Tips on Academic Writing: Overcome the Dreaded Blank Page

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Written by Tami Moser Ph.D., DBH

I’m a professional learner and professor. After spending 15 years in the corporate world, I moved to the crazy world of Higher Education. My learning journey resulted in a Ph.D., DBH, and a MPA. My free time is spent as a coach for working professionals and academics looking to expand their careers through higher education.

August 25, 2020

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. ~ Octavia E. Butler

Everyone that writes struggles with grammar, style, function, and readability. There is not an aspect of writing that comes easily to most. Even the most prolific writers talk about discipline, perseverance, and editing.

You shouldn’t be surprised that writing is a struggle. The challenge as a student in online graduate courses is the amount of writing that you need to produce every week. The writing needs to be consistent, high-quality, and meet academic scholarly standards. You can do that, right? No problem.

Well, maybe a little tiny smidge of a problem. So, what are the little things that get in the way?

First, the mighty BLANK PAGE. I cannot overstate how discouraging the blank white page is when you need to produce a 10, 15, 20 page paper in a 1-2 week timeframe. You’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about! 🥺

You stare at that page and sweat 😥 when you realize that time is ticking away and nothing is on the page.

You may type a few words on the page and then immediately erase them because, you know, they WEREN’T ANY GOOD!

In addition, you are fighting the Procrastination Trap. When you face both a big blank page and are wrestling the Procrastination Trap, there is a great deal to overcome. You need to find your focus and get words on paper.

The reality is: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ~ Jodi Picoult

We need something on the page and it doesn’t have to be good to start. In fact, let’s put content on the page without worrying about the reader.

Let’s get down to business:

  1. Pull out the assignment instructions. Some professors will write your headings and subheadings as part of the instructions and make clear what you are supposed to use. Others won’t. But the clues for the headings and subheadings are in the content instructions.
  2. Create the headings and subheadings of the paper. Now, you aren’t staring at a blank page. 🎉
  3. Don’t forget the Introduction and Conclusion. These are important components of any academic paper. Yes, you need to add them even when they are not explicit in the instructions.
  4. The headings are your roadmap and are now ready to go.
  5. Next, the full-sentence outline. This advanced outline gives you the opportunity to explore your content and write in small snippets. So, how does this work?
    • Create a full sentence for each paragraph of the paper. This is the topic sentence for that paragraph.
    • These topic sentences are under the headings and subheadings.
  6. The advantage of a full-sentence outline is that you now have the structure of your paper with a clear understanding of the content. Here is an introductory video on how to approach a full-sentence outline.
  7. Edit your paper before you write the paragraphs. Do the sentences flow from one topic to the next? Does this make sense when reading? Do you need to move topics or subheadings around?

Edit your paper before you write the paragraphs. Do the sentences flow from one topic to the next? Does this make sense when reading? Do you need to move topics or subheadings around?

Editing is much easier at this stage. You just need to move a sentence instead of a paragraph. This way you do not have to worry about editing transition sentences between paragraphs. You haven’t written them yet.

You should have a clearer understanding of what you are writing about and the structure of your thoughts. The next phase is writing the body. But don’t panic people! You have done the hard work. The topic sentences are on the paper. NO MORE blank white sheets of paper!

Now you are ready to write each paragraph. The paragraph comprises the topic sentence, ~ the point of it all. The rest of the paragraph should consist of supporting evidence. Remember, your opinion is not important at the doctoral level. You need to use the evidence to guide the reader and support your analysis of the situation.

  • First, take each topic sentence and write a paragraph. The paragraph needs to be filled with the supporting evidence for the topic sentence.
  • Once you have completed writing the paragraphs for each topic sentence, you are ready to read and make sure that the transitions from paragraph to paragraph, subsection to subsection, and heading to heading work well.
  • Second, write the introduction. An introduction seems simple. Many struggle with this 1-3 paragraphs at the beginning of the paper. There are components that need to be present in an introduction.
    • This should grab the reader’s interest,
    • Provide background on the topic and context for the paper,
    • Show a connection to scholarly thought or the gap in the knowledge you are working to fill, and
    • Provide a roadmap for the body of the paper.

This is not just about introducing a topic but also introducing the reasoning behind components of the paper. Tell me what you will tell me. This is why the introduction should be written after the body of the paper. Here are some links to read more about writing an introduction https://www.scribbr.com/academic-essay/introduction/, https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/introductions/, https://edubirdie.com/blog/research-paper-introduction

Organization of your literature is now crucial to a quick focused scholarly article. We’ll talk about how to tackle that next time. I hope these tips help you write faster and freeze less when working on your scholarly writing.

Until next time, keep writing and don’t forget the importance of getting started and putting words on paper.

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