Citavi Updates (März 2023)

Wir haben Citavi 6.15.2 veröffentlicht und laden Sie ein, diese Version zu installieren, um die unten aufgeführten Fehler zu beheben.

Falls Sie nach dem Öffnen eines Projekts nicht über ein verfügbares Update informiert werden, können Sie das Update auch von hier herunterladen und installieren: Ihre bestehenden Citavi-Projekte und die Einstellungen werden durch das Update nicht beeinflusst, und es ist auch in der Regel nicht nötig, ältere Citavi 6-Versionen vor dem Update zu deinstallieren.

Wir haben ebenfalls ein Update von Citavi Web und vom Citavi Assistant veröffentlicht.

Darüber hinaus haben wir in der neuen Version die Möglichkeit geschaffen, die Daten in Ihren mit Citavi 6 oder Citavi Web erstellten Cloud-Projekten mit NVivo zu teilen.

Wir immer ist das Update für bestehende Nutzer kostenlos.

Citavi Desktop


· Korrektur eines Fehlers bei der Installation von DBServer mit MS SQL Server Express 2022.

· Änderungen bei der Grundeinstellung von Schriftart und Schriftgröße von formatierbaren Textfeldern werden nun korrekt umgesetzt.

· Ein Lizenzproblem mit der neuen PDFTron-Version wurde behoben.

· Die Meldung über bestätigte und unbestätigte Lizenzen im Citavi Account wurde verbessert.

· Ein Fehler bei der Volltextsuche in PDF-Dateien wurde behoben.

Citavi Web


· Eine Titelauswahl kann wieder korrekt exportiert werden.

· Kategorien konnten unter bestimmten Umständen nicht korrekt im Kategorienbaum verschoben werden.

· Ein Synchronisationsfehler zwischen Citavi Web und dem Citavi Assistant wurde behoben, der dazu führte, dass neu kategorisierte Titel und Wissenselemente nicht sofort in der neuen Kategorie sichtbar waren.

· Unter bestimmten Umständen führte das Laden der Lizenzseite im Account zu einem Fehler.

· Wissenselemente wurden unter bestimmten Umständen in einer Kategorie mehrfach aufgeführt.

Citavi Assistant


· Nachweise im Text werden bei Autor-Jahr-Stilen nicht mehr dupliziert, wenn nachträglich eine Seitenzahl hinzugefügt wird.

· Seitenzahlen können nun zuverlässig zu bestehenden Nachweisen hinzugefügt werden.

· Ein Klick auf das Linksymbol vor Wissenselementen im Citavi Assistant öffnet nun das zugehörige Wissenselement in Citavi Web.

· Ein Synchronisationsfehler zwischen Citavi Web und dem Citavi Assistant wurde behoben, der dazu führte, dass neu kategorisierte Titel und Wissenselemente nicht sofort in der neuen Kategorie sichtbar waren.

Citavi Updates (March 2023)

We just released an update to Citavi 6 (Citavi 6.15.2). We encourage you to install this version so you can take full advantage of the bug fixes listed below.

If an update notification does not appear automatically in Citavi, you can download and install the Setup at Your Citavi projects and settings will not be affected by the update, and it's normally not necessary to uninstall older versions of Citavi 6 before installing the update.

We have also released an update for Citavi Web and Citavi Assistant.

We also have included the ability to share your Citavi data with NVivo. This is just for cloud projects created with Citavi Web or Citavi Desktop.

As always, this is a free update for all Citavi users.

Citavi Desktop


· Resolved the license file name issue in the DBServer setup with MS SQL Server Express 2022.

· Text formatting issue has been fixed, any changes to the fonts and font sizes are now applied correctly.

· License issue with the new PDFTron version has been fixed.

· The notifications for unverified and verified licenses have been improved.

· Resolved an issue where the Full text search in PDF files resulted in a failure message.

Citavi Web


· Exporting selections of references is fully functional again.

· Resolved an issue where moving category branches was not working as expected.

· The synchronization issue between Citavi Assistant and Web whenever a reference or a knowledge item is added to a category has been fixed.

· Fixed an issue where the ‘Licenses’ page did not load successfully under certain conditions.

· Knowledge Items are no longer displayed several times when assigned to more than one category.

Citavi Assistant


· Inserted references are no longer duplicated when page numbers were added to existing references in Author-Year citation styles.

· Adding page numbers to existing references now works reliably.

· The link icon in the Citavi Assistant now opens the associated Knowledge Item in Citavi Web.

· The synchronization issue between Citavi Assistant and Web whenever a reference or a knowledge item was added to a category has been fixed.

Odyssey of a Journal Article

How can I find the journal article my professor mentioned? 

My professor recommended a journal article for my research paper... but she didn't mention the exact title, author, or journal name. Now how on Earth can I find it?  


Dear Alex,

Ideally your professor will give you the link to the full text of the article or even print out the article for you. But that doesn't always happen.

It could be that at the end of your talk she says that she saw an article in IEEE last year on visual analytics for author names and that it might be a good fit for your project. And then she opens the door for the next student. You could email her afterwards, but you know that she sometimes doesn't respond for days.

What's the best way to get a copy of the article? Here's an example of the worst case scenario:  

  1. If you're new to academic research, chances are that you'll first start with Google or Google Scholar.Here's how it would likely go if it were me. So, on my way home I would try searching for the article on my smartphone and find a few articles that might be right. Unfortunately, when I click each link, it shows me that I have to pay for access. Back to the drawing board.
  2. At home I decide to try and narrow down the articles in question. I go to the IEEE website. Great, they have more than just one journal. In the Digital Library I search for the article with the terms “visual analytics author”. Now I'm pretty sure I have the article I need: “NameClarifier: A Visual Analytics System for Author Name Disambiguation”. The article was published in 2017 in IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics. That must be the one my professor meant.
  3. Because I have Citavi, I see the Picker icon on the page. I click it to add all the citation information I'll need to Citavi.
  4. Now I just need the actual article. I connect to my university network with a VPN connection and click on "Find full text" and – full text found.
  5. Hmmm...what now? Maybe my library has a print version of the journal. I check the library catalog.
    Nope. No such luck.  

  6. What about other libraries nearby? I check the shared campus system catalog for my state. Again, no luck.

  7. I'm getting tired of all this searching. The good thing is that my library offers an SFX service, which Citavi supports. I enter that information in Citavi. Then, when I click Find full text, I can see the options my library offers for requesting the exact article via Interlibrary Loan.  When I place a loan request, my library will receive a scan of the article from the library that has it. I enter my contact information and then I just need to wait for a few days.

Okay, so usually it won't be this bad. Most of the time you can quickly find the article on your university library search page, in one of the databases your library subscribes to, or in Google or Google Scholar. Just think of this as your backup plan in case that doesn't work.   

Do you have any horror stories for an important article that ended up being difficult to obtain? We'd look forward to hearing from you on our Facebook page.

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

Finding articles that cite another article

Go forwards in time with citation tracking

A couple months ago in our blog post on bibliography hacking, we looked at how you can use a bibliography to find additional sources. But what if you want to find out who cited the article you have in your hands after it was published? Is there also a way to track articles forwards in time?

There is indeed! The process of finding works that cite a work you have is known as “citation tracking”. To track citations, you can use a number of different research databases.

