Daily writing: From a worthy discipline to a self-sustaining experience

Two weeks ago Brian Martin introduced me to Boice‘s work on academic productivity, including, in particular, his finding that the practice of daily writing starting at the beginning of a project led to greater productivity that “binge writing,” that is, waiting until the research has produced results and a window opens up free of teaching, administration, and other commitments.  Following Gray’s popularization of Boice, Brian has established a practice with his students of writing 15-30 minutes 5-7 days/week and submitting a log of time spent and new words written when the group meets each week.  (New words is important—editing, revising, and filling in citations can be done at another time in the day.)

Eight days ago I asked a group of my students who are undertaking their final Masters project—a “synthesis” paper—to try daily writing.  I would be doing so as well.  What I didn’t say was that I had postponed making the suggestion for a few days until I had got my teaching back on track after a week away.  If that sounds to you like waiting for a window to open, you’re right.  However, at that point, I brushed aside this failure to walk my own talk and made sure I could report when I met with the students two days later that I had begun daily writing.

When the group met, only two of the six students had started, but I think the others were intrigued by what these two had written.  Their daily writing had not taken the form of paragraphs for a chapter of the synthesis paper due in three months, but instead an exposition of their thinking about topics/themes/ideas in some way related to their area of work.  My own daily writing had taken the form of editing drafts I had already underway, but at least I had started and I encouraged more of them to get on board.

The next five days teaching, email, progress on the drafts, administration came first and no daily writing happened.  Some of these days saw me rework old material for daily blog entries as if this might count.  Yesterday I dropped that pretence, stepped away from the computer, and began daily writing by hand in my notebook.   This would ensure that the words were new, not edits of an existing file, and keep me away from computer-mediated distractions for the limited period required for the daily writes.  I enjoyed it—and that must be an important outcome if daily writing is to be sustained—and felt refreshed when I did turn on my computer.  Indeed, I used the writing energy I’d tapped into to make progress on editing material not the subject of the daily write.

What’s behind the release of energy for writing that daily writing of new words engendered?  I think, first, that the short length of time required gives us permission to write on any topic at or near the surface, not feel that we have to compose another installment in some major project we should be working on at that time.  This openness of topic, in turn, affirms that we are creative, generative beings—it does not really matter if what we write today never ends up in something submitted for publication or distributed to readers.  This affirmation of inner-directedness help push away the stifling, internalized criteria—Have I written enough to meet the deadline, or to satisfy journal reviewers who often seem to have warped readings of my work? Eventually, I suspect—I’m now only on day two of my notebook daily writing—we will produce enough text, expose enough fresh thinking, find enough energy to make time to edit drafts that can be submitted for review, and, most importantly, build enough sense of our own worth that we can get back on quickly when the bronco that is the review process bucks us off again and again.  It is the experience of generativity, inner-directedness, and self worth, more than the virtues of disciplined practice, that I now plan to invoke in promoting daily writing to others.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

9 Responses to Daily writing: From a worthy discipline to a self-sustaining experience

  1. mike johns says:

    Not only did I find that the framed windows of new writing time help inspire creativity and productivity; but the follow up research I did later each day tended to be more focused and a best use of that time as well.

  2. bahc says:

    Peter, alum here and I remember daily writing from Nina’s class and doing the Artist’s Way, went on to do the 2nd book, and now doing Artist’s Way in the workplace with my team- a new dept at BPS where I am a Program Director ( Health, Sex Ed). Have encouraged so many to write daily since learning that from you almost about 10 years ago. Thanks. Stil refer to my synthesis check list when writing/ exploring new subjects. Hooray for CCT.

  3. Faheem Abbas says:

    I’ve been doing this ‘daily writing business’ ever since I came out of alcohol rehab 6 years ago. At the time it began as a Scharemerian kind of angry download, then graduated into purposeful narrative therapy. At the moment I use it expatiate on my feelings, thoughts and actions that ex post I felt were peculiar, strange, that I could not pin down, an angst of soem sort. Then I bounce reflections these of to a professor I’m assisting in an on-line course this spring in CCT. His feedback invariably makes me go back and meta-reflect. I find that it not only helps me develop sharper perspectives on teaching – the contetx on which I write the reflection – but also provides stronger, deep inroads into the nature of my psyche, its dynmaics, its nature. It helps me identify my ‘transferences and manage counter transferences from students.

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