Category Archives: writing

Hitting the Wall

English: Bricks in a wall.

English: Bricks in a wall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been a weird week. I came back from holidays on Monday and hit “The Wall” by 10 o’clock  Tuesday morning. If you’ve ever been a student, you’ll have experienced The Wall: the state of exceeding one’s ability to focus on and contribute sensibly to the task at hand. This insidious ‘condition’ presents in a number of ways. In severe cases, the afflicted individual may find themselves transfixed by the sheer expanse of a blank Word document or perhaps giggling hysterically with a fellow student at something that, in ordinary circumstances, would not provoke even a glimmer of a smile (typical onset: exam revision).*

Luckily for me, I was able to move past The Wall relatively quickly, following a healthy dose of groaning aloud  (“AAAAAAHHHHH!”), and chuckling at the irony of having hit The Wall with the task at hand. Why was it so absurd ? Well, I was writing a presentation about my thesis, the third in fact in the space of about two months and I actually quite enjoy this sort of thing!!

I still don’t know what was tripping me up. Maybe it was having to recall all the details I had so meticulously culled from my last presentation, a three minute speech about my thesis for a non-specialist audience, so I could use these details in a ten minute presentation for a specialist audience? It might also have been my fear of accidentally lapsing into the wrong version of my thesis presentation if I used similar turns of phrase, given that I’ll be presenting them both within weeks of each other and I have a bit of a habit of memorising things, sometimes without meaning to. Who knows? All I do know is that right now, I’d rather just get up there and wing it! But I know I won’t, I rarely leave things to chance. To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail after all.

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Filed under A day in the life, communication, thesis, writing

Writer’s block: Is it because of procrastination, not feeling ready or something else?


Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hands poised at the keyboard or perhaps with pen in hand, you survey the blank screen or paper and IT hits you. The realisation that you need to fill that page or screen with a carefully crafted argument, the knowledge that your thesis will not write itself. But the prospect of writing is daunting. You don’t know where to start, nor do you feel ready. Perhaps you should do something else first? Yes, that seems like a good idea. And is it really procrastinating if it’s productive? You could fill out those research funding forms, print articles or even tidy your desk. These are essential tasks after all…

While I have yet to experience honest-to-goodness-I-could-not-write-if-my-life-depended-upon-it writer’s block (touch wood), like any PhD student there are times when writing my thesis is daunting. While procrastination and waiting to feel ready are often the culprits of writer’s block, procrastination will not get words on the page and as the  ThinkWell team note we have to write before we feel ready, because who ever feels completely ready?! However, sometimes this inability to write cannot be explained by procrastination or ‘lack of readiness’. To paraphrase the late author Ray Bradbury and to apply his observations within a scholarly context, if you find that part of your argument will not eventuate despite honest and active effort on your part, the problem might lie with your subject matter.

I can recall occasions where I have tried to bully my argument onto paper, trying everything from talking it over, to jotting down the main threads, to revisiting the literature from which the argument originated. Having deployed my arsenal of writing tactics with little success, I have wondered whether it might be that this aspect of my argument is tenuous or even unnecessary. These thoughts were not an irrational whim to simply delete everything and start from scratch, we’ve all been there, but the gradual realisation that my argument was not developing because I had taken the wrong path.

As Bradbury implies, at such writing impasses we need to make a U-turn. Yes, the prospect of abandoning part of your argument is daunting and it’s best not to think about all those notes that you will no longer be using,  but writing is the process of clarifying your thinking, so when faced with a genuine problem with our writing, we need to address it. But what should we do? I can only offer you the solutions I have used in the past: stepping away from my thesis to gain some perspective, returning to it with fresh eyes and considering how my argument might progress differently, discussing these ideas with my supervisor and beginning to write again. Will that work for you? I don’t know, but it will work better than ignoring the situation and the realisation that I needed to pursue a different topic did help me write this blog post. In fact, the only reason you have a blog post to read is because after many fits and starts Ray Bradbury and the Think Well team helped me realise that my original post was going nowhere fast and needed to be abandoned!

