How to become a great writer

Brian Martin

February 2010

For the past few years I've been studying research on writing, namely what it takes to become a highly productive writer. It's not natural talent. The evidence suggests that writers are made, not born. So what do you have to do to be a writer?

The two keys are regular practice and periodic feedback. Regular practice means most days, every day if possible. No one expects a weekend athlete, who trains for 12 hours - once a week, every Saturday - to be able to win a championship. Serious athletes train six or seven days a week, with a carefully planned programme designed to build the capacity for performance and for the training itself.

Robert Boice studied the writing performance of new academics and observed that the most productive new academics worked in brief regular sessions. They avoided long, exhausting writing sessions. In other words, they avoided binge writing. Yet most academics - and most students - are binge writers. They wait until they have a big block of time, or until a deadline looms, and then work for many hours until the task is done. This seems to work, but Boice's evidence is that it's not very effective.

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.

Tara Gray developed a programme for high academic productivity based on 12 steps. (This is analogous to the 12-step programmes for Acoholics Anonymous and other such groups; this one is designed to break an addiction to binge writing.) The first step is to schedule 30 minutes daily for writing. Your scheduled time should be inviolate, like the time for your favourite television programme or for an exam: the only excuse for missing your writing time should be serious illness or emergency.

At your scheduled time, sit down to write without any books or articles open, just some notes about your topic. This is time for writing new words, not for reading or checking sources. Check the time (e.g. 8.47am) and write it down. Now start writing on your day's topic, for 15 to 30 minutes. When finished, check the time and write down the total time spent writing (e.g. 22 minutes) and the number of words you've written (e.g. 327 words). Every week, report your daily writing minutes and words to someone who will hold you accountable.

That's the foundation of Gray's writing programme. If you follow it, you'll find yourself being much more productive. Why does it work? Because writing is a form of thinking. When you write daily, your mind is unconsciously processing the material through the rest of the day, so you're better prepared the next day. This is just like the way your muscles rebuild after exercise, making you stronger for the next day's training - as long as you don't do too much. If you write too much in one session, you're likely to feel worn out and less enthusiastic the next day.

What do you write about? Write on any assignment long before it's due. As Gray says, write before you're ready. Write what you know about the topic, write about how you plan to cover the topic, write about things you need to know - anything to get you going.

Why does it save time to write before you're ready? Because you find out what you need to know. If you do lots of reading before you write, you end up reading lots of stuff that isn't relevant. If, instead, you write first, then you know what information you need for your argument, and you're much more efficient in finding it and reading it. Writing regularly ends up saving you time.

And you'll be more creative. Boice in another experiment found that daily writers produced five times as many new ideas per week as academics who were not writing but who were instructed to note down new ideas when they thought of them.

Experienced, highly productive writers don't wait to be inspired to write - instead, they write to be inspired.

Changing your writing habits is not easy. After all, you've probably been binge writing for years, and breaking an addiction can be hard. Plus your friends won't understand when you say that you can't meet them because it's your writing time. So if you're serious about this, try to get together in a group of two, three or four who are committed to the same goal, and meet weekly to compare notes on what it takes to develop a new habit. Instead of doing assignments at the last minute, you'll be starting them weeks in advance, doing a little bit each day.

It can take three or four months of practice to adjust from bingeing to brief regular sessions. But the effort will be worthwhile, because it can make the difference between being an ordinary writer and being an outstanding writer. Remember, you have the same basic mental capacity as anyone else and - if you want - you can become highly productive. The key to high performance is deliberate practice, over a long period.

Further reading

Robert Boice, Professors as writers: a self-help guide to productive writing (Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 1990).

Robert Boice, Advice for new faculty members: nihil nimus (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000).

Tara Gray, Publish & flourish: become a prolific scholar (Teaching Academy, New Mexico State University, 2005).

Brian Martin, "Writing", chapter 2 in Doing good things better (Ed, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2011).

Paul J. Silvia, How to write a lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007).

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See also

Research productivity: some roads less travelled

Brian Martin's publications on education

Brian Martin's website