I first encountered Robert Boice’s name about a year ago. Boice, I learned, was a US psychologist who’d cracked the secret of how to write painlessly and productively.
His research focused on identifying the behavioral patterns associated with academic success and failure: what makes for a good or bad teacher, a productive or a blocked writer, a happy or disgruntled colleague. Through his research, he developed a reliable and widely tested set of best practices for academic labor which ultimately resulted in the creation of some of the finest books available for improving the writing skills.
Today, Boice’s books are out-of-print cult classics, widely cited but remarkably hard to get ahold of. Tracking them down is well worth the effort. As I see it, there are two features of Boice’s work that make it stand out in the crowded field of self-help books.
· The Simplicity of his methods to improve writing.
· The underlying humanism of his approach.
And the kernel of Boice’s advice, based on writing workshops conducted with struggling academics, is one single underlying theme; one powerful secret to be a good writer.
The Priority Principle.
The priority principle states that “That which can be delayed need not be. Decide which recurrent, daily activities you enjoy and make them contingent on doing a valued or delayed task first.”
In Simple words, if you are not writing as much you intend to write, then you are not making writing a priority. And in order to make writing a priority, attach a contingent daily task as punishment, the day you don’t write. Writing thus gains when you do so.
For example, you plan to write 2 hours every day without fail. And let us say you failed to keep up your commitment on Friday. So as a punishment you forgo your favorite daily activity (say play tennis) on that day. This way Writing gains and becomes a priority in your life.
Boice calls this approach as Contingency management or the Critical Ensurer.
He suggests the following prerequisites be in place before implementing the priority principle.
Identify Your Contingent Task
Find times where you can write every day for at least 30 minutes (but not more than 2 hours per session).
Ensure your working presence at these sessions in the following two ways.
· Prepare a chart for the week ahead mentioning the date and times on which you will write.
· Enter the times you actually wrote including the times you did not write by putting zero against the time.
The next step is to establish a contingency for daily writing. Identify the most valued daily task you love to do (playing tennis, watching television, Surfing the internet etc.) and make it contingent on completing a scheduled writing period first.
So that means if you skip your writing period on someday, you will make up for it by forgoing your tennis match on that day and using that time to complete your writing. If you are partying with friends, you don’t go to that party till you make up for your writing session and so on……
Mostly you need to experiment with contingencies until you find the right one which matches your writing priority. You will have to see what works reasonably and reliably for you and you will need to use good sense for that. Writing made too high a priority at the cost of basic necessities of life is doomed to failure. You need the right balanced approach to hit the sweet spot.
Once you have settled down in a comfortable writing regimen, you can then break the sessions into more meaningful sub-goals to suit your objective. Some of the sub-goals can be.
· Completed revision of a conceptual outline.
· Completed research on the topic.
· Interviewed experts in the field of expertise
· First draft completed
And so on………
Always remember you need to continually experiment until you find your right sweet spot. You will need to find comfortable but challenging levels of output to progress as a writer. And with a little practice, it can be done.
Once you are writing regularly, you will develop a better sense of what distracts and disrupts your writing. You can then make suitable adjustments in your writing environment and habits to maximize your output. Some of the guidelines can be.
· Establish a few regular places where you can do serious writing without distraction (your desk in the study, your bedroom, at the garden etc.). Once you establish the place make it sacred. Nothing else should be done out there.
· Write while you are fresh. Schedule the other less mentally demanding tasks for times of the day when you are less alert and energetic.
· Schedule writing tasks so that you can finish specific finishable units of writing in each session. For example, plan to write the outline and the framework of the article in one session and then fill in the body in another session.
· Keep daily charts tracking minimum these three things 1) Time spent writing.2) Pages completed 3) percentage of planned work completed. Use these charts as motivational and feedback tools in your writing journey.
· Share your writing with peers and friends to get constructive feedback. Ask for specific actionable feedback and then incorporate it immediately.
Boice cautions us here that most writers after establishing a momentum tend the abandon these writing good habits. This might prove to be disastrous.
The point of establishing these habits is to ensure continuity of your writing. Without these habits in place, sooner or later distractions will break your momentum. So invest in these habits and stick to them.
And Lastly, do not Do Binge Writing
This is one of Boice’s favorite tips. He calls it limit-setting.
Limit-setting means just what it says. You set limits on time investment so that you can work more efficiently in these sessions and you can move to the next stage of writing in an organized manner. Limit-setting means learning to do the following.
· Start writing on planned time (even if you are not ready)
· Finish writing on planned time (even it is not completed).
· Know when you have done enough with your writing project.
Thus when your daily writing time is up, stop dead, even if you’ve got momentum and could write more. Maybe you could but don’t.
“The urge to continue,” Boice writes, “includes a big component of impatience about not being finished, about not being productive enough, about never again finding such an ideal time for writing.” Stop when the timer goes off, and you’ll build self-discipline. Keep going longer, and you’re just indulging your insecurity.
The ideal state of writing is mindfulness. “When we work mindlessly,” he writes, “we encourage an excess of tense and negative thinking that distracts and undermines our writing.”
And he proved this point with data. In one of Boice’s experiments, academics who used their regular writing approach — bingeing — wrote 17 pages of completed prose per year, about half an article. Those who followed his guidelines to write in brief regular sessions produced 64 pages per year. Those who used brief regular sessions and reported on their output regularly to Boice produced 157 pages per year.
What this shows is that by changing your writing habits, you can become vastly more productive. The brain can be trained just like a muscle. The right sort of training can make it far stronger.
As Aptly told by Boice.
“Be quick, but don’t hurry. That is the key to good writing.”
Robert Boice, Professors as writers: a self-help guide to productive writing (New Forums Press, 1990).
Robert Boice, Advice for new faculty members: (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000).
Tara Gray, Publish & flourish: become a prolific scholar (Teaching Academy, New Mexico State University, 2005).