Part 4 of writing series: Hope

This part’s about treating writer’s block and being more productive.

Here are the other parts of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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, but some parts have been snipped out for snappier reading (hahaha!).

Text behind the cut, for lengthiness.  (snerk.)

Evidence-Based Interventions Targeting Blocked Writers

This paper is concerned with writing productivity (output).  There have been quite a few interventions designed around anxiety and fear, but this paper is concerned with those emotions only insofar as they make writing less comfortable, appealing, and productive.  Boice and other researchers suggest that moderate, calm, playful, and pleasant emotions are the most conducive to writing.  Moderating these emotions is helpful, but not necessary, for productivity.

            Research without empirical results.  There exist many published reports about writing anxiety, writing apprehension, and writing procrastination in young people. Unfortunately most of these interventions report one-time trials of, say, a group for writing.  They do not collect empirical data about success in writing.  They usually do not track productivity.  Conversely, the literature in education that examines productivity of faculty members is usually descriptive and not focused on any intervention.  Often these papers offer suggestions for improving productivity, but do not report on implementing these intervention suggestions.  These papers find gender differences in productivity, and in some cases ethnicity and age differences.  They also note characteristics of the most productive writers.

It might be more appropriate to examine interventions designed for faculty writing productivity.  Graduate students can take advantage of these programs both to finish their current projects and also to develop solid foundational habits that will benefit the rest of their careers.  In this sense, a successful intervention in the early career of an academic writer is also a course of prevention for future problems and distress related to writing.

Research with some evidence for effectiveness. 

            Face-to-face interventions for writing procrastination and apprehension.  A review by McGrail and colleagues (2006) examined a wide range of interventions that targeted academics.  It is, to my knowledge, the only synthesis of this literature.  This review specifically excluded how-to guides and generalized mentoring, focusing instead on purposeful interventions designed to increase academic writing.  All the studies they included had small sample sizes of 60 participants or fewer; most studies were even smaller.  Many studies were conducted in the field of nursing.  All were conducted in western, industrialized countries with English-language speakers.

The most common intervention was the use of peer support groups providing accountability and encouragement for writing (McGrail et al., 2006).  These groups usually met monthly, and all met in person.  McGrail and colleagues found that many effective elements of these groups included peer review, encouragement, support, accountability, and emotional support when articles were rejected.  Deadlines and structure were key for many participants (McGrail et al., 2006).

Writing support groups appeared to be the most effective intervention in this meta-analysis.  Improvement in productivity varied substantially, but most groups reported an increase of 2-4 extra publications per participant per year over baseline (McGrail et al., 2006).  Boice (1990) has reported similar results.  The structure of effective productivity groups is clearly an intervention element that deserves further exploration.  Small-scale studies have reported positive results from a writing group, but did not collect systematic data about outcomes (Pauley, 2004).  Wynne and colleagues (2014) proposed a structured writing group specifically tailored to helping graduate students overcome writing apprehension and increase productivity.  So far, results of the proposed structure have not been published.

Writing courses are rare for academic professionals, but potentially useful (McGrail et al., 2006).  McGrail and colleagues found that the course material and formats were idiosyncratic to each institution.  All courses were conducted in-person over varying lengths of time, from a few hours to a few months.  Most studies on the courses reported an increase of about 1 publication per participant per year over baseline publication rates, although reporting was not consistent across studies.  The studies were promising but limited in generalizability (McGrail et al., 2006).

Dillon and colleagues (1980) reported positive results from a mentoring system that involves peers at several levels.  In their system, PhD students mentor master’s students and are themselves mentored by faculty.  The strength of this system is in its multiple interactions among multiple levels of peers and supervisors.  It is also a strongly behavioral program, à la Boice, with carefully controlled contingency management.  However, despite its promise, this program has not been further researched or implemented in formal ways.  It did produce a system that the participants enjoyed and found helpful.  In addition, the graduate master’s students had high productivity on their research tasks, which they maintained in the presence of incentives and which declined when incentives were removed (Dillon, Kent, & Malott, 1980).

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be an excellent treatment for writing anxiety and blocking.  There are many misconceptions about productive writing that CBT is ideally placed to examine and refute.  For example, my undergraduate students have reported to me that they did not know that professional writers needed to revise, just like they did.  Some thought that skilled writers produced perfect first drafts (ack!).  In studies of beginning graduate student writers, Onwuegbuzie (1997) has found that many graduate students have strong and paralyzing fear of negative evaluation and fear of asking for help lest they be judged.  They also report unrealistic expectations of how fast and smooth the writing process will be, perfectionism, and unrealistic beliefs about how writing works in professional settings.  Boice (1990) also reports on misconceptions about writing, such as that writing needs huge blocks of time, depends on some mystical source of inspiration, and is an opportunity for others to criticize you.  These beliefs persist even among experienced writers on university faculties.  Because of CBT’s focus on testing beliefs with evidence gathered in the real world, it can be a strong contributor to treating writing problems.

Contingency management approaches such as those in Boice’s writings have typically been conducted in-person and require resource investment.  A limited but excellent case study required the time and expertise of two faculty members in order to help one 29-year-old man write his Master’s thesis (Rosenberg & Lah, 1982).  Three years later, a follow-up revealed that he had been able successfully to use these same techniques, without therapist intervention, in completing his Ph.D. dissertation on time (Lah & Rosenberg, 1986).  Although these behavioral approaches are very effective, efficiency can be gained by moving at least some components online.

well, Grumpeteers?  What resources do you use to be more productive?

6 Responses to “Part 4 of writing series: Hope”

  1. Part 3 of Writing Productivity Series (prevalence) | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] are the first parts of the series: Part 1, Part 2.  Part 4 is […]

  2. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    Utterly off-topic: are you familiar with this book?

    It turned up in as “also viewed” when I was looking for Pamela Dean, which seems promising, and it looks like the sort of thing that you and I both enjoy. So if you have read it, I’d like to know if you’d recommend it. If you haven’t read it, I’ll probably get it and then I can let you know what I think.

  3. chacha1 Says:

    Regarding online components … I have started to do a good bit of writing in Google Docs. Because I can do it on my desktop, or any desktop, without having to transfer files; and the world of research is right there on the next tab.

    I mentioned before that I am cheerfully failing at self-imposed deadlines. :-) Meeting with a writing group – as I envision it from your article, a group meeting specifically to report on and discuss progress – might serve as a sort of “deadline” but since my writing is strictly voluntary I’m not sure that I wouldn’t just growl at it as another time commitment. I probably could have used something like that in my master’s thesis days. I didn’t know anybody else in my program and, while I was at that time pretty contentedly anti-social, in retrospect having that personality flaw corrected earlier would have done me some good.

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