"The Passion of Creation", by Leonid Pasternak

How much time do you spend writing?

Image: The Throes of Creation, by Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945). Public domain.

I spend a lot of time writing, and I think most scientists do.  In fact, I think many scientists spend more time writing than they do on any other part of their jobs*. In The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I put it this way:

 You probably aspired to a career in science because you liked puzzling out proofs, making chemicals react, tracking wolves through the woods by moonlight, or working with students in the classroom or lab – but most likely you’ve already discovered that you spend more of your time writing than doing any of those things.

I’ve been surprised to encounter a fair bit of disagreement about this claim. One peer reviewer of the book’s manuscript claimed to spend rather little of his or her time writing. Commenters on a couple of my related blog posts have, similarly, suggested that they don’t spend much time writing compared to the other things they do. Finally, the only relevant time-budget study I’m aware of seems, at least superficially, to back up the critics: faculty members at Boise State were surveyed and reported spending only 2% of their work time writing**! (And no matter how implausible this seems to me – it’s about 1 hour a week) – it seems not have been dismissed by the surveyors.)

So why is my perception so out of whack with the perceptions of (at least some) others? Do I really spend more of my time writing than other people do?  I can think of four possibilities.

First, perhaps I spend more time writing because I write more than other scientists – but I doubt this very much.  My publication record isn’t embarrassing, but it isn’t particularly weighty either.   Being in Canada, I write fewer and shorter grant applications than many of my colleagues in other countries.  I do blog (perhaps you’ve noticed), but I wrote the quoted passage before I started, so that isn’t it either.

Second, maybe I’m just a slower writer than everyone else.  This is not impossible (I think my own struggles with writing make my book’s advice more useful rather than less).  But am I enough slower to account for the huge difference in perceptions?  I don’t think so.  There are certainly natural writing geniuses out there, but they’re rare. I really do think that most writers work hard and slog away at it like I do.

Third, perhaps many people aren’t terribly informed about their own time budgets.  I wonder what an activity log would tell me about my own, for that matter.  The problem is, in order for the data to mean much, I’d have to keep it up for a long time – at least a year, maybe two.  I write more in a grant-proposal year, less in a heavy teaching year, more on sabbatical, less during field and conference season, and on and on.  People are legendarily terrible at estimating even how many hours they work, so it’s not clear that we should believe their self-reported allocation of those working hours (and yes, I realize this includes me).  I suspect this self-unawareness is especially likely for academics, whose work schedules are extremely flexible and whose blend of tasks is extremely variable through time.  However, I have to admit that I’m counting on an asymmetry here: that people (other than me) consistently underreport
writing activity, while overreporting everything else, and I’m not sure why they would do that.

Fourth, when people claim they don’t spend much of their time writing, I wonder what they mean by “writing”. There are two dimensions in which I think people might underestimate their writing time: writing what? And what is writing?  As for “writing what?”, we can’t just mean writing papers.  That’s part of our writing time, certainly, but it’s only one part: most academics also write grant proposals, final reports, technical reports, peer reviews and responses to reviews, administrative documents, letters of reference, lecture notes, and a raft of other things I’m not remembering right now.  As for “what is writing?”, one could seriously underestimate writing time if one didn’t count revising, commenting on coauthors’ drafts, drafting figures and tables, outlining, whiteboard strategizing sessions, and the like.

So: I think scientists really do spend a lot of time writing, and I think #3 and #4 are responsible for many, if not most, claims to the contrary.  Take those survey data.  It’s really impossible to say**, but my guess is that they’re explained in part by poor data (a short study of few people at a writing-light time of year) and limited self-knowledge (participants reporting without formal logging). These, together, are part of my third point above.  On top of that, I think it mattered how “writing” was defined (explicitly as “writing manuscripts”, which leaves out a lot; my fourth point).  I was going to write something along the lines of “and I’m surprised we don’t have more, better data” but then I thought about what a bunch of academics would say to the notion of having their work activity logged, minute by minute for weeks or months on end.  And this made me not surprised at all.

In lieu of the real data I really want, let’s take a poll. What’s your perception of your writing time (as broadly defined in my fourth point)? I’ll report back in a future post.


© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) June 21, 2016

*^Not necessarily more than on all other tasks combined – I’m not making that stronger claim.  I don’t think I spend a majority of my time writing (although I certainly have days and weeks like that), but I’m sure it’s a plurality: more time than I spend in class or teaching lab, more than I spend in the field, more than I spend analyzing data, etc.  I realize, of course, that I can make this claim be true simply by splitting up my other tasks more finely than I split up writing. But I really don’t think I need to play games to make my numbers come out.

**^There are many, many reasons to be skeptical of this result. The study is unpublished. It had only 30 participants at just a single university, and they were volunteers rather than being randomly or systematically selected. Activity was self-reported rather than logged. The average participant reported on only 5.5 days of work, and all data came from a single 2-week period in April. All of these issues are acknowledged by the study’s PI, and none means the work is unimportant – just that it should be considered pilot data at best.

9 thoughts on “How much time do you spend writing?

  1. Margaret Kosmala

    It may also vary by career stage. As a postdoc, I do a ton of writing. More senior PIs may delegate a lot of MS writing to postdocs and students. (Of course, I imagine they generally write a lot more annual reports, grants, etc.)

    And I think the perception of writing matters to our self-perception. Writing is mentally challenging — it’s hard and takes a lot of effort. And so it may seem to take a lot of our “research energy” compared to other things. By contrast, some field work and lab work is fairly mindless and can take up a ton of time, but not a ton of “research energy”. Not sure what I’m saying here, other than to support your statement that our perceptions probably don’t align well with reality.

    Liked by 1 person

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