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Taylor, Todd. Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997 (coedited with Gary A. Olson).

Work Habits of Productive Scholarly Writers: Insights from Research in Psychology

Robert Boice

Early in my career as a researcher in psychology, while I was still haunting prairie dogs and mapping the social relationships of toads, I discovered a second, unbidden calling. Colleagues were coming to me for help with writing because I seemed to write with ease and enjoyment. I soon realized that I not only enjoyed working with writers but that he interaction benefited me at least as much as them in that I felt compelled to take my own advice about ways of working efficiently and was getting more writing done and published. Thereafter, I began conducting serious research and treatment programs for colleagues. Still, not all of my colleagues wanted help with their habits and working conditions as writers; some of them coached students as writers but rarely applied the same kinds of care or advice to themselves. Their own writing, it seemed, had to be put off until every other responsibility had been taken care of; then, as a rule, they would try to write while hurried and fatigued. No wonder some of them had learned to dislike writing and to doubt their own competence.

In this chapter, I relate how I have learned to help colleagues, even the reluctant ones, write with more comfort and fluency. I sample the kinds of studies I have conducted, and I draw out the findings that might interest teachers and scholars in rhetoric and composition. I end with a discussion of the strategies proven most effective for helping faculty acquire more productive work habits. Some of the pointers might even prove useful to those who teach writing more than they write.

Early Developments After my unplanned commitment to become a writing therapist for academics, things changed rapidly for me. My casual programs for writers grew into psychological experiments where I varied my approaches and then measured writers' progress. I had more to learn than I realized. There were few leads on how to help writers overcome blocking and other inhibitions. There was still less about coaching writers in ways of working more efficiently and successfully, especially at the professional level. There were precedents in psychoanalysis, notably Bergler's interpretation of writing blocks as the symbolic rejection of mother's milk in the form of refusing to write. But even if I had found his view credible, I couldn't have imitated his therapies; he provided no clear hints about how to help writers undo their blocks. And there were folkloric directives about how to unblock: put your work away until you feel more inspired. I tried that approach with some writers and found that more often than not the day of inspiration was long in coming. Clearly, professorial writers needed something more immediately effective, especially those who faced deadlines including tenure decisions. The only other precedent available seemed to hold the most promise: a behavioristic approach that employed strategies to force writers to write whether they felt like it or not.

First, I began conducting systematic programs by modeling after a few, single-subject studies by behavioral psychologists. I enlisted six colleagues who had longstanding writing blocks ("Increasing"). During months when the forcing "contingency" was in effect (that is, the writers had to write for a brief period every day to earn things like access to morning showers or daily newspapers), these writers averaged several pages of prose per day. But during alternating months when the contingency was removed, writing productivity dropped off markedly, below the levels that met reasonable need for scholarly output. My inclination was to suppose that this merely meant ordinarily blocked writers would have to work in the permanent presence of external contingencies that forced them to write, but the main problem was that most of these professorial writers disliked being forced, and some refused to continue with the contingencies.

In sequels, I tried ways of making the forcing more tolerable. One such method demonstrated that working on a forced schedule of brief, daily sessions not only produced more output than writing spontaneously but that the regular regimen generated more creative ideas ("Contingency"). In a follow-up study ("Experimental"), I gave half my subjects close personal attention in weekly psychotherapy sessions, compared to half who worked in a home study program, mostly on their own. Both methods worked reasonably well, but in both methods, the writers disliked being forced. With it they wrote; without it they usually did not.

So I knew that I needed to find broader, less aversive strategies. I looked next to the cognitive therapies just beginning to supplant behavioral types. First, I needed to know something about how writers' thoughts helped or hindered their fluency. In a large and tedious study, I enlisted blocked academic writers to record their "self-talk" while they were writing; their thinking at these and other occasions when they felt pressured to write was predictably negative. Still, no one had previously documented it, and some of its aspects proved surprising. Here are the most common problems reported by writers when preparing to write (the numbers in parentheses indicate the percentages of blockers versus nonblockers who reported the cognition as salient):


Work apprehension and laziness (95% vs. 100%) -

Procrastination, wanting to do something other than writing -

(90% vs. 55%) -

Dysphoria, feeling too sad or anxious to write (77% v. 25%) -

Impatience about wanting to get caught up at once (77% vs. 35%) -

Perfectionism (69% vs. 40%) -

Evaluation anxiety (32% vs. 15%) -

Rigid rules about writing (12% vs. 10%)

