How to write a lot brands itself as a “practical guide to productive academic writing”, and for the most part this is true. It could also be an exposition in keeping it simple stupid for the academic writing arena. It really is one and the same.
I read this book on the recommendation of some academic writers during #AcWriMo. Paul J. Silvia, an academic psychology specialist in writing, presents the common complaints put forward by academics as to why they don’t write, and why they don’t publish.
For mine, it is just a positive affirmation of what I already do when I’m writing productively, and what others I’ve worked with have espoused previously. For others, and in particular for students, the book dispels many of the myths surrounding productive writers.
The message is simple – create a routine and prioritise activities that are writing, or will help you write. As the age old saying goes in academia, if you haven’t got five minutes a day to write, no one can help you. By promoting a routine of writing and writing related tasks, it becomes habitual. I notice myself that when I am writing a lot, I am competitive with myself to exceed yesterday’s output, and become agitated when my writing routine is disrupted. I look for any possible opportunity to be writing. But this is a good situation to be in. I wonder how many people do get annoyed when they aren’t writing, or if they’ve just become resigned to not writing and then put up a smokescreen of excuses that Silvia outlines in this book.
Silvia does not just outline the problems inherent in academic writing and for producing academic scholarship. He also outlines strategies and solutions for developing a culture of writing. These I think are very under rated tips. Getting together a writing group – every week or every second week – will reinforce the requirements for writing. I think this is missed by most students and academic staff. Being able to introduce some measure of accountability from a group, rather than relying on deadlines, is a great way to ensure writing becomes habitual and gets done.
Had I been told that I could get through my undergraduate degree rather easily with just writing 50 or 100 words per day during semester, I perhaps would have been much more productive and successful. But this is what the book really amounts to – explaining how to break down writing tasks to manageable sizes that then don’t become overwhelming in totality.
The importance of developing some level of self accountability is also expressed in How to Write a Lot. I think Silvia has stolen my idea of being able to chart success in writing tasks, and output. He gives his results in an SPSS format, which I think is great if you haven’t already attempted to do something similar. At one stage I kept a database of my word output, and noticed that my most productive days for writing were Wednesday and Thursday. This is perhaps one thing that is lacking in this book – the importance of analysing when in the week and during the day you are most productive in writing.
At some point down the track, I’d also like to analyse what type of exercise is the most beneficial for my writing output. I certainly notice that walking and cycling are the most beneficial for my writing output, and that cricket and golf are perhaps the worst – but I have no evidence to support this claim. It may just be the associated alcohol intake that is the problem.
How to Write a Lot addresses my biggest weakness – how to turn writing a lot into writing productively. I write a lot. But I don’t always have much to show for it. Writing sometimes becomes a procrastination tool instead of doing other more important writing. There are simple, focussed tips given in How to Write a Lot to make sure what you are writing is structured, and presented in a way that can later be used for publication. Prioritising productive writing rather than pure output is something I hadn’t given a lot of thought to.
At the same time Silvia explains the importance in depersonalising your own writing. Emotional investment is something students find quite difficult to grapple with. I certainly found this rather difficult whilst writing my thesis, but it is an important trait to be able to develop in order to write more, and write more productively. Hanging off every word becomes pointless when an editor, examiner, lecturer, tutor or boss is going to tear it apart and make you rewrite and review it in any case. Accepting this before you begin writing is probably the biggest lesson that I took out of this book. And this lesson is one that is important for anyone at any stage of their writing.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to increase their writing output, or looking for ideas to tune up something that is not quite right. If you have a colleague or a student that is stuck on one of the many stumbling blocks of writing, I’d suggest leaving this book on their desk.