I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of the self-help genre, so when I saw someone (probably at a blog, but I completely forget where) reference Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, I said to myself, Self, you know you want to read that. So I did, most of it while waiting for my car to be serviced a week or so ago – it’s a slim little volume of under 150 pages, and it’s very approachable. Much of what he says can be found in Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers (or reworked with other good stuff in his Advice for New Faculty Members), but Silvia’s presentation is refreshing, largely amusing, and generally effective.
Silvia’s main point is that writing is hard and that people don’t usually like to do it, but the fact is that academics have to write, so rather than spending a lot of time deeply analyzing the roots of one’s particular phobias about writing, one just needs to do it. That sounds like the Nike school of writing methodology, and that’s not far off, but I think what Silvia’s really trying to do is demystify writing – by pointing out that it’s an activity just like any other, and a skill that anyone can learn and incorporate into his or her life, not a mystical process that requires years of psychoanalysis.
The crucial tool Silvia offers up for doing so is a schedule. He states, "This book cannot help you unless you accept the principle of scheduling, because the only way to write a lot is to write regularly, regardless of whether you feel like writing." (28) He doesn’t care how long you write at a time, just that you write regularly. His chapter on "Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot" is probably the most helpful of the book, partly because his humorous presentation succeeds in graphically puncturing the pretentions behind many of the "specious barriers."
For instance, he identifies "Specious Barrier 1" as: "’I can’t find time to write,’ also known as ‘I would write more if I could just find big blocks of time.’" (11) As Silvia points out, academics have used this excuse since time immemorial, and it’s a nicely reassuring excuse because it suggests that not writing so much isn’t really your fault – it’s about your circumstances. He then proceeds to shred any plausibility this excuse has ever had:
Why is this barrier specious? The key lies in the word find. When people endorse this specious barrier, I imagine them roaming through their schedules like naturalists in search of Time to Write, that most elusive and secretive of creatures. Do you need to "find time to teach"? Of course not – 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. (12)
Instead, academics must "allot" time to write, not find it. Those academics who claim not to be schedule people, are, he says, "masterly schedulers at other times: They always teach at the same time, go to bed at the same time, watch their favorite TV shows at the same time, and so on." (14) Therefore, to claim that they can’t figure out how to schedule a time to write is nonsense.
Now, this made me laugh. It also made me wince, because it describes me far more closely than I’d like. And it made me take a closer look at my writing habits and carve out time only for writing. (After all, one of the upsides of my current gig is that there aren’t that many hours of the week when it matters to anyone else where I am and what I’m doing.)
Silvia’s "Specious Barrier 2" is "’I need to do some more analyses first,’ aka, ‘I need to read a few more articles,’" and his solution is another one of my favorite parts of the book: do your reading during your writing time. (18) In essence, although he doesn’t say this explicitly, he defines "writing time" as "time for doing whatever you need to get done in order ultimately to be able to produce writing" – and for me, this articulates and resolves one of the problems I’ve had with other academic writing guides. Because while I know some people do this, I don’t neatly separate reading/researching from writing – it’s only by writing that I figure out what else it is I need to research, and vice versa. Advice about writing that treats writing only as the actual process of putting words to paper always left me uneasy, subconsciously, because it overlooked all the kinds of looking things up and revisiting of articles and books and so on that are an integral part of my writing process. I probably shouldn’t have needed someone to tell me that yes, such work IS writing work, but at heart, that’s what Silvia does in discussing Specious Barrier 2, and I have to admit, it’s a little liberating to hear.
Silvia’s other Specious Barriers are that one would write more if one had a better computer/chair/desk/etc., and that one can only write when one feels inspired, and he dispatches them just as expeditiously (in the case of the latter, relying heavily on Boice’s research about levels of writing productivity in scheduled sessions versus "inspired" sessions). His comments about the physical space of writing are an especially nice corrective to guides that emphasize having space to yourself and a space only for your writing, where you do nothing else – certainly a dedicated workspace is a good thing, but it’s also good to remember that in its absence, it’s still possible to write.
After demolishing the Specious Barriers to writing, Silvia discusses motivational tools, particularly setting goals, setting priorities, and monitoring one’s progress. His next chapter describes how to set up a writing group in order to enforce writing on a schedule; he then has chapters on writing style, how to write journal articles, how to write books, and a conclusion.
Overall, his book is entertaining and sensible, but after its first two chapters it grows increasingly discipline-specific. Silvia is a psychologist, writing for psychologists (the book was published by the APA), and some of his advice is less well-suited for non-psychologists. For instance, he describes writing journal articles as following a formula, and argues that once one has mastered the formula, writing articles is easy; he proceeds to outline the typical sections of a social-science article. That’s all very well and good for psychologists, but less helpful for those in the humanities, whose articles are more free-wheeling. Now, of course, Silvia’s not talking to such people; I just want to point out that non-psychologists will find much of value in his book, but not everything.
I’m also not sure what I think of his discussion of writer’s block, which he dismisses somewhat brutally:
I love writer’s block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures – they’re charming and they don’t exist. When people tell me they have writer’s block, I ask, "What on earth are you trying to write?" Academic writers cannot get writer’s block. Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department. You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart. The subtlety of your analysis will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might.People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out friends whom they wish to inspire. Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.
Writer’s block is a good example of a dispositional fallacy: A description of behavior can’t also explain the described behavior. Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing. Saying that you can’t write because of writer’s block is merely saying that you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial. The cure for writer’s block – if you can cure a specious affliction – is writing….
One of the great mysteries of the writing schedule system – a spooky mystery, in fact – is that scheduled writer’s don’t get writer’s block, whatever that is. Prolific writers follow their schedule regardless of whether they feel like writing. Some days they don’t write much – writing is a grim business, after all – but they’re nevertheless sitting and writing.
I appreciate this, but I’m not sure I completely agree with it, because I think he paints what academic writers do with too broad a brush. For one thing: what is spray-painting a basement if not a metaphor? For another, without overestimating its importance, I think humanities writing needs to borrow more from the novelists and poets at times than perhaps psychological writing does. I also get the sense Silvia’s never suffered from writer’s block himself, and that perhaps he doesn’t realize how it’s possible for those days when writers don’t write much to start to accumulate and make someone’s life sheer hell. I realize, though, that this may simply mean that I’m too attached to writer’s block as an excuse for my own lack of productivity at times. In any case, his blunt perspective shocks the reader into thinking about writer’s block in a new way, which is useful.
Silvia’s discussions of style and the mechanics of submitting to journals or book publishers are fine, though they seem a little cursory; if these are the areas of writing about which you have the most questions, Beth Luey’s Handbook for Academic Authors or William Germano’s Getting It Published will be much more helpful. In fact, it’s hard not to come away from How to Write a Lot with the impression that Silvia’s real contribution here – and what interests him most – is the concept of Specious Barriers, and that much of the rest of the book is a more or less conventional retelling of advice available in many other formats. He presents it well, however, and his direct discussion of why the excuses we make for not writing are just that – excuses, and pretty sorry ones to boot – is definitely worth a read.