Two things surprised me. One was the dominance of work aversion and impatience as locking agents; prior to these results, experts had supposed that perfection and anxiety would head the list. Another was the relatively high levels of negative cognitions about writing reported by fluent writers. These negative cognitions even matched the dislike of blockers for the difficulty and distastefulness of academic writing (see the first item in the list above). But a closer look at these data provided a clue about why nonblockers managed to write despite negativity. Of all their self-talk recorded while writing, nonblockers spent less of it in maladaptive thinking (that is, thoughts that discouraged writing) than did blockers (42% versus 72%). Significantly, nonblockers were more likely to experience self-talk that encouraged writing (49% versus 7%). In other words, nonblockers were not immune to discouraging thoughts about writing (it is, after all, often tedious), but they were better able to balance it with positive cognitions and to get on with their work. I used that set of findings to help devise a series of strategies for blocked writers. Early attempts were successful in lessening the complaints about forcing; the writers were fairly comfortable in spotting their maladaptive thought patterns and replacing them. The same cognitions that had bothered blockers most in the survey study proved most crucial; the biggest gains in measurable productivity and in self-rated satisfaction were made when the thoughts were replaced. In sum, this is what I learned: the usual negativities in blockers' thinking do matter but they are rather easily replaced with optimistic thoughts. Their diminution even proved helpful to already fluent writers who wanted to write with more comfort. Still, cognitive therapies left me feeling that something was missing. These strategies worked reasonably well, almost as reliably as forcing, but only so long as the writers continued to meet with me. In a way, then, I hadn't gotten past the forcing, even if the prospect of writing in order to please me was less loathsome than having to write to be able to shower for the day. I continued to experiment with various strategies, such as automatic writing, freewriting, and o on (even Transactional and Gestalt strategies), but the number of colleagues who needed to survive the tenure process took me back to more systematic searches for better methods. Meanwhile, it was becoming apparent that the best strategies for fluency and comfort are probably combinations of traditional therapies. In order to see how traditional therapies compared and combined, I needed to conduct comparisons under conditions as closely similar as I could make them (at least that is our belief in the religion called psychology). Then, with the conditions made comparable and the singular potentials of therapies I know of. Let me briefly describe the five treatment groups. Freewriting. These ten participants, like all the others, met with me individually each week for sessions of ten to thirty minutes. Like all other participants, they spent their first month with me establishing a baseline measure of how much they would write without an obvious therapeutic intervention. After the baseline period, this group worked mainly at practicing freewriting. In short, these writers began each daily session for the second month with ten minutes of freewriting. In short, these writers began each daily session for the second month with ten minutes of freewriting. I coached them intensively until they used the ten minutes to write, without editing, to produce material with some relevance to the prose they would write after the freewriting exercise. In the next month, the third, our meetings continued but the formal treatment was suspended. In the month after that, the intervention was reinstated—and so on, alternately, until the nine months were completed. Contingency Management. These ten writers, once into their second month, agreed to employ contingencies that would force them to write every weekday for sessions of an hour. They too experienced alternate months when the intervention (the contingency) was suspended. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. These ten writers practiced ten minutes of self-therapy (coached by me at first) in a cognitive mode that included noticing maladaptive self-talk, stopping the negative cognition by disputing is irrationality and wastefulness, and starting a new and more positive line of thought (for details see Boice, "Combined" and How Writers). During alternate months, faculty in this group suspended formal noting of negative self-talk (and its curatives), so they did not share them with me in weekly meetings (but they, like other groups, were not prohibited from carrying out the exercise on their own). Social Skills Training. This strategy had no clear precedent, except in my own research. I had long sense that writers needed to become practiced at soliciting social support and at handling editorial criticism of they were to persist as fluent scriveners. Here, I hoped, might be an intervention that would help maintain the momentum induced by other interventions (see McCaul, Glasgow, and O'Neill for a more general discussion of this problem). The ten members of this group spent the first ten minutes of their scheduled, hour-long sessions practicing a series of exercises and plans, some of them to be carried out elsewhere. In one of these exercise, for instance, I coached them in simple but effective methods of responding to criticism, even unfair and uninformed sorts, by first finding something in the critic's comments with which to agree honestly. Combined Treatments. These ten subjects experienced the four interventions mentioned above in a sequential fashion that eventually combined them all. They too had alternate months off from formal interventions for more spontaneous work on their projects. In addition, a larger group of writers underwent the combined procedure: the twenty-seven subjects who returned to participate for a second academic year. Results of Comparative and Combined Stages. All of the singular treatments worked but none nearly as impressively as the combined format. Clearly, combined treatments are the approach of choice (despite the tradition favoring singular interventions). A comparison of the singular treatments in month eight, the last period with the intervention in effect for the academic year, provides a reasonable picture of how well each of them worked in the long run (the percentages of sessions in which writers met their preset goals of productivity, usually a page of prose per day, appear in parentheses):


Freewriting alone (13%) -

Contingency management alone (68%) -

Cognitive therapy (25%) -

Social skills training (22%) -

Combined, year 1 (72%) -

Combined, year 2 (50%)

Not only did the combined approaches produce more stable, persistent levels of productivity over time, they also encouraged moderation (notice the modest but stable and sufficient level of compliance shown by writers who experienced the combined strategies in year two; they reported none of the pressure that contingency groups members had). Combined group members also fared better in the editorial process (one hundred percent completed and submitted manuscripts in that year; fifty percent gained acceptance in a refereed outlet; seventy percent of those rejected moved quickly to revision and resubmission). Still, each singular method had its advantages. Freewriters had more sessions with immediate starts than other groups. Contingency writers produced more pages per week on average (almost five pages) than did other groups. The social skills group reported more well-being as writers than any but the combined group. But overall the combined group excelled in dimensions including sessions with relaxed, slow-paced, reflective writing that promoted discovery and enjoyment. Well before this lengthy study was finished, I had begun other programs for writers based on a combined approach. The emerging data of the long project were too convincing to ignore. With the help of some trial and error, I settled into an arrangement of steps that essentially paralleled those just described. That is, stymied writers began by establishing momentum (and its motivation), imagination (by way of systematic collecting and prewriting), confidence and productivity (with the use, initially, of contingency management), patience and self-control, and a sense of audience that includes resilience in the face or criticism.

