Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing

Some time ago, I broke down an bought Professors as Writers. A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing by Robert Boice (Stillwater, OK.: New Forums Press, 1990). The central idea of the book is simple: "Write every day for a short period." Put negatively: "Don't write 'in binges.'"

Boice advises us to make writing a daily activity, and to write in "small, regular amounts" (79). Daily "20-30 minute blocks of time" are "available for writing in most work-weeks."[1]

Why is daily writing important according to Boice? Because "once under way, writing builds its own momentum" (41).

I think all this is true—and not just for professors. Anyone will benefit from daily writing in relatively short bursts, as long as the writing will concentrate on a few topics over a longer stretch of time.

I am not so sure about Boice's more specific points regarding "spontaneous" and "generative" writing, where "spontaneous writing consists of writing "anything that comes into your head" rapidly and uncritically, something that Peter Elbow called "free writing." Generative writing has to do with what is called in the literature "the revising process." Thus Boice's advice amounts to the shopworn maxim that we must learn to separate "the producing process from the revising process." Let me just say: This does not work for me. Nor am I impressed by the psycho-babble about the left and the right brain and everything that is supposed to follow from it. And the Self-Help Questionnaires seem like an insult to the intelligence of professors and other people who are likely to read the book.[2]

The general point and the advice to 'schedule writing tasks so that you plan to work on finishable units of writing in each session" seems good to me, however. Let's all do "brief daily sessions", or "BDS's." They will help in making our ideas explicit.

1. Another, and perhaps better, way to measure "short bursts" would be by counting words, as many professional writers did and do. You would be surprised to see where 500 words a day gets you, for instance.

2. Boice also wrote Advice for New Faculty Members and How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure, neither one of which I have seen.

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