Hopefully this post will give any struggling writers struggling a sense from this post that they are not alone, and maybe even some ideas to consider. I would also like to acknowledge that some of the ideas in this post were inspired by the ThinkWell workshops I attended and what they taught me about procrastination, ‘readiness to write’ and using writing to clarify your thinking. Last but not least, no ulterior motives here, I am not affiliated with ThinkWell, I just found what they had to say helpful : )

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Filed under Clinical Phd, Research, thesis, writing

A stapler, a stapler, my kingdom for a stapler!

English: A stack of copy paper.

English: A stack of copy paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I carefully lift the ream of paper, still warm  from the printer and walk briskly back to my office, I know I have a problem.  These words which I have steadily crafted and edited into my research proposal over the last two months will be too much for the tiny but valiant purple stapler on my desk. But where am I going to find an industrial strength stapler at 7 o’clock at night I wonder. I’m still musing over this quandary back in my office as I pry the useless metal prongs from their final resting place,  half way through my research proposal. Pathetic.

Luckily inspiration strikes, I remember that the next assignment office over has an automatic stapler.  How could I forget that contraption given the numerous times I have dangled a paper apprehensively under it, waiting for it to snap down at any moment with an efficient BANG! So with this in mind I find myself bundling on my coat and heading back out into the cold night air. It’s odd walking through the courtyards devoid of students and the bustle of campus life.  But it isn’t until I climb the stairs and spy the stapler safely ensconced behind glass that I realise my night-time wanderings have been in vain.

I check my watch, it’s later than I had thought so I figure I might as well try the staplers in the faculty office. At least these should be more efficient than my mini-stapler. Nevertheless, all I succeed in doing is peppering my proposal with more holes and scaring myself by mistaking the sound of my book bag bumping against the cupboard for someone knocking at the window. It’s then that I think to try the library. It’s a Thursday night, so it might be open at this hour and short of leaving a ream of loose paper in the pigeon holes of each of my three thesis committee members, it’s my last shot. Another night-time stroll through the campus later and I am welcomed by the sight of the library, positively hiving with students. I’m cheered to see I am certainly not the only one left on campus and head over to the automatic stapler. In a matter of seconds and with a satisfying clang it neatly gathers together each of my three stacks of paper. Maybe I’ll get out of here tonight after all!

Retracing my steps I make my way back up to faculty offices and hear a noise behind the door where the pigeon holes are. It turns out I’m also not the only psych student roaming the halls at this hour. Behind the door is a grad student I know. We chat for a bit  and then I scan the rows for the right pigeon holes, finally depositing the copies of my research proposal. Sadly though, my journey has not yet ended. I’ve a trek ahead of me because I’ve had to park miles away in the car park affectionately nicknamed Bora Bora. I make it there at last though and arrive  home by 8:45, pleased in the knowledge I’ve achieved a major milestone and even happier knowing that I can work from home tomorrow. After dinner and watching Men In Black, I head to bed, hoping fervently that staplers do not feature in my dreams!

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, research proposal, writing


My personal radiograph

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These past few weeks have been anything but  typical. I’ve given a campus tour to prospective students which took me to the robotics program of the university, some of my classes went on temporary hiatus and life has thrown me a few curve balls, the least of which being  the news that the soreness in my foot is not due to a sprain but a stress fracture.  Things have been a bit fragmented lately in more ways than one.

Given all the events of the last few weeks it  seems likely that my thesis would have stalled a bit. Much to my chagrin however, quite the opposite seems to have happened. I’ve been granted conditional ethics approval for my first study and I’ve written most of my research proposal. I’m still trying to work out how that happened. One minute my proposal was 1000 words long and seemingly in the next minute it had expanded to 4000 words! Of course it’s Murphy’s Law that something will go wrong with my thesis at some point, but that’s okay. Being a bit ahead now will help.

