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A few strategies to overcome writer’s block

I’ve had an absolutely bonkers pair of months (April and May, and June is gearing to be the same). For the first time in 2.5 years, I attended in-person workshops (2!)

I am, of course, behind on absolutely everything.

Writing at the home office

I used to be a very big proponent of the “write whenever you have a small pocket of time” trope up until my health started to go downhill quickly (I am very immunecompromised, since birth, and thus respiratory infections take me out a solid two weeks).

I now try to write for longer periods of time if at all possible.

However, not everybody is me, and therefore when I write about writing on my blog, I describe the range of strategies I have used and continue to use, depending on my health, the amount of service work I have, teaching, and other commitments.

So here’s what I have found.


1) PROMPTS HELP ME WRITE. Prompts help my students write, and also participants in the workshops I teach.
I am not the kind of person who will open the Word document and be like “LET’S WRITE”. I need something that PROMPTS ME to start writing. I respond to external stimuli.

But writing is a PRACTICE that requires a repertoire of strategies and techniques. A lot of us, myself included, want to write books, articles, papers, chapters just like “laptop open – Word open – words flow”. That’s not how it works.

Developing a writing practice TAKES TIME.

I have several pieces overdue (and though I am almost back to 100% healthy, I have A LOT going on over the next month, so I need to balance my overdue writing commitments with my health and everything else I have on my plate).


This is a word I hear often.

Seasoned writers (several of them full professors!) come and tell me frequently “I used to have a solid writing practice and a routine, and all of a sudden life/childcare/eldercare/COVID/service work/teaching threw all of that into disarray”.

Friends, you & me both. I get you.

Writing while in Berlin

I think it’s only human to accept that we might have had the best writing practice and the most amazing routines and then life threw a wrench at us and now we’re faced with the challenge of restarting while dealing with *waves hands around* all of this.

Here’s how I’m doing it:

Reading is an absolutely integral part of my writing process.

Reading helps me improve my written prose.

Reading helps me think through ideas I’ve been trying to put into dialogue with other authors’ arguments.

I can’t write if I don’t read. I read every day, in fact. except when I am very ill.

Reading highlighting scribbling annotating

These are a few strategies that may be of help to some of you. Good luck!

Posted in academia, writing.

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On doing “the work of self-repair”

Recently, a dear friend (fellow professor) told me about “the work of repair”, in terms of repairing damaged relationships and eroding trust. When something doesn’t work and the relationship is damaged, there’s work of repair to do.

I reflected on this.

I thought of developing a related idea: “the work of self-repair” — the work we need to do to heal ourselves. The importance of treating our bodies and minds with dignity. I’ve posted on here about how overwork put me on the brink of actual death (loss of life) 4 times.

Sometimes I still overwork even if I advocate very seriously against it. Part of it is that I feel that I need to carry the weight of stuff that needs to get done. Part of it is that I lose (luckily, not frequently) track of the actual moment when I’m starting to burn out.

I am working on doing the work of self-repair. I met with and I’m being treated by a better otorhinolaryngologist, and a smarter dermatologist. I am paying more attention to my nutrition and getting dental care that I neglected because I am always so busy.

Recently I said, in a meeting, very publicly: “I’m on holidays from the end of July to the third week of August and no I won’t be checking email, text messages, Telegrams. I’m basically unavailable to anyone except my mother” – everyone understood and agreed, no questions asked.

Mom's visit to Aguascalientes and San Jose de Gracias (El Cristo Roto)

This work of self-repair also involves sleeping more and I am awake way past my bed time, but I’ve also felt energetic throughout the day, which means I’m slowly but surely recovering from the horrible bronchitis I got last week.

Just thought I’d share. As a scholar of waste, and discards, repair work and the right to repair are theoretical concepts I understand and value, but thinking about self-repair is a new avenue for me.

I think we need to do more work of self-repair, and be kinder and gentler with ourselves.

That’s all I have.

Posted in academia.

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A partial bibliography on books and articles on how to conduct qualitative research interviews

While I consider myself more of a mixed methods person, I do a lot of qualitative research, and therefore I enjoy sharing resources I develop on specific research topics. This blog post links to a bibliography I generated of the books I have read on how to conduct intereviews with a qualitative research focus.

I very much HATE when people ask me for “The Best Book to Do X”. So no, I won’t be recommending to you The Best Book on How to Conduct Qualitative Interviews. I do, however, have a few preferred books (if yours isn’t in my list of preferred, please don’t be upset, ok?)

Given that I do so much ethnographic work, I often follow Skinner’s The Interview: An Ethnographic Approach and Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview.Svend Brinkmann’s “Qualitative Interviewing: Understanding Qualitative Research” is often used, and it’s practical & pragmatic.

Personally, I don’t think you (professors/educators/faculty/thesis advisers) should send students/researchers to design and conduct interviews BEFORE actually taking one or two courses on qualitative research, but that’s just me and my approach and you can do whatever you prefer.

Posted in academia, qualitative methods, reading notes.

