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How to Write More While Experiencing Less Pain: Practical Advice for Professors, Practitioners, and Graduate Students1

Nathan A. Bowling
Wright State University

(Author’s note: I would like to thank Terry A. Beehr and Jesse S. Michel for providing helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this paper.)

SIOP members—whether they be professors, practitioners, or graduate students—have a lot of writing to do. They write class papers, theses, dissertations, conference proposals, grant proposals, journal articles, books, book chapters, technical reports, Wikipedia entries, and more. Unfortunately, many SIOP members—or perhaps most—face motivational barriers that thwart their writing productivity. Fortunately, there are several effective strategies that help in overcoming these motivational barriers. Paul Silvia’s (2007) book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing provides a review of many of these strategies. (Silvia, with coauthor David Feldman, is also the author of Public Speaking for Psychologists: A Lighthearted Guide to Research Presentation, Jobs Talks, and Other Opportunities to Embarrass Yourself. I’m secretly hoping that someday they write a follow-up book titled How to Talk a Lot.) Below, I expand on Silvia’s key suggestions, and I present several additional motivational techniques to help increase your writing productivity. In doing so, I assume that the reader is a competent researcher and is able to write well—if you have basic research and writing skills, but lack the requisite discipline and motivation necessary to be a productive writer, then this article is for you! Be forewarned: The techniques I’m about to describe will only be effective if you are serious about being a more productive writer and are willing to dedicate sustained effort and persistence.   

Silvia’s (2007) Advice in a Nutshell

To summarize Silvia’s (2007) advice, productive writers (a) begin by making an outline, (b) drink copious amounts of coffee, (c) follow a writing schedule, and (d) drink copious amounts of coffee. Let me give additional attention to Silvia’s first and third points. Simply put, it is important to create an outline. Doing so will help organize your paper from the very beginning and it will make the writing process go more smoothly. I recommend spending considerable time agonizing over your outline and tweaking it as needed before you actually begin writing.

Silvia’s suggestion to follow a writing schedule is perhaps his most valuable piece of advice. A writing schedule helps one avoid binge writing, it directs one’s efforts toward writing at the exclusion of other activities, is habit forming, and may help you overcome innate deficits in trait Conscientiousness. It is important to write every (or nearly every) workday because writing—like other acquired skills—improves with continual practice but becomes rusty with neglect. The suggestion to follow a writing schedule can be easily framed around goal setting. I expand on this below.

Writing Schedules as Goal Setting

Work-related goals are most motivating when they are specific, challenging, and achievable (Locke & Latham, 1990). These principles apply to writing goals too and can be implemented within the confines of one’s writing schedule. Table 1 presents my personal daily writing schedule/goal-setting form. This table has separate columns for recording which tasks I plan to focus my attention on for the day, my specific writing goal (measured in number of words), and my actual writing output.

(I’m a bit of a Luddite, so I keep a three-ring binder that includes weekly writing schedule/goal-setting forms for the calendar year. This binder serves as a physical artifact, and simply looking at it reminds me that I should get back to work. As an aside, I learned early in my teaching career that an effective strategy for keeping a steady supply of three-ring binders is to require undergraduate students to place their term papers in binders. They seldom return the next academic term to claim their papers, so I currently have a large cache of binders. In fact, binders are overtaking my lab space like tribbles overtook the USS Enterprise. So if you‘d like some pre-owned binders at wholesale prices, then you know where to find me.)

Although not listed in Table 1, I also set more long-term writing goals. In the current academic term, for instance, my goal is to generate new text on at least 30% of my workdays and to generate an average of 800 words per text generation session. One may ask, “How do I know if my writing goals qualify as challenging yet attainable?” I recommend that writers record their writing output so that they can determine their baseline-level of productivity. One can then gradually adjust his or her writing goals—hopefully in an upward direction—relative to this baseline.

Table 1
Example Daily Writing Schedule/Goal-Setting Page

Arrival/departure times Research task Next
new
goal
New
text
written
Reading goals
Mon. 7:14 am/ 5:34 pm 1. Polish cross-cultural paper
2. Revise personality chapter
3.
1. 0
2. 0
3.
1. 0
2. 0
3.
1. Job crafting (30 min)
2.
3.
Tue. 6:17 am/4:14 pm 1. Revise personality chapter
2. Create regression tables for CWB paper
3.
1. 0
2. 0
3.
 
1. 0
2. 0
3.
1. Job crafting (30 min)
2.
3.
Wed. 7:20 am/4:50 pm 1. Revise personality chapter
2.
3.
1. 0
2.
3.
1. 0
2.
3.
1. Job crafting (30 min)
2.
3.
Thu. 6:13 am/4:29 pm 1. Revise personality chapter
2. Draft outline for job stress paper
3.
1. 0
2. 0
3.
1. 0
2. 0
3.
1. Job crafting (30 min)
2.
3.
Fri. 6:56 am/4:38 pm 1. Write Introduction for job stress paper
2.
3.
1. 800
2.
3.
1. 864
2.
3.
1.
2.
3.
Sat. 6:10 am/8:00 am 1. Write Introduction for job stress paper
2.
3.
1. 800
2.
3.
1. 876
2.
3.
1.
2.
3.
Sun. Took the day off 1.
2.
3.
1. 0
2.
3.
1. 0
2.
3.
1.
2.
3.