Moving from anticipation of setbacks to past challenges I seem to have made some progress with my writing. When I was working on my last draft I really focused on trying to move from the general to the particular and making sure my point was clear  and it seems to have paid off.  That’s not to say that there isn’t still plenty of room for improvement with my writing or that I didn’t dive straight into the details, because I did, but I can see progress. The coursework side of things also seems to be going well. I passed my latest counselling assignment and got some positive feedback. It’s already funny looking back at how alien counselling techniques and psychological test administration, scoring and interpretation seemed at first. I’m by no means an expert in these areas yet, that will take years of practice, but I am certainly learning a lot and becoming more confident.

Until next time, good luck for your endeavours and I hope your last few weeks have not been as fragmented as mine!


Filed under A day in the life, ethics, research proposal, test administration, thesis, writing

Moving from the general to the particular

Master Yoda - origami.

Master Yoda – origami. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just over a year ago I blogged about a challenge I was facing with my writing; I was struggling with moving from the general to the particular. Essentially, I’d dive straight into the details, neglecting to tell you why they were relevant and then move on to other ideas without making the connections between them explicit. Guess what? I’m still doing this and it annoys me no end! So, I have decided that enough is enough, I’m challenging myself to master moving from the general to the particular.

Now, I love a good challenge and I’m not alone in saying they need to be faced head on and that this experience can be rewarding:

  •  “Do or do not, there is no try” – Yoda
  •  “Kites rise highest against the wind” –  Winston Churchill
  • “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible” – Arthur C. Clarke

But whether you agree with Yoda, Churchill or Clarke, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Over the years I’ve noticed that I tend to deal with challenges in a formulaic way: First, I find out everything I can about the problem – what it is, and when and why it happens. Second, I look for strategies to overcome the problem and consider what has worked for me in the past. Finally, I implement the strategies and monitor my progress. I’ve learnt from a friend of mine this is a problem focused coping style as defined by Lazarus and Folkman and it’s what I plan to use this time to improve my writing.

So, what am I doing wrong, when and why?

I have been telling the story of my thesis without setting the scene – I present the specifics without introducing or connecting my ideas. The only time I don’t tend to do this  is when I write speeches or tell someone a story. I don’t know about you but I’m sensing a theme here, something mysterious happens to my arguments when I transition between oral and written expression.  WHY?! Well, I have a few hunches. When I express something orally I can see my audience, I can tell if I have ‘lost them’ and it seems more natural to take the time to introduce my point when I am speaking to someone. However, when I express something in the written form I immediately think – how can I back up my argument with facts?  I think this is due to years of studying history and writing  in the ‘start with a brief topic sentence, introduce your evidence, make a conclusion and move on to the next point’ style. It also probably has something to do with my tendency to get hung up on the details and delay giving an opinion until I have ‘all the facts’.

What can I do about it?

Thinking back to the previous strategies I have used to avoid forgetting about the bigger picture, some worked better than others. Being aware of my tendency to dive into the details didn’t help my writing.  However,  I did have more success when I concentrated on telling the story and thought about what my audience needed to know. I will try these approaches again but evidently if I’m to succeed in moving from the general to the particular in my writing, I need some new strategies in my arsenal. Please feel free to offer your suggestions.

At present, I have decided that I am going to:

  • Spend time explaining the background and outlining my ideas and opinions
  • Check that my argument still makes sense when I remove sentences about the specifics (e.g. if the ‘So and So found X’ sentences are gone)
  • Write for my audience: researchers and clinicians in the field who want to know the implications of current knowledge and my findings (when they emerge) for research and practice

And finally, research and practice intersect again…

I’ve been learning about and practising motivational interviewing in class, a technique used to support clients through making a change.  It took only five minutes of writing this post before I started evaluating my own change talk and what stage I’m at! I’ve decided I’m in  determination because I’m well aware of my need to change and I have some plans in place. Yet more evidence of how practice can inform research.

