Writer’s block? Experiencing isolation as a researcher or writer? WTO has got you covered!

Writer’s block? Experiencing isolation as a researcher or writer? WTO has got you covered!

Writer’s block? Experiencing isolation as a researcher or writer? WTO has got you covered!

How the Writing and Communication Center’s ‘Writing Together Online’ program helped me overcome writer’s block

December 22, 2022 | Vyshnavi V.


In 2019, I was in my second year of PhD when my PhD advisor told me that we had all the results we needed to write up a journal article related to my very first research project. After our meeting that day, I was so excited for two reasons: first, because this was my first journal article, and second, because I was in a position to write an article after only seven months of research. As I did not have any experience in writing a paper, I failed to foresee the challenges associated with this task. I had no idea how many iterations and revisions would go into this process.

The plan was to write out each section, send it to my advisor for her feedback, and then incorporate her comments. So, I started off with what I thought would be the first subsection of ‘Results and Discussion’. I spent a good hour detailing everything related to that part, and sent it to my advisor. She responded to my email to let me know that the entire draft could go into the Supporting Information. At that moment, I realized how poor my understanding was of what goes into the main document versus what forms the supplemental! I understood that I was a long way from getting my first paper published. 

And what a long road it was! My solitary paper writing journey continued through Summer 2020 when we finally submitted the manuscript. Of course, while there were delays due to my not-so-great writing abilities, I would attribute much of the delay to the additional analyses and computations I carried out along the way to strengthen the story. Throughout my journey, I couldn’t help but feel alone in this process. I must give credit to my lab members who were helpful in reviewing and giving feedback, but the process of writing felt like a path I needed to tread by myself.

Not for long, though! I came across the ‘Writing Together Online (WTO)’ program organized by the Writing and Communication Center (WCC) at MIT in one of my emails. While the program started in the Fall of 2020, I discovered it in Spring 2021. I immediately went to the website to find that this program offers a chance for researchers and writers to meet online and support each other in structuring their writing goals. This was the program I had been waiting for all along! I had a gut feeling that this could help improve my writing skills. I enrolled immediately. This wasn’t an opportunity that I intended to let pass me by!  

I signed up for the 90-minute writing sessions that were offered four days a week at different times. The sessions were held on Zoom, thanks to COVID-19! However, those moderating the sessions ensured that the participants felt connected through introductions, sending some of us into breakout rooms, and sharing our experiences at the end of sessions. During the first session that I attended, we were asked to fill out a ‘Goal Setting Spreadsheet’ where we write our name, broad writing or research goals for the 90-minute session, and focused steps that are needed to achieve our goals. WTO moderators strongly encourage the participants to join the Zoom call a few minutes earlier to think about the writing goals. I have found this to be helpful because a little thinking in advance goes a long way in setting more realistic and achievable goals. My first attempts at goal setting were not very feasible. Instead, it took me a few sessions to set writing goals that were actually practical.

During the session, the aim is to stay focused only on our writing or research goals while staying away from phone, email, and any social media. These 90 minutes were supposed to be dedicated in their entirety towards writing. As soon as we filled out the goal setting spreadsheet, we were asked to join breakout rooms and strongly encouraged to leave our cameras on so that we are more accountable, and mute ourselves so as to not disturb others. Having my video on definitely helped me to stay more focused; otherwise, I am pretty sure I would have looked at my phone to check for messages or email or scroll through Facebook, which is exactly what we were trying to avoid!

After the session, we were brought back to the main room, and asked to fill out the spreadsheet with the list of goals we accomplished and those that are in progress. We also had the chance to discuss what strategies worked best during the session to maintain our focus. I really liked this chance to actively identify what worked for me to achieve my writing goals. Was it the serene morning hours? The not-so-heavy writing goals that I set? Or just a cup of hot chocolate that kept my spirits up while working? I think that it is extremely important to understand what contributes to our productivity while writing because I find it easy to get distracted or fall victim to ‘writer’s block’. Being able to identify these factors has ensured that irrespective of my moods or inclination towards writing, I could create an environment that was more conducive towards writing.

My positive experiences after the first session motivated me to attend many other sessions. There were times when some of the sessions were held in-person, too! For some additional motivation, snacks are provided at the in-person sessions. Hopefully, with the COVID-19 related restrictions declining, we will have more opportunities in-person WTO sessions. WTO also recruits graduate students who are interested in moderating the sessions – ‘WTO Fellows’ – who can get paid per session. Unfortunately, as an international student, I could not participate as a Fellow, but this is an amazing opportunity for graduate students with an interest in writing. As you can see, these WTO sessions have been invaluable in my research progress and I hope that more graduate students take advantage of this opportunity to optimize their writing practice!

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