The topic of this series of posts is writing problems. If you've been following along, you may be thinking at this point that you don't have a writing problem or that you write "well enough"---and consequently don't need to analyze your habits and attitudes toward writing. Such an attitude, by itself, can be sign of a problem.
Most of us, for whom writing is an integral part of what we do in our jobs, would like to improve our productivity. I rarely hear colleagues say, "Well, I'm really satisfied with the number of papers I published last year." More often, they are lamenting how they can't seem to get out as many papers as they would like.
In most organizations, there are one or two scientists who publish prolifically and account for a good proportion of the total scientific output. Not all of these prodigious scientists are producing good work; they may be publishing work of little significance. At the other extreme are the people who rarely publish or who don't publish at all--at least not in peer-reviewed journals. The majority fall in between, but there can be a large range in productivity within this group.
To succeed in most scientific positions, one must publish. Getting a good job, keeping the job, getting promoted, and ultimately getting tenure (academic) or permanent status (government) is strongly influenced by one's writing abilities and productivity. Learning early to be a good writer will put you well ahead of others vying for jobs, grants, or space in journals. The earlier you start writing well, the more productive you will be over the entire span of your career----and the faster you will move through those career milestones. Even if you are reasonably satisfied with your publication rate, you can always benefit from being more efficient in your writing efforts.
To be productive throughout your career, it's important to know what your strengths and particularly your weaknesses are. Note that these may change over time. What plagues novice writers may be overcome, only to be replaced with other challenges in the more seasoned writer. Most people avoid considering their weaknesses and focus on those aspects they do well. That's human nature. But it's not the way to improve. People who instead focus on their weaknesses and work to eliminate them show dramatic jumps in their overall abilities. This approach is known as "deliberate practice", which I described in earlier posts: "Is Talent Overrated?" and "Is Talent Overrated Part 2". It's the secret behind so-called child prodigies and other people who exhibit amazing talents.
In the previous post, I listed the common writing problems. These typically cluster together into four patterns:
1. Work apprehension and low energy and enthusiasm for writing
2. Dysphoria (unhappiness) and evaluation anxiety
4. Procrastination and impatience
A useful place to start improving productivity (or to get started writing) is to analyze your weaknesses. The book I've mentioned previously, "Professors as Writers--A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing", has a self-assessment test in it. I looked to see if there were any online tests, but could not find any. Even if you don't do a formal assessment with such a test, you probably have an idea of where your problems lie.
If your main problem is getting started or finding time to write, a suggested technique is called "contingency management" (Boice, 1990). The idea is simple. Pick a daily activity (checking email, showering, having breakfast, exercising) and make it contingent on writing for a set amount of time or a set number of pages. This approach may sound difficult, but people who use it say it works. See this personal description of how contingency management works.
Another helpful activity is to keep track of your writing progress by preparing a graph of the number of hours devoted to writing along with the output. See example below modified from Boice 1990:
For novice writers, there may be some apprehension regarding grammar and punctuation and other writing rules. Most word processing programs can help with this as can many online help sites for students with writing problems. An example can be found at "Common Student Writing Problems". There are many others.
Boice, R. 1990. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. New Forums Press, Stillwater, OK.
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Charles Gibson artist, circa 1911