After nearly two decades of observing and helping colleagues (mostly new faculty) thrive in professorial careers, I suddenly noticed that of all new hires, perhaps ten to twelve percent at the large public campuses I have studied make impressively fast starts, as do about an equal number of new graduate students. These individuals stood out as exemplar teachers and writers. I studied them systematically to try to specify hat made their work habits most efficient. Their patterns of behavior and cognition were similar to the patterns I had been teaching in combined therapies. But there was an advantage in seeing how exemplars taught themselves to find fluency and comfort: at last I had a better sense of the natural sequencing and specific skills involved in optimal performance, and I could see an even greater value of combining interventions than before. This information on naturally acquired comfort and fluency, it seemed to me, could be integrated with my combined therapies approach to produce an even more effective basis for facilitating faculty writing. The result of mingling exemplary practices with proven interventions has been by far the best method I have found yet. "Deft novices" in the professoriate offer a useful example because they acquire efficiency in strikingly similar ways. In contrast to other writers, they are most likely to engage in the following behaviors: they work patiently (for example, while waiting and putting off decisions about what to write, they playfully prepare to write) and as a result feel more motivated and imaginative; they work regularly at writing but far less, overall, than they had imagined necessary; their output increases and stabilizes; they suffer far less pain and uncertainty at writing; they learn to loosen up and to allow others, even critics, to do some of the work; and they often maintain low profiles, at least initially. Most do not rush to excel as stylists; instead they begin by figuring out how to work.

In what lies ahead, I summarize the acts of exemplars through simple strategies that have proven most effective for both normal and blocked writers who seek more fluency and comfort. Although I don't discuss all the derivations of those guidelines, I do provide the essential details of how they are practiced in my programs. Each guideline describes the practices that over one hundred faculty have judged most essential to progress. I assume, incidentally, that all faculty writers can learn better ways to work. Academics of all stripes have benefited in both subjective and measurable ways in this program, and, in fact, experienced writers actually make better participants than do rookies.

Guideline 1: Wait Actively In my experience, academic writers already know how to wait passively. They await Muses and hope for brilliant ideas that will impel writing without hard work. They want clarity to come spontaneously, without planning or deliberateness. This kind of waiting often produces little more than suffering and silence. Passive waiting works unreliably because it depends on mysterious, unpredictable forces instead of building motivation gradually, surely. Passivity misleads with its initial feelings of freedom because it eventually leaves writers feeling hopelessly behind, guilty, and incompetent. In the end, passive waiting exposes writers to a cruel oppression: the pressure of deadlines and expressions of contrition. In other words, passive waiting risks procrastination and blocking.

At first glance, active waiting seems no different. It too means waiting; it too means not rushing to begin (just as good sleepers do not try to sleep; they let it creep up on them); and it to means setting the stage for the motivation that will produce a sense of ease with writing. But active waiting is different. It requires both the patience of delaying closure and the tolerance of preparing informally at the same time. Active waiting means listening and thinking while resisting the temptation to formalize plans and to plunge ahead with them. It means putting imperfect, incomplete ideas on paper or screen and living with their ambiguity for a while. Active waiting helps writers because it induces movement away from inaction. Less obviously, it helps temper impatience by outing off the pressure to be a perfectionist and to expect quick results. With patience, writers begin playfully, tentatively. By waiting until they have a sense of something interesting to say, writers help motivate themselves. Motivation borne of patient preparation works far more reliably than shame, looming deadlines, or sorcery.

Writers who do not wait properly, who impatiently rush, face the daunting task of trying to do several complex activities simultaneously: devise a significant plan, find motivation, and write fluidly. The result, called cognitive overload, is the most common reason why writers block (Boice, "Writing"). Writing inhibitions owe more to impatience, to not waiting properly, than anything else. Much the same thing happens in stage fright: anxious speakers delay preparations and then, pressed for time, formulate something hurriedly. As they grow apprehensive, they build increasingly impatient expectations. On other one hand, they doubt their competence. On the other, they demand far more from themselves than they would expect of other speakers. The result, once on stage, is predictable. They have to determine what to say while saying it. They overload and confuse themselves. As they struggle, they become more self-conscious and more anxious. At best, they excitedly hasten their presentations without sensitivity to audience needs. At the least, they practice a maladaptive way to work that leads to more passivity and avoidance.

Despite the pitfalls of passive waiting, many esteemed writers advocate it with conviction. Some hint that they put off writing until an ideal mood sets in. But what if it doesn't appear; what if it is time to write and you are not ready? Indeed, we can far more readily find advocates for passive waiting than for active waiting ("if you don't feel like beginning or continuing a manuscript, put it away until you do"). Even when they describe what might be active waiting, prominent writers say little about what they do to nurture ideas and momentum. How do they know that waiting will produce results? We can only guess. It is easier, I have found, to locate information about the penalties for not waiting actively.

