Writer’s block is a common experience among academics and other writers alike, let alone students. I have suffered from it numerous times while preparing—and I still am—my book proposal and the corresponding manuscript. And I experienced this blog as much a distraction from doing those more important things as an aide to progressing with those things. And today I will just relate some of those experiences and how one can use a blog to one’s advantage in writing, especially when long-term projects are concerned.
A crutch for your Memory
A blog is a useful place where you can collect your recent finds which may spark new directions into which you immediately want to expand or to entirely redirect your project. You can use it to store these ideas there instead and get on with your project as it is. You don’t even have to publish it. Just type a quick draft, use transparent titles, categories, and tags and you will be able to find it again easily. This is a major advantage of the blog over the notorious word document, which, if you work on Windows in particular, you might rediscover only after having the same idea two more times.
Devote perhaps half a day to shape these ideas into a cohesive argument or narrative. And provide links and references. If you come back to it later, this will save you a great amount of time and frustration. Does the question ‘Where did I read that again?’ sound familiar? And after that, let those thoughts simmer and go back to your project. If they are still difficult to get out of your head, do other things beside writing which are equally important. Check your bibliography, read a seminal book or article you have postponed. Go to that dark corner of your office where dust has settled on your source material. Or take a break and think it all over. But before that, make sure you write down where you will take up the project on the following day (that makes the mornings so much easier). It will still only have cost you one day, added perhaps a new web-based publication to your CV, and…
…a boost in motivation! You have written something. And it makes sense. Okay, it is small and restricted in scope but it is finished and there. And that makes it so much easier to move on with your project, especially if you are currently suffering from a slump. For me this works much better than Netflix or thick, cheap novels. It just keeps you in the game in a different way.
Both aspects can also be connected. Say you are deep in theoretical country juggling theories that all too often contradict each other. A blog helps you through that in two ways. First, it helps you to structure these academic heavyweights in a way which you decide. You could make a post on each theorist, or you could structure the posts around certain topics or debates. Second, finishing each post motivates more than simply finishing the page or paragraphs you planned to dedicate to a certain aspect. Pressing that publish button and you can see your own works published on a screen feels good.
Now you could argue that any word processor allows you those things in a similar way. But I would disagree in that aesthetics play a role here as well, at least for me. Hypotheses for one offers a clear writing interface that just makes my texts appear better because they look better. That motivates me. I also set myself—usually—a limit of around a thousand words which means that one of my goals in writing is already clear from the start. I just have to find a satisfying conclusion once a reach that mark. And I can add images in a way that does not require further formatting. Those may be small things, you say, but they add up and make the writing experience itself better and thus motivate me to experience more writing. And this then carries on beyond the blog itself.
While I am writing this, I should polish several job applications. But I know that if I weren’t writing this I would probably distract myself with youtube right now.
There are different ways to utilize your blog writing for structuring your research at large. The memory crutch falls technically into this field as well. Several scholars in the Max Weber Foundation have, for instance, taken up a pledge that they will write one post a month. They use the blog to ensure that writing is a regular part of their research, meaning writing for an audience instead of note-taking for oneself (see above).
My approach is different and certainly more combustible. With exceptions, I usually return to write a new blog post when I feel like I cannot write anything bigger and more serious. It is my first step when I think about a new article or chapter. And in the emerging entry I explore one aspect of that new piece of writing: one manuscript or manuscript collection, one animal, one aspect of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s biography, you name it. Since I do not feel (and this is important) that I have to be as careful in phrasing as I feel when turning to the chapter or article itself, writing flows much better and the ideas actually become much more clearer.
And since this helps bring out new ideas, it often results in an outburst of creativity that I cannot often endure when writing these pieces themselves. This leads then to a day or two which I spend only with the blog. During this time, so many ideas come back or emerge for the first time. And, in a perfect world, I would write a short note on all of them. But even so, the blog format allows to catch several ideas each time which then get scheduled for later publication.
Although we have now reached a thousand words, I would address one last point.
Since the blog constitutes now a repository of all your good, great, and, admittedly, negligible ideas (another tool that I found very helpful in that respect is Open Science Framework), it is a great asset when time comes for the next application. Not only can you build your new proposal from one or several—or all—ideas collected, you already have readymade paragraphs (or at least blueprints for them) at your disposal. And besides, the blog does give you a more immediate visibility as everything is published and accessible when you say so. That means that, beyond mentioning your blog on your CV committee members might already be aware of your research and, in the best case, eager to have you at their department. If, and that is a big IF, people comment on your posts, you also get a new channel to make your writing and research better, another boon in the search for your future position.