Part 1 of a series: Writing productivity

Hey, a series!  Wow, it’s gonna be terrific.  Starring everybody, and me!

Part 2Part 3.

What follows is a series of chunks from a paper I wrote for a thing.  If you’re my boss or co-worker (or mom), please don’t tell anybody my secret identity  :-)

The paper is about a topic near and dear to us here on this blog: how to be a more productive writer.  Stay tuned for lit review extravaganza.

These sections are mostly unedited, but some parts have been snipped out for snappier reading (hahaha!).

Because these are so long, they’re behind a cut.

Operationalizing Blocking and Writing Apprehension in Writers

What do I mean by “writer’s block”, writing anxiety, or writing apprehension?  Kellogg (2006, p. 396) defined it simply as “a persistent inability to put thoughts on paper”.  This concept is related to procrastination, but they are not identical concepts.  Graduate students and professors know how to write at the sentence and paragraph level, and are competent to conduct and analyze research (if they’re not, that’s beyond my ability to help).  The difficulties in writing emerge when it is time to put pen to paper, or words on a computer screen.  Virginia Valian has described being unable to work on her paper for even five minutes, despite being an intelligent and accomplished researcher (Valian, 1977).  These blocks are emotional, cognitive, and behavioral.  The prototypical situation involves avoiding the writing project altogether, or else staring at the computer screen paralyzed with anxiety and not making progress on the project, while simultaneously experiencing stress about avoiding it (Boice, 1990).  Rennie and Brewer (1997, p. 11) defined participants in their study as “blockers” if they (among other things) found the process of working on their thesis or dissertation “more negative than rewarding”, considered themselves blocked, and “according to their own estimates, spent an inordinate amount of time working on the thesis” (Rennie & Brewer, 1987).  It is also important to note that blocking is not always caused by fear, anxiety, or perfectionism; in fact, anxiety can be a consequence rather than a cause of blocking (Wynne, Guo, & Wang, 2014).

There have been a number of operationalizations of this concept.  Unfortunately, most existing theory was developed and tested on relatively homogenous groups of mostly white, female, educated young adults.


An expansion and improvement of earlier surveys is the BWS or Beliefs about Writing Survey (Sanders-Reio, Alexander, Reio, & Newman, 2014).  The most interesting contributions of the BWS are that it was developed in a largely Hispanic population, and that it includes a subscale about writing as a recursive process.  Example items include “Good writing involves editing many times”, “Writing is a process of reviewing, revisioning, and rethinking”, and “Revision is a multi-stage process”.  These items address the common undergraduate perception of writing as a one-time activity that may require, at most, one revision pass (Sanders-Reio et al., 2014).

The main theorist in the systematic, widespread treatment of writing blocks has been Robert Boice.  His books and articles take a clinical psychology approach that considers emotions, cognitions, and behavioral activation.  He is one of the few researchers who has gathered evidence for systematic writing interventions.  He conceptualizes writing apprehension and procrastination as a form of mental block that has several components.  Boice (1990) has three sections to his Blocking Questionnaire (BQ).  These measures are the Checklist for Overt Signs of Blocking (COSB), the Checklist of Cognitions/Emotions in Blocking (CCB), and the Survey of Social Skills in Writing (SSSW).  The COSB includes items such as “Others would hear me complain about the agency or people who made the writing task (and deadline) necessary.”  The CCB includes items such as “I don’t want to do this” and “If I just relax and think, good ideas for writing may come to me”.  The SSSW includes items such as “I tend to see criticisms of my writing as personal attacks.”

Each of the three measures is subdivided into subscales that measure work apprehension, procrastination, writing apprehension, dysphoria, impatience, perfectionism, and rules.  Each of the three measures has a total score, which is the mean of all items.  The grand mean is known as the Overall Blocking Mean Score.  In addition, Boice provides interpretations for scores on the COSB, CCB, and SSSW.  Finally, the seven subscales (e.g., work apprehension, procrastination, etc.) can be averaged over all three sections.  Boice provides norms and interpretations of what high scores in each area mean, and how he has treated each one in the past (Boice, 1990).

In a study of 10 new faculty members who displayed chronic procrastination on writing, Boice (1989) found that these academics were producing less than half a page per week on their manuscripts.  In contrast, a group of 10 procrastinating faculty that volunteered to be treated with a combination of training on brief writing sessions plus personalized follow-up produced around 3 manuscript pages per week (Boice, 1989).  This rate could result in 1 – 2 articles completed per semester.  In fact, 100% of this group produced at least one complete manuscript for publication during the course of the study year (Boice, 1989).

Contingency management is another important component of developing habitually productive writing, according to Boice.  In a year-long ABAB study of six blocked academic writers, contingency management was effective for all of them (with a few modifications) (Boice, 1982).  In this study, writers tried self-monitoring, social support in a writing group, and then contingency management.  During the contingency phases, writers’ charts of their day-by-day productivity were displayed publicly, and the experimenter dropped in on the participants unannounced (with pre-agreement) in order to check what percentage of time they were using for writing.  The results unequivocally showed that having contingencies in place was related to number of days when the person’s own writing goal was met.  Without behavioral contingency management, the writers almost never met their goals (Boice, 1982).

