How many of the following ‘symptoms’ apply to you right now?
- avoiding getting started with writing
- doing vast amounts of research but not writing it up
- redrafting written work over and over again but still not being happy with it
- not finishing nearly completed written tasks
- avoiding showing written work to others, especially supervisors
- writing a lot but not in a structured way.
If some or all of these describe you, then you probably have a case of ‘writers block’ or ‘writing anxiety’. This is a common problem for postgraduate students (and other writers), but why does it happen and, more importantly, what can be done about it? Reasons this is so common among postgraduate students, even those who might actually be good writers, include:
- Perfectionistic tendencies. These are common in postgraduate students, who by definition are high achievers and are often very self-critical. This can mean they think their written work is never ‘good enough’ to submit for scrutiny.
- Lack of confidence. Perhaps English is a second language, or maybe they are coming from an undergraduate background where there wasn’t a big emphasis on writing.
- Anxiety about being ‘assessed’. This can tie in closely with the first two dot points.
- Feeling isolated or lonely. Postgraduates are vulnerable to this because they are expected to work independently, but this can be very demotivating.
- Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of producing a thesis.
- External pressures. These might be financial worries, the weight of expectations of others or personal problems.
Ironically, being unproductive and missing deadlines causes additional anxiety and so a vicious cycle of anxiety and unproductiveness begins. So, what can you do about it? There is a wealth of information about writers block and strategies for overcoming it (some are listed at the end of this article), but here are a few suggestions:
- Be realistic about how ‘good’ your work ‘needs’ to be before your supervisor sees it. From a supervisor’s point of view, a draft is just that—a draft. They do not expect it to be perfect and neither should you. They will be much more frustrated by the failure to meet agreed deadlines than a lack of polishing.
- Remember that higher degrees are training programs. You are working towards the final goal of producing a thesis over several years. When your supervisor asks for written work for comment, it is not a ‘test’ you might ‘fail’; it is part of your training. Supervisors expect students to vary widely in their writing ability, know that nearly all of them will need help with their writing and understand that some will need significant support.
- Be prepared for critical comments and take all feedback in a positive way. Be positive about what you have achieved. Address issues that are raised but do not focus on the negative. It is in your supervisor’s interests, as well as yours, for you to submit a creditable thesis and produce quality publications, and their feedback is aimed at assisting you with this.
- Set realistic goals for how much you can achieve in a given time. Reward yourself when you meet a target you have set, but don’t punish yourself if you don’t—set another one. Timelines, Gantt charts and setting other deadlines are all great ways to keep you on track, but setting goals that are unrealistic or inflexible sets you up for failure and is a disincentive to even get started.
- ‘Write early and write often’ might sound trite, but it will actually make the completion of your thesis a lot easier than if ‘writing up’ is left to the last six months (if you are already in this position, don’t despair—it can still be done). If large chunks of time for writing aren’t available, just do half an hour or an hour. This still achieves something and keeps the momentum going.
- Break big tasks into smaller ones if you are feeling overwhelmed. Thinking you are sitting down to ‘write my thesis’ is going to feel a lot more overwhelming than thinking you are sitting down to write ‘the first part of the introduction to Chapter 2’.
- If you are bogged down at a particular point, leave it and move on to another area of writing for a while. If this doesn’t work, take a defined break and get some exercise, talk to a friend, listen to some music, do some housework or perhaps some cooking (affectionately known as ‘procrasti-baking’), or anything else you enjoy, and then get back to it at the predetermined time. Some people find just getting away from the keyboard and making notes by hand helps relieve a ‘blockage’.
- Don’t be shy about taking advantage of the help and support of others. This might be your supervisor, your university (most run workshops for writing and time management, for example) or, if procrastination and lack of productivity is causing you significant problems, your university counselling service. Last, but not least, make use of your fellow postgraduates—there is nothing like talking to someone who has ‘been there, done that’.
Some useful resources:
Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2023). Procrastination. https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Procrastination
Edith Cowan University. (n.d.). Tip Sheet—20 Strategies to Overcome Procrastination. https://intranet.ecu.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/20733/Procrastination.pdf
El-Ghoroury, N. H. (2013, September). Dissertation procrastination. gradPSYCH Magazine. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/09/matters
Good Universities Guide. (2023). Beat procrastination with the Pomodoro Technique. https://www.gooduniversitiesguide.com.au/education-blogs/student-life/beat-procrastination-with-the-pomodoro-technique
University of New South Wales. (2020). Procrastination. https://www.student.unsw.edu.au/procrastination-resources
Vitae. (2023). Overcoming challenges common to doctoral researchers. https://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/doing-a-doctorate/starting-a-doctorate/overcoming-challenges-common-to-doctoral-researchers
Updated 29 July 2023
Emily Finlay, PhD, AE (IPeD)