accountability and academic writing

Whenever there is a discussion about doctoral or early career writing, one – and generally more – contributions refer to the helpfulness of accountability. People say that there are significant benefits in setting a target, often a word count, for their writing and then holding themselves responsible for reaching it. Such a target might be daily, weekly, or monthly. Very often people refer to public targets – they declare in a public forum such as a writing group, or online, that they will meet a specific word or manuscript target in a given period of time.

The circulation of stories about famous writers who go to their study in the morning and don’t leave until they’ve written 2000 words certainly suggests that writing targets are an unequivocal good. And we can now do so much more than, say, Stephen King who started writing his 2000 words pre Web2. There’s no doubt that developing technologies have added to our capacity to work to public targets. Events such as #acwrimo, where writers set a target for a month, are increasingly popular. Websites like 750 words a day, hashtags which emphasise productivity targets and the pomodoro app all support an accountability approach to writing. By that, I mean an approach where a number suggests that you have either succeeded or failed and/or where performing in public is key.

This is a writing accountability which is both measurable and performative. Did you hit your target or not?


(I couldn’t resist the parochial reference.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I use manuscript targets too. Anyone who followed my posts on the way in which Barbara and I wrote our most recent book will be familiar with the frantic writing we did in order to produce a first draft in a very short space of time. We weren’t working to word counts but rather “ We have to get a chapter written every three days.” Because we live on different sides of the world, we had no option but to write fast when we were together. However it wasn’t the most enjoyable process and we would certainly have rather taken more time than we actually had.

But in reality, most of the time I don’t work to a word count. I do have calendar deadlines when things need to be done. I mostly meet these – but I don’t work to word or page targets in order to do so. As long as I’m writing each day and getting somewhere significant towards completion, I’m happy. Somewhere significant might be a small section on one day and several large chunks of material on another.

I get things done largely because:
– I have a writing routine. I write nearly every morning for around a couple of hours or so (often a lot more) but I don’t count. I write till I’m done
– I like writing. Even when it’s tough going, as it inevitably is sometimes, I still like writing.
When I use targets for myself, it is generally because I’m under extreme pressure. But working to word count or page targets tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I can generally just get things done. Instead of targets I have plans and goals for the semester and year, not daily targets.

I have a regime which blends both extrinsic and intrinsic reasons for writing. I can motivate myself to write and writing has its own pleasures. There is something very rewarding about having an idea and being able to develop it through writing. There is enjoyment in playing with the structure and the rhetoric in order to craft the text to make it the best it can be. There is certainly satisfaction and often delight, in having the writing published and out there in the world. Any externally set deadlines that I have always work together with internal self-motivation and self-discipline.

I do worry about an over-dependence on external target setting and public accountability. This is a worry that I share with Jo Van Every who has also recently posted about her concerns about an overreliance on writing accountability regimes.

As a former, long-time school-teacher I know that there is a problem when students are taught to only to work for stickers, rewards and test and exam results. The end result is that they do not do more than is asked of them. They rely always on the teacher to tell them what to do. They ask how many words they have to write on any given topic, rather than where they can look to find more information. They copy slabs of text out of books simply to meet required word lengths. They do not develop their interests. They do not develop a purposeful knowledge of their own learning practices, which means they cannot analyse their own learning strategies nor invent new ones. They do not have a love of learning.

But, as a teacher I also know that the judicious use of targets, rewards and praise can support students to develop the habits that underpin independent study and writing. It’s not that the use of external targets is wrong. It’s just that if rewards and punishment and targets are all that there is, then there are almost always counter-productive consequences. Targets can be part of a healthy and sustainable learning – and writing – regime, but there are very significant down-sides if they are the overall frame for all of the learning and writing that goes on*.

And it seriously worries me that there is such a neat fit between the performative university which requires measurable outputs with ever increasing frequency and the kinds of writing target regimes that are popular but appear to be self-imposed. Well, there’s a whole sociological analysis I’m not going into now but I’m sure you can see the argument I’d make.

But this all leads me to think that perhaps we need to have some conversations to counter-balance those about the usefulness of accountability to academic writing. Conversations where we share the strategies we use to compose, draft, revise, edit and craft texts. Conversations where we share views about the kinds of academic texts that are good to read, the academic writers that we admire and the kinds of writing that they do. Many many more conversations that are about more than word length and pages ticked off… Conversations that are about the stuff we write not just the quantity and speed.

