Read the Shortest Academic Article Ever Written: “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block’ ”

We’ve fea­tured impres­sive­ly short aca­d­e­m­ic papers here on Open Cul­ture before, like John Nash’s 26-page PhD the­sis and this two-sen­tence “Coun­terex­am­ple to Euler’s Con­jec­ture on Sums and Like Pow­ers,” but if you’ve set your sights on writ­ing one short­er still, don’t get your hopes up. The almost cer­tain­ly unbeat­able exam­ple of a short aca­d­e­m­ic paper appeared more than forty years ago, in the fall 1974 issue of the Jour­nal of Applied Behav­ior Analy­ses, its main text com­ing in at exact­ly zero words. You can read it, if indeed “read” is the word, above or at the Nation­al Cen­ter for Biotech­nol­o­gy Infor­ma­tion.

Writ­ten, or at least thought up, by psy­chol­o­gist Den­nis Upper, “The Unsuc­cess­ful Self-Treat­ment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block’ ” has noth­ing but its title, one foot­note (indi­cat­ing that “por­tions of this paper were not pre­sent­ed at the 81st annu­al Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion Con­ven­tion”), and the ful­some com­ments of a review­er: “I have stud­ied this man­u­script very care­ful­ly with lemon juice and X‑rays and have not detect­ed a sin­gle flaw in either design or writ­ing style. I sug­gest it be pub­lished with­out revi­sion. Clear­ly it is the most con­cise man­u­script I have ever seen — yet it con­tains suf­fi­cient detail to allow oth­er inves­ti­ga­tors to repli­cate Dr. Upper’s fail­ure. In com­par­i­son with the oth­er man­u­scripts I get from you con­tain­ing all that com­pli­cat­ed detail, this one was a plea­sure to exam­ine.”

Some describe writer’s block, whether in sci­ence or lit­er­a­ture or any oth­er field requir­ing the prop­er arrange­ment of words, as a fear of the blank page. If look­ing at Upper’s void-like paper fright­ens you, con­sid­er hav­ing a look at the Louisiana Chan­nel series we fea­tured in 2016 where­in writ­ers like Mar­garet Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Car­ol Oates, and David Mitchell talk about how they deal with the blank page them­selves. Atwood finds that it “beck­ons you in to write some­thing on it,” that “it must be filled,” but if you don’t hear the same call, you’ll have to come up with an approach of your own. Just don’t try titling, foot­not­ing, and turn­ing in the emp­ty sheet — it’s been done.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

8 Writ­ers on How to Face Writer’s Block and the Blank Page: Mar­garet Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Car­ol Oates & More

The Short­est-Known Paper Pub­lished in a Seri­ous Math Jour­nal: Two Suc­cinct Sen­tences 

Read John Nash’s Super Short PhD The­sis with 26 Pages & 2 Cita­tions: The Beau­ty of Invent­ing a Field

When a Cat Co-Authored a Paper in a Lead­ing Physics Jour­nal (1975)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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