Active waiting in writing is rarely taught, and it is more difficult than it looks; it is the single most demanding task that writers face in learning to work. Patience and its short-term discomfort cause more writers to quite writing than any other factor. Without this patience, writers cannot reliably tolerate the preliminaries that make writing less painful, more efficient, more motivated. Without it, writers reflexively assume they are too busy to wait: "I'm way behind and don't have time to play around. I need something to make me write now, with some dramatic results." Paradoxically, the same faculty who complain about busyness are most likely to end up waiting passively. While they acquiescently wait to write, they busy themselves with other, often trivial, activities. Passive waiting pushes aside goal-oriented action while it spurs the perfectionism that makes starting even harder: "I'm very busy right now so I'll wait for a big block of completely undisturbed time in which I can do a lot of writing. Maybe I'll set aside a whole weekend. You don't do your best writing in little snippets, and I'm not going to settle for second-rate writing."

One problem with waiting for ideal conditions is that they may be a long time coming. Another is that when big blocks of free time do appear, writers may use them to escape or rest. (And after that, understandably, they grow more certain that they have too little time to write.) A third problem is that once they are finally writing, procrastinators feel obliged to hurry. Deadlines and rushing discourage the playfulness, revisions, and successes that lend enjoyment and efficiency to writing.

Impatience builds insidiously, in circular fashion. The anxiety, fatigue, and poor reception that accompany rushed work make writing an increasingly painful, avoidable task. Then, when crucial work is put off, self-esteem declines. Left unchecked, impatience makes writers irritable and intolerant. Another thing confounds writers who try to temper impatience: active waiting is sometimes harder and more painful (at least at first) than passive waiting. Patience begins as an alien act in writing because it requires calm and tolerance in a task we customarily execute with all possible intensity and self-absorption. Many of us learned to write as fast as possible during essay test, or we procrastinated and then rushed to meet term paper and dissertation deadlines.

Patience can be found in simple practices of relaxation and pacing. It grows when we put off closure while playfully trying new ideas and connections. It comes automatically with the reinforcements of noticing that different, seemingly irrelevant or incorrect things can inform and enliven already favored ideas. It hinges on rehearsing, beforehand, ways of combating temptations to be impulsive. All these acts of patience in writing can be translated into easy exercises. Ironically, these exercises need a bit of patience if they are to work.

An easy way to begin practicing waiting actively is to pause while remaining active in unusual way. Here is a strategy I use. First, before writing, pause to reflect on the problem to be solved and to jot down ideas and plans. That is, pause before starting as a way of slowing down. When you begin with a pause, you instill a less fatiguing pace of work. At first, keep it simple: try waiting for just five seconds beyond the time when you would have started writing. What should you do while waiting? Talk to yourself about what you will write and generate momentum by talking playfully. When thoughts about starting are flexible and undemanding, beginnings are less strenuous (for example, "Let's see if I can't think of anything else to write. I can begin by admitting that I'm unsure how to begin"). Curiously, this reflective pause works even better when you are sure what you want to say and are impatient to get it on screen or paper. With a few seconds to hear yourself saying and resaying it, you may think of other, better things to write. You might write what you want to say more simply. Even if you stick to your plans, you will have slowed and relaxed yourself. Then, pause occasionally during writing, especially once you are on a roll. Here, too, start slowly in changing old habits (with perhaps no more than a single five-second pause to refresh and renew). Finally, Use pauses to relax and contemplate, but do not use them to worry. The more you learn to make writing pleasant and educational, the easier pausing and waiting become. Initial acts of relaxing can be as simple as focusing on breathing, on a few successive inhalations and exhalations passing pleasantly through your nose. Contemplation needs be nothing more than a reminder of what you have been saying, of what makes it interesting, of where it may lead. Pauses and patience prove especially valuable in fostering flexibility in pacing. With patience, writers learn to change speeds at will, to speed up for spurts of euphoria and spontaneity, to slow down for clarity and perspective. Many writers report their first real breakthrough in finding a sense of freedom as they practice flexibility in pacing; oddly, they find magic in discipline. With that newfound freedom, writers sense the powerful forces behind impatient: it comes from constantly pressing and hurrying in order to feel in control. Impatience stems from the fear that momentum will not return after a break. It builds with worries that an idea already in mind will fade and disappear during an interruption of intense concentration (or that a pause might turn into an escape from writing to something more enjoyable). Effective writers see that pauses need not interfere with adaptive kinds of control. Done correctly, pausing nurtures control. Writers slowing to break learn the value of making a note or two about thoughts currently in mind. Externalizing what was only implicit (and possibly fleeting) does more than preserve the thought; it evidently makes ideas even clearer than if the breaks and notes had not happened. And making notes during pauses encourages even more reflection and connection than might otherwise have happened. Thus, patience nurtures better quality work.

