The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page

So you’ve gone to all of your lecturers and took notes like a diligent student. Now what? You’re sitting down at your desk to tackle your essay or research project, and you’re not sure where to start.

If you google “writer’s block,” you will probably discover pages of suggestions to address this problem. But, there are a number of scenarios which might have you staring at your screen or notebook in terror and we can’t find the right solution if we can’t diagnose the cause. So first, do a mental health check. If you’re in a depressed state, then you’re unlikely to have the energy or motivation to tackle work. While I talk generally about mental health here, I want to add advice I’ve seen floating around from Tumbler “redheadhatchet”: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” I apply this advice almost daily to all sorts of scenarios. Consider my “exercise regime”; if I manage to do just one sit-up a day, that’s better than not doing anything. This is also the advice offered by the “Fabulous” App, which helps people establish healthy habits. Build on that one small habit a day (we’ll stick to exercise and the one sit-up example here, but it can apply to any habit). Start with one sit-up and move up to more. If one day, you don’t have the energy to do the 20 that you’ve worked up to, that’s okay. Do the one. Doing even one sit-up means you haven’t broken your streak of exercising every day. Doing one is enough. It’s better than not doing one at all.

Extending this advice to the university: Turning in a half-written assignment or a poorly-written one is better than not turning in one at all. (And, as my colleague Helga reminded me today, instructors also need to be aware of these hidden struggles that are students are facing; instead of condemning the holes, acknowledg the strength of the material that IS present and offer constructive advice for how to address and expand on the gaps). This is also the advice I would give for addressing anxiety (which might be combined with depression, but we’ll deal with it as separate entities for this discussion). Maybe you’re anxious because you’re scared of failing or because you want your work to be perfect. Unless you’re an prodigy – the university-assignment-writing equivalent of Beethoven – every mark you make on the page is NOT going to be perfect. I’ve heard rumours that Terry Pratchett operated like that; thought and thought and thought until he had the perfect sentence to write on the page. But we can’t all be on the same level as Sir Terry Pratchett. So go ahead and mark up your fresh new notebook with chicken scratch hand-writing. This is part of the process.

If you’ve done an assessment of your mental health and have determined that it’s fine (or manageable), then the next step is to determine what stage you’re stuck at: Is the problem that you don’t have any idea at all, or you have loads of idea and you’re not sure what to focus on? (Check out Concept Map as one of the tools to address this type of problem. Identifying your objectives is another.) Or do you have some semblance of focus, but you’re not sure what order to present them in? Or maybe the problem is you simply don’t know how to start; i.e. what the first sentence should be?

You can probably start to grasp why determining the cause of your blank page syndrome would be the first step in finding a solution. This is true in general about anything you’re procrastinating about or avoiding. Sit down with your bullet journal and dig deep into thinking about root cause. In my day job as a Quality Assurance Manager, we do root cause investigations routinely to determine what resulted in a part having flaws. There are a number of tools you can employ for root cause analysis. One of these is to keep asking yourself “why” (also called the Five Whys).


  • I’m late to work.
  • Why? I slept in.
  • Why? I forgot to set my alarm clock.
  • Why? I was so tired yesterday evening that it slipped my mind.
  • Why? My toddler was teething and kept us up late.

There’s not much further we can go with that unless we want to question the “whys” of evolution on the subject of teething pains. So we’ve identified the root cause and for there we can apply solutions to address it specifically, rather than investing it a new techy alarm clock that does a song and dance and shoots lasers at you. The alarm clock wasn’t the problem in this scenario.

The “Root Cause” of my Sleep Issues

Tomorrow we’ll dive deeper into the tools we can use to address the varying causes of blank page syndrome. As you progress through university, you’ll find that the fear of the blank page will have a number of causes, so keep track of a number of tools and techniques and what works best for you in each scenario. So until tomorrow, take care!

