Diane Dechief

Faculty Lecturer, The McGill Writing Centre

Q: What do you do when you are struggling with a particular point in your writing?

A: At certain stages while writing my dissertation, I found myself struggling. I developed these two strategies to help me power through—you can adapt them for your own needs.

The blueprint. This first technique helped me to better structure my writing. As I began a new chapter, I often faltered, but the technique that I used to resolve this was to keep an evolving “blueprint” in my view. My blueprint was a visual (i.e. diagrammed) representation of my intellectual goals for that chapter, and it helped me to stay focused on how I was drawing together theories, academic literature, and the data that I had collected. I taped each blueprint above my computer monitor, so that the current one was always in view. As I wrote, I also kept a text-based outline for my current chapter below my cursor in a word document, so that I always knew where I was heading with my current efforts. As I wrote, I would add ideas to the outline and I would occasionally redraw the blueprint.

The writer as runner. My second challenge was to keep focused and on-task for set periods of time. Once I was at my computer during the block of time I had set aside for writing each day, I broke that period into briefer segments (of 45 minutes) in order to stay on task. I wouldn’t allow myself to get a snack, or check my phone, or anything else, until a buzzer sounded at 45 minutes. And then I forced myself to get up and move around for 10-15 minutes. Sometimes I found my fingertips racing across the keyboard, trying to get my thoughts out before the buzzer rang. At other times, when I was struggling to keep going in the middle of these segments, I would remind myself that I can run for 45 minutes, and that writing is no harder than running. And then I would get back to work.

Photo credit: Lesley Stoch

Reading recommendations:

McPhee, John. (January 2013). “On Structure,” The New Yorker.
Read more about working in intervals, which is formally known as the Pomodoro technique.