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“Parking your writing downhill” as a strategy to keep momentum with your academic writing

This blog post describes my understanding of the “parking your writing downhill” strategy to kickstart your academic writing or simply to keep going. It was Dr. Veronica Kitchen who first said to me that she usually “parks her writing downhill”. It sounded like such an interesting strategy that I had to research it.

How do you do it? How do you “park your writing downhill”?

U of Alberta visit Feb 2020 002

Well, I researched the idea and found a few resources.

And herein are a few of my own strategies to “park my writing downhill”.

1) I leave an article, book chapter or book on my desk, so I have materials to read first thing in the morning, as soon as I wake up. I normally do this reading with my first cup of coffee.

2) I leave unfinished paragraphs that I need to complete as prompts to get me going.

There’s an important issue I want to raise here:

You don’t need to “park your writing downhill” at night. I write in the mornings and early afternoons, maybe you do your creative work in the evenings and late at night. The point is to do the parking at the end of your writing session so you can “hit the ground running”.

Hopefully this blog post will help those who are struggling with their writing right now!

Posted in academia, writing.

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On writing about, thinking and teaching research methods.

I wrote a thread in Spanish last night on puzzles and how to craft research questions. I’ve written about this topic several times in English, and in Spanish, but not on the actual topic of “puzzles”. This blog post is NOT about “puzzles” (I am preparing another one, in English, on this very topic). But the amount of reading I did to just feel BARELY that I had mastered the notion of why we teach students to write research questions based on puzzles was unreal. I had to read a heck of a lot.

Home office (Aguascalientes)

There are multiple things I think about ALL THE FREAKING TIME: generalizability, reliability, reproducibility, transparency, research design, concept formation, theorization, ethics of research, fieldwork. I am a methodologist, after all.

This thinking and writing and reflecting on multiple elements of research methods, has to occur in addition to the reading, thinking, writing and researching I do in my substantive areas (comparative public policy, environmental politics, water governance, waste and discards, homelessness, elder care policy, public administration and comparative politics, transnational environmental activism).

Yes, of course thinking about research methods all the time makes me a better researcher. And yes, reading (and writing) about writing DOES make me a better writer. No regrets.

But this entire process of thinking, pondering, reading, researching and crafting processes, models, frameworks that people can use in their own research, TAKES A LOT OF TIME AND BRAIN POWER.

I don’t feel it’s a waste of my time to come up with frameworks, models, techniques, strategies and processes that make my readers’ research, teaching and learning easier. But it IS an investment, and this weekend I’m just tired.

Rewarding activity, for sure. But consuming too!

Posted in academia, fieldwork, research, research methods, teaching, writing.

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The realities of writing: loving it and having to work hard for it

I love writing.

I utterly, completely and absolutely adore writing.

Am I naturally gifted as a writer? No.

Is writing easy for me? Also no.

Do I write in spite of the fact that I struggle with it? Yes.

Am I a good writer? I suppose that by some standards, I am.

The thing is, when I was a child, I recognised I was not naturally talented to write, nor inclined.

I developed the inclination.

Writing my blog and knowing my resources are useful to readers has been an incredibly powerful source of motivation to write it.

And… seeing my work published, cited, engaged with, discussed, and assigned in syllabi keeps me motivated.

I want to understand the world, yes, but I want even more to help others make sense of it, through my research and my public scholarship, particularly my writing.

And that’s why I write.

Posted in academia, writing.

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On making explicit your contribution to the larger literature and bodies of knowledge by using a case study in a particular region.

You may have noticed discussions on #AcademicTwitter regarding how studies in the US are written as though generalizable for the world. This is not uncommon: that’s the training that many are exposed to, focusing populations that are what in psychology is termed, WEIRD. Participants are mostly Western, Educated, from Industrialized, Rich and Democratic countries. Often times, scholars from the Global South find themselves having to justify their choice of case studies while scholars in the US or Europe write about broad trends without specifying that their research project draws on a sample of students in Poughkeepsie, New York, USA. (I am, of course, being a bit facetious but my general point stands).

… how the author’s choice of case study helps them showcase the value of one single case study in understanding the complexities of multiple methods. In blue highlight, you can see the broad, general questions in the literature that their specific case study answers. I find that this approach to writing a paper, where the answer to broader (global) questions is highlighted with one or more case studies, makes a convincing case for studies in countries of the Global South to be used to speak to the larger bodies of literature.

Hope this helps.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Writing a PhD dissertation as three (or more) papers to showcase versatility

One of the things I resented the most was not getting the guidance I required for a lot of the work that came with the PhD degree. There are things, of course, where I did get advice, and one of them was to write my doctoral dissertation as a package of three papers focusing on a coherent theme or thread. This idea came from my PhD advisor who was originally trained in physics. But I still wondered how we got to that point.

Why are PhD dissertations comprised of usually 3-4 distinct-yet-related papers? Nobody really answered this question when I asked it during my doctoral studies, so I spent some time reflecting on it over the past year or so. Book-manuscript theses can be seen through this lens.

My doctoral dissertation is still a book-length manuscript, but you could very well excise three distinct articles out of it, should you wish. I am in the process, in fact, of turning it into a peer-reviewed, solo-authored book!

