Overcome academic writer’s block

Accounting faculty share their best tips for getting unstuck.

October 13, 2015

Writing is fundamental to any professor’s job, especially those working toward tenure, who may be required to publish four or more pieces in A-rated journals. But even the most seasoned writers sometimes face a blindingly blank page.

The writer ponders analogies and clever phrases. Tap-tap-tap. No, you can’t write that, that’s cliché, the inner critic says. Delete-delete-delete. Suddenly, it seems like a good time to get a snack, organize the mail, or text your spouse about dinner—anything but commit to those first few sentences.

“A block may point to a more significant root cause,” said Phil Reckers, Ph.D., director of the School of Accountancy at Arizona State University. “Struggling with what to say could mean you aren’t reading widely enough, or you have lost touch with current practices in the field.”

Don’t let writer’s block discourage you. Even the best writers—Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and Neil Gaiman, for example—have reportedly struggled with it. But it can be conquered. Here, accountants and academics share some of their best strategies for obliterating writer’s block.

Plan for procrastination.

Expect to face some delays as you move from gathering references to actually writing. It takes time to let ideas “marinate,” before those first thoughts flow easily onto the page. Build this extra time into the beginning of the writing process and account for it when setting deadlines.

“I expect writer’s block, and I use it as motivation,” said William H. Black, CPA/ABV/CFF, Ph.D., an assistant professor of accounting at the University of North Georgia. “After decades of experience, I know I will procrastinate, so I set up restrictions and commitments for myself so I’m forced to get things done by a deadline.”

But if you’re in denial that you tend to procrastinate, it’s time to get real, said Dan Stone, CPA (inactive), Ph.D., an endowed chair and director of graduate studies at the Von Allmen School of Accountancy at the University of Kentucky.

“Notice but don’t fight with your writing demons,” Stone said. “When you hear the inner critic questioning every word, welcome it. Respond with, ‘I see you, inner critic. Welcome. You are part of me.’ And then get back to work.”

Create an outline, even if you abandon it.

Fifth-grade language arts teachers had it right: One of the best ways to start the writing process is to make an outline to organize your thoughts.

Outlining in your mind is not enough. Taking the time to map your thoughts on paper will force you to catalog your proof points. An outline can also identify holes in your arguments that may need additional research.

“I like to write things down on sticky notes as ideas take hold,” Reckers said. “I keep adding to them, and soon I have enough content. Seeing it as just a sticky note also makes it easier to discard or save ideas for later.”

Even if you stray from the outline as you write a first draft, it helps ensure you haven’t strayed too far off course or omitted an important point.

Write every day.

Make writing part of your daily routine. Craft a few pages every day instead of cramming your work into painfully long sessions just before deadline.

“Just write, even if you are writing about how much trouble you are having writing,” said Sue Ravenscroft, CPA (inactive), Ph.D., professor of accounting at Iowa State University. “It gets the cognitive juices flowing.”

And you don’t always have to start at the beginning.

“I start where the writing is the easiest,” said Dale Flesher, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., professor of accountancy and associate dean at the Patterson School of Accountancy at the University of Mississippi. “That may be the introduction, or the conclusion, or somewhere in between. The secret is to write a little bit, regardless of how much time you have.”

Step away from the desk.

If outlining and freewriting aren’t giving way to greatness, it might be time to step away from the computer. Explore meditation or mindfulness—the practice of being calm and concentrating on the sensations of your body, your breath, your feelings and thoughts.

“If I could give just one tip, it would be to meditate,” Stone suggested. “The benefits of this practice are well-documented in improving focus, concentration, memory, and attention.”

Others are rejuvenated by a walk in the woods, or by strenuous exercise, which boosts endorphins, fights fatigue, and clears the mental clutter so you can get back to the keyboard.

When tackling a big project, Ravenscroft said she sets a personal deadline a week before the project is due so she has time to break away. Time away builds perspective, she said.

“I like to let the paper sit and read it cold,” Ravenscroft said. “Then I can see how much more editing it needs. Contrary to what we have heard about Jack Kerouac and Hemingway, most of us are not doing our best writing under pressure.”

Share the pain.

Consider joining a writer’s group at your university, or start your own. Having other perspectives on your work can add clarity, depth, and creativity to your writing, and can increase your productivity.

“Find one or several co-authors who also are motivated to produce published work, and team up to get more projects in process,” Black said.

Most importantly, don’t give up, said Flesher, who has authored 50 books and more than 400 journal articles. One of his books was rejected by 17 publishers before finally being accepted, he said.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.

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