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The practice of academic writing has a tendency to be viewed as a pathological condition – with certain behaviour, like writing for extended periods of time, listed as particularly harmful. But Pat Thomson doesn’t think this prescriptive approach gives enough credit to academic writers who are more competent at finding a writing framework that suits them than this limiting diagnostic approach implies.

A confession. I like a good writing binge. I sometimes find it’s the only way to get something done. I have to immerse myself completely in a topic and its associated readings in order to make sense of it. Now I don’t do this very often. I’m quite able to write a paper or a chapter in a series of shorter writing time slots and I often do. But sometimes, and it’s to do with the topic and how comfortable I feel with it and how hard it is, sometimes I just have to work away at something for long slabs of time.

I know the concern about binge writing is that some people do it and it’s very unhelpful and unproductive. And some people don’t write at all because they think you must have long periods of time in order to do anything and that’s not the case.

Fine, I don’t dispute that. What worries me is when the notion of don’t-write-for extended-periods of time becomes a kind of universal maxim. Applicable all the time and everywhere.

I recently went back to look for the origins of the term binging in relation to academic writing. I couldn’t find any earlier reference to it other than in an article Robert Boice wrote in 1982 in Teaching of Psychology 9(3). Since writing this, Boice has continued to work on ways of dealing with writer’s block and other forms of writing dysfunctionality.

Boice’s seminal writing book Professors as writers: A self help guide to productive writing (1990) lists a range of writing behaviours which cause distress and lead to chronic academic under-production. Boice divides reluctant writers into two major groups – procrastinators and perfectionists. He lists the kinds of things that cause writing problems – distaste for writing, lack of confidence, lack of time, inability to start , inability to stop, being anxious. He then goes on to list other conditions that affect writing – depression, phobias, dysphoria and psychological conditions such as hand cramping.

Boice’s approach to dealing with writing problems is basically a form of de-conditioning. Given that he’s a psychologist this is not surprising. Beginning with spontaneous writing or free writing as a means of breaking the pattern, he then suggests the need to move on to what he calls generative writing. This is where people write about the writing they have to do, and then use that as the basis for further generative writing which refines what was first written.

Boice suggests that in order to cement the new patterns of writing, writers need to organize their space and time so that they can write regularly and in conducive surrounds. He also offers solutions for relapsed writers, who fall back into old habits.
He proposes a four-step self-help plan for writing:
(1) automaticity – the use of spontaneous and generative writing to begin projects
(2) externality – making writing a priority by scheduling time and making commitments to deadlines
(3) self control – refusing negative self talk by monitoring negative thoughts, stopping them as soon as they are recognized, reframing them through a focus on relief at completion and then self rewarding (in other words do talking therapy to yourself)
(4) sociality – soliciting comments, establishing writing networks, developing a sense of audience.

Now this is all very familiar to most people, because Boice’s work has been very influential. It seems to work for a lot of people too. However, right now, I’m wondering about it a bit.

Why I hear you asking? Well it’s to do with the assumption of loss of control and self that all this implies. It’s as if somehow when we sit down at the computer to write, some kind of ‘bad body double’ takes over (oh and here’s a gratuitous link to Imogen Heap’s song of the same name). When we begin to write we become some kind of scholarly Dr. Jekyll (and here’s a gratuitous link to James Nesbitt’s wonderful interpretation), nothing like our familiar functional and effective selves. Of course Boice doesn’t say we actually foam at the mouth and skulk around in dark corners, but he does talk about panic attacks, uncontrollable shaking, and being breathless – and that’s in 60% of the people he deals with. I guess he sees people who have those kinds of problems, but it’s a bit of a worry when that gets generalised out to the rest of the population….

Now, I do know a couple of people who suffer in this kind of way when they approach a writing task. However, it’s not a majority, it’s a tiny minority who are really afflicted. Some people are a bit anxious and tense and the majority of us just expect it might be a bit difficult. And being a bit challenged is actually quite helpful, it’s not always a bad thing.

The teacher in me worries about starting to think about academic writing from a deficit position. I always begin writing workshops with professionals by asking them how many of them have had to write submissions for funding, or make a case for something to happen or not happen. If they know how to do this, then they know how to make an argument. And if they have to write case notes, or report in writing on expenditure against a budget then they already know the importance of getting details down accurately and writing succintly. I could go on, but the point is that most people arrive at doctoral research not only with several years of academic success (writing essays) behind them but, if they are already in the workforce, then they also probably have some experience with some of the major writing genres they are going to need to write a thesis or a paper.

It seems to me that there are probably two ways of approaching academic writing. The first is as a widespread pathological condition where problems need to be diagnosed and remedies applied. The second is a respectful educational approach where the writer is assumed to already know things and is capable of using new intellectual resources to sort out what suits them and what doesn’t. This is not about denying information of genre or practices – well I’d be out of business if that were the case, just for a start – but it does assume that the vast majority of writers – even those who are somewhat anxious – start from a position of competence, not deficiency and pathology. That the kinds of processes used by Boice are good and helpful doesn’t negate my basic concern to start from a non-diagnostic and non-judgmental position.

I guess I just don’t want to assume a Dr. Jekyll lurks in all of us, I’ll go there when I spot the actual foaming mouth. Yes, and that means I will be saying out loud that bit of binge writing in moderation never did me any harm!

This article was originally published at Pat Thomson’s personal blog, Patter, and is republished here with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author:
Pat Thomson is Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham. Her current research focuses on creativity, the arts and change in schools and communities, and postgraduate writing pedagogies. She is currently devoting more time to exploring, reading and thinking about imaginative and inclusive pedagogies which sit at the heart of change. She blogs about her research at Patter.

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