The key to productive writing?

I’ve added a skill to my scientific skill tree recently. A skill that, in hindsight, seems intuitively obvious, but really wasn’t until I put it into practice.

A common quip in academia is, “Publish or perish.” Successful scientists publish. Prominent scientists publish a lot. Refereed journal articles narrate the maturation of our field, and prolific writers can exert a powerful influence on its direction, as well as keep the bean counters happy.

As a postdoc, I’m expected to publish a minimum of two refereed journal articles per year. At 7500 words apiece, that works out to an average of 58 words per work day. Of course, that’s not how we generally write. We tend to write in thousand-word spurts, just before a major deadline. The weeks leading up to a major conference, when we produce extended abstracts, abound with bloodshot eyes in front of LCD screens late at night.

Cover of How to Write a Lot by Dr. Paul Silvia

(c) American Psychological Association

On the recommendation of someone on the ESWN listserv, I recently acquired a slender, 150-page book with the intriguing title How to Write A Lot by Dr. Paul Silvia. He rails against what he refers to as “binge writing” (which I describe above). He approaches the problem of writing from the standpoint of a psychologist, and deconstructs some of the “specious barriers” that academics often cite as their justification for not writing more.

Dr. Silvia’s main message is this: Make a writing schedule, and stick to it. Think of the writing schedule like an exercise regimen, or a class to learn a new skill. Set aside a block of time each day, close your door, and focus only on writing. Be defensive; don’t schedule other appointments during that block of time. The writing schedule will become an ingrained habit, and soon you will never have to “find” the time to write.

My gut response to this message was, “Well, duh, that makes perfect sense!” Repetition and practice are crucial, because, much like a muscle, unused writing skills diminish over time. I honestly think the only reason that this approach never occurred to me was that no one ever told it to me explicitly. Or perhaps all my mentors are themselves binge writers. (That would be easy to change!)

I resolved to test Dr. Silvia’s approach. For the past three weeks, I’ve set aside a two-hour block each morning to write, keeping my office door closed and my e-mail logged out. I stick a “Writing time: Do not disturb” sign to my white board (mostly so that my bosses know I am actually in the office), and it has attracted some comments. But the proof is in the pudding: During those three weeks, I’ve generated about two-thirds of a manuscript, and I’m feeling pretty good about it!

The size of a book is no indication of the utility of its contents. This slender volume has had an immediate impact on my approach to writing, hopefully for the better. I may not write exactly 58 words each day, but I’d like to think I’m getting closer to a more even, temperate pace.

2 thoughts on “The key to productive writing?

  1. I admit it … I’m a “binge writer”. Given that I can crank out a conference paper (old style) in about 2 hours or less, and a formal manuscript in about a week, this suffices for me to get publications out the door. It does NOT work for extended works, like books. I have demonstrated no ability to get large works done since my early postdoctoral days, largely because I run out of creative energy before the task is complete.

    Perhaps I should do the same to try to finish the projects I’ve started and are now in various stages of incompletion.

    • You, Chuck, have so many years of writing under your belt that it’s not surprising that it comes easily to you. You are also a member of a generation that, in general, has better discipline than those more recent. So your prolific writing comes as no great surprise!

      After some thought, I’ve concluded that my own “binge writing” is a holdover practice from my student years. How many times did we slave away all night on a term project or homework assignment that was due the next day? After 20+ years of that kind of gun-to-the-head writing practice, it’s not surprising that a “writing schedule” seems like a revolutionary idea to me!

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