Book review. How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing

This book is by Paul J. Silvia, a psychology professor. This book provides a great prescription to enable academics to write more. And let's be frank we all should be writing more.

I give this little book to my graduate students so they get a healthy perspective on writing, an integral part of a researcher's job description, before they develop bad habits and PTSD from bad experiences with writing.

The book prescribes simple straightforward solutions to the writing woes. It has a no BS, let's get to business attitude. It gives some practical writing style advice as well, but if you need more help on developing a good writing/composition style, you should also look into other books, such as "Elements of Style", and on "Writing Well".

Here are some selected pieces from the book. I recommend the book to all struggling academic writers.

On finding time to write (page 12)

You have a teaching schedule, and you never miss it. If you think that writing time is lurking somewhere, hidden deep within your weekly schedule, you will never write a lot. If you think that you won't be able to write until a big block of time arrives, such as spring break or the summer months, then you'll never write a lot. Finding time is a destructive way of thinking about writing. Never say this again. Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write. Prolific writers make a schedule and stick to it. It's that simple.

Scheduling is the way (page 17)

Perhaps you're surprised by the notion of scheduling. "Is that really the trick?" You ask. "Isn't there another way to write a lot?" Nope---making a schedule and sticking to it is the only way. There is no other way to write a lot.

The best kind of self control (page 22)

My wife has fast Internet access in her home office, but I don't have anything. Writing time is for writing, not for checking email, reading the news, or browsing the latest issues of journals. ... The best kind of self-control is to avoid situations that require self-control.

Writing breeds good ideas for writing (page 23)

If you believe that you should write only when you feel like writing, ask yourself some simple questions: How has this strategy worked so far? Are you happy with how much you write? Do you feel stressed about finding time to write or about completing half-finished projects? Do you sacrifice your evenings and weekends for writing?

It's easy to demolish this specious barrier: Research has shown that waiting for inspiration doesn't work. Boice (1990) conducted a study with profound implications for every binge writer who waits for inspiration. He gathered a sample of college professors who struggled with writing, and he randomly assigned them to use different writing strategies. People in an abstinence condition were forbidden from all nonemergency writing; people in a spontaneous condition scheduled 50 writing sessions but wrote only when they felt inspired; and people in a contingency management condition scheduled 50 writing sessions and were forced to write during each session. The dependent variables were the number of pages written per day and the number of creative ideas per day.

This is what Boice found. First, people in the contingency management condition wrote a lot: They wrote 3.5 times as many pages as people in the spontaneous condition and 16 times as much as those in the abstinence condition. People who wrote "when they felt like it" were barely more productive than people told not to write at all--- inspiration is overrated. Second, forcing people to write enhanced their creative ideas for writing. The typical number of days between creative ideas was merely 1 day for people in who were forced to write; it was 2 days for people in the spontaneous condition and 5 days for people in the abstinence condition. Writing breeds good ideas for writing.

Make a list of writing projects (page 47)

After you've committed to a writing schedule, you need to make a list of your project goals and write them down. When you sit down to write, spend a minute thinking about what you want to do that day. Setting priorities among your project goals will take the stress out of managing several projects at once. And monitoring your writing will keep you focused on your goals, motivate you not to miss a day, inform you about how well you're doing, and give you hard facts that you can show to your binge-writing colleagues who are doubters and unbelievers. Anyone who combines the tips in this chapter with a regular schedule will write a lot.

Write first, revise later (page 75)

Generating text and revising text are distinct parts of writing---don't do both at once. The goal of text generation is to throw confused, wide-eyed words on a page; the goal of text revision is to scrub the words clean so that they sound nice and make sense. Some writers---invariably struggling writers---try to write a pristine first draft, one free of flaws and infelicities. The quest for the perfect first draft is misguided. Writing this way is just too stressful: These writers compose a sentence; worry about it for 5 minutes; delete it; write it again; change a few words; and then, exasperated move on to the next sentence. Perfectionism is paralyzing. 

Furthermore, writing sentence by sentence makes your text sound disjointed. The paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing.


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