Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Chris Smith, a professional writer, researcher, and entrepreneur. He is co-founder of Prolifiko, a digital coach for writers and has 15 years experience working in communications consultancies. He is the founder of Swarm, an agency he set up to work with not-for-profit, third sector, and business clients, and a former lecturer in continental philosophy at Staffordshire University in the UK.
Academics are told that if there’s one thing, and one thing only, that they should do to help their scholarly publishing careers, it’s to write daily. And as the fall returns, and researchers and lecturers alike head back to their respective labs and classrooms, scholars of all kinds may start to feel this pressure again.
‘Write daily’ is received academic wisdom, hard-wired into writing workshops and training programs worldwide. It has shaped the support given to PhDs and early career researchers and the advice publishers dole out to struggling authors.
“I am paralyzed by procrastination, especially in the face of large blocks of time. I play ‘chicken’ with deadlines. I have some but not enough strategies to mitigate this.”
But has ‘daily writing’ become dogma? Is it really the only way to get your writing nailed? After all, many scholars depend on deep work, ‘binge-writing’ formulas like #shutupandwrite to stay focused and accountable. Others can only get the headspace they need by compartmentalizing their writing time into long, intense chunks across their week or month – or they write on sabbaticals.
All of these systems work in one way or another – so why is daily writing seen as the Holy Grail?
A career of writing
We’ve been helping writers of all different types finish their projects for years and we know that daily writing can work well. But we also know that other types of writing process can work just as well. Why? Because what’s important is not the technique you use, but the system you have. For the past six months we’ve been researching the methodologies successful academics use to stay productive.
Our aim is to build a picture of how scholars write – from PhD to full professor – and to show how academics feel about their writing process, what tactics they use, how productive they are and how much ‘publish or perish’ pressure they experience across their career.The research contains responses from 410 academics across 38 countries and our survey’s still open because we want to grow our data-set further – we’d love for you to take part.
“My writing goes in fits and starts. Starting a new piece of writing is very stressful. Once I get started things are okay but if I hit a wall, I have go through the worry of not being able to write all over again.”
So, what do the interim findings show?
First off, the study indicates that daily writing – if you can do it – does work. There’s a strong relationship between those who write daily and scholarly satisfaction and publishing success. But it also shows that there might be something more significant at play. The findings indicate that it’s the academics who’ve adopted a system of sorts to help them write – which doesn’t necessarily include daily writing – who are happiest, publish the most and feel the least pressure.
A writing ‘system’ is the name we give to the processes people normally use to get their writing done. It’s whatever you do stay on track, beat your writing blocks, keep focused and find time in your hectic day to get the work done.
Typically, these systems have been developed over years of trial and error and they’re as individual – or as quirky — as the person who created them. A writing system can be complex or super-simple, formal or informal. Some people know that doing just one thing regularly helps them put words on the page. Other people need to do a whole sequence of things to keep them going. Sometimes these systems are used intentionally and deliberately, while other times they’re done habitually and without any thought.
So far, the academics in our research who are the most satisfied with their writing process fall into two groups. They either know they have a system of some kind that helps them write or, they know they don’t need a system – they write as and when needed. They write ‘unthinkingly’ which may in turn mean they have developed a habit for writing (but that’s a new avenue to explore). These two groups also feel under the least pressure to write and publish than any other group.
“I would like to schedule specific writing time every morning, when I’m freshest, but childcare demands mean I can’t do that.”
Plus, on average they are more productive in terms of how much they write and the variety of their output. These two groups might seem very different – one says they have a system while another says they don’t need one – but actually they’re very similar. They know their own minds. They’re certain what works – or what doesn’t work — and that certainty seems key.
Looking at the other end of the scale, the academics who are the least satisfied with their writing process, under the most pressure to publish, and are the least productive overall are also the ones who are least sure what writing system works for them. They might have tried a few tactics but nothing’s really stuck, they might have a few things that have helped them in the past – but it’s all a bit hit and miss. It’s lack of a system and the uncertainty involved that holds them back – not the lack of a daily writing habit.
Learning how to learn
One of the major discoveries so far from our study is that when it comes to their writing, academics just do what works. They adopt the approach that works best depending on where they are in their career, what their responsibilities are, their level of experience, how under the cosh they’re feeling, and the academic culture of the time.
Academics choose to write daily when it works for them — but other methods can work just as well. Learning how you learn and developing a personal practice and system that works for you is what brings scholarly success, productivity and happiness. The tactics and methodologies you use to get there don’t seem to matter as much.
“When there is a deadline, it’s nose to the grind and things fall in place. However, I’m slowly learning things about my own writing process. It helps to take a step back and loudly ask myself ‘what do I want to say here?’.”
But if all this is true, what are the implications for scholarly communications, training and advice? How could educators and supervisors within universities adapt their advice to recognize that there are a diversity of writing approaches that work? How might libraries and publishers provide resources that better support scholars to overcome their blocks and cope with publishing pressures? All topics for future research.
But setting aside implications for academia – how should the individual respond? The advice to ‘write daily’ can be helpful but it’s no silver bullet. It works for many, but not for all. When you see daily writing as the Holy Grail of academic writing practice, it’s understandable that failing can cause negative emotions, stress and low productivity as procrastination takes hold. We’ve seen this time and time again. But when you see daily writing as just one method among many you can choose from in the writers’ toolbox, you’re liberated from the write daily dogma. You’re free to experiment with methodologies that suit you and your busy, unpredictable life – so you can build a process that works for you, your career and your future.
Author’s note: The survey and framework for the research was devised by Prolifiko in collaboration with Prof. Christine Tulley, founder and director of the Master of Arts in Rhetoric in Writing at Findlay University, and with Lettie Y. Conrad, Scholarly Kitchen chef and information researcher. The data was analyzed by insight consultant and academic publisher Dee Watchorn.