Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Writers Write

But How to Begin this Holiday Weekend?

Head of the Class is about the teaching of psychology but it is also about other important activities good psychology teachers and researchers (and would-be professionals) pursue. Writing is—or should be—one of these activities. Why? Psychologists and students of psychology need to be able to share ideas, observations, and insights in prose form. I thought that Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, is a good time to take stock of how some of the summer months can be used to develop some good writing habits. What follows are some quick tips to get you started.

Choose your weapons. Will you write with pen and paper or with a keyboard and a screen? Pick the tools that will require the least effort on your part. If you are from the “hunt and peck” school of typing, then you might want start with a pen or pencil first. If you prefer to type and spell check later, so be it.

 What will you write about? Pick a topic that interests you and others are likely to be interested based on what you say. Or respond to some contemporary topic that has psychological relevance or ramifications (e.g., the testing craze, the texting craze).

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Find some time, make some time. How much time do you need to get started writing? For those who are trying to get started writing, brief but frequent intervals make sense. Fifteen minutes or half an hour is fine for a first session. Work up to an hour or so gradually. The goal is not write for hours but to learn to write well for shorter periods of time.

Write daily. The issue is not time per se but frequency—creating regular, consistent writing sessions (one a day) will help writing become easier. The goal is to make writing a welcome habit.

Don’t binge. Some people persist in believing that more writing—hours at a time, even days at a time—means better writing. Such writing “benders,” as it were, don’t work. Reflection and rest between writing bouts is necessary.

Know when to quit. End a writing session when you are about to begin writing a new section of your work or when you are approaching some transitional point. Why? Simple: Your stopping point will turn out to be a great starting point for the next writing session. You know where you need to begin—there’s no mystery or uncertainty.

But begin your next session by editing what you wrote last time. That’s right: Start at the top of you article or chapter or letter or whatever it is you are writing and read through it. This review will get your mind back into the work and you can tweak and revise as you go along—and then start writing in earnest when you get to the ending place of your last session. You will find your mind back into the work.

Pick a place to write. Work in a low traffic place unless you are the sort of person who needs ambient noise. I could not write in a busy café or coffee bar, but many people can work above the din in such places and welcome the social as well as caffeinated buzz. I need a semi-quiet place with few distractions. Lore has it that Faulkner wrote his magnificent novel As I Lay Dying while tending to a turbine. Hemingway typed standing up and produced only three pages a day. Psychologist and prolific author B. F. Skinner wrote early, early in the morning in his basement study. His practice of being an early riser meant no disturbance from the rest of the household for several hours. Find a setting that works for you and make it your writerly haunt.

Fake it to make it. Beginning writers often don’t feely like they are writers—they feel like they are impostors or poseurs. Such feelings are natural and will dissipate as you write more. Until those feelings pass, just pretend you are a writer—fake it and you will make it, advice that many psychologists now routinely offer in all sorts of settings.

 As the title of this blog entry encourages, writers write. They don’t plan to write. They don’t talk about how they need to write. They don’t procrastinate and wile away the time they could be writing. They hunker down and write. What they write might not always be crystal clear prose, but it’s a start. Practice makes more perfect. So, get started! Summer will be gone before you know it. Why not resolve to use this season to develop writing habits that will sustain you and your career for the rest of the year?

Write on!

 

 

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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