The University 811: Invest Time and Money in a Scrivener Programme (or Equivalent)

As promised in yesterday’s post regarding reading practices, today we’ll be talking about organizing your research through a programme like Scrivener. I’m calling this section University 811 to differentiate from University 411. My 411 blogs are applicable to all levels of students, whereas 811 (in Canada, a phone number for health services) will be targeted more towards researchers (masters, PhDs, postdocs, and beyond). If you’ve every done or about to engage in a literature review or have files and files of documents stored all so you can write one sentence in your article or chapter, this post is for you.

Note that I’m not a paid advertiser for Scrivener and there are tons of other similar apps or software out there (Dabble, Living Writer, Ulysses, to name a few). But I think these alternatives are geared more towards creative writing (novels, screenplays, etc) than non-fiction research. (And if you’ve used any of these platforms for creative writing, please drop me a line; I’m not completely sold yet on Scrivener for my fiction writing.) If you google “Scrivner alternatives” you will find plenty of other bloggers who discuss the pros and cons of these programmes. But as I’m familiar with Scrivener, that’s what we’ll be talking about today. It has a 30 day free trial based on usage. That means if you use it on 30 separate days spread out over years, you’re still covered by the free trial. At the moment it costs $67 CAD (or $57 if you have verified university affiliation as student or staff). They just released another update for Windows in 2021 – BUT, if you purchased version 1 after November 2017, then updating to the new version is completely FREE. If you purchased it before 2017, then you still get a 49% discount on the upgrade. (Mac upgrades are separate and I know absolutely nothing about it. Sorry!) While the price point might make you hesitate, I think they take good care of their new and existing customers. You can investigate cheaper options like Dabble but the cheaper price point means less features and I’m not entirely sure what gets cut. Admittingly, the other con with Scrivener is that it has a steep learning curve to figure out all of their features. But I highly recommend checking out their tutorial during one of your free trial days. And you can always go back to the tutorial as you need it.

Scrivener is another system that I wished I discovered during my PhD. It would’ve made things SO much easier. If you’re already well into your research, you can import your existing research files fairly easily, but I recommend you do small chunks at a time rather than crashing the system with 5000 documents. There are two main folder systems in Scrivener: drafts for writing and research for your notes. The research section lets you upload all different types of files such as powerpoints, pdfs, jpgs, etc but can also includes movie and audio files. So you should be able to organize ALL of your research in the same place and access it quickly.

View of Binder with fies in draft and research portions
View of Binder with files in draft and research portions

For each of my research files, I write a summary of each critical text in the “synopsis” or index card feature of my notes. I break down my notes for a book by chapters rather than having one document for the whole book. This way I can review the summary without having to flip through the book itself and the contents of my entire bookcase. You can colour code the cards with labels (I haven’t yet as I’m not entirely sure how to best use this feature but I’ve added both “label” and “status” in the example below so you can see how that works). As well, you can customize the presentation of the card itself. Actually, you can customize the look of the entire software at an insane level, so be careful not to get lost with fiddling with settings as a way to procrastinate from work. Once you twiddle with these options, you can view the cards in a handy corkboard view at multiple levels (folder or various subfolders) and you also have the option to drag and drop cards (when set to free style mode):

Corkboard View of My Notes from Cecire’s Re-Enchanted (2019)

While these features are helpful, the reason I personally love Scrivener is the tagging feature. I’ve tagged all of my notes with primary and secondary authors. This means I tag, not only the author of the text I’m reading, but also any fiction or non-fiction author that they cite.

A Selection of My Keywords
A Selection of My Keywords

This way if I want to search my research for all the critics that reference, let’s say, Ursula Le Guin, I just hit the keyword search button to find them. It’s also worth nothing that the search feature is fairly extensive and not limited to just a keyword search:

Screenshot of Search Window
Screenshot of Search Window

More importantly, I also tag my research notes with references to my planned article or chapter. Let’s say I’m sitting down to write my first draft for chapter 5. I do a search for that tag and it pulls up all the notes that I’ve made for the chapter. I can then save this search as a smart “collection” which updates automatically. This is the part of Scrivener which has become so essential for my research process: keyword tags means I don’t have to comb through all my files and pages of notes to see where I’ve made comments indicating I should include a specific piece of research in chapter 5.

I also use a combination of comments (much like comments in Microsoft Word), highlights, annotations, internal and external bookmarks, and project notes. We’ll be discussing these features more when I talk about first drafts (check back this time next week). But it’s a powerhouse tool and I highly recommend it for anyone who has gathered a lot of research and need a way to organize and access it efficiently.

Tomorrow we’ll continue the University 411 series with self-care advice. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Seminar Prep and Reading Journals for ALL Readers, Writers, Students

Hello all! Today we’re going to continue the University 411 which I started here and talk about reading journals. It’s a great tool for your seminar or lecture prep, but also useful for any reader (i.e outside of school). I can’t express how much I regret not keeping one until much later in life as I’ve been an avid reader since I figured out my ABCs. Have you ever thought back on a book that you really enjoyed, but can’t remember anything about it? You want to read it again, but only vaguely recall the scene or premise and can’t remember the title, author, or even character names to help you with a google search. Now imagine you had a reading journal where you wrote down this basic info!

For myself, I only started a reading journal last year after I became a mum. I wanted to read the newly released book 4 of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Usually, I’d re-read the entire series in preparation for a new book release. But throw in work, parenting, and the fact that I’m a fantasy researcher (i.e should be reading new books instead of re-reading my favourite mammoth series), I simply don’t have time to re-read 1000 page works every time a new book is released. So I am repeatedly kicking myself that I hadn’t kept a reading journal until now, especially as one of our university assignments in year 3 was to keep a reading journal; but the professor never explained the purpose of a journal, and so I saw it purely as a necessarily evil to get good grades and never considered it as a useful tool in itself. There are a number of reasons why a reading journal can be useful, in any field or discipline (in school), or if you’re a casual or avid reader (outside of school). I’ll try to cover the main advantages, but if you use your reading journal differently, please drop me a line in the comments!

First, a reading journal is a good way to log a list of your reading. Yes, Goodreads or equivalent can do this for you to. But you might also want to consider adding articles or other research to your reading log along with a 1-2 sentence summary. There’s been a number of times when I’ve re-read an article because I couldn’t remember if I had read it before or not. At the very least, consider keeping a log in your Bullet Journal (which we talked about last time). Include basic information in this log – Author, Title, and Initial Date of Publication (and a short summary if you’re not planning on keeping a full journal). For your reading journal, you may also want to consider recording the publisher and year of the edition published. Note that your paperback edition might be published at a later date than the original publication. If you’re citing the text in a paper, you will need to reference both dates. As well, making note of the edition might be important if you’re reviewing your reading journal years later. I say this because while I was editing my Shape of Fantasy manuscript, I realized that I had taken quotes from 3 different editions of Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt – a US print, a UK print, and a Canadian ebook. The manuscript from start to finish took 8 years and I had moved back and forth between Canada and UK during this time. (It’s also worth noting that my ebook license purchased in Canada was invalid in UK, so if you’re planning to move out of country and think you’ve been clever with purchasing ebooks so you don’t have to worry about moving physical books, BE CAREFUL. Once you enter credit card info for your new country into your ebook reader, books purchased in your home country might become inaccessible.) With all that moving around, and with 3 different copies of the text to work from, I had a heck of a time confirming the edition of each and every page reference (i.e was this page in reference to my US print or UK print or neither?). As well, I soon found out that there were very small changes between the US and UK print; something as simple as “Rand said” was changed to “said Rand.” (WHY??? I have no idea why the editions differed). So take my experiences as a warning and log the edition information; thank yourself later.

Once you’ve logged the basics, next you want to focus on summarizing the piece. If it’s a length novel or a densely packed article, your summary can be pretty substantial. But I figure re-reading a 10 page summary is much quicker than re-reading a 1000 page book. For novels, I include character names and major plot points. Since I usually read fantasy, I also note down important world-building information. This is especially true for incomplete series, as I’m not entirely sure whether the piece of information will become useful. (For example, with works like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, you might want to include information that you think foreshadows events or provides clues to unanswered plot questions.) While I keep a reading journal for my fiction reads, for non-fiction, I’ve switched to Scrivener, as it has a handy index card feature. (If you’re at a stage in your education or career where you need to make and keep lots of detailed notes for research, I highly recommend Scrivener and talk about it here.)

Except from my Reading Journal for Sanderson’s Steelheart

Next, you want to identify essential information. This bit is tricky, because what’s essential is highly subjective. If you’re using a reading journal as prep before class, then first I want you to take out your syllabus. Seriously. And a highlighter (either a physical one or use the highlighter on your ebook/pdf copy). Now go through your syllabus and highlight important concepts. Does your instructor provide objectives or key themes? HIGHLIGHT THAT. If you can’t find the information, take a look at the course description on your department’s website, or the table of contents in your required reading list, or the titles/labels of each lecture or seminar. What concepts jump out at you? Write them down in a handy list. (This is would be a good list to put in your bullet journal.) It’s also okay to take a quick look at google or wikipedia to skim through the key points of a topic or text. You’re NOT using wikipedia as research here (so don’t cite it in a paper); instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate the key themes and concepts of a work before you start reading. This will let you read the work as a more informed reader, with you eyes open for things you should be looking out for.

The next part is trickier to identify, especially if you’re a new student. What essential information is important FOR YOU? Why are you taking this course? What attracted you to signing up for the class? Take some time to reflect on this (yet another BUJO page. We seem to be wracking them up). These ideas are things that you might end up developing for an essay or project. For example, I remember one semester where I wrote all five final exams around the theme of gender. I had taken completely different courses (Children’s lit, Shakespeare, Roman mythology, etc), but feminist ideas was what appealed to me at the time and so it’s what I took note of. You want to take note of things that interest you while you read the work. Maybe quotes leap out at you or a particular phrase or definition. If you’re an aspiring writer, you might want to note technique or things that give you inspiration for your own work. Other things you want to take note of in your reading journal are things that confused you; make note if it so that you can bring it up in class or study group to discuss or to investigate further on your own. If you’re keeping the journal as prep work for class, think about things that YOU want to talk about in class; things that interest and excite you, or questions that you have. If you’re keeping the journal for pleasure, then the same still goes. A reading journal is exactly like any journal, only one focused on your reading content.

Since we’re talking about prep for class, I want to end on a note of caution. You do NOT have to read EVERYTHING on the recommended reading list. And, even if you instructor states that it’s required and not just recommended, I would still approach a heavy reading load with caution. Some instructors are just assholes. So if you’re meant to be reading 6 novels a week for just one of your modules, FAKE it. Focus on just one of the texts so that you can contribute to some part of the conversation, and do a quick internet investigation of the other 5 so that you know basic points and can identify points of comparison with the text you’re focusing on. While 6 books a week might be an exaggeration (the most I’ve had as a student was 3 novels a week for one of my senior-level undergraduate seminars), the point is that you shouldn’t be killing yourself to reach some unattainable model of perfection set by an instructor who thinks your university experience should break you. DO make note on it with student feedback/course evaluations. Even if you’re tenured professor doesn’t care to look at them (as The Chair so brilliantly depicted), the department should. That being said, I can’t guarantee that trying to keep a healthy work/life balance won’t come back to bite you. Usually (in the humanities) if your final exam is formatted as a series of essay questions, these will be presented as broad questions which lets you select any of the texts/topics/figures covered in class (provided that you didn’t utilize the text/topic repeatedly for each essay question). Alternatively, if the topic is pre-selected by the question, these are still usually written in a way that gives you a lot of choice. (For example, you might have a choice of 20 questions, with 1 or 2 works identified in each.) But I remember one experience where the professor told us the that the final exam will be essay questions with a comparison of 4 books for each essay, and then presented each question with the 4 works pre-selected. This meant that, rather than focusing on texts that we connected to, we needed to have detailed knowledge of each and every one. Unfortunately, sitting down to write my final was the wrong time to figure this out. While I had read every book, I hadn’t bothered to study all of them. A brief perusal through a reading journal (if I had had one) might have at least helped me avoid a failing grade. If you can, get some information about the lecturer from other students early in the semester (remember to step outside your bubble); that should hopefully give you some idea of what to expect for assessment and you can revise your approach accordingly. If you know in advance whether your finals will be testing for detailed knowledge of ALL the material instead of focused knowledge on your areas of interest, then you can figure out in advance the size of your work load and how best to tackle it (we’ll talk more about this on Friday). *Fingers Crossed* that you have instructors who genuinely want to see you succeed rather than setting you up to fail. And good luck! Tomorrow, we’re going to starting talking about tips for (post)grad students. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Bullet Journaling

As promised when discussing note-taking tips yesterday, today we continue our student life series with a crash course in Bullet Journaling. Bullet Journaling is a system of organization developed by Ryder Carroll, but if you take a casual scroll of the #BUJO hashtags on pinterest and instragram, you’ll quickly see how people have taken the basic premise and made it their own. A word of caution: do NOT look at these examples and think you need to recreate a beautiful, artistic masterpiece. Ryder Carroll’s basic premise is very, VERY minimalist. Start there. Don’t go overboard and get overwhelmed with any of it. It’s suppose to be a tool to help you and to have fun with, not an extra workload that you need to make picture perfect.

The name “bullet journal” comes from a specific type of notebook that uses a dot matrix, but you can use anything really. My first journal was in an art book for watercolours. At the time, I enjoyed doodling with watercolours to form as the background for each page. I also used a lot of washi tape and coloured pens. But I’ve had little time for that recently, so a simple black pen is my preferred weapon of choice now.

Primarily I use a bullet journal for my note-taking. This means that I have one notebook that I carry with me everywhere. I do not have subject specific notebooks or notebooks for different purposes. At the moment, I am independent researcher applying for lecturships and fellowships, co-head-editor of Fantastika Journal, and am employed as a Quality Assurance Manager at a manufacturing company. Despite these different hats, I use the same journal to record meeting notes for my manufacturing job that I would use to record meeting notes for Fantastika or for my fellowship application. It’s also a place where I jot down ideas. For instance, my journal includes: ideas for activities that I think my 2-year-old will enjoy; concept mapping for chapter drafts for my next research book; topic-specific list of books I want to read. (Yes, I have a loooong TBR list on Goodreads. But my Bullet Journal have more specific lists. For example, I’m organizing a digital symposium for Fantastika Journal which focuses on LGBTQIA+ graphics, so I have a list of Fantastika (science fiction, fantasy, gothic horror, etc) graphic novels, animations, and video games all which have strong LGBTQIA+ representations.) Number your pages so you can refer back to them easily. Ryder Carroll recommends having an index or table of contents on the front page of your notebook, which you can add to as needed when you want to find things. Personally, I tend to just flip through the book, or occasionally flag with stickies or washi tape. As this is my 3rd University 411 post, you probably won’t be surprised when I say ‘do what works for you.’ The important point is that you don’t need to write your notes in subject-specific sections. You simply make a note “continued on page 34” or “notes started on pg 6”. Or you can use a short form (<- 6 or -> 34). But the point is you write your notes on your next blank page without worrying about keeping your notes all grouped together in a sectioned off part of your notebook.

When all the pages are filled in your journal, or if you want to start a new one at the beginning of the school year, go through your existing bullet journal and copy out any items that you want to keep in your new one. If you find yourself copying out the same information every year, you might want to consider moving it to your subject specific notes. As I said in my previous post, The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method, I use bullet journaling to take quick notes during lectures, etc, but I then rewrite the notes out in a different medium for studying. In some cases, I might have notes that I need every year, even after the module is over. Keep these in a *permanent notebook* and use bullet journal for your everyday/ on-the-go. These can be any number of things that you might want to transfer to a permanent notebook, depending on your field of study. Maybe you need a quick definition for the difference between socialism and communism when you argue with idiots online. Or maybe you really need to know Plank’s constant to save the world and you just don’t have time to sing a duet with your girlfriend to get the info. For me, I have a set of notes – a cheat sheet – identifying major theorists in my field with a few sentences explaining their main ideas. After 15+ years in university, I still sometimes need to pull out my cheat sheet so I can quickly confirm what the heck Adorno was going on about, and if I’m not mixing him up with that other guy.