When might you want to use citation tracking?

There are a number of times when you might want to find other works that cite a particular source:

How to do a citation tracking search
Unfortunately, there is no one-stop database for citation tracking. Depending on your topic, you may need to search in a few places.

First, if you can remember where you found your source article, it can be worth going back to the database you found it in and seeing if there’s some kind of “Cited by” link that leads you to other articles.

Otherwise, we recommend starting with the three most comprehensive databases for citation tracking: Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar.

Web of Science
Web of Science was the first major database offering citation tracking, and it still is a great place to start. If your university has a subscription to this database, make sure to use it.

To search in Web of Science, switch to the Cited Reference Search. Select “Cited Author” from the dropdown menu on the right. In the second field, enter either the journal name, and then select “Cited Work” or enter the title, and then select “Cited Title”. If you see more than one entry, don’t worry. This often happens due to spelling variations or the citation of in-press articles. For matching articles, under the “Citing Articles” column, click the number to view the articles that cited the work.

Scopus is another subscription-based database, which was developed in response to Web of Science. It is designed to be a little user friendlier and lets you search for an article title on its own in addition to a particular author. In addition, Scopus breaks down citations by subject and can also track citations by organization. You can also view a “citation overview” that shows you how citations developed over time.

To use Scopus to search for citations for a particular article, use the “Documents” search. Make sure that the dropdown menu is showing “Article title, Abstract, Keywords” and then enter the title of your article. Click "Search". For the results that match your article, under “Cited by”, click the number to view works that cited the article.

Google Scholar
Since Web of Science and Scopus have differing coverage and since both have a focus on journal articles, you should also use Google Scholar’s “Cited by” option to find sources not covered by the other two databases. Google Scholar also has the advantage of being freely accessible if you don't have access Web of Science and Scopus through your university library.

To use Google Scholar for citation tracking, just enter some of the article details, such as author names and the title, and then click search. Then, under the result that matches best, click the “Cited by n” link that appears below the result.

Searching other databases

Beyond the three main resources for citation tracking, many other databases also have a citation tracking option. However, the name of the option can vary. “Find citing articles”, “citation locator”, “items citing this item”, and “references”, are just some of the versions you may encounter.

It’s a great idea to check if the discipline-specific databases you use offer some form of citation tracking. This is also a good idea if you’re not finding many results. Web of Science and Scopus both work best in STEM fields with some coverage of the Social Sciences, too. So, if you're working in the Humanities, you'll likely have better luck with JSTOR's citation tracking features, since JSTOR is one of the major Humanities databases.

Transferring results to your reference management software

Once you’ve found some other articles that cite the article you have, you can use the database’s export options to transfer them to your reference management software. If you’re working with Citavi, you can follow our guides for importing from Web of Science and Google Scholar. Once the references in your software, you can then record the connections between different sourcessearch for the full text and start reading and analyzing the articles.

Like bibliography hacking, citation tracking is a great way to find additional sources without having to come up with new search terms. If you’re having trouble locating additional articles on your topic, it can help turn up works you might never have found otherwise. We hope you’ll give it a try!

Do you find citation tracking to be a helpful search strategy? Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page!

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

Bibliography hacking

Let your sources' bibliographies do your searching for you

Do you often feel like you’re searching for sources in the all the wrong places? Or maybe you’ve been able to locate one or two relevant sources but are struggling to find additional ones? If so, the bibliography hacking method might be worth a try! 

What is bibliography hacking? 

Bibliography hacking is a technique you can use with any scholarly article or book you’ve found that is relevant to your topic. Put simply, it means that you comb through a work’s bibliography to pick out sources that might be relevant to your own paper and then find and read those sources as well. Basically, you’re letting the author of the current work do some of your searching legwork for you. 

Picking out relevant sounding titles 

While going through the bibliography, take a quick look at the title of each work to assess its relevance. If a journal or series name is also available, examine these as well. In contrast to when you do an initial database or library catalog search, try to find sources that are as close as possible to your topic. For example, if your research topic is food security in the EU and you find an article entitled “European food scares and their impact on EU food policy” from the British Food Journal, it may be a good fit. However, if you find an article entitled “Westernization of Asian diets and the transformation of food systems: Implications for research and policy” from the journal “Chinese Food Journal” it might be too far off of your topic 

Of course, just identifying potentially useful articles isn’t enough – you will still need to try to obtain a copy of the item, and you may later find that it is not that useful after all. Still, this method can save you time searching for additional articles, and it can give you some useful leads if you’re having a lot of trouble finding pertinent sources on your topic. I remember successfully using this technique back in graduate school when writing a paper on grangerized booksBack then, I had a lot of trouble at the beginning identifying relevant sources, but after finding one good source, it led me down a rabbit hole of additional sources I could use that then led to other sources, which then led to more sourcesIn the end I had identified a collection of relevant sources, including some of the key works on the topic. 

If you’re writing a literature review, pay special attention to the citations that are given in either the introduction or review section of the article, especially for important concepts or experiments. In the introduction or literature review section of the paper, you will likely find references to seminal works in the field that you might also want to cite in your own paper. Sometimes you will even have the whole history of a field traced out for you. Especially if you see the same works cited in multiple papers, it’s very likely that they are important.  

In addition to using the bibliography to find direct leads to other sources, you might also be able to use it more indirectly to find key authors in on your topic or key journals, which can in turn lead you to additional sources. 

Frequently cited authors 

Is there an author cited more than once in the bibliography or an author who has written something that relates directly to your topicTry to see if you can find information on the author. Have they written other articles on similar topics? Do they seem to be a key researcher in the field? Do a Google search to see if you can find them online. On their university profile page, many researchers will include a link to a list of their publications. Scan the list to see if the author has written other relevant works on your topic. 

Finding journals 

Even if a bibliography entry’s title doesn’t seem relevant, check what journal it was published in. Especially if you’re not already familiar with the key journals in the field your topic is part of, you can scan the bibliography and pick out journal names that seem to come up often or be especially relevant. Then, check if you have access to the journal through your university and browse some of its recent articles. 

Obtaining a copy 

After you’ve identified some articles you want to read for potential use in your own paper, you need to track them down and get a copy of them. How can you do that? 

First, check your library website. There should be someplace where you can do a journal search to see if you have access to the journal through your university. Sometimes, certain databases will provide access only for a certain span of time for a particular journal. For example, the most recent issues of a journal might not be available.  

If you do have access, click the link to the journal and then search for the title or author of your article. After that, download the full-text copy of the article. 

What if you don’t have full-text access? If your library offers an SFX service, you might see a link that lets you place an order for the article using interlibrary loan. If you don’t have such a link, check with a librarian to see if they can order the article for you.  

Bibliography hacking with Citavi 

Citavi makes bibliography hacking even easier. For sources that are books or journal articles, you can use Citavi’s Search bibliography feature to add citation information to your projectIn a second step you can then track down a copy of the works you want to read. 

