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Successful Academic Writers Write – Wendy Laura Belcher

This month of #AcWriMo we’re featuring heaps of advice from the book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. She’ll offer a wealth of information on carefully planning your writing and getting over obstacles – practical and emotional.

Samuel Eliot Morison, author of several academic classics including The Oxford History of the American People, had the following literary advice for young historians, “First and foremost, get writing!” (1953, 293).

It may sound tautological, but the main key to a positive writing experience is writing. Most students’ negative experiences of writing revolve around not writing (i.e., procrastinating) and most students’ positive experiences of writing revolve around actually doing it. That is, when students write, they feel a sense of accomplishment and the pleasure of communicating their ideas. In this sense, writing is the same as exercise. Although it may not be easy at first, it does get easier and more pleasurable the more you do it. As the very productive academic writer and my colleague Chon A. Noriega tells his graduate students when they embark on their dissertations, “One usually gets better at whatever one does on a regular basis. If one does not write on a regular basis, one will get better at not writing. In fact, one will develop an astonishing array of skills designed to improve and extend one’s not writing.”

Those who do not write often claim that they are “too busy.” Indeed, people today are very busy. Some students have long commutes, others have full-time jobs, and still others have young children. So, here’s the good news and the bad news. Lots of busy people have been productive writers. Are they just smarter? No. If you pay attention to the way you actually spend time, you will find that you may not be quite as busy as you suppose and that writing doesn’t take as much time as you fear.

Robert Boice, the leading scholar on faculty productivity, proved this by finding faculty members who claimed to be “too busy” to write and then following them around for a week. With Boice staring at them all day, most had to admit that “they rarely had workdays without at least one brief period of fifteen to sixty minutes open for free use” (1997a, 21). His subjects spent this free time in activities that were neither work nor play. Boice also found that those likely to describe themselves as very “busy” or very “stressed” did not produce as much as those who were writing steadily. In other words, you are not too busy to write, you are busy because you do not write. Busy-ness is what you do to explain your not writing. (If you skimmed over those last two sentences, I recommend you go back and read them one more time. It’s essential.)

No matter how busy your life is, make a plan for writing. Successful academic writers do not wait for inspiration. They do not wait until the last minute. They do not wait for big blocks of time. They make a plan for writing every day and they stick to it.

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