An evidence-based approach to breaking harmful writing habits

We all battle addictions to harmful writing habits. In this post, I'll describe a model for self-change that has has enabled millions of people to manage addictions as dire as alcoholism and drug abuse. This six-stage model for self-change has an important practical implication for anyone who is trying to conquer bad habits: if you know which stage of change you're in, you can choose the most effective change strategies for that moment in your process. In this post, I'll describe the change model in terms of one academic writer's story. My goal is to help you, my fellow academic writers, to see how attainable dramatic changes in your writing practices really are.

First, my list of some of the most common academic writing habits that harm writers' practices. Each of you has probably struggled with at least one of these habits at some point or another. As for me, I've suffered most from #1 and #3. As you read the story to follow, imagine how the principles I describe relate to the particular struggle you face. 

  • Working in a vacuum: not taking the trouble to situate one's own project in the context of others' relevant research
  • Procrastination: not making the time to actually sit down and write
  • Endless complexification: being unable to make the decisions and commitments that will limit the scope of one's project and thus make the project possible to finish
  • Refusing feedback: an unwillingness either to ask for or listen to others' critiques of one's work
  • Impatience with revision: especially those crucial later-stage revisions that make our writing clear, cohesive, and polished

These bad habits may all have unique causes, symptoms, and consequences (which I will discuss in a future post), but the road to recovery is similar for each habit. In reading the popular self-help book Changing for Good recently (it's by James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente), I discovered that a single model, the Trans-Theoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM), has been found to accurately describe a process by which all successful self-changers overcome harmful addictions, whether by working independently or with a coach/therapist. (Hey, I've warned you that I like to apply pop psychology to academic writing practices!) This model, which describes six stages of change, has been corroborated by many other researchers and widely accepted in the medical and mental health communities.

To relate this six-step model to academic writing, let's take an imaginary doctoral student, Hannah Hoover, who is hopelessly addicted to the first bad behavior listed above: she writes in a sort of intellectual vacuum. As you read Hannah's story of change, imagine how this process might look for your own worst writing habit, be it one of the common ailments listed above or something else entirely. As I describe Hannah's process of change, I'll point out which change strategies were most effective in each stage. Strategies are indicated in italics.

1. Pre-contemplation

When Hannah enters her doctoral program, she sets up camp on an intellectual island. Only glancingly does she read about others' research, and when she thinks and writes about her own research, she neglects to make explicit connections between her work and that of other scholars. Right now, in the pre-contemplation stage, Hannah doesn't even acknowledge that she has a problem. When her professors tell her she needs to "situate herself within the conversation," she feels annoyed and assumes that her professors are just being overly demanding. She considers her work to be so original and interesting in its own right that people should count themselves privileged to read it. Why should she have to justify the existence of her research? Why should she have to engage with scholarship that couldn't possibly be as important as her own?

Before recognizing that she has a problem, Hannah is resistant to people's efforts to show her the error of her ways. She remains stuck until developmental and environmental pressures gradually force her to see how her habit of writing in a vacuum is holding her back. For one thing, she grows bored with her own writing, and for another, she learns that the star graduate student in her program has published several articles challenging long-held scholarly assumptions. At a visiting scholar's lecture, she is struck by how knowledgeably her fellow graduate students can discuss the research of other scholars. These developmental and environmental pressures produce consciousness-raising and social liberation for Hannah.

2. Contemplation

On the first six research papers she writes for graduate courses, she receives the same critique: she is writing in a vacuum. Gradually she comes to acknowledge that her writing is missing something, and she enters the stage of contemplation. Now that Hannah is aware of her problem, she benefits from further consciousness-raising and social liberation. She actively fosters a deeper understanding of how and why she has been writing in a vacuum for so long. She spends more and more time opening herself up to the research of others and to developing the habit of reading to understand deeply.  She even joins a journal club, which meets weekly to discuss recent articles.