Here’s how the process looks in Citavi if you have a journal article in PDF format: 

  1. Add the PDF to Citavi if you haven’t already, and then open it in the Preview pane. If Citavi can’t find information for the PDF, copy the necessary information into the corresponding fields. 
  2. Highlight a source you want to search for or highlight the entire bibliography.
  3. On the More menu, click Search bibliography.
  4. Next, make sure that each bibliography entry is in its own paragraph with an empty line in between each entry. You can also delete any entries you don’t want to search for at this point.
  5. If your sources are primarily journal articles, leave just the first two boxes checked. If your sources are a mix of books and articles, keep at least the “WorldCat” library catalog checked and then select a relevant national or shared library catalog if you want. Please note that selecting all the available options will likely lead to more false positives. 
  6. After Citavi searches for the sources it will display the results.  
  7. Go through each of the results and double-check that the correct source was found. For sources that could not be found, move the information from the Notes field into the correct fields.  
  8. After that, select the journal articles that you want to get a copy of, and use Citavi’s Find full text feature to locate the full text. For books, use the Find library locations feature.  

Please note that since entries in a bibliography are not saved in specific fields, Citavi is not able to parse and search for the data as accurately as it can if the data is in a more structured format, such as RIS or BibTeX. Also, information might not be in one of the databases searched. This means that success rates using this method are fairly low at around 60%. However, even if Citavi can’t find a source, you at least have all the information in the Notes field and can then copy it to the correct field.  

How can I find later articles that cited my article? 

If your starting source is a little bit older, you might be wondering if there’s also a way to find articles written later on that cite it. There is indeed a way to do this – but that’s a topic for another blog article...


Have you ever used the bibliography hacking method in the past? Did you find it useful? Let us know on our Facebook page

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

Saving Webpages Long-Term

Tips for saving webpages, blogs, and articles

We all know people who prefer to print things they find online before reading them. For me, it’s my father.

I had to laugh when he showed me the print-outs of a travel blog he had discovered while preparing for an upcoming bicycle trip. He was happy that he could now follow the route he had found on the map from the website. This map was placed in the clear pocket of his bicycle bag.

I would have bookmarked the page in my smartphone browser and checked it on the way if I were unsure of the route.

Our goal was the same, but our methods couldn’t be more different.

The main advantage of the print-out method is security.

Security from:

So does that mean I should print out everything I read online?

No. But you should have the same sense of security, especially if you are writing a thesis or other important academic publication.

Spare yourself the feeling of panic the day before your deadline when the webpage that you cited is no longer online but you need to double-check your quotation. Save the page right after opening it. And we mean right after opening it.

Then you don’t need to worry about anything later on when citing.

Saving a copy of websites keeps you safe from changes or loss. But there’s another important reason to save webpages: guidelines. Some universities and departments require PDF copies of cited webpages to be handed in along with your thesis. Make sure to check if your institution is one of them.
How can you save the webpages you cite?

  1. Use the PDF printer
    This is probably the easiest way to save copies of webpages. In your browser click "Print" and then select a PDF printer.

    You can also save a local copy of the webpage in HTML format over your browser by pressing and holding Ctrl+S.

  2. Online services
    Online services help you save a copy of a website under a permanent link.
    When you cite the webpage, you can cite this link in addition to the original URL.

    WebCiteDiigo or cc are some examples.

    One caveat: permanent links are not necessarily permanent forever. They're only permanent as long as the service provider stays in business.

  3. Software
    You can save local copies of webpages using various software tools.

    Software tools like Local Website Archive or HTTrack help you manage your pages. You can create copies of a webpage or an entire website.

    Reference management programs, such as Zotero, can also help.

In Citavi you can also create PDF copies of websites and save them together with their reference information, which you’ll later need for your citations.

To identify these PDF copies in Citavi, take a look at  Tip number 25 for Citavi 4. The “CitaviFiles” folder corresponds to the “Citavi Attachments” folder in Citavi 6.

Are there any website archives out there?

Many organizations take part in web archiving by saving websites offline and thus preserving them for the future.

The Library of Congress collects and archives born-digital Web content in order to document certain themes or events.

For selected websites, a web crawler (for example, the open-source program Heritrix) is used to capture web content.

These archived websites can be found in the Library of Congress catalog. You can search the collections here.

An additional resource for archived websites is the Internet Archive. This non-profit organization works to preserve digital data permanently and makes it available to the public free of charge.

What’s the right way to cite online sources?

You’ve saved your web content. Now, all you have to do is cite it correctly.

Your citation style (for example, APA, Chicago, MLA) determines what information you need to cite and the appearance of your citations and bibliography entries.

The details you’ll almost always need to include are:

In Citavi it’s fastest to add webpages with the Picker.

The reference type you select should fit the source content. Most of the time you’ll use "Internet document", but a journal article you find online should be added as a journal article, and an e-book should be added as a book. Reports should be added as "Report or gray literature".

Here's an example of a bibliography entry for this blog page following the APA citation style:
Votteler, J. (2018, October 9). "Saving Wegpages Long-Term [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Do you have any tips for saving or citing webpages? Let us know on our Facebook page!

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

Getting Your Papers under Control

Three Solutions for Inadvertent Pilers

Are your stacks of papers and books growing at such an alarming rate that you're worried about being buried alive if they ever topple over? 

Does looking at the height of the pile cause you stress? Do you feel like a failure when you can no longer find the documents you need? If a lack of organization makes you feel anxious, you likely have the "filer" personality type.

However, there are also "pilers" who are completely happy coexisting with reams of papers surrounding them. If you're one of them, you can find documents in towering stacks of papers. You remember where you placed the document based on what was nearby. Where other people see chaos, you see an opportunity for creativity and serendipitous discoveries.

If you're not a piler by nature and want to bring some organization into your life, we can help. First, you should figure out why your desk ended up this way in the first place. Below we've listed three possible causes and solutions: 

Cause 1: Paper as a memory aid

Piles often develop because you want to keep your tasks in view. During a telephone call you take notes on a piece of paper so that you can refer to it when writing an email later on. But then there's a knock on the door and one of your colleagues is standing there with an important article. You place it on your desk to read later...and cover up your notes in the process. With the notes out of sight, it's much harder to remember that email you wanted to write.

Solution 1 

Separate the reminder for the task from the task itself. You can do this by gathering all of your task reminders in a designated place.  

For example, you could create a centralized to-do list to maintain an overview of all the tasks you need to complete. Tape it to the wall or use a large flipchart or whiteboard to ensure you always have your tasks in view.

To-do apps like Asana or Trello can help ensure that your tasks are always at hand, even if you're on the go. 

Make sure to make time for to-do list maintenance and completing tasks. Don't forget to reward yourself by checking off or crossing out a task. It's even more satisfying if you write your task on a sticky note and then crumple it up and throw it away. 

Cause 2: Lack of time

I'll file that away later. Oh, that article? I'm going to read it tomorrow.

Sound familiar? On stressful days you often don't finish what you plan. And your pile of documents continues to grow. If you later search for a certain article in your pile, you're lost. You'll only be able to find the article after investing valuable time in your search - if you can even find it at all!

In one study an average of 2.3 hours per week were wasted searching for documents that ended up not being found.

