When I sit and start writing my master thesis, I write the first couple lines, then I don't know what to write and get stuck. I feel like I'm not creative enough for writing. The questions are. How to get around this blockage? How to organize the ideas? How to stay focused? Is this think typical?

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    Hi, welcome to the site. Do you think you can rephrase this to be a more specific question? As you wrote it, I don't see how we can provide a helpful answer. If not, talking to your adviser would be a good start. – Jeff Apr 4 at 14:13
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    What is your question? Or do you just.want to talk? – user111388 Apr 4 at 14:21
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    Yes, fairly typical. – Buffy Apr 4 at 15:36
  • Writer's block. Very common. Look for something else to do (go to the library looking for further references, check your experiments, clean up your programs, print out and proofread your current writing, go for an extended walk, ...). Obsessing about it won't do any good, just much harm. – vonbrand Apr 4 at 17:17
  • Does this question help? – 6005 Apr 5 at 15:25

I have to assume that you have done the required research and are now just at the writing stage.

This could be a lot of things. But one piece of advice is to not try to write it from the first word to the last. Work from an outline. Fill in the outline in such a way that it seems like a blurry picture becoming clearer and clearer.

In other words, if you have some idea about methodology, work on that section for a bit. If there is something about the conclusion that comes to you, write that down. Go through whatever notes you have made and add ideas to appropriate sections as you go.

Another technique is to use index cards effectively. Carry them around with you and add new cards or modify old ones as ideas come to you throughout the day. Index cards can be better than a notebook, since they can easily be rearranged and even discarded. As you mine the notes you have, write index cards for the ideas there. Rearrange as necessary.

Ultimately a deck of index cards could, in some sense, represent the entire work.

This isn't the only possible way to attack it, but a piecemeal approach might be able to help you avoid some forms of writer's block, such as being overwhelmed whenever you sit down.

Of course, this method will require heavy editing for continuity as you get closer to the end.

There is a more extreme method that was once mentioned to me by an English professor in an intensive writing course. He had a lot of contacts who were writers of various kinds. He mentioned one person whose method was to "make one page of progress" every day. The person would work until the current manuscript, including revisions, was one page longer than the day before. This results in a short story every three weeks or a novel every year. But, I suspect that it takes a certain sort of personality, somewhat obsessive, to manage that. And one page of progress is not the same as one page of writing. And it was creative writing he was speaking of, not scientific writing.

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  • The index card method sounds very interesting, I want to try it some time! Can you give any advice on how elaborate they should be? – Jonas Schwarz Apr 4 at 15:10
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    @JonasSchwarz, start with only a sentence or two on a card. Don't try to fill it. You can use different colored cards for different kinds of ideas. See this, though it was written for a different purpose: cseducators.stackexchange.com/a/1168/1293 – Buffy Apr 4 at 15:13

Try to do the easiest parts first. Not the most important parts. Not the beginning. Just anything easy.

This gives you traction and starts to build up some form of a document. Once you see that, you move on to the next easiest part.

It is AMAZING how well this process works to deal with writers avoidance.

I just had a work PPT that was scaring and depressing me (mental voice telling me over and over "you are shit"). But I made a computer file and saved it (just a save as of another file). Then I cleared all the slides except title and one content slide. Then I edited over the title slide and the content slide became an outline. Then I added my personal bio/intro.

All pathetically easy and in the context of things, low content/value. But I started to see a document emerge. Then I added (using cut and paste) slides with very simple titles for each think I might talk about, maybe 12 of them. Just blank slides with a very short title on top. Then I picked the easiest of those slides to fill in. Then I was on my way and before you know it, I had a 30 page PPT, which I even had to be strategic about only covering select parts and using an appendix during an hour talk.

You can use the same process to overcome that inner voice saying "I am shit".

  1. Save and name a Word file. Yes, just this basic step.

  2. Make the title page. Yes, just this basic step. But now it is recognizable as the start of a document on your topic.

  3. Using the page break feature, make sections for the different parts of your document (acknowlegement, TOC, TOF, TOT, abstract, intro, Chapter A, chapter B, chapter C, Conclusion, Endnotes). You don't even need to write any of the content. Just make a page that has "Table of Contents" as words at the top of the page (not even inserting the TOC yet). OK! Now you have a verifiable skeleton of your document. [Don't worry too much about if the topics are ABC or ABCD or 123. Just slap a very simplistic 5 year old's breakdown of the topic as sections. There's more than a 50% chance that that stays as the high level structure...but even if not, it is easy to rearrange content in the future once you have something down.]