Pacing has many benefits. A generally slowed pace fosters reflectiveness, restfulness, flexibility, and control. Pacing adds insurance against the extremes of momentum that push aside pauses and patience, and it reins in a uniquely troublesome part of impatience and rushing: the near-mania known as hypomania. Manias are attractive for their euphoria, lack of struggle, seeming fluency, confidence, and quick results. For busy writers behind in their schedules, hypomania offers great binges of rushed work and concomitant excitement and quick completions. But manias are inefficient and unhealthy in the long run. They impel impulsivity and exhaustion; they are followed y a disinclination to resume writing, even depression. Worst of all, they perpetuate the erroneous belief that the best writing demands the suffering of a Dickens or an E.B. White.

In short, before beginning to write, decide how you will pause and how you will pace yourself (that is, how you will wait). When you mentally rehearse act of waiting beforehand, you will be more successful in finding patience and tolerance. Remind yourself of when you would like to pause and of what pace you would like to follow. Imagine where you may be tempted to stray from your plans and how you can cue yourself to get back on track ("It's the very time that I tell myself that I don't need a pause that I have to be most on guard; that's precisely the moment when I will get up out of my chair and stretch for a minute"). Prewriting as waiting brings more reflection, rest, patience, flexibility, and control; and more than any other strategy writers can engage in (at least according to my studies), it most clearly portends success. Guideline 2: Begin Early (Before Feeling Ready) The most reliable motivation comes in the wake of regular involvement in writing, not in advance of it. Efficient writers often begin working before feeling ready. They start with informal things that ready them for writing, while they wait and patiently put off temptations to rush or force themselves (Guideline 1). When writers begin early, they move out of the passivity that forestalls motivation and discourages imagination. Paradoxically, beginning before feeling inspired requires patience and tolerance; it demands a leap of faith. When writers begin early, they must trust the generative properties of work. They need enough patience to let preliminaries like talking, reading, noting, and collecting produce ideas and momentum. Above all, they require tolerance. Without it, they cannot survive the ambiguity of not knowing what, exactly, they will say for a while. Without it, they cannot abide the tentativeness, imperfection, and slow pace of preliminary work. A well-known fact from studies of student writers makes an important point about beginning early: expert writers are most likely to take time to plan before writing; that is, they combine an early start with waiting; they use patience and trust to delay closure about what to write (Hayes and Flower). Beginning early, before being ready to write, affords time to plan, encourages the writer to notice new material and connections, distributes the load of trying to plan and writ at the same time, and rewards patience. Beginning early, then, depends on the kinds of slowing and relaxing discussed in Guideline 1. A casual beginning eases the pain of writing. When writers begin early with approximations and plans, there is no abrupt onset for writing, less occasions for anxiety and blocking. Beginning early helps reduce the usual aversiveness of writing—its pressures, worries, and fatigue.

Early starts require practice at beginning well before having thought much about a paper. Exemplary academic writers, while working at getting ready for writing, deliberately commit themselves to a reasonable minimum of time that can be spent on preliminaries. How much of waiting and of preliminaries is enough? For writers accustomed to immediate starts (or to passive waiting until feeling fully ready), five minutes of patient preliminaries suffices at first. However, as composition research demonstrates, expert writers invest surprising amounts of time in waiting and preliminaries; they often spend as much time waiting and preparing as writing (and, more surprising they get gar more writing done than writers who wait passively for readiness). Other unexpected things happen when writers become skilled at patience and at beginning before they feel ready. First, they do more revising and editing, even when they have to force themselves to do the extended work before feeling like doing it. Second, motivation builds up subtly, effortlessly. Writers who learn the value of starting without having to force themselves or to spend time warming up find themselves working regularly at writing. What had been an occasional, chancy activity becomes a regular habit.

Guideline 3: Work in Brief Daily Sessions Durable motivation is a matter of habit. What distinguished geniuses like Einstein, T.S. Eliot, and Freud is that they worked at their craft daily. What helps writers feel like writers and feel like writing is the discipline of regular work. In fact, successful writers often brag about their habits (Hemingway is reported to have claimed that he wrote every morning at the crack of dawn). Another factor that distinguishes geniuses is that they simply produce more than do other people—some if it good, some of it not (Simonton). Their regular work and their ever-accumulating productivity may be the key to their success (see Ericsson and Charness). Thus, ease and enjoyment in writing require lots of practice.

How can academics, who have many other responsibilities, manage to write more? Two factors are essential: working daily and keeping sessions brief. The fact is that brief, daily sessions end up taking less time and producing more output than sporadic outbursts of writing. It is no coincidence that most successful writers (including many newswriters) work in brief daily sessions. When writers work daily on a project or two, the ideas and habits stay fresh in mind, so less time is needed for warm-up. When we manage even a page per day, the accumulation more than suffices to make us far more productive writers than we were. When we limit writing to regular brief sessions, the result is better quality writing and less fatigue. And when we learn to work daily, we struggle less over motivation and imagination. When we look forward to writing, we think more of ideas and connections we can use, less about how we might fail.