Solution 2 

Force yourself to take control of your pile, even if it's difficult. Although it may seem like you don't have the time to do so, just think of the valuable minutes you'll save the next time you're searching for an article. Here's what we recommend: 

  1. Scan:
    Scan documents that you still need and that are very important. This will free up needed space on your desk. In addition, you can use OCR (for example, with Foxit PhantomPDF  or ABBYY FineReader) which will then make it possible to search for specific terms in all of your files in just seconds.
  2. Declutter:
    Unimportant documents or ones that were scanned can be thrown away. Make sure to shred confidential documents.
    Documents that you can find online also don't need to be printed out and saved. If you're worried that they might disappear, you can use some of our tips to save an electronic copy.
  3. Organize:
    Create a system that you can work with long-term.
    This can be difficult, since the system you create should help you locate documents.
    For digital documents you can create a folder system on your computer.

    Databases or software programs can be an even better solution for organizing and managing digital documents. For example, Citavi offers you hierarchical categories, keywords, and groups. You can use star ratings and your own evaluations to designate important documents. And if you want to start Monday morning by reading an interesting book, stick to your plan by creating a task.

    What about papers you can't scan or throw away? Use classic file folders or binders for these. 

We promise that you'll feel much better after cleaning everything up.
Your colleagues will also thank you if they ever need a document during your vacation!

Of course, a system is only good if you maintain it. Make sure to designate one day a week for going through any papers that have accumulated on your desk. Or, at the end of a project, spend some time filing everything away. Don't forget to reward yourself for the work you've done and enjoy your colleagues' praise. 


Cause 3: Your work habits

If your piles don't accumulate because you don't have a place for tracking tasks or because of lack of time, think about their source. Did your colleagues share printed out articles with you? Or did you print them out yourself in order to read and annotate them but then never got around to it?

Solution 3 

In many disciplines, findings are created, edited, and distributed digitally.  

Stay in this medium, and, instead of printing documents, use tools for organizing your documents  (see solution 2). All documents that you want to read can be added to a group called "Read" in your reference management program. 

Used to reading and annotating papers in print? Give digital annotation a try. Read digital texts more effectively with our hints from a previous blog posting. 


What does your workspace look like?

How do you organize papers?

We would love to read your comments - or see your pictures! - on the Citavi Facebook page.


Recommended reading:
For filers:
Mewburn, Inger (2012): "Are you a piler or a filer?" [blog post]. The Thesis Whisperer. Available online at, checked on 10/18/2018.

For pilers:
Buttfield-Addison, Paris; Lueg, Christopher; Manning, Jonathon (2009): The pile of least effort. In: Marcus Foth (Hg.): Proceedings of the 21st Annual Conference of the Australian Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group Design Open 247. the 21st Annual Conference of the Australian Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group. Melbourne, Australia, 11/23/2009 - 11/27/2009. New York, NY: ACM, S. 345. 

Harford, Tim (2016): Messy: The power of disorder to transform our lives. New York: Riverhead Books.

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

Get the Gist

Use summaries to better understand difficult academic texts

On Monday morning my co-worker asked me about my weekend, as he always does. I replied, “I went to a friend’s place for a party.”

That was it.  My whole weekend in just nine words.

Nothing could be more normal, but why didn’t I begin by recounting what happened when I woke up on Saturday morning? Why didn’t I say that I got up, made a cup of coffee, read some news articles, showered, brushed my teeth, etc., etc. on up to the party I went to in the evening?

Well, this would have bored my colleague to death and he would have probably muttered something about emails and quickly dashed off to his desk. All of my everyday activities wouldn’t have been of interest to him, so I gave him a summary of my weekend. In other words, I shared only the information most relevant to him and left out unnecessary details.

This example shows that summarizing is a skill we do intuitively all the time. When you describe the movie you saw last night to someone, you summarize it. When a friend tells you about their their vacation, they only include the highlights.

Summaries aren’t only important in everyday conversation, they’re used in all communication mediums and in all walks of life. Elevator pitches, infographics, abstracts, legal briefs, topic sentences, key takeaways – all of these can be thought of as summaries.

Funny, then, that a skill that is so intuitive and used so often suddenly can seem difficult when you’re forced to do it in an academic context. A summary of the arguments presented in a scholarly journal article, for example, can seem daunting.

What is a summary, exactly?

The key components of a summary are that you’ve condensed an event, a text, or an idea down to either its main ideas or what’s most relevant about it for a particular audience.

When you summarize an academic text for yourself or others, your goal should be to try to succinctly and accurately restate the main ideas and details of it in your own words, while leaving out anything that is not essential to understanding the text as a whole. Basically, you pick out the main points and leave out anything that’s not important.

It sounds easy, but since academic texts can contain a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and convoluted writing, it sometimes can be a struggle to figure out what exactly the author is getting at.

Why is it necessary to summarize academic texts?

Although it can be difficult to identify the most important ideas in a scholarly article, it’s a necessary prerequisite for writing a research paper. You can think of summaries as a bridge between your reading and your writing. To analyze a text in your writing you must first have understood it, and to have understood it, it must be clear to you from your reading what the main points are. What is the article about? What key findings does it present? Who were the study participants and why were they chosen? This identification of the main points is an act of summarizing.

For most people, this act of summarizing takes place unconsciously, but there are benefits to taking a more active approach to summarizing. For example, if you make a conscious effort to summarize a journal article as you read it, you can check that you’ve actually understood it. In dense academic texts, it’s all too easy to let your mind drift and suddenly realize you haven’t actually “read” anything on the last page or two. If you find this happening to you often, make it a habit to look up from the text, and try to restate the main ideas of the last section out loud or in your head. If you cannot do so, you likely did not understand it and should go back and re-read the section.

For important texts that you will need to be familiar with for a test, you may want to write out your summary. Then, you can also refer to these key points later on instead of having to reread the article in detail.

The act of summarizing, regardless of whether it’s out loud, on paper, or in your head, has the added benefit of helping you remember what you read. There are a few reasons for this. For one, you force yourself to actively engage with the text rather than passively absorbing it. For another, our brains are not good at remembering a lot of complex new information at once. Studies have shown that we can only hold three to five pieces of information in working memory at any given time. So, when you boil an entire article down to a few sentences, it’s more likely that you will remember its main points.

How can you get better at summarizing difficult texts?

The simple answer is… practice! Although writing out a summary takes time, once you get used to actievely summarizing what you read, you’ll be able to do it automatically in your head while you read. At the beginning, it can also be good to compare your summaries with a friend. For example, if you have to read an article for class, compare your summaries or discuss what you think the main points are with a classmate.

An added advantage of getting better at summaries: Being able to summarize well will also help you write better, since you’ll be able to better discern whether or not the main points in your own writing are coming across.

Saving summaries in your reference management program

If you’re working on a longer research paper and are already using a reference management program to keep track of your sources, it can make sense to save your summaries there. This way, you won’t have to reread your texts later on, if you ever have to refer back to them.

Nearly all reference management programs will have a notes field where you can save summaries and other notes. If you want to be especially organized, Citavi has a dedicated “Summary” knowledge item. To use it, you can highlight a text passage, enter a core statement (a summary sentence for your summary, if you will) and then enter the main points and details for the passage. You can then easily distinguish your summaries from direct quotations, indirect quotations, comments, and your own ideas. You can learn more about these options in our PDF guide to annotation in Citavi.
We hope this article will inspire you to start using summaries as a technique for improving your reading comprehension! What strategies do you have for better understanding difficult academic texts? We'd love to hear from you on Facebook.

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

Beating the Long-Term Project Blues

Don't buckle under the strain of your thesis or other large endeavor! Start feeling better now with our tips.

