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Book review: Boice’s professors as writers

December 1st, 2006 by

Boice presents an attractive title that gets good reviews at Amazon. I guess these come from writers that have been relieved from writers block and are terribly grateful to the author. Blocking is probably the emphasis of the book. For non-blocked writers the offering is less tempting. The techniques presented for people who write fluently already are a bit obvious. Review below.

What is covered

The book has 4 main sections, and a large appendix with tests plus an annotated bibliography.

A good proportion of the book is splattered with all kind of horror stories of blocked writers. This book is dated in 1990; I doubt many academics of today would stay very long in their jobs with blocks half as bad as the ones described in the introduction of this book. It gets a bit tiring when, even after the first third of the book, one still find these anecdotes even when most readers are clearly not concerned about those extreme problems (I hope!).

The first section offers a common-sense analysis on writing problems and why professors don’t write. Then, the book proposes strategies for the short run, the long run, and dealing with relapses.

Techniques for the short run

The proposed solutions are based on contingent writing: (e.g., if you write and meet your goal, you get some reinforcement). This is simply operand conditioning, nothing wrong with it, as many therapies are structured around it, but nothing outstanding.

Another important tool is ‘generative writing’ (GW). This is simply a way of writing without editing and revising. An additional feature is that this should be ‘timed’ writing. There are two types. In GW-I one can write about anything. This is just to ‘break the ice, and get you going. This supposedly start enough momentum to get you going. The second type, GW-II, should be done on a topic in particular (hopefully, the paper at hand!). It is still pretty close to brainstorming: simply put down any idea you have about that topic.

A third stage GW-III is all about outlining: form clusters with your disorganized ideas, try to think about structure, etc.

The fourth stage is simply to repeat GW-II and III in cycles, as many times.

Note a curiosity here. Boice recommends writing first, then outline. This is the opposite to the most common advice of starting with a good outline.

Boice agrees with Mark Forster in that it is best to work in short periods of concentrated writing instead of long sessions (“Oh my god, the deadline is tomorrow!”). This is the “little and often” principle in Forster’s method. Boice proposes that academics that work on writing for only 30 min a day are productive enough to have a successful career.

Techniques for the long run

Boice covers four steps. The short term stuff we saw about establishing momentum with generative writing is called automaticity (step 1). The contingent reinforcement is called externality (step 2). The long run stuff is classified as Self-control and sociality.

The evidence

Ok, so how do we know what we know? Is the method described in this book worth a try?

In general, the methodology of the book seems a bit weak for me, although I sympathetically agree that the topic is extremely difficult to study. First, the book is on the short side in data. There are a few tables in the book with very simple designs, but no hypothesis is tested experimentally, and no statistics are reported. I guess this is just a consequence of how difficult the topic of writing is to study experimentally.

Maybe using ‘professors’ as experimental participants is not the ideal situation for an experiment. Most data come from people who took a seminar (or a ‘treatment’) from the author to overcome writing problems, so the sample is not representative of the general academic population.

Professors, with their varied requirements, differences in deadlines, teaching loads etc, make it difficult to apply experimental design ideas. And the dependent variable “number of pages written” is far from ideal too: in the preparation of a paper, we make notes, schemas, etc… probably using different formats. At the end of the day, at least I don’t know how many ‘pages’ I have written (some programs I use in the process do not even use the concept of pages! Plus, on those which do, the page count depends on font size, space between lines, etc).

What I write a day is spread over many different files, so the page count is not a valid measure. How about a word count? Not really, since I write a lot of schemas, drafts, todos, mails, notes to self, etc that should not be considered actual writing. Some of this activity acutally helps producing the final paper, but it is certainly not a full 100% of it.

There are some tests in the book, but I didn’t see any reports about their psychometric properties. (check Boice’s homepage) Boice seems to be respected by other authors; he has other books on the topic.

In summary: My impression is that this would be the perfect book to overcome writer’s block, but it may be a not so good choice for the average academic, and even less so for the techno-academic.

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