Creating a Writing Habit

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

As May rolls around and we graduate our new doctoral students and have our faculty start to prepare their dossiers for the tenure and promotion process, one thing binds everyone who is thinking of an academic career together: writing. It has long been known that academia, especially Tier I research universities, follow a “publish or perish” model. In my 11 years in administrative positions, lack of publications is far and away the most common reason that faculty do not get tenured and promoted. I have mentored several junior faculty over the past few years and my advice is always the same, develop a writing habit.

Why do faculty need to develop a writing habit?

The most important reason is that publications don’t have deadlines. If you’re teaching a class, that class occurs with a predictable regularity, say every Tuesday and Thursday from 1-2:20. If you plan on keeping your job, you show up for that class twice a week, well prepared. If you serve on committees, there is a set date and time for you to attend, and if there is work to be done, it is scheduled to be due at the next meeting. If you accept a journal article review, you will receive countless emails reminding you that your review is due. All of these items occur regularly in our academic life and we get them done. Grants have deadlines, but a faculty member can decide to apply or wait for the next cycle. The most difficult case is peer-reviewed papers. If it is not a special issue, there are no deadlines. In graduate school, we had several papers that were in various forms of completion, which sat for years with no one ever putting the finishing touches on them. If you do not have a plan for writing and develop a habit, then teaching, committee meetings, journal reviews, and other things will always get in the way.

How do you develop a writing habit?

Like most habits, a writing habit is something that you develop by doing it regularly. The wonderful thing is that the more you write, the easier it gets. So how often should you write? I heard from a colleague when I was a graduate student that Albert Bandura wrote every morning, first thing when he came into the office. Stephen King, in his book of writing, mentions that he writes every morning, seven days a week. Now both of these men are extremely prolific writers and writing every day may not be possible for most of us. My rule of thumb has been that everyone should have a least one dedicated writing session per week. More is always better, but you need to write at least weekly to get into the groove. The first step towards doing this is scheduling a time to write. Put it on your calendar and keep the appointment. This is not discretionary time. It could be the most important time in your academic calendar. Set the time and do not move it. If you absolutely have a conflict, reschedule within the same week and do not skip a week. After 15 years in academic jobs, I can tell you that you will always be busy. It will never go away. Your calendar will never free up. If it does, you should probably be worried. What time should you schedule your writing appointment? This is a personal issue and it depends on your energy. I’m a morning person and I write best right after a cup of coffee in the morning. Conversely, I am little good to anyone after a day of meetings and putting out fires. Try to schedule your time when you are at your sharpest. Writing takes a lot of brain power and you want to be at your best. I also schedule a second period of time later in the day since there tend to be fewer meetings at this time. I use this time for editing papers that I am a co-authoring, formatting references and submitting papers. These are all lower focus tasks that can be done when you have less energy.

The next thing to think about is location.

Where do you write best? For me, it is often at home or in my office with a “do not disturb” sign on the door. For one of my mentees, it was at a coffee shop. For many people, the office is not the best place to write. There are a lot of distractions and things that get you off track. As a dean, I am giving you permission to go and write where you are most effective. You might want to try a variety of locations, but find one where you are not distracted for a long period of time.

The final question is how long should you write for?

This is again a personal question. I cannot write for 8 hours at a time. I find that up to four hours works for me before I lose focus. Look at how you work. On the other end, I need at least 30 minutes or, better yet, an hour to work on an academic paper. I find that it takes me 15 minutes just to figure out where I was, find all the data, and start writing. I would aim for at least 4 hours a week of writing, which can be done in multiple sessions. This is only 10% of a 40 hour week. Start with this and work up to more if you can do it. You will be amazed at how much you can get done in just 10% of your time. Writing is cumulative, and developing a writing habit will help you build up an impressive portfolio.

Looking for more ideas about being a successful academic writer?

Please visit my colleague Justin Moore’s column, The Scholarship of Public Health. He has written some informative articles on things to avoid and ways to improve your writing that are well worth reading. These are great trips for making your writing appointment more effective.

My personal goal this summer is to spend some time writing every day that I’m at work. Even if I just commit 45 minutes a day to writing, this will add up over time and can hopefully create a significant body of work. Today is the third day of the academic summer and I am on my second article. So far, so good. We will see if I can live up to my aspirations this summer and I hope you can too!

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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