Part 2 of Writing Productivity: Quick starters

Part 1 is herePart 3 is herePart 4.

What follows is a series of chunks from a paper I wrote for a class.  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.

These sections are mostly unedited [they could use it but this is a blog post], but some parts have been snipped out for snappier reading (hahaha!).

In part 1 I talked about what ‘writer’s block’ might be.  In part 2, I discuss its opposite.  It’s behind the cut (for length).

How to write productively, according to research

A group labeled “Quick Starters” in Boice’s research exemplifies the opposite of blocking and apprehension (Boice, 1990).  In studies of faculty writers, Quick Starters write from early in their first year on the job, not letting writing up their research be preempted by teaching and service work.  They write throughout the school year, no matter their teaching load.  On the other hand, Tschannen-Moran and Nestor-Baker’s (2004) interviews of productive faculty scholars revealed that some were successfully able to delay writing until the summer break and still be productive; these faculty also did not put significant emphasis on quiet rooms, although they did mention that having set schedules was often necessary.

Across literatures, productive writers seek advice from colleagues about their ideas and  their writing early and often; they collaborate (Boice, 1990; Fox & Mohapatra, 2007; Martínez, Floyd, & Erichsen, 2011; Tschannen-Moran & Nestor-Baker, 2004).  Quick starters experience the same anxiety and dysphoria about writing as other faculty, but in lower, less intense quantities (Hartley & Knapper, 1984).  They also find solutions to keep their writing moving despite non-ideal circumstances, and are in excellent position when they come up for tenure (Boice, 1990, 1995).  They have the same amount of time and same number of commitments as other faculty in comparable roles (Boice & Jones, 1984).  In general, high-achieving and professional writers experience struggles and problems in writing like blocked writers do, but they find effective ways to tolerate, prevent, and work around these potential blocks (Hartley & Knapper, 1984; Kellogg, 2006; Onwuegbuzie, 1997; Tschannen-Moran & Nestor-Baker, 2004).

In Kellogg’s (1986) survey of experienced and successful academic scientists, he found that the mean number of articles produced by this group was 2.36 articles per year, plus grant applications and various reports.  This admirable productivity level was uncorrelated with years of experience.  Hartley and Knapper (1984) found a lower level of output among a wider variety of faculty, with a modal output of about 1 article per year.  However, in a sample of psychologists specifically selected for productivity, the mean was 2.54 articles per year (Hartley & Branthwaite, 1989).  The typical productive writer in Kellogg’s study used written outlines, had secretarial support, exercised, wrote in 1- to 2-hour sessions in the morning, drank coffee during writing, and wrote in a quiet office (at home or on campus).  Hartley and Knapper’s (1984) participants also emphasized the need for uninterrupted quiet time, secretarial support, and collaboration with colleagues (similarly, productive writers in Rennie & Brewer’s (1987) study and Martínez and colleagues’ (2011) study were successful in getting social support when needed).  In neither study did the authors state the gender makeup of participants, but it is likely that the samples were largely male.  Kellogg’s (1986) regression analyses revealed that only selecting a quiet place to work had significant positive influence on productivity.  Other factors correlated with this choice did not have independent effects, although written outlines were useful (Kellogg, 1986).  Ease of selecting a quiet place to work (Virginia Woolf’s proverbial “room of one’s own”) is affected by institutional factors, but it is a relatively easy suggestion to make to writers who are stuck.

Additional suggestions for productivity from the most well-published faculty include specific scheduling strategies, and the strategic use of deadlines and accountability (Martínez et al., 2011; Tschannen-Moran & Nestor-Baker, 2004).  In subsequent studies, Hartley and colleagues specifically focused on prolific psychologists and examined writing habits by product: book, chapter, or paper (Hartley & Branthwaite, 1989).  They determined that their participants each produced about 2.33 published papers per year, but with an extremely wide range.  Some published no papers (instead writing books, chapters, and reviews) while others published two dozen papers per year (one assumes they were mostly in collaboration).  Productive academic writers in psychology set goals for themselves, wrote multiple drafts (averaging 2 or 3), and believed that writing was important to them.  In contrast to other studies, these participants reported “rarely” collaborating with colleagues, although the amount and type of collaboration is not specified.  In common with other research, participants stressed the importance of regular work sessions in a quiet room, usually an office, lasting about an hour on average (Hartley & Branthwaite, 1989).  Many of these writers would be what Boice calls “Quick Starters”.  Note that the sample of productive writers contained only 9 women versus 53 men.  The most commonly cited impediment to productivity, across all participants, was having too many other things to do.  The most enthusiastic and least anxious writers were also the most productive (Hartley & Branthwaite, 1989).

