Friday, February 11, 2011

Binge Writing

Now that I've gotten my thoughts about bureaucratic insanity, government accountability, and related topics off my chest (for now), I'd like to take a break and return to a more useful topic--writing.

I've just finished reading the book "How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing" by Paul Silvia, who is a psychologist. He does research and publishes it, as well as writes books about psychology....and writing.  This is a great book for beginning writers, especially those who have a bit of fear or misconceptions about the writing process. Silvia provides practical advice, encouragement, and specific tips for being productive and getting your stuff published.  Although he is writing specifically from the viewpoint of a psychological researcher, his points are applicable to any technical science writing.

Some of his advice I've covered in previous posts (check out the Useful Posts list on Writing Strategies in the nav panel).  His best piece of advice, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is to establish a specific time each day to write (e.g., 8 to 10 am every Mon., Wed., Fri.).  This approach means that you decide on this time and stick to it no matter what.  You don't schedule meetings, allow interruptions, take phone calls, work in the lab, or read email during these hours.  If a student wants to schedule their general exam at 9 am on Wednesday, for example, you tell them you cannot meet during the hours you've set aside for your writing... and stick to it.  People may accuse you of being rigid, selfish, or weird.  So what?  Simply say that you are available between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm and all day Tues. and Thurs. (or whenever).  That's plenty of opportunity to schedule non-writing activities.

Wannabe authors usually express disbelief that the secret to productive writing is setting and sticking to a regular schedule.  But that's the secret.  This approach also does more than just ensure that you spend sufficient time writing each week, it ensures that you practice writing on a regular schedule.  As I've talked about in previous posts, deliberate practice is the secret to becoming an expert at something--whether it's sports, music, or writing.  It takes about 20,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at some skill.  People who become published authors of fiction often kept journals and/or wrote stories as young children and developed the habit of writing daily at an early age.  That kind of discipline not only leads to becoming an accomplished writer earlier than most, it establishes a behavior pattern that ensures productivity in later years.  

If you are serious about increasing your writing productivity, you cannot ignore this advice

Unfortunately, many of us (scientists) engage in something called "binge writing".  We believe that we need large blocks of time in order to write.  Consequently, we put off a writing project until that large block of time appears on the horizon.  Some people target holidays, the weekends, or sabbaticals as the time to tackle a writing project.  This is a mistake according to Silvia.  Part of the reason is that binge writing is exhausting.  Something that exhausts us becomes a chore.  We tend to avoid chores, to procrastinate, or to fear our ability to finish on time.  Another reason is that we rarely are able to complete a large writing project (e.g., a technical paper) during one of those fabled "large blocks of time".  Then we are dependent upon another "large block of time" (or several) to complete the job.  The result is a file drawer full of half-finished papers, book chapters, and books.  Sound familiar?

I know what some of you are thinking at this point: "I manage to write without a set writing schedule and do get some papers out."

My response would be, "But are you happy with your productivity?  Do you find yourself proclaiming to colleagues and co-workers that you have gotten caught up with all your writing tasks and met all your goals for the year (getting your papers finished and submitted)? Or do you more often say (wistfully) that you got some writing done last week (last month, last year), but not as much as you'd hoped?"

Another aspect of binge writing is that writers do it during times they could (or should) be doing something being with family, enjoying their vacation, or relaxing.  The regular writer only writes during their scheduled writing hours, e.g., 8 to 10 am weekdays.  Then they are done.  Their evenings and weekends are free.  They do not look forward to holidays as a time to tackle a writing chore, but instead to relax and enjoy themselves.  They don't feel guilty about not writing on the weekend, because they finished their writing goals for the week at 10 am on Friday.

My recent experience with blogging has convinced me of the value of a regular writing schedule.  I have regularly written posts for this blog--an average of 2.2 posts per week for the past two years.  When I started, I had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted to say, and was pretty inexperienced with respect to the blogosphere.  All I knew was that for a blog to be successful, it had to keep moving forward--like a shark that has to keep swimming to stay alive.  I had to post something at least a few times per week, every week, to keep the blog alive.  A couple of posts per week doesn't sound like much, but the volume of material accrued over two years is easily equivalent to a book (maybe 2 books).  Even though I did not write a post a day, I did write something almost every day.  Each evening I would open up a draft post and add a bit more to it, or revise, or look up information or links, or move some material to a new draft post, or create images to illustrate the post.  This regular activity has generated an amazing amount of material.

In the process of blogging, I naturally developed a writing pattern that is a departure from my usual binge writing of scientific articles.

Before I began blogging, I thought my writing productivity was pretty good (considering my field of ecology and long-term studies).  I've published around 75 journal articles and book chapters. That sounds like a lot of writing, but is it? If we use an average word count per article of 6,000 (excluding lit. cited), then I've written about 450,000 words over the past 30 years.  Most of these words were written in a "binge writing mode", which I described above.  That's 15,000 words per year, on average.  Now consider my blog posts: 213 posts at an average of, say, 1000 words per post = 213,000 words in 2 years or about 100,000 words per year!

I was amazed when I did these calculations.  Granted, there's a big difference between writing a blog and a science article.  But in terms of getting one's thoughts organized and writing the narrative in a logical and compelling manner, the two are pretty similar.  The most important difference is that I wrote my science papers in bursts of activity. I often sacrificed weekends and holidays to work on papers because I thought I could write only when I had a large block of time.  Not surprisingly, I would have to set aside an unfinished writing project until the next big block of time and then waste time getting reacquainted with the project--figuring out where I had left off.  This pattern would be repeated several times until I finally finished.  I would be sick of the paper by then.

In contrast, I blogged at a fairly steady pace of 2,000 to 3,000 words per week, on average.  I had a regular writing schedule and looked forward to it. I might spend only 15 to 30 minutes per day writing a paragraph or two or jotting down some notes.  But it added up.  And it did not wear me out. 

I think my blogging experience has put the final nail in the coffin of any residual inclination to binge write.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Had I only heard this advice while in grad school, life might have been more pleasant, it makes sense