dr jekyll writes – binge writing as a pathological academic condition

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!

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in binge writing, generative writing, Robert Boice, spontaneous writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to dr jekyll writes – binge writing as a pathological academic condition

  1. Simon Bailey says:

    I’ve just come to the end of an extended and productive binge. And it was essential – but in this is also what worries me. I think for me a binge is often a sign that I’ve let things slip organisationally – making it more of a scramble perhaps. The thing that bothers me is that I often don’t seem to be able to motor myself in the absence of a crisis. Then post crisis I return to default and wait for the next crisis. A bit glib perhaps, but seems like a cycle around two equally dysfunctional poles. I think the latest binge has taught me that I am able to write almost anytime anyplace, and that should help me with writing a little at a time regularly, which I think is the key to more consistent success.

  2. lizhumphrys says:

    Thanks for this Pat. I’ve been think about this quite a bit lately, as I just finished ‘How to Write A Lot’ and a few other things on this topic. I’ve been trying to compare how I write now with how I wrote in the workforce (I investigated administrative decisions and similar). At work I always wrote regularly during the work day, but also had ‘binges’ when things simply had to get done or the mood struck me (like you suggest you do). The binging was never an issue, and seemed a common way of working amongst my colleagues (even if I tended to binge more than some others).

    It would have been rare for me to write less than a thousand words a day in my work, and sometimes I’d write a few thousand. When people would discuss writing at my work they would never say something like “I wrote a thousand words today – but they weren’t really ‘good’ words’. Yet I hear this sort of judgement, between good and average/bad words, all the time from PhD students. I’ve probably said it myself, truth be told. Yet I wonder if this is a very wrong way to think about it – all words are ‘less good’ than they will be in later drafts but are they ever ‘bad’?. At work people would be more likely to say ‘but it’ll take a bit of work to get the report to where it needs to be’ – which is far less judgemental (and the emphasis is on writing as a process that improves the words).

    There is something about academic writing, the anxiety it generates for me, that means I find I put off the early stages of drafting (and even sometimes note taking) – seemingly in the hope more polished writing will immediately pour out of me. One of the most useful things I read in the last few days (possibly from the ‘Writing Groups, Change and Academic Identity: Research development as local practice’ journal article) was a discussion of students mistakenly comparing what they write in drafts to the finished output of researchers. That there is little exposure to other people’s drafts, and therefore a demotion of the importance of writing being a process where everyone’s writing improves over the may drafts and rewrites. I’m going to try and keep this in mind – that and scheduling writing as a daily part of the PhD ‘work’ amongst my binging!

  3. Lou Burkett says:

    Thanks – enjoyed reading your musings. Will think positively next time I go towards a blank page and smile. Cheers Lou

  4. nriggs says:

    Wonderful thought piece! I’ve had numerous debates recently with a colleague about how long it takes to write well and always end up favoring writing more for longer sessions. Her opinion is that the longer she spends on one piece, the more opportunities she gives herself to make a mess of the prose and “get lost” in complex ideas. I’ve always suspected what you fear – that she’s succumbed to the hypervigilance of an academic universe textured with a “publish or perish” mentality. After reading this I wonder if her personal struggles with anxiety have something to do with her mindset. Seems to me that writing is one of those processes that brings us into commune with ourselves and might create moments where we find ourselves looking in a mirror. For some, this could lead to framing the writing process as symptomatic of larger personal issues.

  5. I like your approach here, and I think some of the comments bring out the differences between different kinds of binges. If one is only binge writing in response to a crisis and then needs to recover from the binge and requires some kind of crisis to start at all, then maybe there really is a problem to be addressed. But the occasional extended writing binge is not necessarily bad.

    I think the key is whether the writer themself thinks their writing process works or not. Different things work for different people and at different stages of the process. Knowing that there are options can help.

    I also think lizhumphreys’ comment raises some very important issues about how academics TALK about their writing. There seems to be some kind of pervasive belief that as we improve we should be able to write with fewer drafts or something. So only certain kinds of writing “really count”. This is damaging and I like the way Liz reframes that to be less judgemental and more descriptive of the fact that this is an early draft.

  6. Orian Brook says:

    I think that the idea that people come to a PhD with many years of experience of academic writing (essays) is misleading – as Howard Becker reminds us, the jump from writing essays (which will only be read by one person, and only because they’re paid to do it) to writing intended for publication to establish a reputation as a scholar is a huge one.

    • pat thomson says:

      Thats not what I intended to say. My point is that people ought not to be seen as deficient or as tabla rasa. Whatever it is that they know and can do needs to be recognised and built on.

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