us who sit down and get to the task at hand. I do have a few fabulously disciplined friends who fit in this description, but they are likely not reading this blog post and are instead hard at work.

For those who fall within the former category, however, there are a number of techniques that I  have been recommended to get through this the final homestretch, and I thought I might share a few with you here:

The Buddy System

Although it sounds reminiscent of our kindergarten years, the idea works just the same here!  Having someone else to look after and encourage the writing process can be extremely helpful as a productivity motivator.  A supplement to this can be the “star” system, where a full day’s productive work, as assessed by your buddy, is rewarded by a daily gold star. Never under-estimate the influence of shiny gold stickers.

Tomatoes, or the “Pomodoro Technique”

My friend, Fabiola, explains this technique better here but basically the gist is to use these online tomato-shaped timers to get specific tasks done within a set period of time. Each completed “tomato” means one task done and can be rewarded by a few minutes browsing online, getting a snack, etc.  Four tomatoes equals one larger break.

Quantity over Quality – 1,000 words:  

Although this sounds pretty bad on the surface, this can be a good way to simply let the words flow. One of the issues that a lot of students can get is the expectation of having our first draft be at a certain standard; that is, because we expect our first draft to look quite similar to the final project, it hinders us from getting anything done. To get over that hump, we simply need to get words done on paper, or virtual document, more likely. So just start writing – ideas and phrases as they come to you, in a stream of consciousness style. Making yourself get 1,000 words done is a good way to start. Once down, they can be reworked into specific arguments, pared down, or given more elaborate form.

As you can see, most of these ideas are simply ways to advance productivity and can be applied to students of any discipline, or even workers in many fields.  Fortunately for me, they seem to have helped my cause as the words have finally begun to come.

Happy writing, all!

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: September 15, 2011, 11:09 am Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , ,

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