I’ve always thought that “writer’s block” is a horribly named phenomenon. It certainly describes that feeling of not being able to make progress but, in my experience, writer’s block feels less like being stuck and more like not knowing where to go. I’ve found that most of my clients feel the same.
I propose that writing block isn’t about being stuck but about not knowing how to move forward.
What’s the difference between those two things?
Think of it this way. If you’re driving through town and have to stop at a railroad crossing then you are stuck.
In contrast, if you’re GPS tells you that you’ve reached your dissertation but all you can see is a fork in the road and no buildings in side you don’t know how to move forward. You might be able to go any number of places but lacking a clear destination it may seem like the best option is to stay in place.
That’s the difference. Most PhD candidates I work with are capable of moving forward: they have the sources, they have the data, and they have the talent.
So, if they have all the key ingredients then what is keeping them from making progress? It’s lack of direction.
In the dissertation your direction is your argument, and it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of.
Part of what makes the dissertation so difficult as a genre is because you have to account for the trees and the forest. When you’ve been spending a lot of time on the individual trees (e.g. evaluating sources, editing syntax, picking out the right words) it can be hard to remember the path through the forest, so to speak.
[TRUTHBOMB: This literally just happened to me while writing this post. I started asking myself, “Is the forest analogy too confusing? Is it overblown? By the time I decided to keep the damn analogy I had completely lost sight of the argument of the larger post. So, you know, just imagine this post multiplied by 500 and that’s the dissertation experience.]
Okay, so now that I’ve remembered where I’m going with this post I’m going to double-down on the forest analogy. There’s all kinds of advice on how to get out of a forest safely. If you’re in an isolated area but there are telephone lines you can follow those to civilization. If there’s a river you can follow that. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere then moss mostly grows on the north side of trees so you can use that as a guideline and head where you want to be, but what’s the equivalent indicator that will help you know which way to go when you get lost in your dissertation?
It’s circles. Specifically, using a circular narrative structure.
In a circular narrative structure you end your narrative where you started. In fiction, this often means that the character physically ends up where they started out but the journey has changed their perspective. One example would be The Hobbit. The novel starts and ends with Bilbo in the Shire but his perspective on it has vastly changed because of the adventures in between.
Your dissertation, of course, is not a novel, but circular structure still applies. You should always bring the reader back to where you began but you should have given them enough information in between to change their perspective on your claims.
In fact, a dissertation argument is circles within circles within circles.
Your introduction lays out the argument for the entire dissertation so the reader knows what the goal of the argument is, where you’re going to develop your claims, and the sources you’re going to use to support your claims.
Your conclusion reminds the reader of the claims you made in the introduction and shows them how, chapter by chapter, you fulfilled those claims. Like all good circular narratives a dissertation conclusion can also point to the future implications of what you’ve argued.
Just like the dissertation as a whole follows a circular structure each chapter should follow a circular structure. The introduction of each chapter lays out for the reader what claims you’re making and how you’re going to support them. The conclusion of each chapter reminds the reader what claims you proved and how.
And here’s the good stuff: each section of your dissertation should also follow a circular structure.
That is, each section of a chapter should start by stating the specific claim you’re elaborating on in that section and what types of evidence you’ll use to support that claim. The conclusion of each section reminds the reader how you used your evidence to prove your claim.
That means, when you get stuck working on a particular section you can find your direction by looking at where you are in your circle.
In addition, remember that the author’s journey is the exact opposite of the reader’s.
While the reader starts at the introduction and follows the path you lay out to the conclusion it’s often best for the writer to do the opposite. As the author, you often know where you want to get to but don’t always know how to get there.
That’s why one of the most important things you can do as an author is write the conclusion first, whether that be the conclusion of your section, your chapter, or your dissertation.
Let’s look at how this works in practice. Say you’re in the middle of your third draft of chapter three and struggling to incorporate your advisor’s feedback.
Instead of looking at your advisor’s feedback and trying to decide how to incorporate it into the particular section (which can be paralyzing) fast-forward to the conclusion and type out what the conclusion would need to look like to make your argument while incorporating the most significant parts of your advisor’s comments. With your conclusion written out you now know what you’re working towards. Now you can go back to the section you were working on and ask, “What does this section need to do to move my reader from here to the conclusion?” Does it need to set up the next section? Does it need to explain what methods you’re using? Does it need to lay out your claims more clearly? These are much more manageable questions than “How do I make this section work?”
Quite simply, when you know where you’re going to end, you can do a much better job of deciding how to get there.
The last step, as you may have guessed, is writing the introduction to whatever piece you’re working on. Now that you’re laid out what the conclusion looks like and assessed how the various components, be they paragraphs or chapters, lead your reader to your conclusions you can think about writing the introduction.
This is a great time to get feedback on your draft as well. Personally, this often the stage when I would take what I was working on into whatever class I was teaching. I would share with them what I had so far and then ask for the questions. My students, as educated and inquisitive young people, often had great questions like “What does that word mean?” “Why aren’t you talking about X?” “Why are you talking about 1938 instead of 1940?” Essentially, the kind of questions any educated reader new to your topic would need to know. I would then incorporate their feedback into the introduction by, essentially, modifying the conclusion I had already written but reflecting the questions. The general format looks something like this.
In this chapter/section I have shown that [claim is true]. First, I looked at how X is related to claim and argued Y by way of Z.
You repeat some version of that second sentence for as many claims as you’re talking about. If it’s one section you may have made one big claim and two or three sub claims so you’ll start by talking about how you proved your big claim and then break it down into how you proved your subclaims and end by reiterating that all of that together shows that, yes, you did prove your claim. If you’re concluding a chapter you’re gonna have one big claim, 3-5 subclaims, and about a dozen sub-subclaims. You repeat the same process breaking it down by level.
Now, for the introduction, after you get feedback in the form of questions you edit your conclusion to flip it to your introduction like so,
In this chapter/section I will show X. Although, I could focus on elements A to Z about X I have chosen to limit my study to elements D, E, and F as most relevant to my argument for reasons Y and Z. (This could be something like the other elements are already well-covered in the secondary literature or they are outside of your time frame or whatever your reason is). I will begin by looking at D in detail including examples 1, 2, and 3. Once I have shown that D is, in fact, an important element of X I will move on to element E.
And on and on it goes in a similar vein where you are setting your reader’s expectations telling them what you will show, how, and why it’s important while also telling them what you won’t cover and why.
So, my dear friends, if you are feeling stuck in your writing and not sure how to make progress feel free to go in circles. Specifically, start at the end and map out the section/chapter so your reader can get from where you’re writing to the conclusion. When that’s all done, have fun writing the introduction!