Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Hawthorne Effect in Writing

The Hawthorne Effect is a phrase coined in 1955 to explain the findings of experiments conducted at the Hawthorne plant for the Western Electric Company from 1924-1933. In essence the experiments set out to measure the effect of lighting on employee productivity. Will employees be more productive if they have better lighting? Will they be less productive? Does it really make a difference?

Researchers found that regardless of whether there was more or less lighting provided, productivity increased because the research participants knew they were being watched. They knew they were part of an experiment and their productivity was being monitored. Therefore their productivity increased. Interesting.

So how does this apply to writing?

Writing can be a solitary activity. We write in the quiet of our office or in our bedroom or anywhere else that provides the peace we need to think and create. To avoid distractions we separate ourselves from others so we can focus on the task at hand. For me this is very necessary. I simply cannot focus on a story when the kids are screaming and climbing on me. We may set goals for how many words, or pages, or chapters we will write in a day or a week or a month. We may outline on a calendar how long it takes to finish our first draft and we measure our productivity by how well we stick to our schedule. This is good. It breaks a large daunting task into easily chewed bite sized pieces. But what happens when we find we're not sticking to our own schedule? Do we slap ourselves on the wrist, "bad writer", and resolve to do better tomorrow, only to see another day slip away with low productivity?

While solitude may be necessary to attain proper focus in our creativity, it may also hinder us because we are accountable only to ourselves. What would happen to our writing production if we allow ourselves to be accountable to someone else? Let me suggest a couple of ways we might allow others to help hold us accountable for our productivity.

1- Share your goals with others. I have often heard it said that if a goal is not written down it is merely a hope or a dream. Hopes and dreams are good, but may not motivate to action the same way a goal can. Writing a goal down makes it real. I also think that sharing the goal with others makes it real. Share your goals with someone you respect. Not only will they help to keep you accountable, they will also be able to celebrate in your successes.

2- Join a critique group. If you are in a critique group, the assumption is that you will have something to be critiqued. Right? Do you want to commit your time and energy to attending a group physically or online and commit to critique everyone elses work while never submitting any of your own? Naturally you will want to get as much use out of the group by offering your writing for critique on a regular basis. This will keep you writing.

3- Join other groups that track production. I am thinking particularly of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Each year as November rolls around, internet groups pop up that writers can join to track their progress during the month. While committing to write 50,000 words in a month may not be your speed, the concept is excellent. Make a commitment and allow your group to track your progress towards meeting your goal. FYI-You don't have to wait for November to do this. Find another group or create your own.

4- Track your own progress on your blog or website. With a bar graph widget you can show the world your goal for how many words you expect your mansucript to be. Color it in at every 5000 words. It can show you the percentage of goal accomplished and will also show others how you are progressing and keep them excited about your work in progress. Do you want everyone else to know you've been stuck at 20% of your goal for the past month? Probably not.

When we know other people are watching, our efforts and production will increase just like in the Hawthorne experiments. Accountability increases productivity. It works in the business world, it works in the church and it can also work in our writing. Conduct your own experiment and see if it works.

How do you hold yourself accountable to your writing goals?


Michael Knudsen said...

Great post, Steve. All I have to do is let several key friends know what I'm working on, and how long it should take. Then, every time we meet, they give me a hard time about not being finished or on track. This makes me work hard to avoid the risk of disappointing them.

Jacqvern said...

Very interesting post. I agree with your points. Writing the goals and keeping track of them is organizing. And organizing is a major step in a project.

Thank you for your post :)