In itself, though, daily work is not enough to ensure ease and enjoyment in wiring. Many fluent writers, E.B. White and Dickens among them, have made writing regular but miserable and unhealthy. We know what needs to be added: working before feeling ready (and distributing the cognitive load of planning and writing over time), and working at a moderate pace. One way to practice establishing brief daily sessions is to begin before feeling ready (to write every day, usually briefly); wait (that is, be patient about not finishing everything at once); find a regular time and place for writing and make writing-related activities routine and automatic; chart and post your progress; and employ contingency management in the short run until productive habits are instilled. Establishing brief daily sessions builds motivation, imagination, and automaticity; distributes cognitive loads (not just in prewriting but also in keeping material fresh in mind); increases confidence borne of discipline; and builds confidence from the rewards of completing lots of writing.

Guideline 4: Stop Stopping in timely fashion can be as difficult and important as starting. Without the skill of stopping on time, writers cannot become regular workers who enjoy writing. When writing sessions grow into marathons (or "binges"), writers are unlikely to work again for awhile. When we have trouble stopping, we tend to tire ourselves. Writing done under fatigue tends to be confusing and overdone for readers. Certainly, when writers have momentum, they dislike interrupting it: they want to add that extra passage or two. And when writing grows strongly euphoric, stopping becomes unthinkable. When writers binge, they not only run overtime (into time needed for other activities), they also work with a self-focus and rushed intensity that discourage rest or revision. With timely stopping, writers develop an important kind of tolerance: a tolerance for ambiguity.

Guideline 5: Spend as Much Time on Preliminaries as on Writing Many writers worry about deficiencies in imagination ("I'm afraid I'm not very creative or original"). They wait passively, hoping to manage this bit of genius without much preparation or help. Exemplary writers surprise their peers with their efficient solutions to finding imagination. They not only begin writing early and informally (that is, they prewrite), they also work with an ever-higher level of planfulness: exemplars become active collectors and filers of information that could relate to their writing—news clippings, for example. They carry notepads with them to help them record interesting observations and thoughts. And like efficient, happy writers and teachers, they spend only moderate amounts of time preparing (prewriting or preteaching); indeed, they usually spend no more time at preliminaries than at more formal acts of writing or teaching (see Boice, "Writing").

Teachers help make the point because they (especially when relatively new at teaching) often spend many more hours preparing than necessary—that is, if they work inefficiently. Surprisingly, when teachers balance time spent between preparing and teaching, they fare better. Students rate them more highly in all the positive dimension of teaching. Students themselves evidence more learning. And, finally, efficient, balanced teachers rate their teaching, their enjoyment in doing it, and their commitment to improving it more highly than do inefficient, unbalanced teachers. Thus, balance not only economizes on time and reduces fatigue, it also helps teachers (and writers) prepare only what needs to be said and displayed (for example, expert teachers end to present fewer main concepts but more examples of each). Most importantly, balance forces teachers to go to class less than perfectly prepared. While efficient teachers arrive with a clear, manageable organizational scheme in minds or on paper, they also leave some of the details and examples tentative. This means that once in front of the class they must be more imaginative and spontaneous. It leaves them more inclined to involve students in generating some of the details and examples. Both of these outcomes, the moderate improvisation and the strong involvement of students, help make classes more reflective and efficient.

Perhaps the parallels to writing are apparent. When we balance prewriting with composing, several familiar tendencies are enhanced. Writers prepare with more imagination and motivation (because they spend more time than usual at preliminaries). They remain more open to noticing creative ways of solving the problems they pose. They approximate prose in ways that make transitions from planning o formal writing far easier. And, with all that time available for preliminaries, writers grow more likely to let other people do some of the work (such as having editors and teachers comment, on the basis of conceptual outlines, about whether they are on the right track, if their organization is clear and compelling, and what they may have overlooked). And, of course, they grow increasingly more ready to write, often without quite realizing it.

Efficient writers emphasize two ways of getting past feeling skeptical that balance is crucial to productive writing. One consists of reminders that the evidence says otherwise. (The most productive, successful authors not only work in moderation, they also balance writing with preliminaries including socializing about their work.) The second is regular practice: only when writers experience the efficiency of moderate, balanced work do they ate last see the value of Guideline 5. In the meanwhile, what writers need is the patience and tolerance to give it a try. Balance helps writers blend excitement with patience and certainty with tolerance as it teaches writers how to do just enough to manage steady excellence. Here, at last, writers talk about the joy of getting more from less, and here writers begin to appreciate why "flow," something they had sought but had not known how to achieve, depends on balancing preliminaries with the main event of writing. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, while flow often appears effortless, it requires highly disciplined mental activity: "Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one's work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it" (62).

Other Guidelines Yes, there are more guidelines deriving from my work—as many as five more (see "Writerly"). I consider the five just outlined to be most fundamental. Once they are mastered, the others come more easily. In sampling a few more of them, I continue the trend you may have noticed: my explanations are growing briefer (some psychologists call this "fading").

Guideline 6 deals with ways of ensuring that negative thinking doesn't dominate and obstruct writing. It is about balancing positive with negative thinking, always moving toward the former. It means noticing the thoughts and attitudes that commonly hinder or block writing. Most of us know these too well: we are perfectionist and so we conclude we cannot write well enough; we are anxious and so we avoid writing rather than face criticism or rejection. Internal censors dominate our thinking and keep us from proceeding beyond narrow, premature attention to surface concerns such as spelling, grammar, and style. We think of writing as unbearably difficult and unrewarding, and so we opt for something easier and quicker. We think we know enough about what we will write to excuse rushing into prose, and se we find ourselves stumbling and lost.

