This isn't the best moment to ask the question, since I should be writing an overdue document and presentation.

However, is there any place where a person with fear of writing can work? I am studying for a PhD in Europe in a STEM field. I was always quite good at school and university. I was on schedule with my studies, but the preparation of my master thesis was quite painful and I have the impression than I should have completed it in 60% of the time it took me. After a short experience in the industry in a field close to my own (but for which I didn't have all the skills), I took the opportunity of a PhD in my field. Of course before that I had been making interviews for jobs in my field, but never got anything. Being extremely introvert doesn't help. I already feel embarrassed writing my CV, and adding details as hobbies or strength points (actually I ended up skipping those parts).

Now it's been more than one year that I'm in this PhD and each writing task is really making me desperate. Initial proposal, internal reports, and presentations torment me for weeks. From this emotional distress, I am often impaired both in my writing and research work. I have ended up crying at home at night in front of a white page (once even at morning at work, but I managed to hide in the bathroom in time).

I'm lucky that my advisor doesn't put too much pressure on me, but I feel so bad not being able to hand in what I am required, sometimes even after a deadline. The problem is that even if a deadline is reasonable, sometimes I cannot make it because it takes me 2 days to write 1 paragraph (no kidding). Guess how many papers submitted?

Still, I enjoy much more my time here than in the industry. I enjoy academic reading, I have thirst for knowledge and so on, but I see that communication is an essential part for a PhD student. So far I am willing to continue with the PhD program, but I am starting to doubt that I will ever be confident in writing and that this will cripple my academic future.

Any suggestion on how to turn the career path? Also a suggestion on how to overcome fear of writing would be good, but I am afraid I've already read all the good advice here on SE and in many blogs about procrastination, perfectionism, impostor syndrome...

If can be of interest, writing this question took me more or less 40 min.

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    Wait, what? You mean there are people who don't start off with a fear of writing? Have you tried Hemingway's advice: write drunk, edit sober?
    – 410 gone
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 11:56
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    @EnergyNumbers I find it inappropriate to encourage a person who very well might be struggling with depression to self-medicate with alcohol, even as a joke. Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 13:17
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    @DanPetersen IME, when I treat people like responsible adults, they generally behave like responsible adults. YMMV.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 13:26
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    anyway in this moment i am so tired that i am jotting down ideas without thinking and worrying to much... but they will really need to be revised with a fresh mind, so i think i am exactly in the condition described by hemingway! without even spending the money for the booze Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 16:57
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    @DanPetersen Hemingway's advice is figurative. What it means is: Be lenient toward yourself while writing, be critical only when reviewing. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 16:13

7 Answers 7


I do resonate with your experience because I was scared to write (English is not my mother tongue) and I am also an introvert. I have been reading much about writing and networking and here are some tried and working methods (by me) that I wish will also help you. In the case of real fear, I agree that talking to some professional will also be advisable.

Don't "write," instead, draft then edit

My biggest "A-ha--!" moment was learning that most writers don't really write a perfect sentence at the first go, instead, they draft and edit. And for me, my mind has eased up so much once I have learned this distinction and decided to split my writing tasks into drafting and editing. In drafting, I just freely interpret the data and plug in some discussion here and there, occasionally with some anecdotes, etc. I never edit them. Then, after a couple days, I return to edit the piece. On a good day, I got to keep about 40-60% of them; on a bad day, I may have to slash 80-90%, but also often have a good laugh at what I wrote.

This finding really liberated me. I'd suggest you give this a try as well.

Write to think instead of think to write

Instead of writing to tell people what you think, I found it easier to write it as if I am having a discussion with myself. I wrote the research question, and then gave some answers, and then went back to question the answers more. I was often surprised that many times I read the scribble and figured out "Oh, this is what it is!"

I would advise against crafting out a perfect sentence and then put it on paper. This is futile because mind works a lot faster and non-linear than typing/writing process. By the time a "perfect" sentence is written, a lot of useful thoughts might have been suppressed or forgotten.

