Shut up and write

“The more you talk about something, the less likely you are to do it.”  My dad told me that several times when I was working on my MS thesis, because he’d seen it many times with PhD students working on their dissertations.  The thesis and dissertation are major papers, often taking years to write, presenting the student’s original research and conclusions.  They are required by many graduate degree programs (particularly in the sciences) in the US and elsewhere.  The difficulty of completion, (particularly of PhD dissertations), leads to doctoral candidates who complete all the other requirements being classified “ABD” for “All But Dissertation” until they complete that work.  Sadly, many never do. 

Dad was a professor of Geography (at LSU for the bulk of his career) and he’d seen students struggle with the shift from taking classes and qualifying exams to completing a major research project and then writing it up.  He’d observed that those who talked the most about their plans and their writing seemed to have to most trouble finishing.

It turns out that studies since the 1930’s have shown that talking about your plans establishes them as “social reality”, providing some of the benefits of completion even though you haven’t actually met your goals.  The positive feedback you get from discussing your plans (ie virtuous feelings and congratulations from friends for making the decision to act) can provide enough positive emotional feedback that it actually reduces the motivation to follow through.  (Links here and here.)

This tendency to substitute discussion for action is related (at least in name) to a book and a movement (in the Arlo Guthrie sense) that might be of interest to writers:

  • Writing coach and teacher Judy Bridges wrote a book in 2011 titled “Shut Up and Write”.  I’ve never taken one of her classes, but was exposed to her book at The Clearing, a folk school in Ellison Bay Wisconsin, when I was taking a class on stained glass.  I’ve enjoyed the book, although I haven’t been disciplined enough to follow through on some of the practical exercises it contains.
  • “Shut up and write” sessions have popped up in several cities, where writers get together on a regular basis to socialize for a short period of time, and then write.  They write individually, but the group setting provides positive peer pressure (you’re less likely to daydream if everyone else has their heads down pounding out the words).  This phenomenon is described at the “Thesis Whisperer” (love that name!) website.  They don’t specifically mention the risk of “social reality” reducing motivation, but I found them when googling for the masthead image.  The concept is similar to a “sketch crawl”, allowing for socialization of lonely authors or artists, but also for dedicated working time.

The next time you’re talking about your writing not going well, think about how much time you spend writing, and how much time you spend talking about it.  You might find that a change is in order.


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