Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr.
Teaching is easily my favorite part of being a professor. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that the modalities and ways we teach are constantly shifting, often back-and-forth more than a few times. Although the “how” of our teaching has changed, the “why” remains the same: to support and educate our students in ways that help them improve their lives.
Pandemic teaching has been a reminder that teaching takes many forms, many of which lie beyond the classroom walls. Early in my career, at an SPSP Teaching Preconference, I had the pleasure of seeing David Myers give a talk where he made a simple suggestion: Writing is a form of teaching. It stuck with me. Suddenly writing became a lot more appealing.
Whether you’re crafting a journal article’s introduction, a chapter, a book, or a blog post, writing in a clear and engaging style determines your ideas’ usefulness. Yet, despite writing being such an essential skill, we don’t discuss it nearly enough.
Lately, it’s practically all I think about. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been immersed in writing a trade book (Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship…and How to See Past Them), revising my research methods textbook, and editing a book on the self in relationships. To keep my head above water during that time, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a better and more efficient writer.
I wish I had learned it a lot sooner. Hopefully I can help make your writing journey a little less bumpy than mine by offering a few new insights, or at least some helpful reminders.
It takes time. I’m not sure it’s a Gladwellian 10,000 hours, but improvement in anything requires that you put in the reps. Writing is no exception. These days, I write a lot. Every day. Often a couple hours a day. (No one would be more surprised to hear that than my graduate school self.) But it helps. As they say, writers are made and not born. In my case, writing more has made me a better writer. It has gotten easier, but…
It’s never easy. If you’re waiting for the moment where perfect sentences naturally and easily flow through you, I hope you’re patient. The fact is, conveying ideas clearly on the page (or screen) is unbelievably difficult. Achieving clarity is a process. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer, just that writing is hard. Fun fact: Some of these sentences are my fifth try, none are my first. Still, most aren’t quite as polished as I’d like. Writing forces you to put your perfectionism aside.
Be a professional. Writing is essential to your career success. Respect it. Professionals show up, put in the hours, and commit to getting better. Build your skills by reading books on being a better writer. You likely know about Strunk & White, but also check out William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Read it, refer to it, practice it. Reviewer 2 adeptly rips apart parts of your manuscript, but you rarely get line edits designed to improve your writing’s clarity. Find someone who writes better than you and get their feedback. I’m also big believer in the BIC (Butt-In-Chair) method. Carve out a set time each day to sit and write at the time of day you’re most productive. Put it in your schedule. I start with 30 minutes and if I’m feeling it, I keep going. If not, I work on something else guilt-free.
What “counts”? Here’s the trick: I almost never work on something else because I count LOTS of activities as writing. Too often we only think of writing as clean ready-for-publication paragraphs. That’s setting the bar way too high. Instead, I consider all of these “writing”: brainstorming ideas, reading articles, taking notes, outlining, writing out key sentences, revising previous drafts, and writing first drafts. Counting more activities allows me to build the habit and maintain momentum.
Writing pipeline and “sloppy copies.” Like a research pipeline, having several things in your writing pipeline makes it easier to have lots of things “count.” The hardest most intimidating draft is the first one. Take the sting out of it by only committing to a “sloppy copy” that is full of typos, missing citations, and barely understandable sentences. Get crazy, make some APA style errors too. The important thing is to get your ideas down in an uninhibited way. You could also do this via voice-to-text. Whatever it takes to get started. If you’re not ready for that on a particular day, the other pieces in the “pipeline” are there to revise. Besides, all good writing comes from revising.
Do it on deadline. Whether you’re the “pressure makes diamonds” type or not, a little time blocking is helpful. I don’t know about you, but as a hopelessly overscheduled academic and parent, large chunks of time are hard to find. (I’m currently writing this in a dark parking lot while my daughter is at softball practice.) In other words, don’t wait for the perfect conditions. Just write. Even when I have more time during regular writing sessions, I force a little artificial time pressure. Perhaps you’re familiar with the Pomodoro technique where you work for small chunks and take frequent breaks. I use something similar of my own creation: the classic vinyl technique. I have a record player in my office and commit to writing for one side of a record (which is about 20-25 minutes). Flipping the record requires a mini-break that helps punctuate my screen time, and if I want to keep listening to the record I have to keep writing. (As I revise this, I'm currently listening to Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced? It’s awesome.)
Read. I’m also a believer in reading “counting” as a writing activity. Reading is like maintenance run that allows you to keep your writing fitness, without the pressure of a more strenuous writing session. It’s also the cheapest writing coach you can find. When looking for things to read, pick something light. If you must do non-fiction, choose something outside of your research area and ideally not a journal article. Seek out good writing outside of academia wherever you can find it. A stellar recent example is Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb.” It’s a masterclass on using language, word choice, rhythm, and delivery. It’s clear, cogent, and captivating. Just like good teaching.
Certainly these suggestions aren’t “one size fits all”, but I hope they fit most. If you’re skeptical about some aspects, engage in little rugged empiricism and give it a try. You never know what might click.
We often refer to ourselves as “teacher-scholars.” Remember that when we do, teacher comes first. As a teacher, the students come first. As a writer, the readers come first. It’s our job to write in a way that draw readers in and allows our ideas to reach as many people as possible. The APA wants us to “give psychology away” which “means sharing the broad benefits that psychological science and expertise have to offer in order to enhance society and improve the lives of others.” We do that when we teach, and we can do it when we write.