When you talk with academic writers about productivity, you are likely to hear the term ‘writer’s block’. Despite the prevalence of this term, I am resistant to identifying common academic writing difficulties as writer’s block. Most writers who are struggling with their writing are actually struggling with their thinking. That isn’t just a semantic quibble: it matters that we grasp exactly what is inhibiting our writing processes. When we diagnose ourselves as having writer’s block, we can start to believe that we aren’t currently able to write. If you find yourself with a sore leg, it may well be that avoiding walking is a sound strategy. If you find yourself unable to write, might it be a sound strategy to avoid writing? The answer to that question is almost always no. Not writing has little-to-no curative power, in my experience.
A common weakness in novice academic writing is a lack of flow; for readers, this lack of flow means they can’t easily see how one thought follows from another. To combat this problem, we need to learn how to make effective transitions between sentences. Such transitions are usually managed in one of two ways: through transition words or through evident links in the text. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their main way of moving from sentence to sentence.
Advice about academic writing often stresses the iterative nature of the writing process; the creation of an effective final draft generally requires multiple drafts and extensive revision. A crucial corollary to a commitment to extensive revision is an acceptance that revision mustn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely. Otherwise, a certain mania can set in: any draft can always be other than it is. After a certain point, we have to ask ourselves about diminishing returns and about the very real possibility of messing up what is already working.
Doctoral study involves a transition from student to researcher; a key aspect of that transition is becoming an academic writer. This is not to say that most new PhDs would readily describe themselves as academic writers. But that level of accomplishment requires the development of a set of academic writing skills that were likely not present at the outset of doctoral study. It’s also likely the case that the development of those crucial skills was a significant challenge.