Dedicate times to write

Silvia in How to Write a Lot introduces a method that involves making a time and a space to write. I adopted the method this way: I block out time a few weeks ahead as writing/analysis time, then I guard that time. I cleared up the wall and the desk I face when I work on the computer so that I can only see the computer (and other books/articles I use) when I write. There is no picture, stationery, picture frame, etc. 120 degrees in front of my eyes. I also close down e-mail, silent my phone, and close the door.

Boice in Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing even goes so far to suggest coupling important and crucial daily ritual (such as shower) with writing hour. No writing? No shower. I found this kind of stressful, but perhaps may work for people with a different personality.

Document time as well as words

Productivity aside, it's more fulfilling to document my writing effort in both time and output. High output is, of course, great. But I have also come to realize that reminding myself I have been dedicating a fixed time regularly to write, albeit slow and low, makes me feel more confident.

Free writing

Goodson in Becoming an Academic Writer explains some pretty nice workshops to foster a healthy writing habit. The starting one is to "free write." Free writing is not new, and some people use this to warm up or tune into the internal writer channel. It's really simple, just sit down, open an blank document, minimize the visible area so that you cannot see what you type, set a time limit, and pour out all sorts of thought that goes inside your mind. Anything, just type.

Usually, after the time limit (I started with 5, now 10,) you'll have a pretty clutter-free mind and clearer idea on what that day's writing is gonna be.

Use proxy of writing

There are many, many ways one can put down an idea without initially writing it out. Drawing a mind map, popularized by Buzan, can help forming a bird view of an article. Paper and colored pen are good enough, online tools such as VUE are abundant.

Doodling, such as Sketchnote recommended by Rohde, can also be a fun way to "play" with words and idea.

For scientific writing, a paper by O'Coonor and Holmquist in 2009 suggests a pretty interesting method: basing your writing on a key output, such as a graph of the results, or a table of an analysis, and then build from there. For most experienced researchers this may be nearly common sense, but for those who think a paper should be written from Abstract to Conclusion linearly, this paper would help re-orienting them. My former supervisor, knowing my hesitation for writing, actually used this very method when advising me.

Use a recorder to document your thoughts or use speech recognition software to dictate your spoken words into texts may also help you break away from the deep-rooted fear towards writing.

Harness creativity

When writing output falls, I feel tired. After some trials and errors, I figured out that I feel tried not because I lacked energy, but because of too much creative thoughts didn't get to be expressed. So, I play music, pick a challenging recipe and make a potentially horrible dish (and eat it, butter + pepper + red wine always save the day), play LEGO, knit and crochet, come to answer questions... etc. I actually picked up a lot of habits through my doctoral study.

Introvert vs. extrovert

Being an introvert is actually not bad! In most modern culture extroverts get a lot more praises and attentions, but if you cast a critical look at it, this world needs both types to run properly. Two books I read last year were quite inspiring: Zack's Networking for People Who Hate Networking provides advices on how to focus your energy and properly carry out quality networking; Laney's The Introvert Advantage provides a more holistic look at how extroverts and introverts work, and how to cope and thrive as an introvert.

Closing remark

Best of luck and, really, enjoy the ride even it's scary. After the PhD thesis, there will be more collaboration and you will not feel as lonely. When I am down and want some healing reading, I often flip through Lamott's Bird by Bird and Zinsser's On Writing Well. They are also a good choice before reading those more serious and pragmatic how-to guides on writing.

Whenever I feel cognitively/academically inferior/inappropriate, I would think about a remark of Florence Foster Jenkins, who slaughtered Mozart's Queen of the Night aria (Try listen to Edda Moser's version first, and then Jenkin's version): "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." Before worrying doing it well, do it first, and you will improve.

