Academic Writing Hacks Part 3: The Terror of a Blank Page

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

When I started my PhD, I got the impression that people would spend the first part collecting data and reading and the last part just “writing it up”. Although this process sounds like batching tasks (as my last post described) it can actually be quite inefficient.

I can only speak to my experience in psychological research (I have no idea how people in the arts write PhDs. I can’t even picture how to frame a PhD purely in theoretical terms without any data) but for me it was more efficient to be writing consistently throughout my PhD, rather than just writing it all up at the end. How is “present me” supposed to remember all the things “past me” did? Why did “past me” choose this variable/methodology/analysis?

However, there is nothing more terrifying than a blank page.

It is so easy to retreat back to data collection or data analysis or designing the next experiment (especially if your current study produced less than desirable results). But I found ways to make writing easier. I called this “scaffolding” my papers. That is, I set up the framework (which is easy to do) for “future me” to come back later and finish.

In my second post in this series I mentioned chronotypes and how you should organise your schedule around when your brain is most ready to tackle certain tasks. In my afternoon slump, when I needed something monotonous to do, I would open up a Word document and format it correctly to meet APA standards. I would write in the headings I would need for that paper (e.g., Methods, Participants, Measures, Procedure, Results, Discussion etc.) because I didn’t need too much brain power for that. Then I would add in details that I already knew (even if my study was still running), like describing the participants and I would just place an XXX for the numbers that needed to be added in later.

So far, this is what you can do even if you don’t have your data yet and you don’t have too much brain power:

  • Format the word document to the correct formatting standards (e.g., APA)
  • Add in all the headings that this paper/chapter will need
  • Add in easy stuff you already know (like describing your participants)

Then, in another afternoon slump, I would write the procedure section as well as the measures/materials section. This is especially good to do while you’re in the middle of data collection because the procedure is very fresh in your mind as well as all the measures or materials you are using. I just put a XXX for anything I don’t know and that future me will have to fill in.

  • Procedure section
  • Measures/materials section

Then, on another day I would come back and think about what types of analysis I would do and just put in those headings in the results sections (e.g., Descriptive Statistics, Correlations, Analysis of Variance etc.). This will probably change later, but just putting in headings can help me feel more control over what I will need to do later. I know that in my descriptive statistics section I will probably need a table that displays means, standard deviations, and a few other stats for each variable. So I will format up a table, listing all the variables and have it ready to input numbers later.

  • Put headings in results section
  • Format a blank table (with some information added in)

The last thing I do is write in my hypotheses and aims in the introduction section (while the rest of it is still blank). Then, I sometimes list relevant papers or topics there (for example, things I cited in my ethics/IRB application or in the protocol I wrote when designing the experiment). Or even a note to myself e.g., hey, you decided on this because X and Y. Look at these papers to remind yourself later!

  • Write in hypotheses
  • List relevant papers
  • Insert bits from my IRB/ethics/protocol

So by this point, my Word document looks really full and I haven’t done anything too cognitively demanding yet. No data analysis or introduction/discussion section writing. However, in my brain, it looks like I’m just editing some writing I’ve already done rather than writing something new. This trick is enough to get me going on this paper or chapter of the thesis.

Do you do this? What other tricks do you have to get you over the terror of the blank page?

— Alessa Teunisse

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