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How to Write a Lot – Paul Silvia

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First published in 2007.

This book comes up a lot, in various fora for academics looking for ways to improve their productivity.  A few months ago I decided to buy it. First observation: this is a short book. You can read through it in one sitting (and that sitting need not be very long). I must say that I was little put off when I received it – is this it? I thought. There is that to be said about ordering books online – you can browse through some of the contents (“Look Inside!” on Amazon) but you can’t get a feel for the size, shape and feel of a book. How bulky or fat it is, how thin the pages are, how stiff the spine is or how tight the writing. So when this book arrived, thin, with thick pages and sparse writing, I was a tad put off. But I did want to review it for the blog, so I sat myself down to read it anyway (astonishing how we academics can sit ourselves down to read anything, no matter how boring). But boring this book is not.

Written by an academic psychologist, this book blends straightforward and practical advice, with touches of humor laced throughout which makes it fun to read. Although primarily targeted at writers who do psychological research, a big chunk of Paul Silvia’s tell-it-like-it-is advice can be directed at academic writers in general. Here are a few of my own takeaways:

1. Schedule time to write. Ok, there is nothing ground-breaking about this. Yes, we need to schedule time to write. Yes, we need to show up, show up, show up and write, write, write, even when we don’t feel like it. However, what clicked for me in the way Silvia gives this advice, is the following:

“The people who are happy to intrude on your writing time would never ask to intrude on your teaching time, the time you spend with your family or your sleeping time. They simply see your writing time as less important.” (p. 16)

Of course! Although most of us will quite readily (and unhesitatingly) say, “Sorry, can’t make it, I’m teaching then.” Almost none of us will say, “Sorry, can’t make it, I’m writing then.” Why is that? Silvia is right. As academics, our writing time is fungible. It can be moved around. It can be delayed. Quite easily too. Since reading his book, I’ve tried to do this. I can’t say I’ve been quite as disciplined as Silvia claims to be. And I haven’t yet mustered the nerve to say, “Sorry, can’t make it, I’m writing then.” But now I will say “I’m teaching” or “I’m in a meeting” or just “I can’t make it, sorry” to protect my writing time. And yes, it has made an enormous difference. Try it!

2. Whatever it takes.  Another piece of Silvia’s advice that created another ah-ha! moment for me was his recognition that “non-writing” counts as writing. He states:

“Do whatever you need to do during your allotted writing time. Need to crunch some more statistics? Do it during your scheduled time. Need to read some articles? Do it during your scheduled time. Need to review page proofs? Do it during your schedule time. Need to read a book about writing to get advice? You know when to do it. Any action that is instrumental in completing a writing project counts as writing.” (p. 18)

Yes! What is beautiful about this is his further comment that when you do this, you don’t need to worry about writing. You don’t need to feel guilty that you’re not writing, that you should write more, that you’re not getting enough done. No. If you are disciplined about writing to a schedule, then you just do what you need to do during that time slot, and then you forget about it. Done. Tomorrow is another day. I hate to think about the amount of time I’ve lost fretting about not writing enough. No more! I write down what needs to be done, and I do it. I set myself a whole lot of artificial mini-deadlines and I don’t stop until they’re met. Search for and download three articles. Rewrite the methods on a paper. Write the abstract on another. Check what the publications guidelines on journal x are. I’ve totally astonished myself at how much I’ve managed to get done by employing this ridiculously simple little technique.

The rest of the book encourages readers to set (very) specific goals and targets, and more pointedly, argues for measuring one’s progress (Silvia suggests writers should count words in the same way dieters should count calories). He also offers useful templates for structuring journal articles and books, with the idea that once you’ve set up the template, all you need to do is fill in the missing spaces, and voilà! Instant journal article. He discusses the review process (do not get angry with reviewers!) and suggests joining or starting a writing group. All good advice, most productive writers would agree. Where I disagree with Silvia however is with his denial of writer’s block, on the premise that academic writing is technical writing (p. 45). Perhaps this is the case for psychology journals, but for those of us aiming to make contributions to organization theory using qualitative methodologies, I disagree. As Van Maanen so aptly argued : style is theory (1995). And when such is the case, how we express what we’re trying to say is as important as what we have to say. Something that requires a bit more creativity, I think, than mere technical writing, and which can quite easily be source of writer’s block. But everyone knows that the best antidote to writer’s block is to keep writing. Anything. Just write. Writing begets writing. The ideas will come. So at least on that, Silvia is totally right.

This said, How to Write a Lot is an entertaining and helpful read. One I’ll certainly turn back to when my pace slows or I hear myself saying, “I just can’t find any time to write…” Time to reset those priorities!

References:

Van Maanen, John (1995); Style as theory; Organization Science; 6 (1); p. 133.

 

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