Is there any way you could apply some of these tactics in your life?

13 Responses to “Part 2 of Writing Productivity: Quick starters”

  1. chacha1 Says:

    I set goals, write multiple drafts, and believe that writing is important to me. I also don’t have anxiety about my (non-academic) writing. I’m never short of ideas, and could carve out the time if I really wanted to (and when the urge is strong, I do). Setting deadlines or schedules would probably be the most effective way to produce x words per week – I work well in a very structured office, everything I do has a deadline – BUT … are you familiar with Gretchen Rubin’s character index thingy?

    I’m basically a Questioner. I question all expectations. At work it tends not to be a problem because x work at y time = z good result, and the variables are often not variables at all: they are set quantities. x work at y+1 time can = mayday catastrophic failure. (Though I will sometimes question *how* a given task is to be accomplished, and boy I hate it when my drafts get overwritten by someone whose writing style I dislike.) But, my home life is fairly free from hard requirements – and intentionally designed that way – because I need to feel like I have some freedom in how I operate.

    There are a lot of factors in my life that I simply can’t change without severely affecting our personal economy or the equilibrium of our relationship, which I don’t really want to do no matter how much I occasionally resent being so damned responsible all the time. So I tend to be very loose about things that only affect me.

    It is interesting to think about how I would operate if writing productivity (on the research article or book scale) were a job requirement, and moreover one that I was expected to meet on my own time, as I know teaching academics must. I have a feeling I would not thrive. Good thing I bailed out after the M.A. :-)

  2. Katherine Says:

    I aspire to be a quick starter, but unless I structure in some sort of accountability for myself, I tend much more toward the blocked/endless procrastination side. I have been most successful when I have been part of a writing group whose members are NOT in my discipline, getting together at set regular times in a quiet room that is not my home or my current office. I let myself get endlessly distracted at home or in my current office, and if I’m with people in my discipline I get too self-conscious to do any meaningful work.

    Once I’m done with my thesis my plan is to write for a set short amount of time first thing every morning. I some sort of desk-clearing and tea-drinking ritual might be helpful.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sounds great. I never did much writing at my office on campus; that was just a place to be interrupted and distracted. Other places work well though. Yay, thesis! Thesis thesis thesis.

      • Katherine Says:

        Where do you write? As a grad student, I’ve done a lot of writing in study rooms at the uni library, but depending on where I end up next year that will likely not be a good option anymore.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’ve written a lot in a home office. Also sometimes coffee shop, sometimes at someone else’s house, sometimes in a library. I think statistically I’ve written the most words in my home office (various offices in various homes).

  3. undine Says:

    Are “quick starters” people who start writing without hesitation? I can do this, but not in the morning.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      They’re people who get on the tenure track and start writing and publishing immediately. They don’t wait until summer to write. They don’t wait until after they figure out teaching. They write and submit things right from their first day on the job.

  4. J Liedl Says:

    I set up false (early) deadlines in my calendar to motivate me to finish earlier. I start massive files of notes for each project so that I can easily reference what I’ve found in my research along the way. Every current research project also lives in my Dropbox until the final version for publication has been approved.

    I continue to struggle with carving out regular and reliable timeslots for my writing. I prefer to write when I’m alone. That’s rarely the case so sometimes I just have to suck it up and write whatever I can when I’m surrounded by the chaos of other people in my life. But better a shitty first draft produced in fits and starts than no first draft, eh?

  5. First Gen American Says:

    For productivity in general, which includes writing, I find it helpful if my to do list is sufficiently varied in nature. Researching a prospect feels different from crafting a survey or emailing follow ups or my general tactical work I have to do. If I am doing something productive, even if it’s not work related, like balancing my checkbook or paying bills, it feels like sort of a break without being a vegetable.

    It’s interesting, sometimes I need to start with a menial task to be able to get rolling on bigger/harder stuff.

  6. 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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