During our PhD studies we are expected to write almost continually; grant applications, research proposals, protocols, reviews and ultimately a thesis are at the core of how we communicate our work. Communicating our research well is difficult, which sometimes makes the act of putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) a real struggle.
I enjoy writing and I write regularly outside of my research work as well as within it, so it’s all the more frustrating when the inevitable writer’s block strikes.
I’ll make multiple excuses to make myself feel better about having not written, a few examples include:
- The lighting wasn’t great
- The office was too noisy
- I was hungry
- There was a sale on and so I absolutely had to go shopping
The real reason for not writing was that sometimes it’s hard to jump over the hurdle of beginning.
Last week I began a technical writing course presented by Allan Gaw – have a look at his blog here. The first topic covered was simply getting started; being able to generate text. Not necessarily good text, but text you can work with to edit and revise. The technique I learned was ‘free writing’, and I think it’s brilliant.
Free writing is a prewriting technique designed to generate text, it can also help you generate ideas and align your thoughts on a topic. To free write you basically begin to write, and do not stop for a set period of time. You don’t stop to re-read what you’ve written, to answer the door, to adjust the lighting, to check your emails, and most importantly you don’t stop when you have writer’s block or you lose your train of thought. You keep writing. Spelling, punctuation and grammar go out of the window – if you don’t know what to say then describe the way your hand aches, the colour of the chair you’re sitting on or what you might have for dinner, your train of thought will return eventually and you’ll get back on topic.
Submerging yourself in your writing in this way can allow you to get to grips with your research work in a way you haven’t previously, and you may find yourself describing or analysing data in a way you hadn’t articulated before. It’s an incredibly useful exercise to carry out before writing the introduction to a grant application for example. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of free writing though, start with 2 minutes, work up to 3, then 5, try 10 and push for 20. In an age where we spend more time typing than we do writing the act of writing by hand is a recipe for cramp. Keep at it and when your cramp subsides, your writing ability will progress.