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Expressing complex ideas in one’s native tongue is demanding in itself so it should not be surprising that doing this in a foreign language can be extremely challenging, even for experienced academics who do not normally find writing difficult. Through teaching academic English and discussions with my colleague, I have developed a few practical strategies which I would like to share with you.

1 Discuss your ideas

Discussing your ideas with someone else can help you get unblocked. I have increasingly come to believe that discussion is an important part of the writing process and my colleague Andrew and I have spoken about this quite a bit.

Writing is essentially a process of communicating thoughts and for many people it is much easier to explain, clarify and communicate ideas orally than in writing. Discussing your ideas with someone else can be helpful at all stages of the writing process, starting with the initial research ideas and the research proposal. Even communicating your ideas to someone who does not know your field (a family member for example) will help you clarify them.

2 Find a writing colleague

There is a reason why peer review is used in academic writing. Having a colleague with similar research interests with whom you can discuss your writing at all stages of the process (and who may even be willing to read it) can be beneficial in many ways. This can be a mutual arrangement in which you do the same for him or her.

Someone with similar research interests may be able to help you from the beginning stages as you think through methodology and available sources. Having a writing colleague can be particularly useful for discussing structure and sections that are difficult to write such as the methodology section. For PhD students and those with less experience in academic writing, this can also be helpful as thesis advisors tend to have very limited time.

3 Write how you speak

Write your thought the same way as you would say them to someone in simple, conversational English (or Czech if no one who speaks English is available). If it not possible to speak to someone, think about how you would explain your ideas to someone else. If you are still stuck, you could try writing your thought simply in Czech, then translating the text.

4 Convert to academic English after

I have noticed that some writers and students get blocked because they try to immediately write complex ideas in formal academic English. One way to overcome this is to first write your ideas in a simple conversational style as in strategy 3 above. Once you have your basic ideas on paper in a simple form, they can be changed into a more formal academic style.

5 Write quickly: make an outline or shorten

This is useful for writers like me who tend to get stuck because they get lost in detail. Make an outline or try to quickly write your idea in one or two sentences. This can clarify the idea. Once the idea is clear, it is normally not difficult to add detail.

I hope that some of these may be useful for you. I would welcome your ideas of strategies you use for overcoming writer’s block.

Here is one from Rachel Cayley on her academic writing blog Explorations of Style: “It is near-impossible to solve writing problems without using writing as our central strategy.”


Pamela Cotte

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