Academic writer’s block cure

In my previous post I discussed how I turned to writing as a way to put a stop to my obsessive-compulsive outlining behaviour. Outlining is certainly an important part of preparing for writing, but not if outlines keep on begetting further outlines and there is no end in sight to the proliferation of outlines. The white space of the empty Word document acted as a laboratory or workshop where I could cobble together the various conceptual threads, while still keeping a reverse outline to monitor the emerging shape of the argument. This strategy worked fairly well for a while, and I ended up with about 3000 words that I’m reasonably happy with.

Then I got stuck. Now, I’m sure lots of things have been written about the writer’s block, and I don’t have time to read any of it. So apologies if I’m stating the obvious. But I’ve been finding that there are usually two reasons why I get stuck: either I haven’t worked out the content of what I’m going to say (the conceptual point) or I haven’t worked out in sufficient detail the practical steps (workflow) that I need to take. The two reasons are closely interrelated because usually I need to work out the practical steps to be able to develop the conceptual points.

At this stage of the game however I couldn’t fathom developing yet another linear outline in a traditional one-pane or two-pane outliner to work out the next steps. One reason why I’m finding linear outlines less helpful towards the end of my project is that this stage requires synthesis, which is about putting things back together, rather than laying them out in a line (out-line). Synthesis requires matrix-type tools, as there are at least two “dimensions” that need to be brought together (if we consider a linear outliner a one-dimensional tool).

There are a number of ways to create such a matrix effect. One could just use a table (Word) or a spreadsheet (Excel) or columns in a one- (Bonsai) or two-pane (myInfo) outliner. I particularly like to use TreeSheets for this type of matrix-outlining. However, this time I reached for my favourite concept mapper, VUE, again, as it was a lopsided matrix that I had in mind, where one axis had a lot more content than the other and I needed the ability to visualise the shape of the whole thing, no matter what size it grew to.

I am working on a literature review chapter and I needed to evaluate the work of a major author. I had to review my notes on seven of his works (kept in ConnectedText), extract the main points and organise them into separate outlines in Bonsai, and finally consolidate them into a single outline. It was this last step that I used VUE for. I ended up with a concept map that looks like this:


The matrix is constituted by the analytical lens on the right-hand side (grey nodes), which was applied to evaluating the rest of the nodes. When I started the mapping and review process, I thought I only had three sub-topics to write about. Conceptual development occurred as part of this mapping process, and I ended up discovering that I had three more important things to say. Finally at the bottom I drew some conclusions from the material.

The advantage of doing this in VUE (as opposed to a traditional one- or two-pane outliner) was that I didn’t need to worry too much about an overall hierarchy initially. Any node can be linked to any other node, and while there is a certain hierarchy here (the overall argument flows from top to bottom, and section arguments flow from left to right and down), working in a concept map feels more fluid and free than in a linear outline. It is just a matter of different visualisation, as all of this could have been done in an adequately equipped one-pane outliner as well.

So what are the next steps? Now that I know what I want to say in this part of my chapter, I can write an introduction that will state what is going to be said, with a thesis sentence that combines the topic sentences of the six sections and points towards the contributions that will be summarised in the conclusions. My plan is to keep this concept map open in my second monitor and use it as a guide while I dictate my text into Word with Dragon.

6 thoughts on “Academic writer’s block cure

  1. Pingback: Developing a final outline | Dr Andus's toolbox

  2. I enjoy your blog and VUE looks interesting. I just discovered TreeSheets too. I’d be curious to have your comparative thoughts on Scapple, by the people who make Scrivener, if you get the chance.


  3. Thanks. I’ve tried Scapple a few times. It looks pretty good. It seems to offer much of the same basic functionality as VUE (though both have some different extra functions that I don’t need). But I’m sticking with VUE because I’ve already learnt how to use it fast and it’s working for me. But some other users prefer Scapple, as you can see from the discussions on Scapple here:

    • Thank you for the links. I found the discussions helpful. VUE really seems like a versatile tool. I haven’t played with it much but it looks very powerful. I really like its different structural views and the ability to quickly define different argumentative pathways all within the same outline. I wish the Zotero plugin was still working. That would have been my answer to Docear, which is an awesome concept but I find it buggy on a Mac.

      Sometime I find that testing ideas in different app environments can lead to new perspectives but I also agree that it’s easy to get carried away with the increasing number of tools now available. Perhaps the notion of an optimized workflow is simply a marketing gimmick?! Regardless of the different tools, research and writing is still a lot of hard work.

      In the meantime, I can’t help but continue the search. I wish Outline 4D, and Citavi along with a full featured version of OneNote were available on the Mac. I guess it’s times to reinstall Parallels again. :(

      • Another follow-up: I’ve been trying to find recent videos that demo VUE (most are from 2009) and ideally it’s use for academic research. Do you know if any? Would you ever consider demonstrating how you use it in a video? Cheers

        • Sorry I don’t, and also don’t have the time to make a video. But the basics of VUE are easy to figure out by just playing with it for a few minutes. As for the advanced features, I don’t know or use them myself.

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