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IX. Establish Systems of Accountability

Oct 31, 2012 by Dr Sally

In the last blog, you learned about the importance of tracking. Changing your writing habits and sustaining your writing practice also requires a system of accountability—to yourself and to others. Boice’s research demonstrates that the most successful intervention for writers who want to become more productive is coaching in strategies to facilitate regular writing, combined with a system of external rewards or what Boice calls “contingency management” (1982).

Contingency management. Boice’s research (1983) shows that contingency management—rewarding yourself after you have completed your scheduled writing session—is the most effective strategy for self-accountability. Completing your writing time is intrinsically rewarding, but plan on regular small extrinsic rewards as well—a walk in the park, a call to a friend, a cappuccino—small pleasures that acknowledge your hard work when the writing is finished.

It may take some experimenting to find suitable rewards. Pleasurable daily routines such as reading the newspaper or taking a bath might be pleasurable for you. Don’t make meals or your social life contingent on your writing. Assigning too high a priority to daily writing will actually sabotage you. Boice advises that once you have established a regular block of time for writing and established a reliable reward, shift from a minimum time requirement to a minimum output requirement and add specific, small goals to ensure your writing periods are more productive. After a while, writing will become less onerous, and you can do away with making contingency agreements with yourself in order to complete your writing session. 

Coaching as a structure to maintain new writing behaviors. According to Boice, one of the most overlooked aspects of productive writing is that it is a learned skill that requires practice. He notes that even writers who understand the process of writing can benefit from learning productivity techniques (1983). While his clinical work dealt with clients who described themselves as blocked or as procrastinators, Boice’s techniques for increasing output in academic writing can be applied to any writers seeking to overcome problems and/or use their time more effectively.

Boice stresses the importance of early intervention, particularly for new, tenure track faculty, to help them break bad habits and establish good work ethics for writing. One intervention that has proved particularly effective is external coaching. The need for this type of assistance often goes unrecognized because “the tacit knowledge about success in professorial careers—particularly the habits of scholarly productivity—remains generally untaught” (Boice, 1992, p. 107).

Writing coaches can help their clients understand and emulate the habits of productive writers, those faculty Boice labels as “quick starters” and “exemplars.” In fact, in Boice’s numerous studies conducted with faculty about their writing productivity, the experimenter served as a writing coach in several ways. First, he taught faculty techniques necessary to write productively, such as planning, daily writing, and using contingency management to establish the writing habit. Second, he remained in contact with faculty to assist them in maintaining the new routines. Third, his role as coach was to create accountability to an external source by requiring faculty in his studies to present charts of activity as well as actual manuscript pages. Finally, he broke down the barriers of isolation that often accompany writing by providing both encouragement and feedback to his study subjects. Writers participating in Boice’s studies came to understand that their experiences (and struggles) to become productive scholars were shared among many of their peers and that committing to a structured writing program benefited all writers.

Much of the research on scholarly productivity points to the need for an intervention to break bad habits and establish behaviors that lead to productivity in writing. Writers rely on habits that they have used in the past. Boice (1983) found that those writers who tried to “go it alone” were not successful in changing their writing habits. Even those who completed a workshop introducing techniques of productive writing lapsed into their bad habits fairly quickly.

Faculty members who received both instruction in productivity techniques and regular follow-up visits from a writing coach were able to establish and maintain their new writing behaviors. Knowing that they were expected to have work to show and to review with their coach kept them on track.

In addition, writing coaches can adapt various techniques to meet the specific needs of their clients once the coach gets a sense of what barriers keep their clients from writing. A new faculty member who lacks confidence in his or her writing can be reassured by an “outside” reader skilled in providing support and writing assistance. On the other hand, a faculty member whose barrier to writing is not knowing how to start might benefit from coaching in brainstorming ideas or by learning how to use free writing as a way to generate ideas.

By no means is coaching a “quick fix.” It takes time to learn the habits of productive writing and to integrate these habits into a productive routine. Those subjects who served in one of the control groups and were coached through the techniques, but who received little or no follow-up coaching, quickly reverted to old habits. As you create a daily writing habit, be patient with yourself and find the support you need to sustain your writing practice. If you want to maintain a daily writing habit over a long period, expect your motivation to wane at times and be willing to revisit the things that will boost your productivity—experiment with your reward structure and explore your writing practices with the help of an academic coach.

In this series you have learned ways to nurture a daily writing habit, develop a writing plan, and create structures for tracking and accountability. If you want the support of a writing coach to help you develop your writing practice, contact academiccoachingandwriting.org.

References

Boice, R. (1983). Contingency management in writing and the appearance of creative ideas: Implications for the treatment of writing blocks. Behaviour Research & Therapy. 21, 537-543.

Boice R. (1992). Combined treatments for writing blocks, Behaviour Research & Therapy, 30, 107-116.

Questions for Reflection

1. How might you reward yourself after your daily writing period?
2. What types of accountability have you tried and what were the results?
3. What qualities would you look for in an accountability coach?
 

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