After grad school I thought the days of sobbing over a paper I couldn’t bring myself to start were behind me. Then, last year I started a continuing education course to improve my skills in an area I had little experience in: video.  

With the fun and exhilaration of acquiring new skills came a dark side I had not anticipated: a feeling of inadequacy and extreme stress the likes of which I had not had in a while. The course itself was great, but what brought on these feelings was a semester project: a short video that had to be entirely planned, filmed, and edited completely alone. 

Looking back, this project really pushed me. Now that it’s done, I can see that it was a valuable experience. In the middle of it, though, I was often in a very bad mental state. I had a full-on case of “project depression”, or, more accurately, “project blues”.

The project blues are a concept inspired by the “PhD blues” described by Ümit Kennedy on the Thesis Whisperer blog. I feel that these issues are not specific to PhD students but can occur anytime someone is faced with a large project that feels overwhelming.

You might have the project blues if you are struggling with the following: 

  1. The project has become the most important thing in your life. You no longer have any perspective. It has become part of your identity. You feel that if you fail at this project you are a failure as a person.
  2. Completing normal everyday activities is difficult, and you tell yourself you don’t have time to do them.
  3. Social isolation. You feel guilty going out and taking time away from your work, so you stay at home alone.
  4. A vicious cycle of procrastination followed by guilt that makes it even harder to start working.
  5. You engage in self-soothing behaviors more often (binge-watching Netflix, binge-eating cookie dough ice cream, etc.).
  6. You find less joy in other activities that you used to really like.
  7. Anxiety and spiraling thoughts about what might happen if you don't do a good job on your project. 

These symptoms can be very similar to symptoms of depression, so especially if you’re working on a longer-term project like a thesis, it may be difficult to know if what you’re dealing with is project-specific or a larger general issue. One way to know is that you should feel better after the project is complete.

You shouldn’t always wait that long, though, so be sure to seek out a mental health professional if you’ve had a string of rough days that don’t seem to get better. Many times, your university will have counselors or psychologists you can talk to, and there’s absolutely no shame in getting assistance. Sadly, mental health issues are all too common in academia; in survey results published in March 2018, 39% of graduate students were found to be moderately to severely depressed.  

If you’re “only” dealing with a case of project blues, there are a few things you can try to start feeling better and lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed: 

  1. Perfectionists often seem to experience the worst bouts of project blues. When you’ve set the bar high, the chances of not living up to your own expectations increase. Try to trick yourself by saying that you just want to get a “C” on the paper you’re writing. My trick for my project was to tell myself that I would be happy as long as my video didn't embarrass me in front of my peers.
  2. Another trick is to give yourself small tasks that are easy to achieve. Tell yourself, I’m only going to write the introduction to this chapter today before class. For my video project, I would say, “I’m just going to edit the opening part of this sequence with these specific clips. I’m not going to think about audio, music, etc.” Then, once you get into the groove, you may end up doing much more than you initially planned.
  3. Having your materials organized and having a good process in place can help give you the confidence to keep moving forwards towards your goal a little bit at a time. For a thesis or other longer paper, using a tool like Citavi can help you keep everything in one central place so that you don't waste time searching for a study you read three months ago. You can also use the Task Planner to organize tasks relating to your reading and writing.Tools like spreadsheets, task apps, and calendars can also be useful for both academic and non-academic projects, since they help you maintain an overview of what you need to do when. Just don't get down if you're not meeting your goals at the exact time you wrote in your planning tool. Realize that you'll have to readjust as you go.
  4. Find people who will give you the kind of support you need. This might not always be a romantic partner or family members who may be baffled as to why you are putting so much pressure on yourself. It can often be more helpful to commiserate with peers who are doing the same type of project. You’ll realize you’re not the only one who struggles with time management and self-doubt and this will help give you some perspective.
  5. Think of other tough times you’ve gone through in your life. Likely, you’ve already had another difficult experience in which your achievement or skills were tested. Think back to how horrible you felt and realize how little it all matters today, even if you failed at the time. Remember that many things define who you are as a person and that one assignment or one thesis isn’t the sole measure of your worth.
  6. While you shouldn’t use tasks like cleaning to procrastinate from doing your work, a fragile psyche is not helped by bad hygiene, a sink full of dirty dishes, or piles of unwashed clothes. Sure, in stressful times you may not be able to take care of everything right away, but try to do at least one small daily life activity each day. This will give your mind some needed time to wander and you will hopefully feel a sense of accomplishment from completing something, even if you still have months of thesis writing ahead of you.
  7. Exercise or go for walks if you can. To be honest, I did not do this, but in hindsight I wish I had. Movement releases tension and can clear your head.
  8. Be kind to yourself. If a family member or partner were having the same issue, what advice would you give them?  Recognize also that the work you are doing is part of the learning process. If it’s the first time you’re writing a longer paper or conducting your own research, it’s likely not going to be perfect, but the experience alone will help you do better in the future.
    Also realize that it’s not a weakness to ask for help. Your advisor or professor can assist you with solutions to problems that you might never have thought of on your own.
  9. Although it may sometimes seem impossible, try to enjoy the process. If you can re-connect to what drew you to your project in the first place, your curiosity and interest might help you counteract some of the negativity. Take a moment to appreciate a paragraph you’ve written particularly well. Tweet a quote you liked that you came across in your reading.
  10. Some days nothing will help. Rather than feeling even more guilt, give yourself a break and permission to be sad. Let the negative feelings come, and cry if you need to. But then, go to bed, get up the next day, and keep doing what you can.  

Please note that these are only my personal tips for dealing with the project blues. In the “For Further Reading” section below, I’ve included a few links to other blog posts I've found helpful.

We’d also love to hear your thoughts! Is there an important strategy we left out? How do you deal with the project blues? Please share your recommendations with us on our Facebook page.

For Further Reading

Hiatt, G. (2005, April 13). The 3 P’s: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and... Paralysis [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Kennedy, Ü. (2017, May 17). PhD Depression (or just the blues?) [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Parcy, A. (2 014, March 25). Studying a PhD: Don't Suffer in Silence [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Schwegman, J., & Golde, C. (2016, May 18). Perfectionist Gridlock: Eight Ways to Get Unstuck [Blog post]. Retrieved from

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

Make this your year

Our 6 top tips for a successful new semester

A new academic year is a great chance to start over. It’s a time to say goodbye to the bad habits that may have plagued you in the past and start developing good ones to help you succeed. We’ve culled some of our top tips from past blog posts to help you thrive in your studies. Whether you’re a first-year student or a seasoned professor, we hope you’ll find some strategies you can put into practice below.

  1. Outsmart the procrastination instinct One of the biggest problems nearly every student faces is procrastination. If you have an issue with putting off your work, there’s no need to feel ashamed – it’s very human and there a lot of reasons that you might be procrastinating other than laziness. In fact, many of the best students procrastinate, often due to fear of failure.Whatever the reason, it’s helpful to have some tools ready the next time you feel tempted to postpone an important assignment as giving in to procrastination can lead to lower-quality assignments and decreased learning retention.

