Finding an Approach to Writing that Works for You

A few years ago my research team and I set out to understand a simple question:

How do very productive academic psychologists approach their work?

We specifically were interested in professors who published a lot and whose publications were cited heavily by other academics. And because our research area was counseling psychology we specifically targeted faculty in these programs. To find these folks we tallied the numbers of publications and citations for every faculty member in a counseling psychology program and then asked the 20 most productive people on this list if they would be willing to be interviewed – 17 agreed.

As you might imagine, there was a lot to be gleaned from these interviews across many different topics – from graduate school experiences to handling administrative demands. But one topic that was especially interesting concerned how these individuals approached writing. As a piece of background, when I started my job as an assistant professor 8 years ago I read the book How to Write A Lot and it inspired me to have a very strict writing schedule. I would set aside specific and defined chunks of time during specific days of the week and write during these times. This was suggested as the way really productive people did it. But after a few months of this, I started to dread these times and my productivity wasn’t getting any better. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t cut out to be one of those really productive people and slowly faded back into my old routine – writing when I felt inspired and had energy, anytime, anywhere. Honestly, it felt pretty good.

A few years later when we completed our study I expected to find that all of these people wrote like the way I wished I could – on a very structured, specific schedule, chunking times in their week that were designated only for writing. And in some ways that ended up being true. Every person we talked to had a specific philosophy on how they went about writing. But what surprised all of us what that each person’s philosophy or style was different. Some people wrote in the morning, some at night. Some people wrote one day a week, some every day. Some people wrote in chunks of time, some people kept time open ended. Some people only wrote at home, some only at work. The differences were remarkable but there was one similarity: everyone had achieved insight on the exact approach that worked for them and followed that approach consistently.

For anyone who is an academic psychologist or who is interested in being one in the future, being a good writer is absolutely critical. It is probably the task you will spend more time doing than any other. Of course, learning how to write well stylistically will take you a far way. For style approaches, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. But learning what approach to writing you need to have to write well is just as important. Despite what people may tell you, I am convinced that there is not one best, universal way to structure one’s writing time, but there is one best way for you. If you don’t know what that is yet your task is simple to try out as many different approaches as you can. When you do find that approach and go about maximizing your time writing with that approach, I can promise you will be amazed how much your productivity increases.

Duffy, R.D., Torrey, C.L, Bott, E.M., Allan, B.A., & Schlosser, L.V. (2013). Time
management, passion, and collaboration. A qualitative study of highly productive counseling psychologists. The Counseling Psychologist, 41, 881-917.

About the Author

Ryan Duffy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida and has worked there since 2009. He received his B.A. from Boston College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Website: