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Marcus Arvan

Hi David: In one sense, I am wholly on board with this as sage advice. I think people sometimes get so immersed in the literature that they begin to fail to see the "forest for the trees." My experience is that it can be important indeed to get outside of the literature for a while so that one does not get obsessed with small problems, to the exclusion of big ones.

At the same time, I'm also inclined to say that the best thing to do "when you don't know what to write about" isn't just one thing. When I have trouble coming up with something to write about, I basically try to "change things up."

For example, if I have been doing work *outside* of the literature for a while (which is indeed my own favored way of doing things) but I am having trouble coming up with something, I may do the opposite: namely, immerse myself in the literature so that I *am* up-to-date with how other people are approaching problems.

In other words, I would advocate variety. In my experience, if one is having trouble coming up with ideas, the best thing to do is to experiment! Sometimes I even put research aside for a couple of months and just focus on teaching. Surprisingly enough, I've found that this is an excellent way to come up with ideas (the book I'm currently working on emerged from undergraduate lectures I put together).

In short, I would say, if you're having trouble coming up with ideas, just mix things up! Try something new. That's the important thing. If what you're doing isn't working, just try different alternatives (e.g. going to talks in other disciplines, focus on teaching for a bit, etc.) until you hit upon a good idea.


My favourite papers are "literature intervention" papers: they're where an author reasonably knows a literature and then sees something truly missing in the debate, and then provides it in the paper. For example, maybe they think everyone in the literature on [x] isn't thinking about it properly, and they think they can do better. These sorts of papers really move debates forward. They tend to be interesting to read, and they stand out.

Michel X.

I just wanted to chime in and register agreement with Marcus's take above (with the caveat that I'm still in grad school, so the pressures and expectations are obviously different).

One thing that I do so as to avoid those kinds of situations is to maintain a list of topics/questions that I plan to write about, maybe with a short blurb to remind me of the direction I'm thinking of taking. As soon as something catches my interest (while I'm reading about another topic, perhaps), it goes on the list. When I want to generate new material, if I don't have something in mind already I consult my list and select something that seems workable in my current circumstances.

It's conceivable that I may one day exhaust my list and find myself casting about for a paper topic. But for as long as I have a list, I know that won't happen: it just gets you through the drought periods. And, to be honest, the list is accruing new ideas at such a rate that I've got a few years before I exhaust it. Some are better than others, to be sure, but I don't think that matters overmuch in the scheme of things. As long as I'm writing consistently, I have the luxury of discarding ideas.

Elisa Freschi

You might be interested to know that there are people with the opposite problem: http://elisafreschi.blogspot.co.at/2013/06/how-do-you-find-ideas-for-your-article.html

David Morrow

Thanks, everyone.

Like Michel X., I have a folder of ideas for papers. Sometimes I'll write up a few paragraphs, sometimes just a sentence or two. I save each idea (or cluster of related) in a separate file with a descriptive filename. Even assuming that most of those ideas wouldn't pan out, I have more than enough in there to get me through any "drought" that I might encounter.

The other thing that's helpful here is to have an active research program. In my own case, by the time I've finished one paper in my main area of research, I have ideas for two or more new ones. Usually these ideas have come from issues that arose in the course of the paper that were both interesting enough to deserve a paper of their own and big enough that they couldn't be treated adequately in the original paper.

So I'm not casting about for ideas myself, but I thought this advice might be helpful for readers who are -- especially readers who are still in graduate school and trying to decide which direction to go in.

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