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Paul Silvia was trying to write his first book — about the psychology of motivation — in 2003. He had a publishing contract and a deadline that he had missed, and although he was churning out shorter articles, grant proposals and research papers, he was not making any progress on his book. At one point, he went nine months without “even doing the smallest thing on it”. He could not motivate himself to work on a book about motivation: “The irony of that was totally apparent to me at the time,” he says.

Silvia, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, was dealing with writer’s block — the experience of getting stuck on a writing project. He started researching the habits of professional authors and asking colleagues about their writing strategies. Their insights helped him to finish his book, called Exploring the Psychology of Interest, which he published in 2006. He later published two more about writing in academia: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007) and Write It Up: Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles (2014).

One major lesson: there will never be a perfect time to write. “That was the first switch to really flip,” he says.

Although writer’s block is common, it can come as a surprise to scientists, says César Soto Valero, a computer scientist at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He has seen many graduate students go days without getting any words on the page, and a few give up on academia as a result of their frustrations.

“Some people choose to do science because they want to do experiments, because they want to write code, because they want to try new things,” Soto Valero says. “Then, after they realize that the research is mostly about writing research papers, they struggle a lot because they find out that writing a research paper is very hard.”

Soto Valero, Silvia and other scientists shared their advice on how to conquer the block and put pen to paper.

Know thy enemy

Writer’s block has a few main causes, Silvia says, and having the self-awareness to recognize which one is affecting you is important. One is a tendency to confuse worrying with doing. “If you’re thinking about something a lot,” he says, “that doesn’t really mean you’re working on it.”

There is also the misconception that you need to clear your entire to-do list and carve out big blocks of time to get any writing done — a mindset that can become a form of procrastination, because it provides an excuse not to start. Silvia cites a prime example: stymied by lack of progress, an academic goes on a week-long retreat in a cosy rural cabin where they can focus solely on writing. But this can lead to disappointment when they end up wasting a lot of time in the local coffee shop instead of focusing on the task at hand. “The stakes are really high,” he says, “and if the first day goes wrong, you get really depressed.”

Create routines

Silvia recommends that researchers treat writing as if it’s a class that they have to teach: block out time for it on your calendar, and stick to the schedule. To get over his own writer’s block, Silvia designated 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. every weekday as writing time. He even chose a room at home for writing, so he had a dedicated workspace.

Building consistency took a lot of pressure off. If the two hours went badly, he knew he would have another chance to write more the next day, and he was less likely to be discouraged or feel as if he had wasted a large chunk of time. Once he started making progress, he was able to write more.

“Productivity builds on momentum,” he says. “It’s self-reinforcing to see something move along.”

Clarify the message

Andrea Armani, a chemical engineer at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, often sees students struggle when they sit down to write a paper, because they don’t know what they’re trying to say. She recommends that they ask themselves a few main questions: “What is the hypothesis statement? What is the point of my paper? What am I trying to prove?”

Armani advises students to use their answers to develop a vision statement that articulates “the key discovery or accomplishment in a single sentence”, according to a 2020 article in which she outlines ten simple steps to writing a scientific paper.

Keeping the main message in mind can get you past the feeling of being stuck, says Lynn Von Hagen, a conservation biologist at the Denver Zoo in Colorado. While writing a paper about human–elephant conflicts, published last year, she recognized that the most important point was that scientists need to engage communities when trying to understand complex conservation problems. She was then able to build each section around that idea. “A lot of times, scientific writing can be very rigorous,” Von Hagen says. “But one of the things you have to remember is that you’re still telling a story to the reader.”

Plan first

Inexperienced writers often jump right into new projects, says Silvia — leading them to forgo planning, scribble out the most obvious material right away and get stuck quickly. Developing a clear outline of a paper, chapter or book can help you to avoid that fate. There are many ways to create an outline, ranging from old-fashioned index cards or Post-it notes to software solutions.

Armani’s strategy begins with storyboarding figures, graphs, data sets and results on digital slides. She uses presentation programs — such as PowerPoint, Prezi or Keynote — that make it easy to move slides around. Soto Valero plans out each paragraph by writing series of questions in his document.

In a 2021 blog post about how he overcame writer’s block when working on research papers, Soto Valero gave an example of questions that guided his introduction for a study, published that year. The paper examined software bloat, a problem in which successive versions of computer programs become slower or use more memory. “What is software bloat? Why it is an issue?” he wrote, adding a written reminder to create a paragraph answering these questions. Next came: “What is the state-of-the-art of research on software bloat? What is missing?”

Writer’s block often results from paying attention to the end goal but not the steps required to get there, Armani says. Breaking the process down, she tells her students, mirrors what they do when they’re conducting research. “All of my PhD students have really well-developed and well-honed skills on experimental design and how to break up an experimental challenge into biteable chunks,” she says. “But then once they get near end of a project, and they’re like, ‘OK, so now I need to write this up and have a paper,’ it’s like they’re walking into a murky forest without a flashlight.”

