Writing doesn’t have to hurt

As a longtime writer who finds the process excruciating much of the time, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make writing less of a battle. (So far, I’m finding blogging to be more engaging and less painful than writing for others for pay, but I still need strategies to manage longstanding habits of anxiety around writing.)

So it’s encouraging to come across the work of Robert Boice,* a professor emeritus of psychology at Stony Brook University. In How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency, Boice claims that good writing doesn’t have to hurt—that, in fact, “mild happiness” is the most productive state for writing and for the problem-solving that goes with it. I believe his approach could work for other creative endeavors too.

Many writers, including me, are quick to seize on the pain of writing as a badge of honor, a sign that you’re serious and thoughtful about your work. So Boice’s point of view is refreshing, even revolutionary, for me.

The book came out in 1994, and it costs a bundle online, but you may be able to get hold of a copy through interlibrary loan, as I did. It’s not a how-to book, exactly, although there are plenty of suggestions in it. It’s more a slow, deliberate narrative of the process Boice leads his clients through, during the year or so that they gradually learn to write more productively and with greater pleasure. Boice is an academic, writing for an academic audience, and his tone is professorial yet warmhearted. An earlier and much shorter book, Professors as Writers, might be a more straightforward introduction to his approach.

There’s fodder for many a blog post in the book, so I’ll start with a couple of points that I’m attempting to put to use.

Don’t go on a bender

Writing for hours on end (because you’re afraid you won’t be able to recapture the momentum after you stop, or because—ahem—the deadline is tomorrow) works against momentum, says Boice. Binge-writing, with its rushing and overfocus, makes that ideal working state of mild pleasure close to impossible. It also reinforces the aversiveness of writing, keeping the avoidance cycle going. (Has he been watching me work?)

As an alternative to bingeing, Boice recommends taking “comfort pauses” every 5 to 20 minutes. You need to set a timer for this—it goes against habit, and you’ll need the prompt. When the timer goes off, stop writing, check your sitting position (are you comfortable? if not, change position), check whether you’re rushing (if so, slow down), notice your level of tension, and do something simple to relax (Boice suggests letting your tongue drop to the bottom of your mouth). I’ve been working on using computer hang times as rest opportunities; Boice says to make frequent breaks an official part of the writing process.

Write early and often

Another basic practice is scheduling brief daily writing sessions, “BDS” for short. This isn’t a new idea, but I like his take on it. He really means brief—as short as 15 minutes a day. The 15 minutes (or 20, or 30, or 60) doesn’t have to be spent coming up with words. It can include taking notes, planning, reviewing notes and ideas, comparing ideas to other ideas, even playing with file categories—anything that’s in service of writing/creating.

And at the end of the scheduled session: Stop. Set a timer and stop when it goes off. (I use two timers, one as a reminder to pause, one to mark the end of the session. Simpler than it sounds.) The first time I tried the enforced stopping, it felt very strange, so strange that after a few sessions, I drifted away from the whole program. For a binge writer, stopping before you’re ready “is an ultimate exercise in patience,” writes Boice, “an exercise in building confidence and trust.”

So now I’m going back to it: the brief daily sessions, the comfort pauses, the stopping. I’ve made a couple of adjustments, most notably not setting a specific time slot for the brief sessions. For me, scheduling a nonnegotiable time of day for creating just generates resistance and guilt. Instead of a specific start time, I’ve committed to a sequence of actions I do after getting up: BDS happens after breakfast, before email. (Thanks to my brainstorming buddies for this tweak.) And if I have a morning appointment scheduled, I can skip the session.

I expect this process to be bumpy for a while. I’m also optimistic, and I’ll be writing more about Boice.

*I found out about Boice’s work through a discussion thread on Mark Forster’s site. Forster’s Autofocus system is a low-tech way of getting through your to-do list with less angst. It’s worked only sporadically for me, but I like it in principle, and YMMV; check it out.