Wish me luck

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Filed under classes, Clinical Phd, Practice, Research, writing

The highs and lows of research: Research proposal, thesis committee meeting and ethics submission

Earlier in the year a lecturer described research as an emotional process full of highs and lows. Wondering why?  Read on…

About a month ago I broke into a silent victory dance outside the psychology office.  I had just submitted my research proposal!  It felt so good to finally hand it in after two months’ research, writing and discussion.  Correction, it did feel good until later that night during ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ when I realised I had made an error with one of my hypotheses.  It turned out later that it was right, but I did not find that out until my thesis committee meeting.  Can you imagine what my stress levels were like during the intervening time?!

My thesis committee meeting fell on a chilly June morning.  I began this rite of passage with a brief summary of my project before my study design, analyses and introduction were discussed.  It might sound daunting being seated round a table with lecturers and trying to hold your own, but the experience was not as intimidating as you might imagine.  It was reassuring to hear that I shared my problem areas with previous Honours students and everyone thought my project was worthwhile.  The guidance I gained, fresh perspectives and new ideas were invaluable.  I still wonder what I looked like after that meeting though, having watched the mingled expressions of relief, amazement and information overload on the faces of other students after their meetings.  I remember feeling disbelief that it was all over, that I could shelve my introduction for a while and get my study ready.

Applying for ethics approval, the first step in preparing my study, was also an emotive experience.  I had submitted my electronic application and its numerous attachments for letters of introduction and consent forms etc. a few days after the deadline.  I was worried.  My late submission meant I would be unlikely to gain ethics approval until August, giving me less time to collect data.  Someone up there was looking out for me though because I was informed my submission would be reviewed earlier than I expected.  I sat in the library grinning from ear to ear,  fist pumping the air, little caring what anyone thought.  I had been unbelievably lucky.  What did I learn from this experience?  Chiefly, that I never want to be in that situation again.  I plan to check deadlines religiously in future, and to let someone know in advance if I am unlikely to meet them.

Achieving these three research milestones introduced me to the highs and lows of research that are all part of the experience.

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Filed under ethics, Honours year, research proposal, writing

Some assembly required: Steps in designing a study, assignment marks

Jigsaw puzzles seems daunting at first. The scattered pieces offer glimpses of what might be, but not until you lay out the edges do you begin to get a sense of what you are working towards. My thesis is a puzzle whilst my research proposal and supervisor form the ‘edge pieces.’ These pieces will help me achieve the final product, a finished thesis, the picture on the front of the box. Just like those edge pieces, I think a research proposal and a good supervisor are indispensable. Without them, this jigsaw puzzle of mine would never get past the overwhelming stage. That’s not to say that it’s not daunting even with these two lifelines!

If you’ve been following my posts you might remember I’d been struggling with a particular problem with my writing. I was launching straight into the details without taking my reader with me. I was frustrated with myself because I continually made this same mistake. I think I am getting better at this now I’m more aware of it. And now I’m working on addressing another problem area within my writing, clearly stating my argument. It really is amazing how ignorant you can be of your flaws until someone else points them out to you. I’m  finding the feedback very useful, hopefully it will help me improve my coursework too.

Speaking of coursework… I had never been more nervous about getting an assignment back than I was for the first assessment I turned in for Honours this year. It’s funny how everyone has such different approaches to checking their marks. My approach, and from what I can tell I’m in the minority, is to read all the comments and then look at the mark. I like to have some inkling of what to expect on the back page. Everyone else seems to apply the band-aid approach, racing frantically to the back for that all-important number and then scanning through the rest of the assignment at their leisure.

I was happy with my mark and grateful for the detailed feedback but achieving a higher grade category would have been a nice reaffirming ‘I can do this’ boost.  You can’t have everything in life though and I did my best. I just have to try not to let this unsettle me and throw my energies into the upcoming assignments and exams instead. Easier said than done though. Reading this back I can see I need to believe in myself, after all I have risen to challenges before.

As always, thanks for reading this and feel free to comment or ask me a question. The best of luck putting the pieces together in your thesis.

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Filed under assignments, Honours year, writing