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One of the issues we have at my English-language institute is the problem of getting our doctoral students to write papers in English. For some, writing isn't a big challenge. For others, however, the process is about as pleasurable as pulling teeth or a lobotomy (without the benefit of anesthesia).

What we've found is that there are a few problems that tend to creep up:

  • Students don't know how to commit their ideas into paper
  • Students are afraid of writing poorly, so they don't write at all

What I'm wondering is if there are any resources available that can help—particularly international students—with overcoming the "academic" version of writer's block.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Of course there are plenty of resources about how to overcome writer's block, however for different people different techniques work. The advices I always found very useful as a PhD student (although I cannot find the original sources, it's been years) were these:

  1. do not aim high at the beginning. Crappy and hasty first draft is perfectly fine, iterative improvement will come later: as the author here points out, inexperienced writers tend to have too high standard on themselves. Since I am in a formal field, I therefore refrained to start with the paper's motivation, but rather tried to work out the mathematical flesh first. That one is easier in terms of language since the form can be copied/learned from good papers of others. But this differs across disciplines.
  2. block time every day for writing and do nothing else at that time, even if you should stare at a blank wall: this is my way to kill the procrastinator in me. Simply three hours every day a week for writing. Even if during that time one would really just stare at a wall and write nothing, it's better than procrastinating. Eventually the boredom is so high that writing becomes welcomed activity. It is imperative not to do anything else, especially not to study, read or otherwise consult any literature, also get disconnected from Internet and colleagues, etc. The best for me was to go for this to the department's library where was no wifi connection. I read somewhere that this technique is used by some novel writers, but can't find any source of this advice.

  3. Another powerful technique is use public commitment wisely: that is, publicly commit to delivering an artifact at a precisely specified deadline. E.g., first draft of the paper next Friday. Tell to your boss, tell to your office-mate, whatever. The higher the authority you tell, the better. For many people this has a magic effect, because we tend to value our commitments, however painful it sometimes is to stand up to them.

But again, different techniques work for different people.

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Well, it's the internationalization aspect that makes it more challenging. Writer's block in a "foreign" language is, I suspect, logically even tougher to deal with than in one's own mother tongue. –  aeismail Jan 31 '13 at 20:17
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+1 for "don't aim high at the beginning" — Experienced writers also tend to set too high a standard for ourselves. Sorry, I mean, for themselves. Give yourself permission to write badly; revise later. –  JeffE Jan 31 '13 at 22:25
    
@aeismail: as a non-native speaker, I do not see any difference in the remedy of the problem. Except the hurdle might be slightly higher for us. –  walkmanyi Feb 1 '13 at 17:39
    
@walkmanyi: The issue is that I'm not sure if there are additional issues for ESL writers. That's what I was trying to address in my question. –  aeismail Feb 1 '13 at 19:14

I don't really see this as a problem specific to non-native English speakers. I know plenty of first-language English speakers who are absolutely rubbish at writing.

The problems I've personally witnessed go much deeper than correct use of the language: It's mainly about organizing your thoughts and what you want to say, and then saying it in the clearest way possible. This usually does not involve any in-depth knowledge of the English language. In fact, being too good may make your writing worse.

I use and preach an incremental writing approach which consists of the following steps

  1. Start identifying the one statement that your paper will make, e.g. "here is a new method to solve problem X", or "method X is better than method Y for problem Z".

  2. Once you're clear on what the message will be, write a rough sketch of your paper in terms of the statements you will make. This should be the main story of your paper. Each statement should really only make a single point, e.g.

    • Solving problem X is very important.
    • Most people use method Y to solve problem X.
    • Method Y has this/that weakness.
    • Method Z avoids this weakness.
    • Show on an actual example that Z is better than Y for problem X.

    At this point you should start worrying about consistency. What you have to look out for is dependencies between your statements, i.e. have you really stated everything you need to state such that I can make the next statement? Will you be using words/concepts/methods before introducing them? It is important that you get these things right at this early phase, where ironing problems out is still relatively easy.

  3. Once you've nailed your story line, you can start fleshing-out your individual statements. Here too, I would recommend sticking to bullet points and making only one statement of fact per bullet. The first statement above, for example, can be expanded as follows:

    • Introduce problem X.
    • List several instances of problem X.
    • Give a concrete example of where solving problem X is important.
    • State benefits of solving problem X more efficiently.

    Here again, dependencies are crucial! Make sure you don't use any information without having given it in a previous statement. Also try to keep dependent statements as close together as possible. Remember that you're trying to tell a story and need to keep your reader on track.

    Also, note that I haven't said a thing about sections. It is usually only at this point that I would start placing section headings and grouping different statements. Doing so too early may cramp your story-telling.

  4. You should now have a somewhat complete story-board of what you're going to say, and you still haven't had to worry about how you're going to write it. What you need to do now is turn the bullets into text.

