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5 Key principles for a sustainable writing practice

Why write? The old adage, “publish or perish” is alive and well, and there can be negative career consequences resulting from not publishing. In addition, writing and publishing bring career-enhancing rewards, visibility among our peers locally, nationally, and, even, internationally, and, as Boice (1990) underscores, writing is a form of “self-education.”

The expectation that faculty write and publish presents a number of challenges, not the least of which is fitting writing in with the other consistent and persistent demands of the job. Often times these urgent demands and very important tasks jump to the top of the “to do” list, causing the important but not urgent task of academic writing to fall off.

In my first years as an assistant professor, my department-assigned mentor told me, “just write.” However, the “just write” advice was not enough. Like most of us, because I never received any formal training in academic writing (Cameron, Nairn & Higgins, 2009), I lacked confidence. In addition, I realized that writing and getting myself to write might be more complicated than just sitting down to write.

Where might I learn more about academic writing to not just get the next conference proposal out the door, but to also create a sustainable writing practice? The purpose of this article is first, to describe the context that led me to develop the five key principles of academic writing, and, second, to describe the five principles that undergird a sustainable and satisfying writing practice.


As a new professor, I tried to puzzle out how to find time to write. It was not easy. One day I dipped into the literature on academic writing to help my doctoral students, and, at that moment, I had a revelation: I could be a student of academic writing. Certainly, I knew how to study phenomena. Just like my other scholarship, I could study academic writing. I could make a place in my personal library for books on academic writing. I could glean insights from the literature and my own reflective practice. From that time on, my scholarship on writing led me to a variety of strategies with which I could experiment. My own academic writing became more reflective, and my writing practice became more deliberate, using strategies from the literature and from my own busy brain. The more I learned about writing and the more I wrote, the more I began to develop an identity as a writer. Best of all, I learned that by studying academic writing, I was developing the strategies, habits, and motivation to persist and publish.

Fast forward 25 years, and I am about to publish my fifth academic book, Write more, publish more, stress less! The five key principles for a creative and sustainable scholarly practice (2018, Stylus Publishing). In this book, I distill what I have learned through my study of academic writing into five key principles that offer a solid foundation for a successful writing practice.

Principle One: Know yourself as a writer. To know yourself as a writer requires that you observe how you practice your writing. Where do you write now? What is the best time of day for you to write? How do you feel about writing? What are your past highlights and challenges with writing? This is exploratory work designed for you to uncover your background and current experience with academic writing. Antoniou and Moriarty (2008) argue that:

Writing is intricately linked to a sense of Self (personal and professional), and is a way of expressing that Self. Therefore, writing cannot only be taught in technical terms. Any support and guidance for academic writing must address personal experience and emotional processes. (Antoniou & Moriarity, 2008, p. 166)

Uncovering your feelings and writing patterns can lead you to experiment with more fruitful, less stressful, and rewarding practices.

Principle Two: Reveal the craft of academic writing. While the first principle focuses on self-assessment, Principle Two turns the writer’s head outward to the genre and craft of academic writing: How is academic writing structured? The key idea for Principle Two is to “read like a writer”. That means when you are reading the literature, while you are gathering disciplinary knowledge, you are also looking for the underlying text structures and using them to shape the work that you submit.

Principle Three: Be mindful. Be strategic. Rather than the reflective approach found in Principle One or the analytical process used in Principle Two, Principle Three focuses on when you write and what you do during those writing sessions. By engaging in deliberate practice strategies, you will write more. Being strategic includes strategies designed to help monitor your progress, set new short and long range goals, and manage the flood of emails. After being strategic, being mindful means that you reflect on the value of the strategies in meeting your goals. Just like any other practice from sports to music, committing to a regular schedule, and showing up to do the work even though you don’t feel like it, improves your skills and builds a more deeply rooted and sustainable practice. What makes this principle powerful is that these strategies can lead you from an ineffective writing practice into building a regular and productive writing routine.

Principle Four: Be social. Principle Four acknowledges that academic writing is a conversation where ideas are exchanged and in that process, the work improves. Sometimes the conversation is in the question and answer period at the end of a conference presentation. Other times the conversation is one-sided in the introduction of a manuscript where the author is bringing in the voices of other scholars who have done work on this topic. The reviewers of the article then add their voice (comments) to the conversation. Another aspect of the conversation is local, that is, with your peers in a writing group. The group can offer support as well as feedback and a place to be accountable in accomplishing your goals.

Principle Five: Be creative. Be reflective. Principle Five brings us back full circle to you and focuses on your voice as a writer in your manuscripts. By using several creative strategies you can add more of your own voice to your work as well as find ways to approach the work from a new vantage point. One very effective strategy to assist in this process invites you to write a reflection on why you care about your topic and why others should care about your topic too. In so doing, you may find new ways to make sure the reader knows that. Another strategy is to write out an imaginary dialogue with the participants in your study. Changing your perspective on your work can give you fresh insights on why your participants responded the way they did.

Conclusion: Taken together the five principles underscore a holistic view of academic writing. The focus is not solely on the text that is written nor is it solely on the challenges facing writers. The five principles embrace the emotional (I), intellectual (II), behavioral (III), social (IV) and creative (V) aspects of academic writing. All in all, the five principles are designed to summarize key bits of knowledge the writer needs not only to write but to write consistently and in the process build a sustainable and satisfying writing practice.

dannelle_j__stevensDannelle D. Stevens, Professor Emerita at Portland State University, has co-authored four books. Her fifth book, Write more, publish more, stress less! Five key principles for creative and scholarly writing is due out in fall 2018.
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