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Productive Writer No. 15


Binge Writing


Have you done any binge writing during the semester? How's that working out for you?


Have you ever been a binge writer? I am, or I was. I try to avoid binge writing now because it's ineffective and unproductive. But in the spirit of true confession and transparency of my struggles as a writer, I'll share. For many years, at least going back to my early years as an assistant professor (which was 1982, and if you were not even born then, keep it to yourself, thank you), I found it impossible to write much during the week. So I tried to write all day on the weekends. Then when weekends were overtaken with grading papers, writing and grading exams, analyzing data, and writing grant proposals, I would set aside the week of spring break or two weeks of the semester break to write all day long. As it turned out, this didn't work very well. Binge writing, which is saving your writing for big blocks of time with large spurts of often frantic effort, seldom produces lots of writing and can create even more stress and anxiety about writing, or the lack thereof.


What's wrong with binge writing? To start, if you are not writing regularly, i.e., at least 90 minutes every day, there's more pressure to produce lots of good writing when you finally, after a week or month or semester of trying to find time to write, actually start to write. My binge writing would look like this: I would promise myself, after not writing during the week, that I would write from 9 to 6 on Saturday and Sunday. So much pressure to produce for these 9 hours each, anxiety builds, writing is delayed, more pressure builds, more anxiety, writing delayed. And realistically, what any one mental or cognitive activity can you do well for 9 hours straight? I often would organize notes, do more reading, think about writing, or finish other projects that demanded attention--and 9 hours later, no writing. After weeks, even months, of this, I would calculate how much writing I could have produced if I had written every day for only 15 minutes versus my failed attempts at 9-hour writing days once a week.


Another problem with binge writing is the amount of time required to return to the focused thinking and productive writing when there is so much time between writing efforts. Recall Csikszentmihalyi's (1990) concept of flow. I firmly believe that writing every day allows us to more quickly and regularly reach this flow with less of the fear that accompanies writing. Without flow, "Attention shifts from what needs to be accomplished--the anxious person is distracted by worries about the outcome" (p. 44). Focus on writing every day and less on the outcome and you'll accomplish the outcome you seek.


Paul Silvia, in How to Write a Lot (2007), offers another reason not to binge write: "Motivated by guilt and anxiety, binge writers don't find the process of writing rewarding. Because of the long binge, the writing period is followed by a burnt-out haze that confirms the binge writer's distaste of writing (p. 128-129). [Silvia credits Kellogg (1994) with the term binge writing, if you want to read more.]


So if you are binge writing and feeling the pain, then commit instead to writing at least 15 minutes each day for the coming week. Then see how that works out for you. 


Jan Allen, Associate Dean

Academic and Student Affairs

Cornell Graduate School