How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that?

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?

23 thoughts on “How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that?

    • I agree! I suspect I got much more regimented about blocking off time for different things post-kids, when I had to start being extra careful with the work time I have.

  1. I agree very much that “write every day” probably works for some people and not for others. I’d generalize that: we hunger for simple writing rules (both about behaviour and about the text itself) that will produce Good Writing, but they largely don’t exist. Instead of a list of rules (“write every day”) we need toolboxes from which we can choose. I elaborated on this here: https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/the-first-rule-of-writing/

    As a side note, Meg, I can’t help tweaking you a little. Your title asks how much evidence there is that we should “write every day”. Your post doesn’t really answer that question! The existence of writers who don’t write every day (like me and like you) doesn’t say anything about what the productivity of those writers would be, if they did. I’m not blaming you here – instead, I think your post is reflecting something real and interesting about writing. We, rather oddly for a bunch of scientists, neither have nor really look to the kind of quantitative evidence about writing that we insist on for the hypotheses in our own research. Hence Air & LIight & Time & Space, for example, which is mostly anecdote about different writing behaviours but never really asks whether evidence supports any of them!

    • Ha, true, I didn’t really answer my own question, did I? I think it’s because I’m still trying to figure it out! Would I be more productive if I wrote every day? Would binge writers? I agree that Sword doesn’t address those questions. But I think one of her concerns is that, if the Write Every Day system is essentially impossible for many people to stick with, that’s a failure of the system. I agree with her point that you shouldn’t only include the people who successfully implemented the system when looking at output (or, at least, you should present two analyses — one with just those people, but also one with everyone).

      Something I would love is more analyses of what works for people in terms of protecting time for writing. Maybe we don’t need to carve out time every day, but we clearly need some time. What allows people to do that? What strategies do they use to keep other things from taking over? I think I generally do a good job of it, but it can be really hard sometimes to not let other things encroach on it.

      • I don’t specifically block off time in my calendar for writing. I’ve tried that in the past and it ends up not working. What I do however is to scan my upcoming calendar when I meet for the regular phone call with my writing buddies.

        If I’ve got nothing scheduled for the morning I mentally log that as one hour of writing. If I’m feeling especially ambitious and the whole day is free I might put down two hours.

        The regular accountability with my friends let’s me know if I am hitting my targets or not. I’ve also got a simple formula in excel (where I track everything), which tells me how many hours per day I need to average if I’m going to hit my next target by the next deadline.

  2. This reminds me of the maxim, “there is no Royal Road to research.”

    Personally I’m incredibly chaotic in terms of my own organization, and likely the lack of routine hurts me a good deal from a productivity standpoint. But I do feel a vague amount of creativity in thought by not sticking to a set routine – this may not be real, but it feels that way. Definitely I can not make serious use for writing of less than 1-2 hour blocks except for very small things (e.g. emails, page proofs, reading etc).

  3. Thanks for writing this; I’m definitely a ‘binge’ writer, at least for new text. The editing, revising and fact-checking gets done in those small gaps between other jobs but I can’t bring myself to create new content every day.

    One question that remains unanswered in all this is whether we *should* be aiming for more productivity. We often complain about the unmanageable flood of literature, how peer review is ‘broken’ and the drive to ‘publish or perish’ without thinking whether this focus on volume of outputs is healthy either for us or for science in general. I’d rather write effectively than productively.

  4. Thanks for this article. I have been part of a writing group with three colleagues since 2012. We meet on the phone about every two weeks and commit certain number of hours prior to our next call based on our current workloads. For me it’s about properly calibrating expectation for each of us range from to to 12 hours. One thing I’ve noticed from all of the data that I have collected is that the key to writing more (for me) is sitting down to start writing more. In other words the more that I start to write, the more I write.

    • Since 2012! I’m super impressed that you’ve kept it going that long! Your observation that “the more that I start to write, the more I write” certainly matches with the take home of Silvia’s book.

      • Thanks! One of the benefits of logging each writing session is that I was able to figure out that actually been doing it since each writing session is that I was able to figure out that actually been doing it since 2012. If you’d asked me If you’d asked me how long without looking it up I would’ve guessed maybe three or four years I would’ve guessed maybe three or four years.

  5. It depends a lot on what kind of writing I’m doing. But for the deepest writing (e.g. a book) I just cannot do it in 30 minute or one hour chunks. Two of my mentors who are successful book authors both told me the key is to use 30 minute windows when they open. But I just haven’t been able to do that. Among other things for larger, more synthetic work it takes longer than 30 minutes just to get my orientation and thought process going. 30 minutes works for dashing off a paragraph of text to keep a bureaucrat happy, but not my deepest best work.

    Overall both my productivity and happiness have gone up with making peace with the fact that I am a pulse worker (including writer). I have periods of very high productivity and very low. And enabling and capturing those periods of high productivity while allowing for and finding low demand activities for my low productivity periods is the key. Using the same time slot every day is just going to result in my averaging across high and low productivity periods.

