How to Write a Lot—A Review
September 4, 2010 Leave a comment
Maybe you’d like to write a lot. Maybe you have to write a lot. Here’s a book you may like a lot.
- How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul J. Silvia. (2007; 149 pp.)
The book is published by the American Psychological Association. Silvia, a relatively young scholar, teaches and writes about psychology. In this book, he applies his own eclectic method in psychology to the ordeal of writing as an academic.
I say eclectic because Silvia expects his counsel to be congenial to psychologists of various stripes:
- developmental psychologists
- cognitive psychologists
- clinical psychologists
- emotion psychologists
- psychologists with interdisciplinary interests
What he writes is for all academics who wish to be more productive writers. But he does advise his peers in psychology a little more directly on occasion. When he says, “Our academic journals radiate bad writing,” he means journals in his discipline. But scholars across the disciplines will recognize the sort.
Silvia pokes fun in good humor. He notes that “psychologists love bad words,” then points out that “they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad.” He means, of course, that words like “deficient” and “suboptimal” are often needlessly “erudite,” and therefore bad for good writing.
“Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing?” It’s nice to hear a psychologist asking such a philosophical question. (I’m afraid that some philosophers, in response, will get caught up in analyzing “should” and explaining the scope of relevant research literature in terms of counterfactuals and alternative worlds.)
There are chapters here on:
- Writing articles—”Your paper might be rejected once or twice before it finds a good home, but a good paper will always find a home.”
- Writing books—”If you have something to say, write a book.”
- Writing with style—”Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a nonnative speaker.”
But the crucial chapters are two, three, and four (pp. 11-57):
- Chapter 2: “Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot”
- Chapter 3: “Motivational Tools”
- Chapter 4: “Starting Your Own Agraphia Group”
Silvia’s aim is to introduce the reader to “a practical system for becoming a productive academic writer.” He acknowledges the irony of writing such a short book on how to write a lot. But, he says, “there isn’t much to say. The system is simple.”
The “system” is indeed simple. It comes down to this. Create a manageable writing routine and stick to it. Specifics include:
- Follow a schedule (a little writing every weekday, if possible).
- Set long-term goals for completing writing projects.
- Set concrete goals for each scheduled writing session.
- Prioritize your writing.
- Avoid binge writing.
- Monitor your progress.
- Permit yourself a measure of “windfall writing” when it comes naturally.
- Always engage in some writing-related task during the scheduled writing session.
- Settle for the simplest of writing implements to be sure you’re always able to write on schedule.
- Be content with whatever writing environment you’re permitted by your circumstances.
- Expect a flood of quality writing ideas as a result of regular writing.
- Join an “agraphia” group.
All of this is excellent advice. Much of it is common sense, often repeated in “the literature” on writing. But such common sense is seldom practiced.
Here are three areas where Silvia’s book might have been stronger:
- His comments on writer’s block are slight and mildly dismissive. He’s onto something when he says that “scheduled writers don’t get writer’s block.” But even scheduled writers can be unproductive. This relates to my next point.
- He could say more about how to plan scheduled work so that it is completed on schedule. It isn’t enough to (a) decide on a project to be completed, (b) sit down to write regularly about that topic, and (c) set concrete goals for each writing session. Even if every concrete goal is mission critical, regular writing will not ensure project completion. A disciplined writer doesn’t just write daily (or whatever “regularly” means in his case). He writes towards completion of a project.
- He understates the value of style in academic writing. This is a bit surprising. Silvia himself writes with engaging style. And he devotes a chapter to style. But oddly, the chapter dedicated to the topic is preoccupied with aids to writing strong, clear sentences. This is a minimalist approach to style. It derives from the notion that “as academics, we’re not creating high literature” (p. 26). This outlook may enable the blocked academic writer. But I’m a strong advocate for writing that engages as it informs.
Most scholars, even the most-published ones I imagine, would like to be more productive writers. Paul Silvia presents a method that works. The book moves chapter by chapter through the standard barriers to productive, anxiety-free academic writing. It’s a quick read with much practical advice, some of it on points not mentioned here.