    The way I usually go about this is to turn every statement/bullet into a paragraph of text. The first sentence of said paragraph should be the statement, followed by at most one or two sentences either explaining it in more detail or giving an example of what you are saying. If you need an example, almost every paragraph in this answer was written this way.

  5. The final phase is refinement. Your paper, at this points, will probably consist of a large number of very short paragraphs that don't necessarily flow into each other. This is where you start merging paragraphs and using connectors between them, e.g. "Thus", "However", "Furhtermore", etc...

    This final step is not something you do once, it's something you repeat until your paper looks, feels, and reads like a regular paper. I usually go through a paper with a red pen and fix things by hand while reading, then implement the corrections, and then wait a day or two before iterating again.

In summary, the process I've just described is completely mechanical and does not involve any in-depth knowledge of the underlying language. The only language ability you need is to formulate clear statements. If you do anything fancier than that, you'll risk loosing any reader whose level of English is below your own.

I am very much aware that there are many people who can just sit down and write beautiful, precise, consistent, and easy to read papers. Good for them. For the rest of us, I suggest using the approach I describe. At least it works for me.

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As an international student, I have suffered a lot from writing academic papers. I believe It is an advantage to be English-native speaker in the academia. Well, I mean mastering the language not necessarily a mother tongue. Each time I submit a paper, I expect some comments on its english. I remember first time I submitted a paper it was rejected because of what so called bad english on it. Now after five years of writing and submitting and with the help of the supervisor and continuing reading papers, I got minor comments (in most cases its the reviewer style more than the language itself).

I believe it is up to the students, If they want to have a career in academia they should push themselves by reading and writing in English. They will notice their skills will be developed over the time. Also, proofreading ,to know your mistakes, is a good thing specially in the beginning.

Students don't know how to commit their ideas into paper

This is why you should push them. You want them to have successful careers after PhD, this will be very difficult without a good sense of writing academic papers.

Ask them to write first draft and hand it to you. You can comment on it and send it back to them. This is how it worked for me.

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+1 For they should push themselves by reading and writing in English. I myself never benefitted from reading those kind of books others recommended. You may learn how to write news reports by reading those books. It's completely different story when you write math/science papers. –  scaaahu Feb 1 '13 at 6:18
    
Another +1 for proofreading ,to know your mistakes, is a good thing specially in the beginning. The way I write here is, double check before posting, check again after posting, check again withing the 5 minute interval, modify my answers/comments again until it's really too many times and then stop. –  scaaahu Feb 1 '13 at 6:40

Rowena Murray is very good on this:

MURRAY, R., & MOORE, S. (2006). The handbook of academic writing a fresh approach. Maidenhead, England, McGraw-Hill.

MURRAY, R. (2006). How to write a thesis. Maidenhead, Open University Press.

MURRAY, R. (2005). Writing for academic journals. Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Understanding perceptions and fears about judgement (external and internal) and the difference between performance/learning orientations are sometimes useful conversations to have.

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Thank you for asking this question addressing what appears to be a sadly widespread problem in academia. I'm an international student (from India in US) myself, and it's been a great boon for me to be able to communicate fluently in English.

Particularly re: international students, our Office of International Students organizes (spoken) English classes, which are free for all international students and scholars. In addition, at Rice we used to have a group of grad students get together for lunch on Fridays and converse in English (this was a registered student organization called 'English Corner', and they had funding from various sources for the lunches). I realize that you were referring to resources for writing as opposed to speaking, but I believe that particularly for non-native speakers confidence in speaking can translate to confidence in writing. In terms of the actual writing process, there are some online resources, such as Englishforums

As for resources for a more general audience, in certain departments around here I've heard of a thesis-writing class that grad students are required to take for credit. Our Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies has recently been trying to put together some professional development workshops and courses, which often focus on the 'communication' aspect of academia. Another possibility is that the beginning courses in the doctoral program (1st and 2nd year classes) could be made to have a strong (or at least non-trivial) writing component. For example, one might require students to write an expository term paper or something along those lines.

I realize that roughly everything I've mentioned above has to do with resources available at my university, so perhaps my answer consists of 'Here are some resources that might already exist at your university, or might be put into place there'.

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There is a strong line in professional writing that suggests that there is no such a thing as writer's block.

Writing for a Journal should be something mechanic, not some work of art that should come from the depths of your hearth, at the end, it is a skill, and a skill that you have to work on.

Many professors are really bad writers, because their own professors were also very bad, there are few writing courses in a grad student's curricula.

These and other very valid points are presented in "How to write a lot" by Paul Silva, I find it to be a very useful book, and full of great advice both for students and professors alike.

Link to the book

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I recommend beeminder. It allows you to set goals publicly. If you go "off track", it penalises you in a few ways you can choose (charges you money, posts to your facebook account, ...).

For me it has been very effective to get me to write. I use it according to the following rule: I count writing sessions, where a session is at least 5 words. In fact, most of the time, I will end up writing hundreds of words, and beeminder just forces me to go over the activation barrier and start typing.

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