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XI. An Academic, Writing: Breaking the Binge Writing Habit

Feb 06, 2013 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

As I wrote previously, I’m not the most organized or focused writer. Part of the reason for this, I am convinced, is that I am what is known as a binge writer. Robert Boice (who shockingly has neither a website nor a Wikipedia page, so here is a link to his books) discovered, through his research, that those professors who binge write (between 2 and 12 hours in one day but write once a week or less) are less productive than those professors who mindfully devote at least an hour or two a day to their writing. Binging is typically how I write most of my academic work.

My practice of binge writing began with the writing assignments I had when I was a high school and college student—get it all done at the last minute. Since I never got a grade that suggested that this practice was untenable, I continued this practice. It wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that I couldn’t hope to keep up this practice of writing my papers at the very last minute. Instead of taking a slow and steady approach, I concluded that the last minute was no longer the night before. Instead I needed to get started the weekend or week before something was due.

Again, that system seemed to work for me. I wrote conference presentations and article submissions in binges. Even my dissertation was written in a binge-like flurry over a few months, trying to get it done before my first child was born. Although I feel very productive during my wrting binges, this pattern signals that I don’t have a very sustainable or healthy system for my writing process. Typically, I don’t begin writing until I feel I am “ready” to write. Often I get side-tracked. Sometimes I discover a better path, but often I am distracted by an unrelated tangent.

Currently, I am juggling a demanding teaching load and the needs of a young family. My practice has been to block off an entire weekend to binge write before a deadline rather than to carve out an hour to write every day. I have trained my husband and those around me to expect binge writing from me, rather than daily time set aside to write.

Breaking the Binge Writing Habit

All that is changing this semester. I am setting aside time, and I have taken the message of an-hour-a-day to heart. Even on my heavy teaching days, I am spending an hour in the morning before classes begin to stay connected with my project. And, with the help of Moira, my writing coach, I am trying to do more preliminary drafting and detailed outlining to ensure that I stay on topic. I have never tried to construct particularly detailed outlines. It feels strange to try to articulate my plan without actually writing the section I am trying to describe.

I have to acknowledge that planning doesn’t make me feel productive. Intellectually I know that slow-and-steady is more productive. Getting little pieces done, even if it is “just” a detailed outline, is important work to ensure that my book gets written, on time, and with a well-developed argument. Yet, I feel I’m not accomplishing enough, being productive enough, writing enough. And, let’s face it, there’s not that same high or rush from writing one painstaking page of detailed notes compared to the sheer number of pages produced from a good writing binge.

At the end of the day, I know that the daily writing practice will be more sustainable for myself and my well-being, and I will be more productive. For now, I’m still struggling with breaking a particularly pernicious bad habit of binge writing.
 

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