A couple more suggestions about goals: Research has found that goal setting may be more effective when one makes a public commitment to his or her goals and when self-imposed rewards are tied to goal attainment (see Locke, Latham & Erez, 1988). The use of web-facilitated data sharing applications (e.g., Google Docs)—which offer the extremely desirable benefit of allowing one to avoid direct interpersonal interaction with colleagues—can be used to leverage both of these principles. Gary Burns and I currently manage our own “virtual writing group” via Google Docs. We make our personal writing goals public to other group members, and although we have yet to do so, we may someday use the writing group to manage an incentive system. Perhaps members who continuously fail to meet their writing goals could be required to treat the other group members to lunch at a subsequent SIOP conference.

(Alright, maybe I’m not really that much of a Luddite after all.)

Although setting writing goals is clearly important, it is not always obvious in which areas one should set goals. One could consider setting goals regarding the number of words written per day, the number of average words written per text generation session, the percentage of workdays in which one generates new text, as well as goals regarding the latest date one will submit a particular manuscript. I’ve also found it helpful to set two other types of goals that are more indirectly related to writing productivity (see Table 1). First, I set goals regarding when I arrive to campus and when I leave for the day. During the current academic term, my goal is to arrive at my lab by no later than 6:15 a.m. and to depart by no earlier than 4:30 p.m. Being employed in a weak-situation job (see Mischel, 1977) that lacks a time clock, I’ve found it useful to use goals as a way of creating a “strong situation” that encourages me to arrive “early” for work. I also make a habit of setting reading goals. Reading plays an essential role in conducting research, and thus I occasionally set daily goals about the amount of time spent reading or the number of pages read on a particular day.

Additional Components of the Writing Schedule/Goal-Setting Binder

To this point, I’ve reiterated and expanded upon Silvia’s advice about keeping a writing schedule. My writing schedule/goal-setting binder includes several other components that can help motivate the struggling writer. These include a Promise Page, Submission/Rejection/Revise and Resubmit/Acceptance Page, and a Priority Organizer.

Promise Page. Social factors—such as the desire to avoid disappointing one’s coauthors—can be useful tool for motivating one to write more. As a result, I keep what I call a Promise Page (see Table 2). In the Promise Page I record the coauthor’s name, the project we are working on, the specific promise that I’ve made to that coauthor, and the deadline that I’ve given to deliver on the promise. When corresponding with coauthors, I make a point of identifying what specific tasks I will complete and I provide a specific deadline for completing these tasks. It is helpful to use e-mail for this because it creates a written account of your promises.     

Table 2
Example Promise Page

Coauthor Project Specific deliverable promised Deadline for deliverable
Cristina Kirkendall Empirical job crafting study Send feedback on Introduction to Cristina 2-23-12
Kevin Eschleman Longitudinal job stress study Send first draft of Introduction to Kevin 2-24-12
Jason Huang Data quality study Send first draft of Introduction to Jason 3-9-12
Steve Jex Job stress book chapter Send chapter revisions to Neil Christiansen 4-18-12
Steve Khazon Job satisfaction meta-analysis Send coding of job titles to Steve 4-13-12

Submission/Rejection/Revise and Resubmit/Acceptance Page. My writing schedule/goal-setting binder also includes a page in which I track my journal submissions, rejections, revise and resubmits, and acceptances (see Table 3). This page not only helps me keep track of my progress, but it also serves a motivational function. Being forced to enter “nothing” in either the submission, revise and resubmit, or acceptance columns is a cue that I should consider putting more time into my writing.

Table 3
Example Submission/Rejection/Revise and Resubmit/Acceptance Page

Month Submissions Rejections Revise and Resubmits Acceptances
December
2011
Job crafting conceptual paper (to journal #1)   None None
January
2012
Job satisfaction chapter (to book editor)
Longitudinal job satisfaction paper (to journal #1)
  None None
February
2012
Job crafting conceptual paper (to journal #2) Job crafting conceptual paper (at journal #1) None None
March
2012
Longitudinal job satisfaction paper (to journal #2) Longitudinal job satisfaction paper (at journal #1) None None

Priority Organizer. Some writing is more important than other writing—that revise and resubmit you’re sitting on from the Journal of Applied Psychology, for example, should receive more immediate attention than the Hugo Munsterberg entry you’re editing for Wikipedia. Thus, it is important for writers to prioritize how they spend their writing time (see Silvia, 2007). As a result, my writing schedule/goal-setting binder includes a Priority Organizer. This organizer uses a series of three plastic pages that were intended to store business cards. One page is for projects I could be working on; one page is for projects that I’m currently unable to work on because I am waiting on work from a coauthor; one page is for projects that are currently under review. I simply write the names of projects on slips of paper and I move these slips from page to page as changes occur in the status of the project.
 
Miscellaneous Suggestions

To this point, I’ve discussed how various components of a schedule/goal-setting binder can help you overcome the motivational barriers to writing. I will conclude this article by suggesting a number of miscellaneous strategies that can further help the struggling writer.

Space out your writing sessions. Spacing out the workday makes it easier to comply with a writing schedule. That is—as Hackman and Oldham (1976) acknowledge by including “skill variety” in their job characteristics model—people prefer to have variety in their work tasks. Thus, rather than dedicate an entire workday to binge writing, it’s more effective to write a couple hours, engage in another activity for an hour or so, and then return to writing. During winter term 2012, for example, my typical workday looked like this:

Arrive to campus at 6:00 am
Microwave a cup of green tea and socialize with janitor from 6:00 to 6:15 
Write from 6:15 to 8:15
Teach undergraduate stats/research methods from 8:30 to 9:45 am
Do cardio at the campus recreation center from 10:00 to 11:15 am
Write from 11:30 am to 12:15 pm
Teach my graduate organizational psychology seminar from 12:20 to 2:00 pm
Write from 2:10 to 4:30 pm
Go home at 4:30 pm

Spacing out my workday according to the above schedule kept my writing sessions engaging, and it was easy to sustain over the course of the academic term. Of course, this exact schedule isn’t practical for everyone, but the general principle of spacing out your writing sessions is useful for all writers.

Increase your writing variety. In addition to spacing out your writing sessions, you can introduce variety by working on multiple projects on any given workday. “A meta-analytic examination of the relationship between employee age and job tenure,” for instance, will become less of a pain to write-up if you take a break from it by working on that paper addressing “the deleterious effects of emotional display rules on the well-being of professional mimes.”     

Leave something easy to write for the beginning of your next writing session. It is helpful to leave something easy to write for the beginning of the next writing session. I personally have a good grasp on the literature on the disposition approach to job satisfaction, for example, so if I can begin tomorrow’s writing session addressing the relationship between negative affectivity and job satisfaction, then I’m likely to pick up momentum from the start. Early progress builds momentum that can carry one through an otherwise torturous writing session.

Find good collaborators. Echoing the advice of others (e.g., Campion, 2011), it is important to find good collaborators. Working with others can make research more fun, give you one or more people with whom to divide tasks, and allow for increased opportunities to use social influence techniques (see the Promise Page discussed above). Furthermore, collaborators often have a thing or two they can teach you about conceptual content and advanced statistical techniques, and they often have access to useful resources and data. Coauthors—particular those who have put years of effort into becoming good writers—can help you to develop as a writer and they can teach you the finer points of addressing reviewer comments.  

Read and review a lot (but not too much). To have something to write about, it is obviously important that you read what has been written about your research topic. In addition, it is helpful to have a notebook or audio recorder handy when you are reading. Who knows, you might spontaneously discover a model that unifies general relatively with quantum mechanics after reading the latest issue of Personnel Psychology. It would be a shame to forget your grand idea because you failed to immediately make a few notes about it.
But don’t spend all your time reading because every minute spent reading someone else’s work is one minute less you have to work on your own writing. This same advice goes for serving as an ad hoc reviewer. Reviewing is valuable to your professional development because it gives you insights into how editors and reviewers think and it provides opportunities to see submissions that vary significantly in terms of writing quality. But again, don’t spend too much time reviewing. You have your own writing to worry about!   
Write in different physical locations. I’ve found that writing in different physical locations keeps me more motivated to write. If I alternate between writing in my office, my lab, the campus library, and my living room, I’m much less likely to get bored than if I only wrote in my office. I’m guessing that this practice partially satisfies the need for variety.

Summary

Finding the motivation to write day after day can be difficult. I hope that the strategies that I’ve described above can make writing a little less painful. I’m certainly no expert on the psychology of writing and, because my own publication record shows that I too have room for improvement, I’d be happy to hear from readers who’ve successfully (or unsuccessfully) overcome their own motivational barriers to writing. 

References

Campion, M. A. (2011). Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award: How to publish like heck and maybe even enjoy it. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 49(2),43–56. 
Feldman, D. B., & Silvia, P. J. (2010). Public speaking for psychologists: A lighthearted guide to research presentation, jobs talks, and other opportunities to embarrass yourself. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 250–279.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Locke, E. A., Latham, G. P., & Erez, M. (1988). The determinants of goal commitment. The Academy of Management Review, 13, 23–39.
Mischel, W. (1977). The interaction of person and situation. In D. Magnusson & N. S. Endler (Eds.), Personality at the crossroads: Current issues in interactional psychology (pp. 333–352). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.