How to Write “a Lot”
by Lisa Barrett
Most academics need to write. There are grant proposals, magazine articles, manuscripts for publication, class assignments, and blogs. I recently discovered a great resource for getting writing done: How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia.
In his short guide, Silvia instructs graduate students and professors about how to overcome writing misconceptions and how to write productively. By the end of the book, though, Silvia revises the title to “How to Write More Productively During the Normal Work Week With Less Anxiety and Guilt,” because by following his tips to become an effective writer, he also hopes readers can regain a healthy work-life balance.
The main take-away from Silvia is that one does not need to find writing time. There is a huge misconception that you need large chunks of time in order to sit down and write. All one needs to do is allot time and commit to your writing time. This does not take any special traits or skills. Maybe you start with four hours per week of writing, and maybe some writing sessions you only get 20 words written while in other sessions you exceed your word count goal.
Silvia includes this photo in his book to share that you do not need much to get writing done (but don’t forget the coffee!).
An important step to take along the writing journey is to critically evaluate your writing goals. This means first writing down all the things you’d like to write, prioritizing them, and breaking them down into monthly, weekly, and ideally even daily, concrete goals. Next, this means you must “take a cold, accurate look” (Silvia, 2007) at your writing progress and record whether you met your goal(s). For Silvia, this sometimes meant recording a “1” or a “0” depending on whether he made progress toward completing his project (a broad goal) or not, respectively. For others, it may mean keeping a list of how many words you wrote in each session.
So, what sort of goals should you be setting? “Try to write my intro.” is not going to cut it. Be specific. “Write 200 words of my introduction” is more precise and therefore more likely to get done. Or, maybe your goal is to rewrite your goals on your whiteboard. Or to print out your draft and revise it. Or to read three papers or do two more analyses—after all, you can’t write if you don’t have the content to write. These are all great examples of goals to get you going, according to Silvia.
Silvia shows readers how he monitors his own writing progress.
And what if you get writer’s block? Well, you’re in for a rude wakeup call. Writer’s block does not exist, especially not for academic writers who are not crafting a fantastical novel. Writer’s block is an example of a dispositional fallacy—one in which a description of the behavior also explains the described behavior. The solution? Writing. Just write! Write anything to get you started, and then you can go back and revise later.
Long story short, in order to be a productive writer one must abandon all hopes of not writing. Stop putting it off for fear of criticism or of not having anything good to say or so that you can complain about all the other things you need to do instead. Allot your writing time, stick to it, and don’t let anyone interfere with it. Try starting a writing group where everyone shares their goals and whether they’ve met them (a great source of helpful social pressure).
And lastly, don’t forget to take a step back and reflect on your research (or whatever you are writing about)!
Other Useful Books for Writing:
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
Writing Science by Joshua Schimel
Silvia, Paul J. How to Write a Lot. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007.