The problem with extrinsic reward regimes is well established in educational research and some educational researchers believe the reliance on external reward regimes is one of the most significant problems in current school systems. There is debate about how to balance the two.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Alfie Kohn, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, targets and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to accountability and academic writing

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Pat. I absolutely agree that we need to talk more about writing processes in ways that move beyond word counts. But as someone who facilitates several dissertation boot camps annually and works with graduate student writers year-round I’d be hesitant to do away with the idea of quantifiable goals (though I do agree that word count is only one way to “count” something). Indeed, I like to envision–and posit–the notion of accountability in a more holistic and communal way. Establishing regular writing routines, having regular conversations about our writing and writing processes — to me, these are all ways that we can hold ourselves accountable. Better still, they often rely on others. And I think this is the type of extrinsic motivation that can be particularly helpful to graduate students who (in my experience) can really flourish when they are reminded that they can be writing for people beyond themselves and their committees. It’s all, as you note, a balance. But for developing academic writers, I see the balance between extrinsic/intrinsic as a particularly delicate one.


  2. Jane says:

    Although I am but an MA student I find your posts incredibly useful and thought provoking. Because I am a part time I go long periods without contact with anyone else working in an academic way so they are even more welcome to me. They have also helped me to see myself as someone who may have potential to keep studying after the MA.

    As far as word counts go I find them very misleading. I rewrite so many times that I write many many more words than I finish with. I can not seem to do enough proper thinking until I try and write it down in coherent sentences for others to understand. Up until that point I only think that I know what I think!

    Thank you for being so generous with your advice, experience and writing.



  3. Muriel Wells says:

    As you would understand I love this post too 😃😃


  4. Audrey says:

    A really interesting topic – thank you. As I work my way toward completion of my PhD thesis I have been all about setting goals and targets to get it done. For motivation to get going after an extended leave of absence with not much time to get finished, I worked out that if I wrote 5 pages a week I should have a first draft by Christmas…was going great until the empirical side of things needed attention again. Doesn’t suit to write regularly at the moment, so it will be more like 50 pages in two weeks when I get the results! Having a topic that is entirely quantitative lends itself to different writing practices I think, and I believe your personal approach of deadlines rather than word counts is far more applicable in this context. Thanks again.


  5. Hi Pat

    Reflecting on your post has me thinking about what drives me to write. While I do like to see the word count click over, I am motivated by deadlines (if it’s due, I’ll work on it with more focus), and by bigger picture milestones. I tend to write, not until I hit a certain number of words, but until my brain is too full and fuzzy to be productive any longer; then I break. I am also driven by the joy and challenge of writing itself.

    Part of my problem with writing to a word count, is that there are different types and qualities of words. There are figuring-it-out-on-the-page words and there are totally-nailing-it words. There are struggling-into-theory slow words and writing-where-I’m-comfortable fast words.

    As someone who tends to be verbose, and as someone who writes to think and thinks through writing, words have more purposes than to be counted as their numbers rise. In fact I am at a point in my PhD where I am distilling, deleting and refining words. Now I am watching a reverse word count as I streamline my argument. My work remains productive as I delete words and shape the text.

    Some things can’t be counted. I think we each need to find what drives us, but be aware of purposes and ways of writing; of voice, precision, style and structure. As you say, how might we consider word quality, form or substance, as well as mass? How might we consciously develop towards the kind of writers we want to be?


  6. Chris says:

    For me, there’s a difference in writing to communicate a tricky bit of theory, and writing to finish a paper and the insights don’t often (usually?) come when I’m sitting at my desk in an assigned time slot. I’m at the point in my PhD where I’m putting to paper a (what I hope is) a theoretical innovation that requires substantial explaining. For example, I’m on draft six (only two of which I have deemed ready to be seen by my supervisors). It’s a process of constant refresh of the text for precision and concision once my idea is in text. What I am saying must be crystal clear, as I’m writing a broad audience in an interdisciplinary journal, but has enough support to show my reviewers that I’ve the support to make my claims. Sometimes the best insights and ways of phrasing things come in the shower, walking down the street, or doing some other task. In fact, someone I lived with once brought me children’s washable shower crayons so I could write things that came to me on the bath tiles!


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