Negative thinking has even broader effects. Its pessimism and helplessness risk depression and inaction. Its anxieties make us inefficient, impatient problem-solvers. Its excessive self-focus keeps us isolated and shy, unable to solicit social support, and overreactive to criticism. Its self-criticism inclines us to despair and to expect failure. And its impulsivity (borne of impatience and anger) makes it difficult for us to carry out those tasks, like writing, that offer only delayed rewards. The more impulsive we are, the more likely we are to opt for activities that offer immediate rewards and relief: the quick, the easy, the superficial. Positive thinking, in contrast, is far more efficient.

Correctives for negative thinking are not difficult. Strategies that work best in my programs for writers are simple. First, habitually monitor your thinking during writing sessions. The keywords to becoming a useful observer of negative thinking are the usual pair: patience and tolerance—patience to keep watching and listening even when nothing seems to be there; tolerance to hear the amazingly negative, depressing, irrational things we often say to ourselves. Begin by noticing (and noting) your self-talk at just one critical time, the few minutes that precede a writing session. Are you worrying about needing to do something other than writing (such as, running an errand)? Are you fretting about getting caught up on overdue work or about writing well enough? D you anticipate failure and embarrassment down the line, and do you dwell on past disappointments? Have you convinced yourself you are not in the mood, that you need more time to clarify thinking or to look up even more references? Are you still ruminating over a social slight or an argument that keeps you from concentrating on writing? The list could go on, but you se the point. These are thoughts well worth noticing and arresting.

Second, dispute negative thinking. This too takes regular practice, and it requires noticing and challenging the usual absurdity and deception of negative thinking by consciously listening to how irrational the negative thought is when it is repeated slowly. If, for instance, you find yourself imagining that your writing surely will be criticized or rejected (or that writing is drudgery and should be put off for the time being) consider this: a bit of reflection eposes the irrationality in supposing that all our writing will be disparaged or that we will fare better by putting off the task until we must rush it. This kind of awareness of irrational thoughts helps move writing beyond its usually mindless, inefficient beginnings.

Third, replace negativities with more constructive, optimistic thinking. Once you have disputed and dismissed an irrational thought, turn you thinking to getting on t=with the task (for example, "When I'm immersed in the writing, I'll enjoy it—if I let myself—so instead of worrying and making excuses, I might as well get on with it"). The point of this step is to move away from product orientations to process modes of working (Tremmel calls it reflective practice). In product orientations we look too soon to outcomes, long before there are any; doing so induces pressures about working fast enough and with a perfectionism that can only make writing more difficult than it needs to be. Process styles, in contrast, are more practical and efficient. They focus attention on the present, on how to make the process of writing comfortable and fluent. Process modes help us abandon regrets about the past and anxieties about the future; both can distract us from working patiently and reflectively. With regular practice at process modes of noticing and replacing irrational thoughts, writers learn to keep themselves on track with a simple reminder like the well-known "Just do it."

Guideline 7, like the sixth, is about self-control. Here, awareness shifts to something too rarely considered by writers: moderating emotions while working. Writing without emotion results in dull experiences, weak motivation, and mundane writing. Writing with too much emotion means rushing past planning and revision to states of exhaustion that make work aversive and difficult to resume. Guideline 7 aims to avoid both extremes. It reemphasizes the strategies of prewriting we saw earlier as a way of generating excitement and imagination for writing, and it pales special significance on moderating emotion when it threatens to run out of control. The Stop Guideline continues to be crucial. It also continues to be difficult and annoying to implement for many of the same reasons discussed earlier: once we have momentum, we resist giving it up, especially when doing something that is difficult to get underway; once we are bingeing, we suppose we can at last catch up; once we are rushing, especially beyond our planned stopping point, we enjoy the spontaneity, decisiveness, and confidence. So you might ask: Why stop now? Why try to moderate the emotions involved in such a delightful experience? The answer lies in the nature of hypomania (a near-state of mania), a pathological circumstance that comes with intense rushing and emotional escalation. Its short-term costs far outweigh them. True, bingeing at writing brings an enchanting euphoria, even a seeming creativity. But both are largely illusions. The problem with hypomania goes beyond the superficial and disorganized writing it often produces, even beyond the exhaustion that makes starting again difficult. Hypomania commonly leads to dysphoria (just as mania begets depression) and its sad inaction. With this cycle in place, writers work only sporadically. When they at last break out of their depressiveness, they work up the emotional state that ensures the opposite experience: hypomania. And when they have exhausted themselves in a binge, they are predisposed to another depression. Not only does hypomania make writing unreliable and inefficient, it also produces mood swings that interfere with everyday living. In fact, hypomania produces a measurable wake of depression, it reduces the output and quality of writing in the long run, and it makes writing seem more difficult. It even undermines the health and social relations of writers (Boice, How Writers).

