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Writing Your Scholarly Journal Article: Advice on Getting ‘Unstuck’

Important to getting “unstuck” when you’re writing, is to know why you’re stuck, and to recognize how many different ideas or thoughts can contribute to being stuck, says Dave Harris, an editor and writing coach from Thought Clearing.

“A lot of people have little barriers here, and little barriers there, and they pile up and add up,” he said. “Analyze your ‘stuckness’ and recognize the parts that are you being afraid, and the parts that are you not defining your project right, and the parts that are entirely outside of your ability to control but have to negotiate anyway.”

Know why you’re stuck, says Harris, which can be for many general reasons. For example, there are project-related reasons, such as that the project doesn’t feel important to you, or you don’t really know what the project is, or you have too many ideas competing for attention. Or there are personal or internal reasons for being stuck, says Harris: “The fear that you’re not a good enough writer, the fear that you don’t know enough, the fear that somebody’s not going to like it.” Their effect is cumulative: “All of those ideas can be operating and interfering with your process, and unless you identify all of them and try and deal with each of them individually, they’ll take turns getting you stuck….[they] work together to make you feel paralyzed, and every time you deal with one of them, another one crops up, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m [still] stuck.’”

Getting unstuck, he says, takes sorting them out, thinking through them, and dealing with each one separately. Because the different blocks combine, dealing with one problem individually might not feel like it’s making a big difference, but the more layers of difficulty you deal with, the easier it becomes to get moving again.

He shares the following strategies for getting “unstuck”:

  • Practice writing. Just write every day, working on the one piece of writing that is most pressing, or feels most fresh.
  • Imagine a positive audience. Instead of thinking about people saying mean things, imagine a positive audience–someone who would like your work and appreciate it–and keep them in mind. If you’re thinking about a colleague or another academic who likes the theories that you’re using, that can help you focus on what you want to include, too.
  • Imagine your ideal reader. Imagine your ideal reader as someone who is going to be enthusiastic about your work or the way you present it. Imagine what they like about your work and write that.
  • Learn to write quickly. If you just throw the words on the page, you get a chance to go back and look at and revise it later.

Harris’s advice was shared during a January 2024 TAA Conversation Circle discussion on the topic of getting unstuck when writing. Watch On Demand. Here is some additional advice shared by other discussion participants:

Donna Elkins, Associate Vice President for Regional Administration at Campbellsville University, says having a specific deadline helps when she gets stuck when writing. “If I don’t have that deadline, I can drag time out. I can just keep trying to perfect it and perfect it. If I have a deadline, whatever I produce by this time I will have to submit. I will have to be good enough and then I will work with the revisions when they come. It’s hard to set a deadline for yourself because you will just keep moving past it.”

Another place she tends to get stuck when writing is when she tries to write and edit at the same time: “I’ll write a sentence and then read it over and over. I’m trying to edit instead of just moving on.” The advice that has worked for her, she says, is to set separate times for writing and editing.

Dr. Angelica Ribeiro, author of How to Create Happiness at Work: Seven Evidence-Based Strategies to Enjoy Your Day, says she gets stuck when she starts thinking about what other people will think about her writing, what reviews she will get, or if the paper will be good enough for it to be considered for publication. “The interesting thing is that until I stop and think, ‘Will others like what I’m writing?’, I’m confident about what I’m writing,” she says. To combat those thoughts that get her stuck, she solicits feedback from her husband, who is a professor. “I usually share either the outflow of what I’m thinking to see what he thinks, or a piece of the text that I wrote,” she says. “Since he is from a different field, if he finds my writing clear and interesting, other people might find it, too.”

Years ago, when she was an undergraduate student writing her first academic journal article with one of her professors and got stuck, she remembers her professor asking her, “What do you want to say? Don’t write anything. Just look at me and tell me, what do you want to say?” Says Ribeiro: “I told her what I wanted to say, and after I answered that question, she said, ‘Okay, so now write what you just told me.’ Separating writing what I was thinking from writing it perfectly made a huge difference. It’s a strategy that I still use today.”

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