The fact is I have never met one person in my life who genuinely embraces writing as if they "love" to write. Most successful writers, when interviewed, often just say things like "What tips? I just write," or "I draft, and then I write, rewrite, and then I rewrite again." Betty's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has made a lot of people realize they can draw; I wish there will be a book called Writing on the Right Side of the Brain that will make people realize that we all can write, but we probably have to wait until the neuroscientists get over their fear of writing.

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    +1. Excellent advice, well put. I make use of a website called 750words.com for free writing. For some reason, having a URL that presents me with a blank page each day and keeps track of when I write (and when I don't) is really helpful. Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 16:27
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    Another useful trick: Turn on the tape recorder. Explain the topic as you would to a technically savvy friend. Transcribe the resulting tape, and that's your first draft; now all you need to do is improve it rather than having the "where do I start" problem. Or trick yourself by saying the first attempt is just warm-up and doesn't need to be good (often it will be better than you expect), or start writing at the second paragraph or second section to overcome the paralysis of finding a good first sentence, and fix that later. Been there, done that; broke near-total writer's block.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 23:55

The only thing you should do is to seek professional advice. Writer's block (in all its forms) is not uncommon and it is clearly possible to remedy. I cannot and will not get into possible reasons for why this occurs but clearly in a PhD, particularly early on, it may seem like a daunting affair. To avoid ones problems is not the solution. If you see yourself in academic jobs (in or outside academia) writing will be one of your main tools. To try to find a job where this is not necessary will be difficult unless you see yourself switching direction completely. So the advice is seek help now. You will not be the first one to do so and will not be the first who will be able to continue.

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    I'd like to add that many universities have some kind of office where you can get psychological counseling. They should at least be able to refer you appropriate professional help. If you don't know where to find them, you can try to ask your exam office (they regularly have students with exam anxiety and usually know where to send them for help). Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 11:06
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    There are also helpful books about overcoming writer's block, like "Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing" by Robert Boice.
    – user6782
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 12:27
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    There are well established clinical treatments for problems like these. I've read papers about therapy for math anxiety, for example, and the therapy is effective. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 0:13

It is your PHD. You have to write. Papers, reports, thesis. It cannot be done otherwise. On the other hand, you must know that all of us have collapsed (or constantly collapsing) under pressure, one way or another. Others have stayed in bed not wanting to get up. Others blocked out and could not perform. The "stronger" ones sucked it all in (externally) and developed serious health issues. So, you are not alone.

You should fight it. Get a girlfriend / boyfriend. Talk to your family and friends. Exercise, do sports. As wiser people have said "Whatever it takes to keep your hands free". But even then, you might not be able to fight it alone and might need to seek some professional help. It is not a shame. It is actually a brave action to admit you are not always strong in a world full of hypocrites and wannabes.

In term of practical advice. Select some successful authors in your research area that you really like their writing style. In the beginning, partially emulate their style. See how they describe the challenges and the related work. Rephrase the related paragraphs in your unique style. Then add in your what are you trying to do. That will be enough to make it through the introduction and the related work. Beginning is always the hardest part. Once those 1-3 pages are out of the way and you start to write "your" contribution and "your" experiments, you will see that things get easier. So, in the beginning emulate and adapt (but not copy) from the authors you like. After 1-2 written papers, you will see that you do not need to do that anymore and you have developed your style. Most of all, enjoy the process. Everyone has gone through your phase and you CAN and WILL get through it.


There are opportunities in research that don't require writing, usually in engineering, building things about which some other people will write about. I don't know about your area, STEM is for stem cells?

First point: you may not need to write.

However, if you happen to need to write or you would like to overcome these issues (which I would encourage, even if it may be a bad idea), then I don't know how to help you, but since I started writing I now need to put an end to this. There are a few things you could consider (I'm not an expert in this topic, this is just from the top of my head):

  1. As you see, you don't need to worry [that] much about writing in a place like here. You are anonymous, and users here can get to be as moronic as I am (I think I'm the supreme in that ordered set), so no need to worry about sorting the ideas [that] much.

