July 28, 2009

How to become a prolific scholar by writing every day

There are surely many ways one could become a prolific writer. One well-known method is the “write every day” method. I heard of this practice while I was in graduate school. Like many things in graduate school, I pondered it, and decided it wasn’t for me, at least not at the moment. During my second year in a faculty position, however, I decided to give it a try. I had heard of this tactic for many years from many different people. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Perhaps what really convinced me, however, were some very compelling statistics from Robert Boice’s book Advice for New Faculty.

Boice described a study where new faculty were divided into three groups: 1) The first group did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in one year they wrote an average of 17 pages; 2) the second group wrote daily and kept a record of their; they averaged 64 pages; 3) the third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group's average was 157 pages (Boice 1989:609). According to Boice, scholars who wrote daily and held themselves accountable wrote nearly ten times as much as scholars who did not change their writing habits.

This was proof enough for me that I should at least give daily writing a shot. I joined an online writing group at blackacademic.com, and signed up for the “Holiday Writing Challenge.” In that challenge, we each had to commit to daily writing, and report on our progress.

At first, the greatest challenge for me was to figure out what it meant to write every day. Over time, I came to realize that it means a lot of things. Some of these things include:

1) writing on a blank page
2) editing something I have already written
3) outlining a new project
4) Checking references and footnotes for accuracy
5) Summarizing or taking notes on something I have recently read
6) Making a revision plan for a rejected article or a “revise and resubmit”

Depending on where I am in a writing project, I might do more or less of those three things. Usually, I do more than one. As I am checking references, for example, I might see I need to write a new section. As I am taking notes on a book or article, I might get an idea for a new project and begin to outline it. If, however, as I am revising I realize I need to read a new article or book, I don’t switch plans and begin reading. Writing time is for writing. Instead, I make a note of what I think I should read, and keep on writing.

I also realized that I am best at doing all of these things in the morning. And, if I start off my day by writing or engaging in writing-related tasks, I can proceed with the rest of my day knowing I have accomplished my most important and most difficult task.

It was also a challenge for me to figure out reasonable amounts of time I could dedicate to writing and writing-related tasks. There are, after all, twenty four hours in a day. And, every one of those hours I spend writing is an hour dedicated to my success as an academic. Nevertheless, I had to come to terms with the fact that I have an absolute maximum of four hours of writing each day. In fact, my productivity and creativity begin to decline precipitously after just two hours.

My routine each day, then, is to begin the day with writing or writing-related tasks. On a good day, I can concentrate for two hours. Usually, however, my mind drifts after an hour, so I take a break to check email or have some tea, and put in another hour after a break. I keep track of the time I have spent working on writing so that I can be proud of my accomplishments, and so that I know when I need to stop.

I still participate in the online writing group I started with in December 2006. After two and a half years of writing almost every day, I can say with confidence that this is the best strategy for me.

I know that many academics reject as ridiculous the idea that one could or should write every day. To them, I would gently ask if they have ever tried it. And, I would add that it is not only important to try it, but to commit to trying it for at least a month in order to see if it works for you. It is also important to have others to whom you are accountable and with whom you can share your struggles.

If you do try writing every day, let me know how it goes!


  1. Great post!

    On a similar note, Andrew Gelman just put up a blog post entitled "Advice on Writing Research Articles". http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2009/07/advice_on_writi.html

    Pretty good stuff.

  2. Thanks, Emily. I am glad you liked it. And, thanks for passing on the other link!