Eliminate the blank page

Soto Valero started writing papers as a university student in Cuba, with the goal of earning a PhD abroad. Because English wasn’t his first language, writing in it was laborious. “It took hours to write every single sentence,” he says. Because it is always easier to revise text than to write from scratch, he tapped into a template-based strategy to boost his speed and confidence.

Using Google Scholar, a free academic search engine that indexes research papers, Soto Valero found examples of well-presented studies that he thought were explained clearly. He would create a similar structure, then iteratively paraphrase and reword the content, focusing on the insights and implications derived from his own data. He writes in English directly, but some of his colleagues use Google Translate to convert their Spanish into English. Some universities also hire proofreaders who check those translations.

For Von Hagen, the first step when it’s time to write is to get something, anything, down on the page, even if it is a disorganized stream of consciousness that lacks structure or even punctuation. Even just creating a rough list of ideas gives her a starting point that she doesn’t want to walk away from. “If you get it on paper, and you have something to work with, then you can just edit and revise, edit and revise,” she says. “If there’s nothing there, it’s one thing, but if there’s something there, then it’s like, ‘OK, now my juices are flowing, the writer’s block is at least gone, and then I can make something out of it from there.’”


Using mental strategies can help, Soto Valero says. Before diving into each section of a paper, he likes to imagine that the writing is done, which makes the blank page seem less empty. “After seeing something done, at least mentally, it seems easier to achieve,” he wrote. Strategizing about how to tackle the components of the paper reminds him of planning moves in a chess game: “Imagine the next paragraph is done, make your move, and then write it!”

Write out of order

It might seem logical to first write the title, abstract and introduction, but this can lead to blocks and rewrites later, Armani says. “You don’t know what your results section is going to look like,” she says. If you start at the beginning, “you’re trying to introduce something that you haven’t written yet”.

After constructing a vision statement and making slides, Armani suggests writing the methods section first. You know what you did in the research, she says. “You can almost just dictate that and then clean up the text.” Next, she drafts the results section, followed by the discussion and conclusion, which generally summarize what she has already written. Finally, she writes the introduction and abstract and finishes with the title.

Starting with the easiest part prevents blinking-cursor syndrome — staring at a page decorated only by a blinking cursor, because you cannot start writing — says immunologist Daniela Weiskopf at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, California. “I want to start with something that I know I can do very well, like writing materials and methods,” says Weiskopf. “Then, you have one thing on your document” — and the thought of having to fill the page becomes less overwhelming.

Give yourself extra time

Because writing is hard work, it can help to build in a buffer, in case you need more time to meet a deadline than you’d originally planned. Armani advises her students to start writing when they’re about 75% of the way through the research. While doing her own work, Weiskopf makes notes of points that she might want to include in her paper.

For Soto Valero, having extra time allows him to take a day or two to do nothing related to the project, which can fuel enough guilt to motivate him to sit down and write. “It seems stupid, but it really, really works,” he says. “You need to go through the pain of writing. You cannot avoid it.”

Embrace collaboration

Getting feedback on a draft can help you to overcome writer’s block, Von Hagen says, especially if the collaborator is a mentor or peer with more experience of the publishing process. Constructive criticism is part of the learning process. “There have been times where I’ve felt like, ‘I’m just not sure where to go with it. I’m not sure it’s encapsulating what I’m really trying to get across,’” she says. “Having someone else look at the work can help you get past the block.”

Take the pressure off

Sometimes, writer’s block emerges from putting too much pressure on yourself to be eloquent or perfect on the first try. Armani recommends keeping your goal in mind: you aren’t trying to win a Pulitzer prize, but to provide clear and concise scientific communication.

“It’s not the time for compound complex sentences with introductory clauses, because you’re going to lose your audience. I tell my students: it’s a time to have a subject, a verb, maybe a direct object. But if you start having lots of dependent and independent clauses, nobody’s going to understand what you’re trying to say.”

It might get easier, but don’t expect it to get easy

Once you have a draft, Soto Valero says, you’ll have to do a lot of work over many iterations. “I have [spent] months writing papers,” he says. “It doesn’t come in one day or two.”

After writing more than 200 papers, Armani has improved her ability to get organized and start writing. But every paper has its challenges. “It’s still just as hard because you want to make sure that your intention is coming across in what the words are actually saying on the page,” she says. “You can’t rush that process.”

Know you’re not alone

Weiskopf tells students and postdocs that most people are “masters in practice” rather than born experts, and that writer’s block is not a unique experience. “It’s not just them who don’t know how to get over this,” she says. “It’s important to share your struggles because nobody wakes up and is a master in writing papers.”

Creating a small writing group can help you to build momentum and remember that you’re not alone, Silvia adds. He recommends holding a weekly check-in meeting with your group to discuss how work is going and share goals for the coming week. “Misery really does love company, and everyone struggles with their writing,” he says. “I have met so few people who think this is just natural and effortless.”