  4. IF you have any papers (school papers or journal articles) that cover the content you will do, than cut and paste those in. AS IS. Yes, you may need to do some pruning, synthesizing, reformatting later. But for now, if the content of Chapter A roughly corresponds to your paper in Journal of A, than dump it in. [Use your judgment here, as if the stuff is way afar, than it's just spinach you have to prune later. But if it is on the topic, copy it. (You will use citations and comments to cover yourself for re-use of text. Don't let the plagiarism pedants stop you.)]

  5. Now write the easiest section. Which is. The acknowledgments. Just type that stuff in. Boom. You have actually written a section now. Yeah, it's a gimme. Yeah, no content on your topic. But so what. This is about traction.

  6. Now the abstract. Everyone will tell you to write that at the end...but this is about TRACTION. You can go back and edit it EASY. But that's a simple set of 1-3 short paragraphs. You can just jot something down. And it will get you thinking about the topic. OK. Now boom, you actually wrote something about your topic. Go, YOU!!!!

  7. Continue to pick away at it in this fashion. Always going for easiest first. Once you have a skeleton with random pieces of meat hanging off of it, you are going...the cadaver will come to life.

  8. If you need to take a break, then go back and do a little editing, wordsmithing of previous parts. But try to keep that light and don't get too diverted. The main thing is to get chunks of gory meat on the paper. Don't worry if not perfect. Just get slabs of stuff on the paper.

  9. Somewhere around 20-50% of the meat down, you'll have traction and know that you are going to create a complete carcass. And then you will.

  10. And then pretty it up with embalming fluid and rouge and Sunday clothes.

  11. Give it a kiss...and move on to other conquests.

You can do this. Try my process.

P.s. This works even if you haven't done "all the research". Really as long as you've had some heavy immersion/work in the topic such that you can write a lot of the content, it can actually help you break "RESEARCHER'S BLOCK" to write the paper. I have written good science papers, where I knew that I still had to do some data analysis or run another set of bench experiments or do a graph...but wasn't in the mood. The act of writing the entire paper (EVEN INCLUDING dependent conclusions of yet to be done experiments/analysis) got me motivated to do the last pieces of research. And yes, sometimes I even had to modify my "conclusion".

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Write any bit in any order and, very importantly, don't worry about how good it is. Writing and editing are different tasks and require different approaches. Switching between them interferes with doing either of them. You can do the organisation later. Sure, it's nice to be able to organise as you go, but a blank page can intrude so much on your thinking that the panic gets in the way.

To get past the initial bit, you might also want to talk instead of write. What I mean by this is to find someone who is willing to listen and simply describe to them what you are doing, why you are doing it, what you found out and why that's interesting. If possible, get them to ask 'why' type questions when they don't understand something. Then write down what you said - one of the advantages of a lockdown is that such talking is probably recordable. If you don't have anyone, then imagine someone and record your explanation to your imaginary colleague.

Once you have something written, start organising it (not a full edit). For each paragraph, write a few words next to it to describe the main idea. Then look at all those main ideas and put them in the right order by reordering your paragraphs. Work out what ideas are missing, add in a few words for that main idea (in the right place). Expand any into paragraphs that you can, but don't worry if you just leave it as the idea place holder.

There are also resources available, this is a very common problem. Maybe your university has some online recommendations (look for a study skills site). But other universities will also have recommendations.

Another option is to find an extended article on a topic that is like yours. Then simply copy the structure. Obviously you don't want to be plagiarising or using their phrasing, but if they have three paragraphs describing the lab setup, then that gives you guidance on the sort of things you need to put in your description of the lab setup.

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There are some really good suggestions already, but you could also consider getting help in real life. Most universities (in Germany at least, but I'd think the same applies to other countries as well) offer courses to address this problem or have a person one might contact.

From my experience the people providing these services are really competent, but your mileage may vary depending on your institution.

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