    I think the key with this sort of strategy is one has to be rigorously honest with oneself that it just doesn’t turn into a strategy to never write. But since I love writing, that is not my problem.

  6. A confounding factor in any attempt to work out whether a certain type of writing schedule works better is the Hawthorne effect (aka observer effect). Kind of like a placebo, you might think some new schedule (e.g., writing everyday) boosts your productivity, but it may be just as easily explained by the fact that your consciously aware of the change and therefore expect it to increase your productivity in some self-fulfulling manner.

  7. As you say Meghan, there’s no single right formula for being a productive writer, just as there’s no single correct way to be an academic or even an ecologist. It’s what works for the individual. And sometimes that changes over time. My writing habits now are different to what they were, say, 20 years ago. Regular blogging has certainly helped in that regard.

    What does generalise, I think, is that writing needs to be practiced with some regularity. Just like any skill, if we don’t hone it we will lose proficiency. Whether that’s daily or weekly practice, again, is up to the individual. But no one cannot expect to write effectively if they’ve not put words on paper (digitally or inkily*) in the past 6 months. When students and colleagues say “I don’t like writing” I think what they’re really saying is that they have not practiced writing enough to make it enjoyable. There’s an analogy there with playing a musical instrument: without practice, it can be a painful experience for both player and listener…..

    One suggestion as to how to fit in “practice” is to think carefully about how emails are written rather than just writing sloppily. We all deal with emails, almost every day. Treat some of them as letters that need care in their presentation and structure rather than as disposable communications.

    *I may have just invented that word, but you get my meaning 🙂

    • And of course check your writing before making it public – I can’t believe that I just wrote “But no one cannot expect to write effectively”! Only excuse is that it’s early here in Australia and I’ve not yet finished my first coffee of the day….

    • Yes, I agree that regular blogging helps keep me in practice with writing!

      I’m not sure how I feel about the email suggestion. I guess it depends on who is being emailed? If it’s a dean, sure, view it as a chance to really focus on one’s writing skills. (This may be especially true for those of us at Michigan who now have someone from the English department as our dean! 🙂 ) But if it’s a quick email to a long term collaborator, I think I’d focus on good enough:
      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/good-enough/

      • Sure, yes, there are times when “good enough” is good enough 🙂 I am fond of sending well-written emails to students so they can see examples of missives that go beyond “wen r u goin 2 b givin uz gradz n fdbck??”

  8. Thank you for this post! I actually feel that not being able to write profusely in short chunks of time is a source of imposter syndromes for students/early career folks less familiar with their system/question (certainly for me). Perhaps more so for theory folks who change systems/questions more often.

  9. I wish I wrote every day. I find that now that I’ve tapered off on regular blogging (meaning that I don’t make a point of having a post scheduled for every Monday morning, and I just write adventitiously when inspired), my non-blogging writing has suffered too. So for my own practice, I think the analogy is like running, where doing it regularly keeps me fit, and if I get into a jag in which I don’t run (like the past several weeks, because, damn, it’s cold! which is of course no excuse), then my general sense of well-being slides too.

  10. I have a few more thoughts about writing in general that others might find useful. The first is that I count anything related to publishing a manuscript as “writing”. This means that some days I’m generating new text, some days I’m editing text written by a graduate student, some days I’m doing data analysis, making figures or tables, formatting references, responding to reviewer comments, etc. Some days are just days when I need to fiddle with the references because I’m worthless for anything else, but those days still count.

    Of course the generation of new text is the most difficult. One thing that I’ve implemented in the past few years which is great at reducing friction is the use of dictation software. I’m a crappy typist on a good day, and there’s something freeing about just talking to the computer and having the words come out.

    I’ve been using DragonDictate for the Mac, but that is now unsupported, so I’ve going to using the Macs own internal dictation. It’s not as good as DragonDictate, but it doesn’t crash as often and it does seem to be learning and getting better over time. I’m also using it to type this message 😉

    I also use Siri for dictation on the iPhone and it’s phenomenal, and I’ve got some apps for sharing texts between iOS an desktop which also helps.

  11. Thanks for this post! I also just read _How to Write a Lot_ and found it very interesting and helpful. I particularly appreciated the advice to “write regularly” and not necessarily write every day. I’ll be recommending the book to my junior colleagues.

    I’m definitely in the “write every day” camp. For me, keeping a bit of my head in my research every day, even if it’s “only” 30 minutes, helps move me forward. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I find the daily writing practice also helps keep the “I’m a failure” thoughts in check, interestingly enough. (It doesn’t eliminate them altogether, but it provides some evidence to my brain that I’m moving forward so I can’t actually be a failure.) However, I also make sure to protect one longer stretch of time (typically 2 hours on Tuesday mornings, a day I try not to schedule any meetings and when I don’t teach), because I do need some time to dig in to that tricky data analysis, or that conference paper draft, etc.

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