The importance of scheduling writing time every day
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Yes, you have read it well…let’s analyse this in parts. Writing should be a priority for every scientist, whether we like it or not, publications (and aspects around them) are the most important factor of success in academia. But the motivation for writing can be something much deeper…it is the way we communicate to the world the results of our research. If you don’t publish, all the work you have done will end up in a drawer and (almost) nobody will know about it. Sometimes we are demotivated about our results, especially when they are full of variation and difficult to explain, but when published they can be very useful. For example, when designing an experiment, we are all interested on methodologies, independently of the results. Just remember there are no “negative results”, so please, write them up!
Academic life just becomes busier and busier, so it is crucial to schedule writing time like you schedule teaching, or a meeting with your supervisor. In his excellent book “How to write a lot”, Paul J. Silvia emphasizes scheduling as the key to be a productive writer. Many scientists follow an approach of “waiting to be inspired”. But the problem is that inspiration is an evil goddess that comes whenever she (in Spanish is feminine) wants, and leaves without your control. Some activities such as practising meditation (see this post) or mindfulness outdoors can help you to gain that inspiration when unlocking your creativity. What it is within your control, is to sit down and force yourself to write... In his book, Silva describes a study by Boice et al. (1990) where college professors that struggled with writing were assigned to one of these 3 groups: 1) abstinent, who could only write if absolutely necessary; 2) spontaneous, who scheduled 50 writing sessions but only wrote when inspired; 3) contingency management, who were forced to write during those 50 sessions. Those who forced themselves to write, handled about 3 times more pages per day than the ones that wrote only when inspired. But the most interesting is that they also had creative ideas twice as fast as the people waiting for inspiration, and 5 times faster that people that did not write.
Writing every day aligns with the psychological theories of creating a habit. Although there is controversy again, it is commonly seen that a 30-day period is a good one to create a habit, especially on those tasks that we know are good for us, just hard to get into (think on sporting, eating healthy, etc.). Regarding the duration of the writing periods, the study of Boice saw an important improvement in periods of only 30 to 90 minutes (snack writing). Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns share constantly their amazing tips on scientific writing, and from their good arguments in favour of snack writing, I like the fact that you become a quick starter. However, there is no consensus whether writing in large blocks of time (binge writing) for one day, one weekend or one month, may be even better than snack writing. Stephen Heard suggests, in what is so far my favourite writing book, to combine both strategies of snack and binge writing. I totally agree with this, because more complex ideas or sections need longer time to develop. But also, simply because life won’t let you do much binge writing, so if that’s the strategy that works for you, you’ll probably be in trouble (I say this from personal experience).
Now, if what you just read makes sense, please start right now! Get your calendar and schedule writing blocks of 1h (and some longer blocks if you can) during every day of the coming 30 days. And if you want some extra accountability, tweet it here! Thanks for reading me and happy writing!