Overcome the Blank Screen With Freewriting

Writing is hard. We've all been there.

Academic scientific writing is tough. It requires precision, technical accuracy, and frequent citations. Rarely does one feel ready to summon the focus necessary to sit down and unleash those words on a blank screen. But the longer we procrastinate, the greater the anxiety. Deadlines creep ever closer, whether they are for conference papers, grant proposals, or dissertation submissions.

It’s easy to get caught up in constructing the perfect sentence — editing it over and over, only to find that an hour has passed and your document has a scant 25 new words. This act of editing-while-writing kills progress. It’s far easier to edit a document that already has words in it than one that has none. So how can we break out of this trap?

One method that’s helped both me and my clients is freewriting. It’s a technique I learned in the context of fiction writing, but I’ve found that it adapts beautifully to scientific writing as well. Here’s how it works:

  • Open your writing workspace. It can be Microsoft Word, Scrivener, a LaTeX editor, a notebook — whatever works for you.
  • Set a timer for five minutes. Smartphones are a convenient option here, but if you don’t want to jump out of your skin when the alarm goes, you could also opt for something like a sandglass timer (not an affiliate link; just a product I like from a shop I frequent).
  • Write. This is the hard part because you are only allowed to write. You cannot edit. You cannot double-check that fact or citation. You cannot look anything up. Don’t even pay attention to the typos you make. Just write. Put words on the page without judging them. Editing comes later. If you’re stuck because you can’t remember the exact thing that goes in a sentence, {stick a note to remind yourself what kind of thing goes there in brackets} and move on. Don’t stop writing.
  • Keep writing. The first few times you try this, five minutes may seem like an excruciating eternity. When your five minutes are up, you may sigh with relief and curse my name. But after you try this a few times, you’ll find that five minutes elapses in the blink of an eye, and when your time is up, you’re still in a groove getting your ideas out as words on a page. If you’re in a groove, don’t stop! Keep going.

As you can see, it’s a simple technique, though it doesn’t feel easy in practice. Breaking the editorial voice in our heads can be tough. And, to be clear, I’m not advocating for always ignoring that voice; instead, I’m asking you to relegate it to its proper place: the editing process. Writing is not editing. Writing is creation. Freewriting, as an exercise, is a reminder of that, and a way to build your writing habits so that you can set aside the urge to edit and keep it from paralyzing you at the stage when your job is put words on the page.

After you have a section written, then you can go back and edit. Correct those typos. Double-check that fact. Insert the citation. Reword your point. I think you’ll find, as I have, that you’ll make far more progress overall by separating writing and editing your work.

For more tips, tricks, and inspiration for communicating your science, be sure to join my newsletter.

(Image credit: E. Ventur)

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