What Does it Take to Become a Successful Academic Writer?

By Eliza Dy-Boarman, PharmD and Kristin Janke, PhD

This post is provided in conjunction with the Fall 2018 #RxWritingChallenge, an international event to support academic writing in pharmacy. Dialogue and discussion will be occurring on Twitter at: @RxWritersUnite and #RxWritingChallenge.

Let’s be honest, in asking this question, we’re hoping we’re a bit like Jack – about to receive a handful of magic beans for a beanstalk that will lead us directly to riches. We often wish for a simple answer, as in “If I just do X, I will be a successful writer.” Realistically, however, the answer is likely much more complex.

In her book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, Dr. Helen Sword discusses the hurdles involved in successful academic writing:

“…it is not enough merely to have mastered the craft of writing intelligibly. You must also be creative enough to produce original research, persuasive enough to convey the significance of your findings to others, prolific enough to feed the tenure and promotion machine, confident enough to withstand the slings and arrows of peer review, strategic enough to pick your way safely through the treacherous terrain of academic politics, well organized enough to juggle multiple roles and commitments and persistent enough to keep on writing and publishing no matter what.”1 (Emphasis added)

With such a long list of skills, becoming a successful writer can seem like an impossible feat. However, there is a model that can help us organize and focus our efforts to improve our writing abilities. Dr. Sword investigated the habits of successful academic writers from around the world and identified a set of foundational writing habits, which she refers to as “BASE”: Behavioral, Artisanal, Social, and Emotional.(1) With a strong “BASE”, we will be positioned well for success. Sword offers an online BASE assessment tool, which can assist in understanding your current writing foundation.

When attempting to tackle a writing project, the behavioral habits are those that we most commonly consider; including setting aside time to write, creating a set of strategies to optimize our time, writing in a setting that is effective for us, and identifying when we are most productive. While these habits are important to consider, Sword argues that other less commonly discussed components of the BASE (i.e. artisanal, social, and emotional) are also essential for success.

From an artisanal perspective, Sword encourages writers to view words as a craftsperson would view their tools and materials: with great appreciation for the way in which they can form the final product. Thus, artisanal habits include exhibiting creativity, practicing and perfecting writing skills, and pursuing lifelong writing skill development. Perhaps some of the frustrations that impede writing progress are a result of one’s current limitations (e.g. inexperience with various journals/article types, data presentation techniques or referencing styles). Continued development in those areas may create pathways to success in writing.

Sword’s work also revealed the strong influence of social habits in writing success. While writing may often seem like a solitary activity, its main goal is to communicate ideas with others. Thinking about the audience that will ultimately read the finished product might generate writing inspiration. Colleagues are important as pre-submission readers, helping to establish clarity, conciseness and readability.2 In addition, we can collaborate with colleagues by co-writing (“writing with others”) or by creating writing groups to support one another in writing endeavors (“writing among others”). A recently published example of a structured writing program detailed its value in shared goal-setting and accountability, with the majority of faculty participants reporting its utility in starting, navigating, and maintaining progress in the writing process.3 Another example affirms a writing group’s utility in creating accountability and also reports that the peer feedback and the guidance provided by a senior faculty member were valued.4 To aid success, we should consider ways to connect with our colleagues to support and facilitate writing.

Finally, there are the emotional habits that we can develop to aid our success. A focus on building behavioral habits may leave out the importance of understanding and managing emotions. We can reflect on past experiences (both positive and negative), cultivate enjoyment and positivity, redirect our frustration, build resilience and strategize to ensure that our writing meets professional goals to aid satisfaction. Even successful writers have negative feelings about their writing at times, which can lead to “writer’s block,” decreased productivity, etc. However, they have developed habits of focusing on the enjoyable aspects of writing in order to overcome these feelings and continue to produce successful pieces of writing.1

The BASE model is not specific to pharmacy academic authors, and we hope to describe other strategies for publication success in an upcoming investigation. There are no magic beans or simple answers to becoming a successful writer, but by evaluating and solidifying our writing habits we may begin to climb the writing “beanstalks” we face. Ultimately, we must embrace our roles as writers and engage in self-exploration, in order to build successful writing habits.

Bethany Von Hoff, Pharm.D. provided reactions and suggestions on a draft version of this post.


  1. Sword, Helen. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2017.
  2. Persky AM, Romanelli F. Insights, pearls, and guidance on successfully producing and publishing educational research. Am J Pharm Educ. 2016; 80(5): Article 75.
  3. Franks, A. Design and evaluation of a longitudinal faculty development program to advance scholarly writing among pharmacy practice faculty. Am J Pharm Educ. 2018;82(6): Article 6556.
  4. Fleming LW, Malinowski SS, Fleming JW, Brown MA, Davis CS, Hogan S. The impact of participation in a research/writing group on scholarly pursuits of non-tenure track clinical faculty. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2017; 9(3):486-490.

Eliza Dy-Boarman is an Assistant Professor in the Clinical Sciences Department at Drake University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. She is also an internal medicine clinical pharmacy specialist at UnityPoint Health – Des Moines Iowa Lutheran Hospital. Her current scholarly interests include development of professional skills in the experiential setting and laboratory teaching methods to prepare students for real-world practice challenges.

Kristin Janke

Kristin Janke is a Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Care & Health Systems and Director of the Wulling Center for Innovation & Scholarship in Pharmacy Education at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. She is Executive Associate Editor for Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Editor for Innovations in Pharmacy where she is responsible for the education section. She is also the coordinator for the #RxWritingChallenge. Her scholarly interests include: unique methods for student leadership development, enhancing assessment practices in colleges/schools of pharmacy and broadening publication options for the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning


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