As a postdoc, I read Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members. I think it helped me a lot as I started my first faculty position: I blocked off time for writing, learned how to use short chunks of time productively, and tried to make sure I still got research done even while I was teaching new courses. Until fairly recently, I would have considered myself strongly on Team Boice. I have recommended his book and his approach to people over the years, including one of the ideas he’s best known for: That we should aim to write every day. Now, I’m less sure how strongly to recommend his books, and my advice on how to be a productive writer has changed.
So what changed?
First, I was on a panel with a colleague of mine who is very productive. The panel was for early career folks and there was a question about how to balance all the different demands on your time as an early career faculty member, including how to still maintain research productivity while doing all the other things new faculty need to do. I preached the Boice gospel: You have to learn how to work in small chunks of time, you have to block off time for writing regularly, you can’t wait until you have a full day to write, etc. My colleague was like “yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If I have a free half hour or even hour, I will waste it. I can’t write in that time.” Instead, he structures his weeks so that there’s at least one big chunk of time where he can write.
I was shocked – this was the wrong advice to be giving! He was leading them astray! This is not the way to get off to a strong start as an assistant professor!
Or maybe not? At that time, I would have said that I followed Boice’s advice, but, looking back, I realize I was only following parts of it. Most notably, I actually wasn’t really writing every day, and I’m not sure if I ever did that as a faculty member. I block off at least one morning a week for writing. Unlike my colleague, I do try to get some writing done in smaller blocks of time, too, though I am more likely these days to save up email for those small blocks of time and try to tackle as much of it then as I can. Overall, I do a lot of writing and editing by blocking off 2-4 hour blocks of time in my calendar.
Not that long after that panel with my colleague, there was a twitter discussion about writing and a different colleague tweeted about whether to try to compress teaching into one semester and what the effects are on research. I said I thought spreading it out is better since there are only so many productive writing hours in the day. In response to that, a different highly productive colleague said she’d rather have one 20 hour block to write in than 10 two hour blocks. I was all “no no no, binge writing is bad, the data are clear, look at Boice!”
That’s when a colleague pointed me to the work of Helen Sword, and especially to her book Air & Light & Time & Space. (I wrote a couple of blog posts motivated partially by the book: post 1 on rough drafts and post 2 on social aspects of writing. Her book is also mentioned in this post on manuscraps.)
Sword’s central message in Air & Light & Time & Space is that there’s no one way to be a productive writer. There are a few general practices that are worth focusing on, but the You Must Write Every Day advice just doesn’t work for everyone and leads to a lot of people feeling guilty. (Claire Griffin has a great blog post talking about her writing practices, including how reassuring it was to read Air & Light & Time & Space.)
One reason I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately is because, in discussions of the task force on graduate student mental health that I chair, Boice’s ideas about moderation have come up repeatedly. One person on the task force teaches a course for incoming graduate students that uses Boice’s book as a central reading, because of its focus on moderation and because it is evidence-based. I see the value in that, but am feel like I would want to modify the course to go beyond Boice. I found Boice’s ideas very helpful for me, and agree that specifically covering how to approach teaching, research, and service in a balanced way is a good idea. But I also know that Boice’s approach, and especially his call to write every day, doesn’t work for everyone, and that it can cause a lot of guilt for people when they don’t meet that goal. I’m realizing now that I took the parts of Boice’s advice that worked for me (such as scheduling time to write) and dropped the others (writing every day) without really realizing that’s what I had done. If I’d been more aware that I was failing at parts of what Boice recommended, I might be less of a fan.
(As a bit of an aside: I wondered, while writing this post, if this disconnect between thinking that I followed Boice’s advice without actually scheduling time to write every day was just a result of things shifting over time. Maybe I scheduled daily writing time when I was a new assistant professor? I went back and looked at my calendars from pretty much the whole time I was an assistant professor. I don’t appear to have ever had a daily writing time blocked off.)
So should I be recommending daily writing? Does it cause unnecessary stress? Is it evidence-based? I originally had only been familiar with Boice’s work, and viewed it as strong and evidence-based. But Sword pokes some very convincing holes in it.
After feeling muddled about this for a while, I read this article by Helen Sword; the title is “’Write Every Day!’: a mantra dismantled”, which would seem to give a pretty clear indication of where she falls on the question of whether we should be preaching that people need to write every day. At the same time, this is her final paragraph:
These days, I still write nearly every weekday before breakfast. I still wax lyrical about the benefits of word logs, time logs, writing support groups and daily scheduled writing time, because all of these strategies have worked for me. And I still recommend the books of Boice, Silvia, Gray and others who sing from the ‘write every day’ hymnbook. However, in my own work as a scholar, teacher and academic developer, I have exchanged the stringent vocabulary of boot camps, coaching and cures for a more enticing set of metaphors. Instead of lecturing academics on the ‘right way to write,’ I offer them a menu of choices, a smorgasbord of possibilities: feasts rather than binges, nourishing diets rather than punishing purges. And alongside the puritanical prescriptions of Boice and his followers, I suggest strategies for explicitly linking productivity with craftsmanship, people, and pleasure: for example, by reading books and attending workshops or courses that will make them feel more confident in their writing style; by forming collaborative relationships premised on emotional support rather than on disciplinary sanctions; and by seeking out writing venues filled with light and air. Above all, I urge my colleagues and students to leave behind their hair shirts of scholarly guilt when they enter the house of writing. Productivity, it turns out, is a broad church that tolerates many creeds.
(I wish my papers ended that elegantly!)
It was reassuring to me to read that she still recommends Boice. And it led me to finally read Silvia’s How to Write a Lot (2nd edition), which I hadn’t read before. He’s on Team Boice, but places less emphasis on needing to write every day, instead saying:
The key is the habit—the week-in, week-out regularity—not the number of days, the number of hours, or the time of day. It doesn’t matter if you pick one day a week or all five weekdays—just choose regular times, chisel them into the granite of your weekly calendar, and write during those time.
I think that’s a pretty good summary of the practice I use now, and that has helped me stay productive even when other things threatened to take over (as I’ll discuss more in my next post). I originally was planning on having my lab read Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members this semester as part of lab meetings, but now I’ve shifted to Silvia’s book, since I think it will suit our purposes better. I will definitely supplement Silvia with Sword, and I’m also likely to add some other readings that get at Boice’s themes of moderation and using short chunks of time well. (I’m not sure what those readings will be yet. Suggestions welcome!)
This all has left me curious about what others do. Do you write every day? What are your writing habits? Have they changed over time? Does what you recommend to others match what you do yourself? What are your recommendations based on?