Last week, frustrated by a stubbornly empty page and my equally blank mind, I opened up a new document, set my phone’s timer to five minutes and began to just write. I wrote non-stop about the first thing that came into my head, without pausing to think, without reviewing and without corrections, until the alarm sounded. Then I reset the timer and repeated the process until I’d clocked up half an hour.
This kind of writing — ‘freewriting’* — is unfiltered and non-judgmental. The resulting text often consists of apparently random thoughts, abandoned half-sentences and phrases like ‘don’t know what to say now’. But the most important thing is to just keep going.
In my experience, freewriting is a big help for overcoming writer’s block. Even though the text might not be a revelation in itself, it breaks that vicious circle: frustration stops you writing; lack of progress leads to even greater frustration (been there — I have a season ticket). What’s more, it transfers stray/vague/spontaneous ideas from the mind onto the page or screen. Again, based on experience, it’s surprising what can happen when you give space to the thoughts usually sifted out by more disciplined, structured writing. You might find a new clarity or outlook, or untangle some mixed-up, fledgling ideas. Perhaps you’ll solve the conundrum of what’s been holding you back. Or you can give flagging motivation a boost by writing about achievements and successes. Of course, free writing isn’t a panacea and won’t deliver enlightenment every time, but I find it’s still a valuable, practical and low-pressure tool for focusing, taking stock, decluttering the mind and, most importantly, developing and nurturing the habit of writing.
did the freewriting actually help?
For some time, I’ve been working on an article based on my PhD topic, intended for publication in an academic journal. Sounds straightforward enough: the hard work’s been done already, so I just need to extract the key themes and findings from the thesis and present them in a succinct piece of about 8,000 words — job done. Except that it’s nowhere near as simple as that. So what’s the problem?
The writing session helped me recognise three major obstacles. The first problem is scope. My thesis explored two major competing theories; both made very different but valuable contributions to the findings. Clearly, there’s no room to give both theories a fair hearing in a journal article, but singling out one theory would tell only half the story. There could be two articles, of course; but that still leaves the question of how to disentangle the respective theories.
Second is the issue of relevance. As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics — which adds a certain edge to the study of political parties. You’re always walking a fine line between blinkered devotion to a very specific theory or context and keeping up with the latest political goings on. Since the Left Party’s election breakthrough, a lot has happened in German politics. Do the thesis findings still hold true? And does anyone even care (the talk is all about the AfD** now)? This creates the warrant for an update, which in turn demands additional analysis if the piece is to be serious research rather than a current affairs commentary. And remember the research question has to fit the parameters (and word count) of a journal article.
Third, it’s about fatigue. To be honest, I’m done with my PhD and want to focus on something new. Obviously it doesn’t have to be a complete departure — I still love my topic — and the thesis does have something to say; but right now, I crave the challenge of fresh learning and writing.
As a result, the recent research — mountains of it — will be ‘parked’. Nothing is wasted, though: like the folder containing literally thousands of words discarded from the thesis, it’s all background knowledge and I’m sure plenty of the new material will find a more appropriate home when I write that additional chapter for the thesis-to-book project.
Nevertheless, it’s taken a while to reach this point of pulling the plug and starting afresh. Instinctively, I probably knew all along that the paper was a no-hoper, but, unable to figure out why, carried on regardless — or found it more convenient not to dwell on it. The freewriting exercise poured these doubts onto the page; once there in black and white, they refused to be ignored.
Thanks to an additional burst of freewriting and some discussion, there’s a clear path for the article. A real strength of my thesis was its usual application of theory. So I’m taking one of the theories and applying it — also in an innovative way — to a new political and strategic dilemma confronting the Left Party. This addresses the problems of manageable scope and topic relevance: I’ve done some preliminary outlining, the theory stands up, the context relates to current research and above all answers the ‘so what?’ question. And the third problem? Well, although the topic builds directly on the thesis, the new context explores a fresh avenue of research — a development in the Left Party I have been keenly following out of personal interest. In other words, it sets a stimulating challenge and now I really want to write the paper.
No doubt there will be frustrations and glitches along the way. When that happens — or to reflect and take stock of what’s gone well — it’ll be time to make some tea, open up a fresh page and get writing.
* This blog is about my own personal experience. However, I first learnt about freewriting (and found all sorts of other invaluable practical guidance) in Rowena Murray’s ‘Writing for Academic Journals’, second edition, Open University Press, 2009.
** AfD: Alternativ für Deutschland. This (far) right populist party has recently entered regional parliaments and is likely to win seats in the Bundestag next year. Naturally, the party is receiving a lot of attention in current research and literature.