Moderation includes flexibility. On the one hand, those who write with the most fluency and happiness generally keep emotions at low to mid-range levels. On the other hand, they grow more and more aware of the value of changing their pace occasionally. Sometimes they use a burst of excitement to work past their internal censors or to convey the appropriate voice in their writing. Sometimes they write dispassionately (just to get ideas own on screen or paper), knowing they can wait to find more imagination when revising it later. At their best, evidently, they work with a rhythm based in mild happiness, one punctuated by occasional swings in mood that do not persist to the point that impedes returning to base level.

A final Note Critics of the kind of research I've been discussing are understandably skeptical about some of the unconventional measures of progress I use. While they offered few qualms about indexing writing productivity in terms of verified outputs of pages per week, they were unaccustomed to gauging progress as teachers or as writers in terms of setting and carrying out plans for pacing work.

The kinds of answers that help assuage these reservations are not hard to come by. First, there clearly is tangible evidence of progress in the measure already provided. Elsewhere, in laborious tables ("Developing Teaching"), I present data showing substantial increases in setting constructive goals consistent with the advice of experts in teaching and writing improvement (goal such as interacting more with audiences and soliciting more feedback). The data show gradual but real success in meeting those goals of constancy and comfort (for example, slowed pace and more efficiency in presenting crucial ideas; more acceptance of help and criticism). And the results in those tables differ in expected ways from control data. In addition, the sixteen participants in my first major test of my program showed clear progress in four domains: they more often completed at least one scholarly manuscript per year; they more often had manuscripts accepted for publication in a refereed, scholarly medium; compared to controls, they managed more improvement in scores on standardized, end-of-semester evaluations by students in their classes; and full participants were far more likely to have gotten specific approval of their progress as writers and as teachers from colleagues in their retention/tenure committees. These new faculty were thriving and their colleagues noticed it.

My current research is expanding what was already implicit in the studies I have just outline. The best way to begin learning fluency and comfort as a writer is to master the basics of efficient way of working. In my experience, when professorial writers try to get underway by first mastering the skills imparted, say, in Strunk and White, or by demonstrating the ability to write long manuscripts quickly, they stumble. If, instead, they learn how to work at writing, they make far less painful beginnings and find success more quickly and surely than if they do not. First things first.

Works Cited

Boice, Robert. "Combining Writing Block Treatments: Theory and Research." Behavior Research and Therapy 30 (1992): 107-16.

Boice, Robert. "Contigency Management in Writing and the Appearance of Creative Ideas: Implications for the Treatments of Writing Blocks." Behaviour Research and Therapy 21 (1983): 537-43.

Boice, Robert. "Developing Teaching, Then Writing Amongst New Faculty." Research in Higher Education (in press).

Boice, Robert. "Experimental and Clinical Treatments of writing Blocks." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 51 (1983): 183-91.

Boice, Robert. How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.

Boice, Robert. "Increasing the Writing Productivity of ÔBlocked Academicians.'" Behaviour Research and Therapy 20 (1982): 197-207.

Boice, Robert. The New Faculty Member: Supporting and Fostering Professional Development. San Francisco: Jossey, 1992.

Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums, 1990.

Boice, Robert. "Procrastination, Busyness, and Bingeing." Behaviour Research and Therapy 27 (1989): 605-11.

Boice, Robert. "Writerly Rules for Teachers." Journal of Higher Education 66 (1995) 32-60.

Boice, Robert. "Writing Blocks and Tacit Knowledge." Journal of Higher Education 64 (1993): 19-54.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper, 1990.

Ericsson, K. Anders, and Neil Charness. "Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition." American Psychologist 49 (1994): 725-47.

Hayes, John R., and Linda S. Flower. "Writing Research and the Writer." American Psychologist 41 (1986): 1106-113.

McCaul, Kevin D., Russell F. Glasgow, and Katherine H. O'Neill. "The Problem of Creating habits: Establishing Health-Protective Dental Behaviors." Health Psychology 11 (1992): 101-10. Simonton, Dean Keith. Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. New York: Guilford, 1994.

Tremmel, Robert. "Zen and the Art of Reflective Practice in Teacher Education." Harvard Educational Review 63 (1993): 434-58.


Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition is a collection of essays about the politics and practices of generating scholarship in rhetoric and composition. The contributors to this book, many of whom are current or past editors of the discipline's most prestigious scholarly journals, undoubtedly have their finger on the pulse of composition's most current scholarship and offer invaluable insight into the production and publication of original research. They discuss publishing articles and reviews, as well as book-length projects, including scholarly monographs, edited collections, and textbooks. They also address such topics as how composition research is valued in English departments, recent developments in electronic publishing, the work habits of successful academic writers, and the complications of mentoring graduate students in a publish-or-perish profession. An inviting and helpful tone makes this an ideal textbook for research methodology and professional writing courses.

"This distinguished collection is the best book I know on how to publish scholarship in rhetoric and composition—and why one should. It will also have great value for those outside rhetoric and composition, since much of the advice and information is easily transferable. Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition, however, is far more than a "How To" book. It also marks a distinct stage in the professionalization of a discipline that is certain to become increasingly more important in the coming years. Moreover, this collection of essays by leading specialists in the field provides a remarkably comprehensive survey of what is going on in this field at the moment." — J. Hillis Miller, from the Foreword

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