As many readers of Psychology Today and many members of the discipline may know, psychologist Christopher Peterson died suddenly and unexpectedly on October 9th. Peterson was a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and among the founders of positive psychology. His faculty profile at Michigan (still up at this writing) announces that, “My research is concerned with character strengths and how they pertain to such outcomes as happiness, achievement, and physical well-being.” To say that Chris Peterson was a prolific writer and researcher might not do justice to the breadth and scope of his work. But he was prolific—his entry on Wikipedia indicates he was in the ranks of the 100 most cited psychologists in the world. By all reports, he was a wonderful and dedicated teacher, one who received many awards at Michigan.
I did not know Chris Peterson personally. I mostly knew him through his work and seeing him in action on a few occasions. I attended a workshop he led on a particular research technique many years ago, for example, and I saw him speak at a few conferences. On several occasions I emailed him to ask for a preprint of something he was working on. A few times I invited him to contribute to a project or two I was leading. Invariably, he responded immediately and graciously, if often briefly. He was a busy person, a dedicated person, one who was careful with his time but shared his work and his love for doing it with others. Again, we never spoke directly, but these qualities came through anyway.
I did know he was a great teacher, however, and I am not referring to those conference talks I witnessed or the teaching honors Michigan bestowed on him. I am referring actually to what he said in many of his publications aimed at helping others learn about psychology and related topics, especially writing. As already noted, he was a prolific writer and a generous one; he wanted to help others—students, graduate students, faculty colleagues—become better, more proficient writers. His thoughts on writing and teaching writing were wonderfully disarming and incredibly helpful. Thus, when I heard of Professor Peterson’s death, I felt sad, of course, but also remembered all of the good things—the professional service—he did for others.
So, my advice to you is to take some time to search out and read something from the Chris Peterson corpus. My personal favorite is a little chapter called—simply—“Writing rough drafts.” Here are a few nuggets paraphrased (probably badly) from memory:
To start a paper, try the spew method. Getting started writing can be daunting for many people. How to begin? Let all the words come out of you, as if they were spewing on to the paper or screen. Peterson suggested writing down whatever words came to mind as an opening gambit for almost any writing assignment. Following the mantra of freewriting, the goal is simply to get as much down on paper as possible without worrying about style, punctuation, or even content. There is plenty of time for revising and editing later. Many people—many students, especially—find this approach to be a helpful one because it makes writing assignments seem less formal and more doable.
Skinner, Rogers, and other psychologists didn’t seek to write well-regard papers – they just wrote—and some works ended up being influential. In effect, Peterson claimed that the great and near great never set out to write brilliant, oft cited, or otherwise influential tracts or books. They just wrote. How liberating! Some works become classics, others not—but most influential authors don’t try to be influential. Their interest and enthusiasm comes through in their writing—and many of them do write a lot, thereby increasing the chances that a given article might well become a citation classic. I use this advice with my students all the time—just get into the habit of writing and let others decide how they feel about your work. In any case, writing frequently and familiarity with the process will improve your writing skills.
When you are struggling to get some piece of writing or part of a piece of writing right, put it away for a day or two—when you go back to it you may be surprised that it reads well, better than you expected—and that you don’t need to rewrite it after all. More great advice! Sometimes when we focus so much during a writing session on “getting it right” that we lose our focus—the words don’t look or sound like what we think we want to say. Peterson pointed out that getting a little distance from a piece of writing is beneficial. When we go back to it (I think Peterson said “take it back out of the drawer”) we are apt to realize that what we wrote probably wasn’t half bad to begin with—sometimes the quality is actually good. Sometimes things do look better in the morning, including writing.
For many, Chris Peterson’s legacy will focus on positive psychology and his research on character strengths and virtues. He clearly had a great deal of character and a lot of virtue. But I will also remember him for his generosity as a teacher—one I experienced mostly indirectly—but I am quite certain his good example and his works will continue to guide willing students (including me) for quite a long time to come.