Chris Smith is a co-founder of Prolifiko who’s interested in using behavioural science, neuroscience and positive persuasive technology to unlock human potential.
Chris is a former founder of Swarm, a content and digital marketing agency with a background working for consultancy firms.
He’s also a London Short Film Festival award-winning script writer and a former lecturer in social psychology, continental philosophy and aesthetics at Staffordshire University.
Prolifiko tweets from @beprolifiko.
The most cited work in the field of ‘academic writing productivity’ is that of Robert Boice from the 1990s. Is it that because there’s been no further research in this area or has nobody bettered his findings?
We’ve just launched our own study into academic writing practice. It’s research that we hope will give anyone who needs to write, evidence-based guidance on how to develop a writing system that works for them. It builds on Boice’s work and we’re using startup principles and tools to do it.
Boice’s research was innovative at the time but boiled down, it amounted to one simple scholarly nugget: whatever type of writer you are and whatever type of writing you do, do it daily.
His work has helped thousands to develop an effective practice. It has informed academic writing workshops the world over and made its way into more mainstream productivity advice on all aspects of human habit formation.
Does daily do it?
We’ve worked with and talked to thousands of writers in our work and Boice’s research has always been an inspiration to us. That said, his ‘do it daily’ mantra doesn’t always ring true. It can feel a little outdated in today’s busy world.
For example, our latest (thoroughly non-academic) poll amongst our community found 41% self-identifying as ‘binge writers’ (Boice would seriously not approve!) with just 20% saying they could manage a daily habit.
A regular, daily writing practice might be the gold standard but is it realistic? We decided to find out.
At the end of last year, we interviewed 23 academic writers as part of our user research. We asked them a similar set of questions around their writing practice: how they typically write, what types of processes they commonly use, what they find hard about writing, how they keep motivated and moving forwards.
We found that the ‘successful’ writers (and by that, I mean those who appeared to have a more balanced relationship with writing) all had one thing in common, and it wasn’t that they wrote daily.
Successful academic writers had developed some kind of personal system or strategy to help them write – age, frequency, seniority and experience didn’t seem to matter.
All these systems were as unique as the individual who had developed them but they tended to have common themes.
We identified six ‘habits’ these writers tended to have in terms of the techniques they used. These were: time blocking, artificial deadlines, seeking ‘flow’, incremental step setting, accountability structures and using ‘freewriting’ as an unblocking technique.
While some of these systems were complex, others were super-simple. People had learned to do one thing to help them write.
Some scholars had explicit systems that were well known to them – they knew exactly what kept them motivated and how to get unblocked with their writing when they were stuck. While other academics had developed systems, these appeared to be more ‘hidden’. They had adopted certain techniques and tactics to keep them writing – normally through years of trial and error – but didn’t know (and didn’t much care!) whether this amounted to a ‘system’ or not. They just did what worked for them.
What was very similar was that those academics who had embedded a system of some kind seemed less wrung out by the whole writing process.
They seemed more at ease with themselves and in control of their work.
These were very intriguing results, but we knew we were basing assumptions on a small number of interviews and our years of experience. We needed to go a step further and add some more rigour.
Over spring, we recruited a team of advisors to help us design a study. Dr Lettie Conrad, an information science scholar, publishing professional and editor at The Scholarly Kitchen; Prof. Christine Tulley, a rhetoric and writing academic with a specific interest writing practice and Dee Watchorn, a professional survey designer at publishers De Gruyter.
We took our assumptions and turned them into hypotheses around ‘hidden writing systems’.
Our aim with the study is to gain insight and understanding about scholarly writing process and practice – advancing knowledge in the field plus developing a range of practical methodologies that scholars can apply to their own practice.
The study has two elements to it.
The first is a large-scale, anonymous survey that asks a number of questions about scholars’ individual writing practice – and if you’re interested in this you can take this here (it will take you about seven minutes to complete).
The second element is a deep-dive study into writing processes that involves monitoring the writing practices of a small group of academics across a 30-day period. Academics taking the wider survey can opt-in to this second study if they wish.
This second part of the study seeks to examine the role of ‘tracking’ and self-reflection on behaviour change and the scholarly writing process. It will be fascinating to see individual writing patterns emerge.
We hope that by undertaking this work, participants will start to understand more about their own practice. We’d love to see academics gain practical benefits from their participation in the study.
It’s early days but we’re already seeing some exciting and unexpected results come through.
For example, while 86% of respondents say that the pressure to write and publish is growing, 71% say this pressure is coming from internal, personal career goals, not from external institutional demands.
It’s findings like this that we hope will add to the research in this field, cause a few debates and, ultimately, help research communities do the one thing that many want to do: keep writing, keep publishing and sharing their research with the world.