Occasionally fear and anxiety plague her as she faces the prospect of fundamentally changing her approach to writing--and thus, her entire scholarly identity. She subjects herself to self-reevaluation. As she develops a deeper appreciation for the research of others, and as she compares it to her own insipid work, she experiences the emotional arousal of genuine interest in others' work and genuine dissatisfaction with her own. This experience gives her the burst of energy she needs to enter the preparation stage: the stage in which she will actively envision and plan changes in her behavior.

3. Preparation

Gradually, Hannah realizes that her problem is fixable. Her focus shifts from her problem to some potential solutions. As her excitement grows, she resolves to change. She is now in the preparation stage. She starts looking forward to joining the community of other researchers. from whom she has been sequestering herself. She busies herself gathering the information she will need to execute the change: she studies recent surveys of the literature in her discipline, writes down every upcoming conference and lecture in her calendar, and reads texts that describe the rhetorical moves for situating one's own work within a larger conversation. 

Hannah moves into this new stage propelled by emotional arousal, and conducts a careful self-reevaluation to prepare for her impending change of habit. She carefully takes stock of her problem and of herself, of where she is both intellectually and emotionally. She asks herself questions like, "Can I continue to consider myself a scholar if I do not situate my work in relation to other scholars' research?" and "What would I lose by spending more time studying others' research?" She allows herself to consider both the pros and cons of change. Finally, she makes the commitment and writes up a specific plan for how she will proceed.

4. Action

At last, she enters the most visible stage in the change process: the action stage. Now, Hannah actually puts her new knowledge and techniques to use. Systematically she goes about revising each of her old research papers, adding a literature review near the beginning of each paper and re-framing each argument in terms of a gap or problem in the existing scholarship in her discipline. It isn't easy, and there are many days when she wants to quit, but she seeks the support she needs and ultimately gets three of the six papers into good enough condition to submit to peer-reviewed journals. Within a few months, she receives two revise-and-resubmits!

Along the way, Hannah uses various strategies to support her efforts. She reminds herself again and again of her commitment. After every four hours in the library reading secondary sources, she gives herself a reward: 30 minutes of tv.  Whenever negative thoughts creep into her head, she practices the art of countering negative self-talk. She practices environment control by leaving stacks of sources on her desk at all times, thereby reminding herself that others have done important work that is relevant to her own. She cultivates helping relationships by attending her department's weekly journal club and sharing her struggles with the members. 

5. Maintenance

Hannah improves tremendously in less than a year, and her professors are thrilled! Her work isn't done, though. Now she enters the maintenance stage, a period of intense focus on persisting in her new habits and avoiding relapse. Whenever she starts a new research paper, she is still tempted to skip the literature review--but she remembers the progress she has made, and she disciplines herself to plow through every new books and articles that is relevant to her field. In the maintenance stage, she continues to monitor her progress and make adjustments as necessary. She continues to benefit from reward, countering, and environment control. Occasionally she slips back into her old ways, but the people in her journal club, with whom she has helping relationships, point out her relapse to her. She forgives herself quickly and resumes her new habits.

6. Termination

By her third year in the Ph.D. program, Hannah is well established in her new approach to academic writing. She has racked up another revise-and-resubmit, and she has successfully revised one of her old papers for publication. At last, Hannah no longer even feels tempted to dash off a self-involved, context-less "research" paper. Her old habit no longer poses a threat to her writing; she is safely in the stage of termination. Hannah is now fully habituated in her new approach to researching and writing. She is so fascinated by others' research, and so fully immersed in it, that her former bad habits no longer hold any temptation for her. 

This blog post can only show a simplified and abbreviated example of what self-change can look like for the academic writer. If you're intrigued to explore in more depth how Prochaska et al's work can guide you in becoming your best self, check out the book that inspired this post, Changing For GoodOr check out Prochaska's more recent book, which describes the same process in terms of five steps. 

After reading Hannah's story, how do you see the Trans-Theoretical Model applying to the writing habit that you're trying to break? Which of the stages are you in currently? Which change strategies will be most useful to you at this moment?

Posted on June 8, 2014 .