I used to hate writing. In high school, whenever I had a writing assignment due, I could hardly think about anything else until it was finished. If I had a choice about what to write, I would worry about coming up with a decent topic. Once I knew what I was going to write about, then I obsessed about the actual writing.
My first year of college, I had a generous writing professor who met with each of her students individually to go over their drafts. I should have been grateful for her willingness to spend one-on-one time with each of us, every time. Instead, I dreaded it. I felt mortified to hear her read my words out loud and then tell me what was wrong with them (which she did in a very tactful way).
Now I write a minimum of 15 blog posts, articles, columns, or book reviews every month. A young scholar sent me this message: “I’d love to know how you motivate yourself to write as much as you do.”
The short answer is: I don’t have to motivate myself anymore. I’m past that time in my life when writing was a chore. Ironically, I have the APA Publication Manual to thank for that.
In one of the first psychology courses I took as an undergraduate, students were required to write papers using APA style. I bought my copy of the book and read it. (It was a lot shorter then.) It sounded like a set of instructions. I also read academic articles that were written in APA style. They were formulaic. First you write this, then you write that. There were even standard phrases that turned up with great frequency (e.g., “More research is needed.”).
When I wrote papers in APA style, I didn’t feel like I was writing at all – not in any creative way. I was just following directions. I didn’t obsess about writing papers for my psychology classes the way I used to obsess about the papers I wrote for my writing class. I stopped thinking about writing and mostly thought about ideas.
I took a lot of psychology courses in college. Nineteen, to be exact. It was a time when there were very few requirements. A funny thing happened along the way. When I wrote papers for humanities courses, I forgot to worry about the writing. I had gotten so used to writing psychology papers and not worrying about them, that writing unselfconsciously became a habit.
I wrote almost exclusively for scholarly publications for two decades. When I decided to study single people and single life, though, I no longer wanted to write solely for other academics. I wanted to reach a much broader audience. That meant I had a lot more to learn about writing.
I put a lot of time and effort into that. I went to a conference for writers. I joined a writing group. I read the kinds of books and articles that I aspired to write myself. I also read books about writing.
All that was important. But nothing was as important as being freed from my worries about writing by my attitude toward the APA Manual.
Two other strokes of good fortune have transformed writing from a chore to a joy. One is that, these days, I am almost always writing only about things I care about deeply. The second is that I rarely have deadlines. That means that if I sit down to write and I’m just not in the mood, I do something else instead.
I’m still learning about writing, and I probably always will be. Sometimes when I read something that is particularly well written, I’ll print it out and save it, so I can reread it later and learn even more. The process of writing is interesting now; it no longer fills me with dread.