    When you feel tempted to procrastinate, the hardest thing to do – and also the most important – is to just get started on what you’ve been avoiding. Once you’ve made even a little progress, the task won’t seem so daunting. There are a number of ways to naturally trick your brain into doing this, but the next three are some of our favorites:

    The one-inch picture frame

    This trick is described by writer Anne Lamott in her advice book for fiction writers Bird by Bird. With this method, you tell yourself that you’re just going to do one very small task. For example, your goal might be to just write the first sentence of a new section in your paper. Once that’s done, you’ll have built up some momentum and should be able to keep writing. Learn more in this blog post.

    The Pomodoro Technique®

    If you find you simply can’t get going on something, the Pomodoro Technique® is worth a try. The method is named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer common in Italy. You set a timer to 25 minutes, force yourself to work on your task for that time, and then take a five-minute break when the task is over. Then, you repeat this process several times, always with breaks in between. The method works similarly to the one-inch picture frame method – by telling yourself that you only have to do something for 25 minutes, you make the task feel manageable.

    Eat your frog

    This method can help you build up a daily habit of facing the tasks you most want to procrastinate on. When you metaphorically eat your frog, you begin your day by completing the worst task you have in front of you. This way, you face the project you’re dreading the most, get it out of the way for the day, and can then turn your attention to other, easier tasks.

  2. Learn how to focus While getting started is half the battle, keeping your attention focused is just as important.First, eliminate external distractions as much as possible. Going to the library for a study session? It can be helpful to “forget” your phone at home. If you find yourself surfing webpages or checking social media on your computer, set your computer to flight mode or use a blocking program to keep yourself from accessing websites you find hard to resist.

    To really get into a flow state and deep focus mode, you’ll need to make sure you have a good amount of time set aside for concentration. Schedule larger tasks in block of time of around 60-90 minutes and then only work on the item you said you would during that time. It   be helpful to put this in writing in a calendar. Once the time is up for the first task, move to the next one, even if the first task isn’t finished. This trains your brain to adhere to a plan and to avoid switching between tasks frequently (as we’ve noted in a previous blog-post, there are a lot of problems with multi-tasking).

    If you do find your thoughts drifting during these longer sessions, use the Pomodoro method described above to bring yourself back. Then, you continue trying to work in a more concentrated way for the remaining time.

  3. Every day is better than all at once You probably already know that pulling an all-nighter is never a great solution. While it might work in the short term, you’re unlikely to store what you "learned" in your long-term memory.  For this, the brain needs spaced repetition, i.e. repeated exposure to content with breaks in between.What can you do to avoid all-nighters? First, putting our procrastination-avoidance strategies in place (see tip #1) should already help. Beyond that, it’s good to start building a habit of regular study. Try to always look over your notes for a class right after the class has ended or get used to opening your books as soon as you come home in the evening.
  4. Make sure you’ve really learned what you think you learned One frustrating thing about studying is that you can spend a lot of time going through materials without really retaining any of the information. For example, you might re-read your books and notes for a few weeks before an exam. Then, during the test you realize in a panic that you don’t know any of the answers.The problem is that you had illusions of competence. You thought that you knew the material because you spent a lot of time studying. However, since your strategy wasn’t effective, you never mastered what you needed to know.

    So, just how can you ensure that you’re actually learning?

    One method that can help is summarizing. As you’re going through your notes or reading a text, make sure to periodically re-state the main ideas in your own words. You can do this out loud, in your head, or by writing it down. It can be helpful to imagine that you’re explaining the idea to someone else. It’s okay to do this a few times until you really feel you’ve captured the idea. If you realize you can’t summarize the text, you’ll need to go back and re-read it until you can.

    Periodically stopping to summarize what you’re reading is a great habit to get into. It has an additional benefit as well, since it stops the auto-pilot mode that it’s all too easy to fall into when reading dense academic prose.

  5. Get organized While some people do fine co-existing with a messy desk (I’m sure you know some professors who fall into this category!), for others it leads to feelings of being overwhelmed. In addition, there’s nothing more frustrating than sitting down to study and then having to spend precious time searching for your notes or textbooks. We recommend setting up an organizational system for your workspace and then getting into the habit of maintaining it. This can be a simple weekly reminder in your calendar to take a look at your desk and bring everything back into order again. Other tips for cleaning up a messy desk can be found in this blog post.If you find that you’re often searching around for your sources when writing a paper or putting together a bibliography, we recommend using reference management software. When you put all of your source information into the program, it means you’ll have all of their information at hand when it’s time to write. Reference management software also takes care of citation formatting for you, so you can spend focus more on your writing instead of checking all the periods, commas, and abbreviations in your bibliography entries.

    You may think you don’t need a reference manager at the beginning of your studies since it’s easy to put together a list of works cited for your first short papers. However, it’s still worth getting to know one of these programs early on, since it can also be useful as a study tool.

    How’s that? Readings, lecture notes, and course text book information can be stored in the program. Nearly every program will also have a notes field where you can save your comments. Alternatively, you can write your notes in Word and attach the file to the source record.

    With some programs, such as Citavi, you can even excerpt information from items in PDF format and save your comments on the text. The summaries and comments you’ve now decided to start writing after reading Tip #4 can also be stored there. They then can be placed in an outline and printed out to use as a study guide for your next test. If you’re writing a paper, you can even insert them into Word with a single click.

    Not sure how you should go about choosing a reference management program? This blog article can help.

  6. Use smart search strategies This one’s a bit of a pro tip, since the paper topics you’ll have as a beginning student usually have ample sources that you can find just by using the database and library catalog search strategies you learn in your library instruction classes. As you progress in your studies, you should start becoming more concerned with finding the best sources on your topic, and you might also have topics that it’s hard to find sources for. In both cases, the tips below can help.First, if you already found one good source, you can use bibliography hacking and citation tracking to find others on the same topic. Bibliography hacking is when you check the source’s bibliography for other relevant works on the same subject. In a sense you’re going backwards in time to find the sources that your current author used. To go forwards in time and see which works cited the source you have in front of you, you can use the citation tracking features that are available in some databases.

    Another good method is to let your sources come to you. If you find yourself continually going back to the same database and performing the same search, you can set up a search alert to be notified when new articles are added that meet your search terms. Then, you just need to enter the link in an RSS feed reader (such as the one in Citavi) and the article information will be delivered straight to you.

    As a beginning student, it’s all too easy to focus on finding articles on the topic itself. But research is done by people,  which is something that matters more and more as you progress in your academic career. Who are the big names in your field? If they have a Twitter account, they might post articles they recommend there, or you could hear about their latest pre-prints. Following academics in your field on social media can be a great way to get notified about articles on a topic that otherwise might never have appeared on your radar screen. Not a big fan of social media or the big names in your field don’t tend to use it? Many academics will have a website listing their publications on their university’s website. In addition, you can use Web of Science, Scopus, or other similar databases that let you search for publications written by a particular author.

We hope you’ll use these six tips to start the new academic year off on the right foot!

Now it’s your turn – do you agree with our list? What tips would you suggest instead? Let us know on our Facebook page!

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

What is #AcWriMo?

All about Academic Writing Month

For many academics, the month of November is associated with making progress on a writing goal. In this blog post, we’ll discuss why that is, how Academic Writing Month started, and why there's such a need for it.

Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) was inspired by “National Novel Writing Month” (NaNoWriMo), which also takes place in November. In NaNoWriMo aspiring novelists aim to write a 50,000 word manuscript during the course of a month.

As its name implies Academic Writing Month has scholarly writing as its focus. In contrast to the pre-defined word count of NaNoWriMo, academics can define their own individual goals. This makes sense: depending on the academic discipline, the word count for a publication can be considerably less than for others. For example, a mathematical thesis can be very short, while a dissertation on a historical topic can run to several hundred pages. Anyone can take part in AcWriMo, from a first-semester student finishing a research paper to a professor working on a journal article.

In 2011 art historian Dr. Charlotte Frost initiated the first Academic Writing Month, which was originally called “Academic Book Writing Month”. Her goal was to feel less isolated while working on her writing project. Perhaps she too was dealing with a case of the long-term project blues. Frost’s ideas was to put together a group of academics that were each working on their own projects, and who would work on achieving their specific goals at the same time. Via Twitter and on the blog PhD2Published individual successes and setbacks were to be shared with the others.

Today many people participate in AcWriMo for the same reasons as the original group. Setting a goal and deadline for yourself and declaring it to others creates external peer pressure that can help motivate you to get started with writing. Since you want to look good in front of the other participants and be praised for reaching your goal, you’re more likely to keep going. Being a part of a community also helps with motivation. And, when you successfully participate in Academic Writing Month you should have a good chunk of writing to show for yourself when it’s over.

The purpose of the event is not only related to output: it’s designed to build community and create a supportive environment and to help participants learn how to set realistic goals and follow through on them. Even if you don’t reach your intended word count, you will have gotten to know yourself and your way of writing better. In this way, Academic Writing Month can help you kick off improvements to work habits that last well beyond November.

Originally AcWriMo participants were individual scholars, but today many universities, publishing companies and other organizations also take part. They offer a number of additional events, such as live writing sessions or webinars on topics related to writing. Two such offerings this year are WriteFest 2020 at the University of Liverpool or the webinars offered by SAGE Publishing Methodspace.

Why does AcWriMo resonate with so many people?

The popularity of AcWriMo around the world shows that academic writing is difficult for many people. You’ve probably experienced it yourself; when you’re telling colleagues or peers that you’re working on a new paper or on your dissertation do you talk about the actual writing process with enthusiasm or with frustration? We’re guessing that more often than not it’s the latter.

But why exactly is writing frustrating? The reasons are different for different people, but they can include the following:

AcWriMo – a step towards solving your writing problems

The good thing is that you’re not the only one who has difficulty writing. Talk to your colleagues and they’ll tell you about the difficulties they’re facing with their own publications. Sometimes sharing which dead ends you ran into in your own work and which tricks you used to get yourself writing again can help. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution since everyone is different, and no one is born a writer.

If you want more people to commiserate with and help cheer you on, you can expand your group of colleagues by taking part in Academic Writing Month. To participate, follow these six rules from the original challenge:

  1. Set a goal, for example, a certain number of words or hours of writing that you want to reach by the end of the month. The goal should be a challenge but still doable.
  2. Share your goal with others, for example, on social media.
  3. Prepare yourself by finding free time to write and blocking off your writing sessions in your calendar. Get a hold of any sources you need and read and take notes prior to your writing sessions.
  4. Share your successes and failures on social media.
  5. Work hard and stay focused.
  6. At the end of the month let others know if you reached your goal or not.

You can also use Academic Writing Month to reflect on the entire process of scholarly communication and to remind yourself why you wanted to work on your writing in the first place:

Is the medium of writing the problem?

Isn’t it somewhat strange that writing seems so difficult? Shouldn’t we be motivated to share our enthusiasm for our research and want to convince others of our findings and share new knowledge with them? Perhaps part of the problem has to do with the medium of writing itself if so many people have trouble with it.
How might scholarly communication look in the future?
How could we better share our ideas and present them to the public?

Let’s try to imagine what that could look like. In the future, there could be more alternative publication formats equivalent to written publications. Research results published as a videopodcast, or a series of blog posts or even social media postings could have the same standing and impact as a journal article. Of course, for these new formats some form of quality control similar to the peer review system for journal articles would need to be established. Conference presentations and posters would no longer need to be submitted additionally as text since both the presentation and the discussion round would be recorded. The video would just need to be accessible and it could then be cited just like a published conference paper in the past. A long-format post on an academic social media platform could be referred to just like an online article. From a technical standpoint, this is already possible if the post is assigned a DOI. Even mainstream social media could become a bigger part of the academic conversation.  A controversial tweet about new findings presented in a pre-print could lead to more researchers reading and commenting on the study and to more rigorous review then might be the case in a double-blind peer review carried out be just a couple reviewers.

Of course, in the meantime writing will remain the preferred method for scholarly communication and will remain important beyond the month of November. Use the tips and discoveries you make about your own writing habits this month during the rest of the year as well. You might just find that writing gets easier when you find a few tricks that work for you. And if you do get writer’s block, just take comfort in the fact that there may be alternative forms of scholarly communication to look forward to in the future.

For Further Reading
Tarrant, A. (2012, November 1). Academic Writing Month and the social landscape of academic practice. The Guardian

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

Dealing with writer’s block

8 strategies that can help

Nearly all of us have been there: sitting in front of the blank page not knowing where to start, a growing knot in our stomach and the temptation to get up and do the laundry instead, since then at least we’d be doing something useful.

In our last blog post, we wrote about #AcWriMo and speculated about why academics find it so difficult to write that they need the external push of AcWriMo to get them going. In this post we want to take a closer look at one of the biggest reasons – writer’s block – and possible solutions you can try if you experience it.

Writer’s block is indeed a common experience among academics. Although statistics are scarce, one recent study in Turkey found that only 6% of the first-year students surveyed never had writer’s block. 24% nearly always had writer’s block and 70% of students experienced writer’s block occasionally. Among graduate students in the U.S., it’s also common: a decade after starting 55-64% of PhD students still haven’t finished their dissertations (Ph.D. Completion Project as cited by Schuman 2014).

Although it’s common in academia, writer’s block is surprisingly hard to define. Some people even contend that it’s not real.

Does writer’s block even exist?

There’s a surprisingly large contingent of people who argue that writer’s block doesn’t exist. One popular quote attributed to the journalist Roger Simon states that “there is no such thing as writer’s block. My father drove a truck for 40 years. And never once did he wake up in the morning and say: ‘I have truck driver’s block today. I am not going to work’.”

Many in academia agree, including Dr. Paul Silva. In his popular book for academics How to write a lot, the psychologist contends:

Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing. Saying that you can’t write because of writer’s block is merely saying that you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial. Giving a fancy name to feeling frustrated with your writing makes your frustration seem more grave and complex than it is. The cure for writer’s block— if you can cure a specious affliction— is writing (42).

While academic writing instructor Dr. Rachel Cayley admits that many graduate students have trouble writing, she thinks the cause lies elsewhere. As she sees it, “most graduate writers who are struggling with their writing are actually struggling with their thinking” (Cayley 2018). Cayley worries that mislabeling the problem as writer’s block can keep graduate students from feeling capable of doing the one thing that can help with working through the intellectual problems causing the block – writing.

Writer’s block: one term, many different problems

Just because “writer’s block” as an overarching concept may not exist, that doesn’t mean that problems surrounding writing don’t.