From Stranger Things, season 3. When you have a monster on the lose and don’t have time to serenade your girlfriend so she will give you valuable information, BUJO might very well save your life.

While I use bullet journal for note-taking, the heart of bullet journaling is with rapid logging; a way to keep your to-dos and important dates organized. Carroll uses 3 simple icons for this. (If you add more, then make sure you include a key chart in your table of contents, so you know what the symbols mean if you look back at them later.) The 3 icons are:

• a simple dot for “tasks”

o an open circle for “events”

– a dash for “notes”

An example from Chuckie’s Bullet Journal

As you can see, mine isn’t pretty or perfect. It’s serviceable. The example shows my schedule for the week. If I have a lot of meetings, appointments, classes, etc then it’s a simple matter to switch to a daily format whenever I need to do so. If I have less going on (e.g. during holidays), then I use a monthly format. I use a combo of all 3 depending if I need more focus and organization during a particularly stressful time. I also keep a long-term schedule at the front of my journal (what BUJO experts call a “future log”). This includes things you might need to think about months in advance like final exams or deadlines for an essay. But it could also be something that occurs more regularly that you need to remember; things like birthdays and anniversaries, but also practical things like “renew car insurance every March” or “go see dentist in June.” At the start of every day (or week, or month, depending on which format you’re going with), take a quick look at your future log to make sure that you’ve included relevant items in your rapid logging.

Bullet Journaling is also a good place for “brain dumps”, where you have SOOOO many tasks or ideas and have no idea where to start. Write it all down. From the big to the little. Write it all down, and get it on the page. You can then pick the most important ones to include in your rapid logging or your notes.

At the start of each day (or week, or month, or year) take a look at your log. I like to do this before bed every night, or on Sundays at the start of a work week. It gives me an idea of what I’m expecting my day/week to look like. I then pick 1-3 top tasks and label them A, B, and C. It’s okay to change your mind (like I did in my example). But here’s the important part: these 3 tasks are NOT something you’re picking in order to feel productive or successful. They’re not do-or-die goals. Instead, they’re things I hope to get done. I focus on task A first, before I move on to B. I don’t move onto task C until A and B are both done. If I had time to finish A, B, and C, then I pick more. If I manage to do them all, then wonderful! If not, I copy out the tasks again in my next rapid log. DON’T leave unfinished items in a rapid log that you plan to look back on later. First, you will kick yourself if (*when*) you end up forgetting about the task. Second, rewriting out the to-do list over and over again should hopefully help motivate you; if you’re putting off a task for weeks, you might decide to get it done with so you can stop writing it down every day. Third, by re-writing the task, you’re continually gauging its importance. Can you drop the task completely? If you can’t, take some time to examine why you’re putting it off.

In cases like that, use your Bullet Journal as a “dear diary” reflection when you need to. Really, use your Bullet Journal however you want, for whatever purpose. Use it as a tracker for spending habits, sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. Use it to store ideas for recipes, date night, or that story you plan to write ‘maybe one day’. You can use it to plan your next vacation, or as a daily diary during vacation. BUJO users call these different uses “collections,” and I can assure you that if you go google or hit up pinterest/instagram with the BUJO hashtag, you’ll see hundreds of collection ideas as well as innovative formats and layouts. If you’re in back-to-school mode, this is the perfect time to break out a fresh set of coloured pens to start your new journal. There’s really no age limit on enjoying a new box of crayons, so go nuts and have fun.

Today we’ll continue talking about keeping a reading journal. Until then, take care!