How to Write your Thesis when you can’t write.

I’ve been doing some DIY thesis writing retreats. I wish my Graduate Research School would offer them, but they don’t. And I’m highly unproductive at my desk on 2. 5 days a week, so I started scheduling some chunky time away to write my thesis. 

However, even in these chunky blocks, there are times, days even when I am just totally struggling to write. I should be super productive, each retreat has been somewhere nice, with good food, ability to exercise and yet I find myself playing with Endnote, re-reading the same stuff, searching further references- you know, the rabbit holes of PhD productivity. 

But I’ve come accept that even on Writing Days – that it is not always possible to write. Blogs, sure. Tweets, easy. Thesis, impossible. So here are some non-writing strategies that I’ve been using when I should be writing

(a) Freestyling & Bullet Points: this works for especially if I’ve got a time and word limit. For example, last night, I knew I had to finish by 5.30pm to go out for dinner, and I still was 2000 words off my daily target. It was 4pm. Yikes! I asked myself, what could reasonably expect to do once I came home from dinner? 500 was probably my limit. So that meant 1500 in 1.5 hours.  I have stuck up above my desk a little menu of sections to write on. For example; 500 words on limitations, 1000 words on X topic for literature review Chapter, 500 words on Ethical considerations. I looked at my menu and chose two of the smallest menu items – 500 words on Limitations and 500 words on delimitations. That was do-able. I then just wrote like fury in bullet point form- to myself. So not academic-y.  Nothing referenced. Not even full sentences. But I just kept writing. So – this got my word count done, I was only 5 minutes late for dinner. (I never wrote the 500 words on returning home, but oh well). 

(b) Copy and Paste Quotes: I’ve always liked this method – but I’ve learnt the hard way that you should ALWAYS copy the full reference and page number when you do it. If you don’t, you are leading yourself into academic plagiarism land. Good luck with that.764px-Browne,_Henriette_-_A_Girl_Writing;_The_Pet_Goldfinch_-_Google_Art_Project

 I’ve got a draft thesis outline. There are many empty sections with nothing but a header. It is hard to write under empty headers. Copy and paste is a bit like gathering evidence. I know I want to write about how different authors have addressed X theme under this section. But I just even starting reading the literature is daunting, let alone writing on it. So I can break this into manageable tasks. (1). I’ve got a section header- great start (2) I need to dump some stuff in there from other people (3) my Endnote is organised pretty well, so I can go to an Endnote Group and find the papers I need quickly. (4) I use the ‘search PDF’ function in Endnote to re: skim through the paper to find the quotes/paragraphs/sentences that will be relevant. I don’t need to re-read the whole paper. I did that already. I probably didn’t do it that well as I don’t have notes, but anyways. (5) I copy/paste the bits under my Section Header (fully referenced thank you). and hey presto. I’ve just given myself a nice starting point tomorrow. 


About Sarina Kilham

I'm a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Trained as a social scientist and with a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture, I'm interested in farmer's experiences of growing feedstock for biodiesel production. My research has focused on biodiesel production in Brazil and Timor-Leste. Also on Twitter @sarinakilham and blogging at
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