There are many different flavors of writer’s block, and each person will experience it differently. According to those who have researched it, writer’s block can be caused by psychological, emotional, behavioral, biological or external factors.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of well-designed scientific studies on writer’s block and the results from the few small studies that do exist can’t necessarily be extrapolated to the population at large. So what’s a sufferer to do? Flaherty (2004) explains that until science catches up, you will likely have to do a bit of experimentation to find out what works best for you, since “even treatments that clearly work well on average may not work well for a given person. The multiple aspects of block show how specifically tailored an effective treatment— behavioral or medical— should be” (140).

We’ve taken a look at some of the literature out there – from book-length treatises and Master’s theses to blogs and short articles and pulled out some of the advice that seems most promising for some of the most common symptoms. This list isn’t exhaustive, some of the categories below are very similar or overlap, and often you might experience multiple causes for a case of writer’s block. It might be worth trying a few of the options that seem closest to the problems you’re experiencing.

Specific writing problems and possible solutions

  1. You’re not capable of writing You sit down at your computer, open up your document, and then…nothing. You simply can’t get the words out.→ Try this:

    When the words just won’t come, it can help to remind yourself that you actually can write – as long as it’s something else. For example, write an email to a friend or a summary of a book you’re reading. Start a journaling habit. Or, if you want to still be productive on your current project, use the freewriting technique or write with prompts. This can help remind you that you actually can write and that the root of the problem likely has something to do with one of the other causes below.
  2. Feeling overwhelmed Your writing project is bigger or more complex than anything you’ve attempted before. When you sit down to write, you feel paralyzed and can’t get going.→ Try this:

    Use any strategy that can help you feel that you’re in control of your writing again. You’ll want to break the huge task of writing your thesis down into small tasks you can easily achieve in an individual writing session. Use the Pomodoro Technique®, which we describe in this blog article, to break the time spent writing into smaller, concentrated blocks. Or use the one-inch picture frame method to focus on one very small writing goal at a time, such as writing one paragraph in your literature review or 50 words for your discussion section. The trick for you is to just get started so that you can then build some momentum and keep writing.

  3. Not knowing where to start This feeling often goes hand-in-hand with being overwhelmed. You might feel ready to write but feel that you don’t have a firm enough grasp on your topic yet or know how certain ideas relate to one another.→ Try this:

    One thing that can help, at least in academic writing, is good preparation. Having an outline and your notes and sources at hand when starting to write can help keep you from getting blocked.

    Using a software program like Scrivener or Citavi can help, too. With Citavi, you can simply insert the information and ideas you’ve extracted from your sources along with your own ideas into your Word document. Once you see this information on the page, you can start making connections and the writing process should feel a bit easier. Of course, the prerequisite is that you’ve already done a lot of work in Citavi.

  4. Lack of deadlines or other forms of accountability Do you often find it easier to write when a deadline is near? For many of us the fear of missing a close deadline can finally make it possible to overcome the difficulty of writing and get something on paper. When we don’t have a deadline, projects can languish for weeks or months at a time.→ Try this:

    If you don't have any short-term deadlines for a larger project, you'll need to create some form of external accountability so that you don’t have to rely on your own willpower. #AcWriMo is a great example of this, since you would rather share successes with others than failures, and at the end of the month you’ll want to post about your achievements. During the rest of the year, you may want to join a writing group that has accountability as its main purpose.
  5. Waiting for inspiration You’re the kind of writer who can write easily once the right idea has struck, but sometimes it can take a while for inspiration to hit. If you try to write when not inspired, you often feel blocked.→ Try this:

    Silva calls your type of writing “binge writing”. His solution? Make a schedule and commit to regular writing sessions. Forming a habit of writing could even lead to more regular inspiration. One study asked three groups of college professors to write regularly, spontaneously only when inspiration struck, or not at all, unless they absolutely had to. Those who wrote regularly reported being inspired more often, and the group who only wrote when they felt like it barely wrote more than those who were told not to write unless they absolutely had to (Boice 1990 as cited by Silva 2019). By keeping to a schedule you not only will write more, but you also will be inspired more often since the act of writing will trigger new ideas.

  6. Your inner critic gets the best of you Whenever you write, you start second guessing yourself. Your inner critic says things like “You call that writing? How did you even get into a PhD program?”→ Try this:

    Take the focus away from “good” writing. Instead focus at first on objective goals, such as word counts. Once you’ve achieved those, use the questioning technique espoused by Cayley to bring your inner critic on board. Put your doubts on paper by writing sentences like “I’m not sure if this section is working, but what I want to say is…”. This will help you get your thinking on paper and can help you better pinpoint problems than you could if you tried to solve everything in your head before writing.

  7. You have very high standards for your writing You want nothing less than for your work to dazzle anyone who reads it. Your ideas are brilliant and your writing should reflect that. When you feel you’re falling short of your own expectations, you find it hard to write.→ Try this:

    Practice writing “shitty first drafts”. Brilliant writing rarely emerges in a first take, but during the editing process it can. So, try and get a draft typed out as fast as you can and don’t edit too much while you write. Once you have something on paper, it’s much easier to shape it into what you want. Sure, you will end up discarding a lot of what you wrote, but that’s normal. Don’t look at discarded words as a waste of time, since they will still have helped your thinking process and your final product.

  8. Your writer’s block is related to another condition In The Midnight Disease, physician Alice Flaherty lays out good evidence to support her thesis that writer’s block, at least in some people, can have a physiological component. For example, depression and anxiety often go hand in hand with difficulty in speaking, and there’s some evidence that the same brain regions are involved in these conditions and those in which people have trouble expressing themselves in words. Certain types of medication or other therapy that help with these disorders could then potentially also help with writer’s block.→ Try this:

    There are no studies yet on medication for writer’s block, but if you do have anxiety, depression or another condition, it may help to make sure you’re keeping up with your therapy, whether that’s medication, behavioral therapy, daily exercise, light therapy in winter, etc. Even for those of us without psychological conditions, it can be helpful to go back to basics. Make sure to get enough exercise and sleep and eat well, since these seemingly mundane factors can have a big impact on mood, which in turn can have a big impact on how we feel when we sit down to write.

As an academic, not being able to write can be a very uncomfortable and emotional state. But, as the popularity of AcWriMo suggests, you’re not alone. We hope that some of the tips in this article will give you a starting point for breaking through your block, but if nothing seems to work, you can also seek help from trained professionals, such as your campus writing center or university counselors.

We’ll leave you with one last inspiring thought as well at the end: there is some evidence that writing regularly can help with writer’s block and that seasoned writers suffer less from writer’s block than inexperienced writers. So, no matter how hard the blocks seem now, they likely will get better over time.

What did you think about our tips? Did we leave anything out? How do you personally deal with writer’s block? We’d love to hear from you in the comments on the Facebook post for this blog article or by email.

For further reading

Flaherty, A. (2004). The midnight disease: The drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain. Houghton Mifflin.

Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life (Second Anchor Books Edition). Anchor Books.

Rachel Cayley. (2018, March 23). Writer’s block is not a struggle with your writing but with your thinking. Write your way out of it.

Silvia, P. J. (2019). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing (Second edition). American Psychological Association.

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.