How to Overcome Academic Writer’s Block: Writing a “Zero” Draft

It’s 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning–your designated time for academic sunny office windowwriting. You’ve just gotten back from class and your newly refilled cup of coffee is sitting next to the keyboard. The sun is streaming in your small window, and the smell of a spring rain is wafting in. You’ve closed your office door to indicate to your well-meaning colleagues that you are hard at work. Your afternoon is filled with teaching prep and meetings, but the next two hours are wide open. Ahhh, you think to yourself, the perfect time to make progress on that new book chapter. You sit down, move the mouse to wake up your computer, and open to a new Google Doc.

Instead of feeling joyful anticipation, however, your stomach begins to churn. All of the great ideas that have been brewing for the last several days when you didn’t have a second for writing suddenly disappear. You start to write and immediately delete it. You write another sentence and hit “delete” again. The blank screen that seemed so full of possibilities a few moments ago now seems to be mocking you with its white expanse.

You check the clock; two minutes into your academic writing session and a sense of panic is starting to well up inside of you. You find yourself longing for a knock on the door or an email notification from your phone (which you wisely turned off before sitting down to the computer). Even grading seems appealing right now…that’s not a good sign.

Instead of packing it up and waiting for the mood to strike you to start writing, you decide to keep butt in chair and forge ahead. So what do you do now? You start writing a zero draft.

You’re probably acquainted with the concept of a zero draft and might even have recommended it to your students, but you might not have tried one as a step in your own academic writing process. If you’re not familiar, a zero draft is all about creating a safe, non-threatening space to get your thoughts down on paper and start writing.

There’s really only one rule of writing a zero draft, but it’s often fairly difficult for writers to adhere to: you must resist the urge to revise in any way, shape, or form at this particular stage. Although the idea of writing incomplete sentences or making a huge leap in your interpretation of the evidence is abhorrent to most academic writers, denying your urge to edit as you write is crucial. Trust me, there will be plenty of time to revise, revise, and revise some more (which I’ll be talking about in future posts), but this is about getting your ideas flowing and down on paper.

I first learned about zero drafts from Joan Bolker’s amazing book, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, when I had to write three chapters in three months to secure a tenure-track position back in 2003. Since then, I’ve identified some additional tips for incorporating zero drafts into your academic writing process.

  1. Make sure you save the document specifically as a zero draft and write “Zero Draft” at the top of the page. For some writers, that extra step of calling something a zero draft immediately alleviates some of their anxiety.
  1. If you’re feeling particularly stuck or just want to “warm-up” a little, I highly recommend taking some time (five- or ten-minute increments seem to work notebookbest) for free writing. Depending on my mood, I’ll type directly into a Word doc or write my ideas in a notebook. Think of a particular idea or piece of evidence that you know you want to include and just start writing about it. Don’t worry about tone or grammar, just write, and keep writing until your timer goes off. Whether you’re relieved when your initial time is up or want to keep writing, you no longer have a blank page staring back at you.
  1. To resist the urge to stop and edit as you go, type “REVISE” or “REVISE ALL” at the beginning of particularly problematic sentences and paragraphs and then keep moving. Although theoretically the whole draft is a work-in-progress, I’ve found that including this extra signpost that a particular sentence or section will need some additional work helps me not to get stuck.
  1. Another great strategy for writing a zero draft is creating an outline for the whole piece or a particular section. I am a huge proponent of using outlines for academic writing. Most of my zero drafts eventually take the form of an outline. Clearly and succinctly identifying your arguments and major themes not only provides a rudimentary framework for your writing but will result in a stronger piece over all. As you develop your outline, make sure that all of your headings are directly related to your main argument(s). Once the hard work of creating the outline is finished, all you have to do is fill it in and you’re on your way!

Pro tip: at this stage, do not allow yourself to get too caught up in writing an introduction or a conclusion. Usually both of these sections undergo so much revision over the course of future drafts that I’ve found that leaving them until closer to the end saves precious writing time and results in more effective introductions and conclusions. It is fine at the zero draft stage just to make a placeholder for the introduction and conclusion and move on.

These are some ideas for how to push past writer’s block. What about you? What strategies do you use that would be helpful to other academic writers?

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3 thoughts on “How to Overcome Academic Writer’s Block: Writing a “Zero” Draft

  1. cocoa artista says:

    I think the idea of writing a “zero-draft,” is a great idea. It is definitely an idea that I am willing to try. I wish that I would have found this article before I started the research paper that I completed on Monday. Thanks again for the tips!

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