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Tips for Conquering the Blank Page when Writing your Thesis

Caroline Betto-Colliard, Ilaria Orsi & Denis Billotte, CUSO

Staying in front of the blank page and its blinking cursor for minutes, hours or days… or drafting only a little paragraph in an entire day because you erase and rewrite every sentence you type out. Which early stage researcher has not been confronted with these problems? Publishing quality research papers effectively is certainly one of the keys to a successful academic career. However, most researchers begin without any formal teaching, causing thesis writing to be often stressful and inefficient…

Rest assured, like any other skill, writing is a skill that needs to be practiced, and can be: the more you do it the easier it will become. The CUSO transversal program offers you some workshops that might interest some of you. While waiting for the next opportunity to attend one of these, here are some tips to help you moving beyond the blank page. We hope that some of them may be useful for you.  

1. Get into the habit of writing from the start of your PhD, and do not leave all the work for the last year. You may only feel increasing pressure from the short amount of remaining time, which may affect your efficiency to write. For example, practice your writing skills by summarizing important research articles you read or producing some written material for meetings with your supervisor.

2. Get inspired by other theses in your research area. You can learn a lot by observing the outline and the writing of a great paper or of a well-organized thesis. Review theses or research articles in your domain and analyze them to gain on overview of the style, format and structure used in your discipline. Try to adapt your focus and style to the readers you hope to reach.

3. Develop a structure and draft an outline of your thesis. Know what questions your thesis is asking, define the main ideas and effectively organize the outline of your thesis. Discussing and setting out the structure with your supervisor if possible. Building summary diagrams for each chapter of your thesis may help to align your ideas. Once you have a structure, you have a good starting point to keep rolling and start adding information to the documents you are writing.

4. Use your existing writing materials. You may already have some material to start from, such as annual reports or preparation documents for meetings, posters or conference presentations, notes on articles that you have read, research or lab journals or published/submitted journal articles. Take some loose ideas from these documents and paste them into your draft. It will not constitute your final text but it will help you to gather and structure your ideas.

5. Leave the introduction, start with your contributions. You are stuck with finding the perfect opening sentence or a punchy introduction? Leave it for later and start with your methods, your results or your contributions.

6. Let your ideas flow. It has not to be perfect when you write your first draft. Get as much down as possible without worrying too much about the details and focus on getting your thoughts onto the paper. The editing and correcting phases will come in a second step.

7. Take time off ! If you have been staying in front your blank page for too long, close the computer and go do something else. Take time for doing things you enjoy. Do not let the stress of writing up a PhD thesis take its toll on your physical and mental health. Limit your working hours. Don’t work too late at night, and make sure you take days off at the weekend.

8. Ask feedback on chapters or sections from peers, colleagues or your supervisor. Ideas and opinions of others may improve your manuscript and help advancing on your writing.

9. Find your way to work. Some PhD students like and need to write in a quiet spot. If necessary, use earplugs and switch off smartphone to block out distractions. You may use for instance the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of writing followed by a 5 or 10 minute break and repeat – you can find several explainer videos on YouTube). On the contrary, others appreciate to write with background noise or alongside a friend. Why not finding a thesis writing buddy or taking part in an online “Shut Up & Write Event”?