I was a bit puzzled because I kept hearing “to me, a PhD dissertation can offer at least three distinct original contributions to the literature”, particularly from my PhD advisor. Personally, I think that’s right (3 distinct contributions) and could apply to book manuscripts (3 chapters, each developing one strand of an argument, or each examining one empirical case) or theses-by-papers.

I came to realize why I agreed w/ this model a couple of weeks ago.

While sitting with one of my PhD students (yes, over the holiday, that was literally the only day we could meet up), I explained to him how different theoretical approaches and empirical strategies could yield similar results for his dissertation.

And then I said…

“One way in which you can demonstrate the versatility of your work is by showcasing how water insecurity can be seen through X, Y and Z theories. Another way would be to examine A, B and C case studies (where you seek to explain variation across cases and impact factors).”

To this day, nobody has yet explained to me why we do the “a PhD dissertation can be a collection of 3 papers” model, but I have rationalized why, and it makes sense in my head. Over the years, this is how I have mentored my PhD students, but I feel like it’s much clearer now.

ots of universities now encourage the “PhD-dissertation-by-papers” model, and seen through the lenses of “argument/empirical versatility” I feel much more confident championing it. I know STEM disciplines have done this for long, two of my brothers have Mechanical Engineering PhDs and they did their dissertations this way.

Given that I’ve successfully helped graduate several of my PhD students now, I am confident I can continue using this model for future research projects that my doctoral students decide to undertake. Hopefully this post helped cement your confidence in this model. And I feel confident this approach could also be applied to help craft each chapter of a book-length dissertation should you desire to do so.

Posted in academia.

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We are globally burnt out and we need a global reset. How to create a global system of care?

I have a hypothesis about what we are seeing right now: students, faculty, everyone on the planet is exhausted of this pandemic. This absolute exhaustion is yielding poor outcomes on everything: low attendance, missed work, missed deadlines.

We are all burnt out, folks.

And herein lies the rub: we can’t individually self-care out of this rut. Somehow we need to engage in global collective action to create conditions that make our lives slower and gentler so we can recover from the global collective grief and loss that we’ve experienced.

We can’t “return to normal”. We need to create a new normal where risk assessment and policy choices are not individualized but the result of collective genuine care for one another.

We literally need a global transformation. We aren’t “returning to normal” because there isn’t one to return to.

The old normal was leading us down a spiral of collective burnout. This pandemic highlighted how poorly prepared our societies were and are for shocks of this magnitude. The old normal left us with many stressed individuals trying to cope with dwindling resources.


This new normal needs to create systemic conditions of care that value human lives across multiple groups. Otherwise we will just try to return to a system where we try to recreate the contexts that left us in this rut in the first place.

Time for a global transformation.

Posted in academia.

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Using a Ventilation File to help break free from writers’ block

I used to hate on the Ventilation File and this blog post is about how I changed my mind about it. The Ventilation File is a document (or a folder with a series of documents) where you go vent (hence the name) and dump your frustrations regarding your writing rut (if you are in one).

But then I figured that:

(1) writing up my frustrations would give me again the tactile sensations that make me enjoy writing (typing in a computer).

(2) I can use this text for a blog post that others can read on my site whenever they feel equally frustrated as I was.

I DO feel better, having gotten the frustration out of my chest, and can now focus on ACTUALLY WRITING.

Hopefully the Ventilation File strategy to getting out of a writing rut will work for you too.

For those interested, here is the text of my Ventilation File this morning (April 1st, 2022)

I’m frustrated with my lack of time to write

Writing has rarely been this hard for me, and it’s April 1st, 2022. It’s not that I don’t love to write (I do). It’s not that I am not good at writing (I am). It’s not that I don’t know what I want to write (I do know). It’s the overwhelming and sheer number of responsibilities (and meetings!) that I’ve had to attend over the past few weeks, the many things I’ve had to do for others (letters, committees, care work, etc.) and the reduced amount of time I have had to actually sit down, think and write. I don’t feel in a rut, and I do feel that I will get out of these many meetings because I just finished a week where I had 27 hours of meetings scheduled (out of 40!). But I really need to get back to reality and to doing the thing I love the most. I do enjoy teaching, and service, but I really need to be able to write more. Even my very early morning writing time is compromised because I’ve used it to catch up on stuff that I had to prepare and send. This is incredibly frustrating.

And for the very first time in my writing career I am using a Ventilation File. This approach was pioneered by David Sternberg in his book “How to Survive and Complete a Doctoral Dissertation”, and taken up by (and popularized!) by the incomparable Joli Jensen in her book “Write No Matter What”.

I will confess that for decades, I was skeptical of the Ventilation File. Why on Earth would I need to write down my thoughts on why I was feeling in a writing rut? This seemed like a useless strategy. Then I read Sternberg. Then I read Jensen. And today, April 1st, I just needed to get this out of my chest. So I have basically written about 315 words worth of a rant that will go on to my Ventilation File.
It’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.

Posted in academia, writing.

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