  2. try to get a habit of writing, forums, blogs, whatever. Don't struggle to write properly (people clearly don't do so), simply try to be natural, get a habit, have fun. Then, when you are confident (and fast) try to get better at it, you will get better faster (with your newly gained speed).

  3. think in words. I always thought everybody did this, I certainly do, I guess some people may not (maybe deaf people think in different ways). If you are commuting, waiting in bed to get asleep or in any other spare time with nothing better to do, think about anything you may be interested, but try to structure your thoughts in a conscious way into sentences and a discourse (no big effort, try to do this naturally). Writing is simply typing this. Typing may be hard for handicapped people, I don't want to make any assumption here, but if Stephen Hawking can manage to write stuff, I think you should be able too.

  4. get a template. Don't write papers, fill the gaps in a template. You can even use some other paper or set of papers (taking bits and pieces) to create one. All the papers of the same type (experimental, formal, theoretical, whatever) have the same structure. In this paper we address the problem of $topic when there is some $novelty.

    We extend previous approaches by including $novelty. This provides several advantages like $advantage1, $advantage2, $advantage3 in the context of $limitations. We have performed an [empirical/formal/user based/whatever] evaluation showing promising results about this possibility.

    Note: this is not a universal template, sometimes you will add some novelty that is good, sometimes you will be able to handle something that makes things harder and despite of that do something cool, etc. there are different tacit templates for different kinds of papers. When you get used to this, you will do it automatically, the template will be engraved in your brain.

    Don't worry about plagiarizing if you are starting, your supervisor will probably make many changes and plagiarizing is (should be!) about what people do, not how they write it. As long as you are doing new things, it should not matter much if someone wrote other things in a similar style. Or simply draw inspiration from several papers, researchers seem to like collages.

  5. submit your papers to journals. I'm an introvert and I hate conferences.

PS: listicles are easy! BTW: I wrote an answer that very bad written, mostly stupid and fairly useless, but it's still better than nothing, isn't it? Some people say: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt." But this is not true in academia, it's more like "What's important is that people talk about you, even if they only say bad things". It's all about impact!

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    STEM = "Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics". It's an acronym/shorthand including any field which is technical and quantitative
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 16:28
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    Thanks for the info. That's very general, but (in STEM in general) it may be feasible to research without writing, assisting to other people who write. Basically what I said about engineering, which also applies to technology. I don't see it possible in maths (which is about writing formulas, from my biased perspective) and science is... anything. It's a weird acronym, does it imply that maths and science are two different things and technology and engineering are also two different things? Are maths really quantitative? Is science really technical? Anyway, that's off topic, thank you again.
    – Trylks
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 16:33
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    If you have quantitative technical activity, calling it STEM saves you trying to pigeonhole it into "math" vs "engineering" and "engineering" vs "science". Some branches of math and certain sciences may not be quantitative -- and they aren't STEM.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 16:44

Two books by Robert A. Day helped me a lot to have a feeling about academic writing: Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals, 3rd Edition and How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. But the next important thing, like the other answers suggested, is to practice thinking and writing regularly.


The best way around writer's block I've found is to have several parallel tasks, i.e., do experiments, analyse results, read up on (and summarize if useful) literature, re-read and proof earlier chapters, write up new stuff, and so on. That way, when you get bored or otherwise stuck doing one task you can switch to another one. One task is blocked, but the others move along nicely ;-)

Another tip is to write down (even as a rough draft, but in your final format) what you do as soon as possible. If you don't, you can easily waste a week reconstructing some earlier derivation. It is also easier to edit a draft to (more near to) final form than writing, and in my experience neither the draft-writing nor the draft-polishing are prone to block me (at least much, much less than "writing").


My advice: By the time one is working on a dissertation, one has read dozens or more of articles, books, etc. So just start writing. Hint: You already have an 'emergency' plan in your mind of the minimal acceptable dissertation to write. So, write that out.

If you are in math or sciences (or any other field where figures and tables are applicable), do them, put them in a coherent order and describe them. This will get much of your goal accomplished.

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