The research shows that binge writing has significant downsides. Inspiration strikes like lightening bringing creativity in an all-consuming burst of intense emotion. The manic creative genius might have the edge on sex appeal, but what impact does this approach have on writers, their output and creativity?
The super-productive splurge
Sometimes it just flows, the words pour onto the page and all is good in the world. PG Wodehouse felt surprised when he wrote 8,000 words one day and managed to complete Thank You, Jeeves. More recently Barry Hutchison typed 15,000 words while in a café.
This wasn’t the norm for either writer; they were blessed with a flash of super productivity. In Hutchinson’s case I’m unable to verify the rumours of thunder bolts curdling nearby cappuccinos.
The quest for fruitful writing has led many writers to rely on stimulants. Graham Greene and Ayn Rand fuelled their sessions with the amphetamine Benzedrine. Productivity can be stimulated in less questionable ways. Splurge writing is an approach that encourages writers to get everything on the page and keep writing. And then write some more. It’s useful for first drafts, where the focus is to write the damn thing as quickly as possible. Coffee no doubt helps.
Writers – the masters of procrastination
When I asked writers to describe their writing pattern, the most common response was writing ‘in fits and starts with bursts of activity followed by gaps’. For most people life just gets in the way; however others will do almost anything to get out of writing.
Back in the 1980s Boice was researching procrastination – he decided that writers would be the obvious candidates for investigation. He found that writer-procrastinators indulged in patterns of what he called binge writing.
Hypomanic, euphoric, marathon sessions
Binging is a period of excessive indulgence in an activity. It’s most commonly associated with extreme eating, where bingers can eat up to 15,000 calories at one sitting.
Boice defines binge writing as hypomanic, euphoric, marathon sessions to meet unrealistic deadlines. Apart from the deadlines it sounds quite exciting. Who doesn’t want to feel a rush of intense happiness when writing? This seduces writers into glamorising Bryonic melancholic energy when it’s better described as mania.
The study compared binge writers with those that wrote in brief daily sessions, he found that the bingers:
- wrote significantly less
- got fewer editorial acceptances
- listed fewer creative ideas for writing
- scored higher on tests for depression.
That’s pretty conclusive: long intense sessions might get the words on the page, but it comes with an emotional cost and results in fewer creative ideas. Boice found binge writing to be counterproductive and potentially a source of depression and writers’ block. He said: “Productive creativity seems to occur more reliably with moderation of work duration and of emotions, not with the fatigue and ensuing depression of binge writing.”
“Signs of deliberate practice in writing can be seen in work habits and practice techniques. Successful writers often schedule only a few hours per day for composing, and avoid binges that lead to exhaustion. High levels of practice can be seen in the daily work schedules of prolific writers.” Kellogg
The alternative approach
Compared to the highs gained from intense writing, the alternative is decidedly vanilla. Writing daily, if only for a short period of time, increases output. The research showed that regular practice also increases the number and frequency of creative ideas. This is a double productivity gain: more ideas and more words.
Schedules might not be sexy, but if you want to be prolific forget Byron, Benzedrine and bingeing and aim for moderation. Save indulgence as a reward for successful writing. Now, I think I’ve earned myself a biscuit, or two, or three…
- Boice, R 1989, ‘Procrastination, busyness and bingeing’
- Boice, 1997, ‘Which is more Productive, Writing in Binge Patterns of Creative Illness or in Moderation?’
- Kellogg, 2006, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance Writing, Chapter 22