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CAREER ADVICE

Write every day (or don’t!) to be a successful writer

Celebrating research that finds academic writers have varied writing practices.

By ISABEAU IQBAL | DEC 07 2016

“You should publish this,” is something academics frequently and flippantly say to one another. When I was a graduate student and keen to decipher what this meant, I sought writing advice from books and workshops. There, I learned that I should write every day. These sources promised that writing every day would keep my research top of mind, maintain strong writing muscles, transform me into a better writer, and make me more productive. Authors, bloggers, and workshop facilitators attested that “writing every day” was good advice by citing published research by State University of New York psychology professor Robert Boice who, through specific intervention strategies, demonstrated that faculty members who wrote every day were most productive and had the most creative ideas.

Ever the good student and eager to complete my dissertation in a timely fashion, I adopted a daily writing practice because my schedule allowed it and it seemed to be the best (i.e., most efficient) way to meet my goal. But, is writing every day the only way to be a productive academic writer?

According to many sources, yes. But, according to Helen Sword’s research, no. Her recent articleWrite every day!: a mantra dismantled” provides new empirical evidence that successful academic writers have varied, personal writing practices. Only a minority write every day.

Dr. Sword, director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, interviewed 100 academic researchers that she had identified as successful or who had been recommended by their peers as exemplary writers. Her study participants came from various disciplines, in 45 universities located across four continents. She also gathered anonymous questionnaire data from 1,223 participants at writing development workshops she offered at the institutions she conducted interviews or at conferences; these individuals were postdoctoral researchers, PhD students, academic staff and university-based professional writers.

By her own admission, Dr. Sword was surprised by the results. She had expected Dr. Boice’s core principle (i.e., scheduled daily writing) to be affirmed. But, it was not: less than 13 percent of her study participants reported that they write or aspire to write every day. As Sword notes: “[…] roughly seven out of eight academics surveyed do not write every day; daily writing turns out to be neither a reliable marker nor a clear predictor of overall academic success.”

The academics she interviewed adopted varied writing practices that work for them. Some wrote at night, others in the afternoon or morning; certain academics wrote only on campus, while others wrote in cafés, or at home, or in retreat-like settings. There are prolific writers who “binge write”, while others write more regularly. The point is that successful academics find ways to write that suit their particular preferences. Their practices vary, but their writing gets done.

This finding may not be surprising – and, it makes sense. Yet, even if one suspected that the write-everyday-approach was not the only route to writing success, the Boicean “mantra” has dominated in many texts on writing.

Which brings me to the piece that inspired this particular article: the mantra dismantled.

In her article, Dr. Sword cleverly dissects Dr. Boice’s methodology and scrutinizes his key findings to offer a perspective seldom found in the literature on academic writing. She does so in a way that is intelligent, playful, and cheeky. Her investigation and analysis of Dr. Boice’s previous work are worth reading, but for those who may be short on time, I will briefly summarize some of the “holes” Dr. Sword found in Dr. Boice’s work, in particular in his most widely cited 1983 experiment in which he put 27 faculty members into three groups. Some of the methodological snares were:

  • His cohort was small
  • His cohort was geographically limited to one campus
  • His cohort was composed exclusively of “self-identified procrastinators”
  • The group that was told to abstain from all non-essential writing was operating in a highly contrived situation (10 people dropped out of this group, which, according to Dr. Sword “suggests that Boice’s research methods did not sit well with many of the academics on whom they were imposed”).

Dr. Boice’s work has had a strong influence on how many of us believe academic writing “should” happen. What happens, at a personal level, when his recommendations aren’t followed? Guilt? Defeat? Shame? Dr. Boice’s findings have also, as Dr. Sword points out, often been “oversimplified, or unquestioningly recycled by academics eager to justify their own methods and beliefs.” This author is guilty of that.

Despite the methodological issues in Dr. Boice’s work and the fact that his findings have been wrongly quoted and misrepresented, his work on productivity and academic writing has inspired me to be intentional about my writing.

I write every day. I wake up early in the morning and writing 30 to 45 minutes six days a week. I also log my writing time and occasionally seek out a community of writers to deflect my waning motivation. In other words, I have adopted many of the practices suggested by Dr. Boice. For me, this has worked; I write and publish and my interest in doing so remains high, even though, in my staff position, I am not required to publish, nor am rewarded for doing so.

However, Dr. Sword’s recent research, and my own experience of working with, and meeting other academic writers, has convinced me that successful academic writers may become so through a variety of practices. Writing every day is not the only way to be a successful writer.

I am gently putting down the “Write Every Day” banner that I have enthusiastically been waving for the past five years. Now, I proudly sport the “Do what works” T-shirt.

Isabeau Iqbal is an educational developer in the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia.

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