Follow-up research (Boice, 1983) demonstrates the power of contingency management, this time with a larger group of participants.  Twenty-seven academic faculty were divided into three groups: one that wrote “only if they felt like it”, one that had contingency management, and one that put off writing until the end of the 10-week study period.  In this case, the contingency was that participants had to write checks to organizations they despised.  For each day they did not meet their writing goals, a third party mailed one of the checks.  At the end of the study, any unsent checks were returned, unsent, to the participants.  The contingency management group produced more than three times as many written pages per day as did the other groups; in addition, they also produced more creative ideas per day (Boice, 1983).  Clearly, behavioral contingencies are a key component of increasing writing productivity.


Much more about Boice goes here  –1983a, 1985, 1992, 1995

(I haven’t actually written this part yet)


Stay tuned for more in the series!  {part 2 is here}  We’ll put links here when we get them.  What else do you want to know about writing productivity?

22 Responses to “Part 1 of a series: Writing productivity”

  1. undine Says:

    I sometimes think my whole blog is about writing productivity (and/or writing inspiration). The example you cite of having someone drop in to see if you’re writing, though, is too reminiscent of Mom checking in on a kid’s homework. I can’t imagine signing up for that.

    True story: not once but twice over the years I’ve received unsolicited books on writer’s block, including one on Boice, and I don’t know where they came from. A caring Providence?

    If you’re doing a survey, I’ll take it!

  2. seattlegirluw Says:

    Love the Muppets reference! Also… do most undgrads *really* believe they only need to edit a paper one time? I would lose count of the times I’d edit. Sometimes I’d call my mom and read the thing to her and get her notes on it. Then again, I edit my emails… casual ones. So maybe I’m just weird.

    But I definitely understand writer’s block. Even when I know what I want to write about, even when I know even a bit what I want to say, sometimes that stupid cursor on a blank screen is just… daunting. I can’t figure out how to get started. Usually, the best thing for me to do (when possible) is to just start typing, however mediocre it is, and promise to clean it up later. Eventually, I find my starting point, cut and paste that at the top, and then finish/polish the piece.

    Which is why I’m glad that the only writing I have to do is for my personal blog. If I had to write papers for a living… I’d have a lot of not-so-quiet nervous breakdowns. Academics, I salute you!

  3. chacha1 Says:

    Interesting! The concept of “writer’s block” probably doesn’t apply to people like me. I mean, I’ve never been blocked when it came to on-the-job writing, but also my job doesn’t require extended composition – a letter or a brief analysis is what I usually am called on to deliver. It’s more recapping or restatement or summary than composition.

    The concept of procrastination also doesn’t really apply to people who, like me, do non-work writing for their own entertainment. There is no due date, so there is no pressure to deliver, or to do some writing at a specific time, or to produce a certain number of pages (or words) per week. I’ve had “finish story #11” on my to-do list for quite a long time.

    I have to have the right combination of urge to write + time (I like to get into it when I have at least one uninterrupted hour to give it). If I forced myself to sit down at a certain time and write, whether I felt like it or not, the fun would go out of it quite rapidly.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Strangely enough, actually research shows that the fun *doesn’t* go out of it if you write on a schedule regardless of inspiration; in fact it makes writing *more* enjoyable and creative (I believe that research will be discussed in a future part of this series, unless I haven’t written it yet).

      • chacha1 Says:

        Then I’ll be interested to see what other variables are in play. As the one who keeps the household operational, I feel like the only time I could really “schedule” a writing hour would require giving up something else that I don’t have a choice about doing, like housework or sleep; or something else that helps me cope with not being where I want to be, like yoga or reading.

        On the other hand, since I hate housework, maybe I just schedule the writing hour and the housework can go f**k itself.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        #2 notes that the research she knows of is about people who have to write for whatever reason (for their jobs or they’re novelists or want to be professional novelists), not people who do it as a true hobby. #1, for example, found that she read fewer steampunk novels when she set herself a steampunk novel reading challenge.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Hahahaa! “Here’s this thing I want to do, let me block out time to do it …. oh crap now I don’t wanna do it.” Yep.

  4. CG Says:

    Hmm. What if you’re a procrastinator who nevertheless eventually gets things done in a timely manner? Do you have a problem? In this case it might be more helpful to trust yourself to eventually get it done rather than worrying about not getting it done.

  5. Revanche Says:

    I was just tackling this today. I have to do a couple write-ups for work and I hate writing for publication under my real name. So even as I’m turning out 1000 word blog posts, I have exactly 2 sentences written for the other thing. I had better put a contingency in place before it turns into a looming monstrosity of a deadline.

    Weirdly, the threat of a contingency is more productive than an actual one. Something about replacing my intrinsic motivation with extrinsic, and I always respond more weakly to extrinsic motivators.

  6. Kingston Says:

    Pardon my ignorance but by “contingency” do you mean, in essence, a negative consequence? I think this is fascinating stuff and relevant to my visual art practice as well as writing.

  7. Part 4 of writing series: Hope | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] are the other parts of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part […]

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