  1. Janet, thanks for this post. Funnily, I also just read the more recent Boice book through Interlibrary Loan, and was debating whether to shell out for it so I could follow his program. It’s great to hear that you’ve found the other book useful – I’ll start with that one instead!

  2. These are some really helpful suggestions Janet. I mean if they didn’t scare the bejeezus out of me. Seriously, why does stopping when your time is up feel so scary? I can make some guesses, fear that you’ll lose what ever brilliant thoughts you were having, could be a big one. But it’s an interesting thing.

    I’m going to head over to my library website and see if I can get either of his books.


  3. Janet Bailey says:

    @Amna – The more recent book is Advice for New Faculty Members, right? Talks about moderation in course prep as well as writing? Looks interesting. Good luck with your dissertation! (Yay cumin!)

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Shannon – I know, what could be so bad about stopping?? On the plus side, the brief sessions, combined with stopping, potentially keeps those brilliant ideas simmering all the time, not just When I’m Officially Writing. (I also think it’s OK to jot a few notes about where you left off ;))

  5. JoVE says:

    Thanks Janet. This looks really helpful. Particularly since I help academics. 🙂

    My public library doesn’t have it but I bet it is the kind of thing one finds in university libraries.

    And that Advice for New Faculty Members seems like it might also be worth it. Might have to buy a couple and do reviews…

  6. Janet Bailey says:

    @JoVE – Sounds like both books would be right up your alley, and university libraries do have them. My S.O. and I may chip in and invest in a copy of our own. Then I could scribble in the margins.

  7. […] Writing Doesn’t Have to Hurt (mindfultimemanagement.com) […]

  8. Jan Knus says:

    I know Robert Boice’s book “How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency” and find it very good for teaching writing together with say Peter Elbow: “Writing with power: techniques for mastering the writing process”. Boice’s advice in Ms. Janet Baileys article just show how different people work with writing.

    Personally I’ve been writing in diffent genres for more than thirty years, academical, journalistic, non-fiction and fiction. For the last ten years I’ve been writing three novels (300-465 p) in absolute binge writing, long hours 8-12 hours a day six-seven days a week with longer breaks for eating, strolling, shopping. Typically I’m going away from my home for one month, from Denmark to Berlin or Tuscany or Lisbon, partly for enjoying new surroundings, partly skipping the daily redtape and routine. It works for me. Ezy Writer.

  9. Janet Bailey says:

    @Jan – So, a testimonial on behalf of binge writing! Just goes to show how personal the process is. I love the idea of going to another locale to immerse yourself in writing, with long breaks for exploring.

  10. Erin says:

    You can access the Robert Boice book if you join Questia. It’s $100/year but is a great source of academic books. You can’t own them, you read them online. I just take thorough notes.

    His is the first work on writer’s block and procrastination that I’ve found that is actually research-based. I’m just starting the program now; so far it makes utter sense.. I’m using it for artist’s block; the information seems to be transferable to other media.

    The quality of his books has largely ruined the others of its genre for me. There are so many self help writers out there who are well publicized but poor in content; meanwhile Boice, having developed, in 30 years of studies, a full, working program to permanently treat blocking and procrastination, that problem that haunts so many intelligent and gifted people, and most paragraphs of whose books are richer in good information than whole chapters of the majority of popular books, languishes in the backwaters of academic journals, largely unknown! The guy should be feted by all us creative people – he dedicated his life to our sanity and success.

  11. Janet Bailey says:

    @Erin – Questia sounds like a great resource, thanks for mentioning it. In addition to his research, I appreciate Boice’s frankness and compassion… and that what he has to say is different from most of what’s out there about resistance and creative blocks. So much popular writing about procrastination just rehashes what we’ve already heard a million times. Boice is an original. Eric Maisel and Robert Fritz are other interesting voices on this topic.

    I’m curious to hear how your self-guided Boicean program goes—hope you’ll check back and let us know.

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