Advice on how to write a lot (not from me)

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.

Still thinking about research and teaching

In my recent post on what the hell I’m going to do with myself now, I articulated probably for the first time the gap between what I enjoy – research/writing – and what I value – teaching – and noted that for someone who wants to write, I haven’t done very much of it. And then I was reading a recent post by the Bittersweet Girl, in which she notes, "For essentially my entire academic career, teaching has taken a second place to research/writing/publishing."

I had one of those kind of wow, people sure are different! experiences reading that: teaching has taken a second place to research/writing/publishing. Really? Gosh. How does that work?

This not remotely intended to criticize Bittersweet Girl. Her explanation makes perfect sense:

Originally this was due to my immaturity, back in the days when I
idolized my famous professors and dreamt of joining their ranks as an
international celebrity academic. They seemed to treat teaching as a
minor distraction to the truly important work of their minds, and I
followed their lead.

More recently, my focus on R/W/P has been driven by necessity and
abject fear. Tenure hangs over my head like a knife and, despite some
pretty words about the importance of teaching, everyone knows that
tenure at MidState U. is determined by one’s publishing record.

She describes the priorities of academia, especially in graduate education, perfectly. Of course research is more important than teaching. Of course research is what gets you jobs, tenure, promotions.

But it was just funny to read her statement because I, and I think many of my colleagues throughout my academic career, have always struggled with the opposite – research takes second place to teaching.

I came to grad school from a small liberal arts college in which we students were the precious special flowers to whose nurture the institution was dedicated, and when I idolized my professors, it was as teachers, because that was how I knew them – I had very little sense of their research activities. So that probably predisposed me to put teaching ahead of research.

When I got to grad school, I and virtually all the other students were funded through teaching assistantships – there were fellowships floating around, but usually for no more than a term or a year at a time. Hence, almost everyone taught. And since teaching so much probably slowed our progress, the more we taught, the longer we took, which meant the more we taught. I’m glad to have had that experience (hell, I’m glad to have had the funding!), but I know that right from the very beginning, it was difficult sometimes to make research our absolute top priority.

After all, things like Ph.D. exams or prospectus defenses only happened (ideally) once, and could even be rescheduled if necessary, but we had to get up and confront a room full of students at a set time, usually four times a week. We were all teaching courses for the first time – and sure, the professor chose the material, wrote the syllabus, and delivered the lectures,  but there’s still a lot to prep when you’re going to spend an hour+ at a time talking to students about that stuff, at least, when you’ve never done it before and in fact may never have studied the subject in question before. Teaching for the first time is stressful and takes a lot of energy. And when you’re grading for someone else, you get that grading done on their schedule, not your own.

Moreover, my grad program, while big (HUGE!) and research-y, actually did a pretty decent job in
training us to be teachers. This was probably as much because grad students taught so
many students that it was easier to give them some training and help
them be competent than to deal with dissatisfied or woefully prepared
students, as because of any philosophical inclination, but the result was a cohort of grad students who largely took
teaching seriously and tried to do it well. We all taught a lot, and we
all talked about it a lot. In fact, among ourselves we probably talked
more explicitly about how to teach than how to do research (we
discussed research a lot, too, but as a department, we discussed
research results, not so much the research process).

This wasn’t necessarily because we valued teaching over research, mind you, but just because failures in teaching seemed to have much more immediate consequences than failures in research! Getting your advisor’s criticism on a chapter draft could suck, but it was a very different kind of suckage than finding yourself in the middle of a classroom in revolt or coping with a storm of grade challenges, or even watching the seconds tick by agonizingly slowly on a day when no one in class – NO ONE – was willing to say anything.

We were also all very well aware (because the dept told us) that we were not at an Ivy
League school, and that since there were far more teaching schools than
elite research institutions out there, we’d better be able to
teach/talk intelligently about teaching, in order to get a job. So we put a fair amount of energy into the teaching sphere.

(I could even wax all psychological and postulate that an identification with teaching is a pretty natural response to being in grad school – that in a context where you’re a student, and thus not a full, independent adult, for so long, and where it often feels like one person – your advisor – holds your very future in their hands – it’s not surprising that one’s sense of self becomes invested in the one arena in which you actually are an authority figure and over which you do actually have some control. But that would be wild speculation.)

So the point is, my graduate program emphasized teaching in a lot of ways, and I remember it being very early in graduate school when my colleagues and I started commenting to each other on the all-encompassing nature of teaching, and how it was so easy to put everything else aside in favor of teaching prep, because other people depended on our preparation for teaching, whereas the research only mattered to ourselves.

And this certainly didn’t change when I started working full-time. The people who hired me as a full-time adjunct didn’t care particularly about my research; the ~120 students I taught each semester that year certainly didn’t. My two tenure-track positions were both in teaching institutions, and while both had research expectations (though Former College’s were much higher than Rural Utopia’s), again the constant refrain from faculty was how teaching took up all of one’s time, was the thing that couldn’t be pushed aside, and how the difficulty was to make time for the research. Because after all, teaching was why we were there.

Now, none of these things are actually  incompatible with what the Bittersweet Girl said. It depends on how you define "take second place." What’s most important to you – what you prioritize, what you value – does not have to be what takes up most of your day. There can be a difference between practice – the amount of daily grind spent on teaching – and priority – the importance placed on it.

But it was still just interesting to see, in black and white, the idea that teaching takes second place to research, and to realize that I’d probably never have articulated my work life in that way. Research has always taken second place to teaching, because teaching is about other people, and research is just about me. (Don’t think that means I’m suggesting I’m some altruistic saint and people who prioritize research are selfish bastards; that’s not at all what I mean. It’s just easier for me to be accountable to others than it is to be accountable to myself. It’s why I’m much better at writing conference papers than articles – if I commit to standing up in front of a group of strangers, damn straight I’m going to write something. If it’s just me sitting in my office – eh. I find the short-term consequences of not working on my teaching much more painful than the short-term consequences of not working on my research, and as for the long-term consequences of the latter – well, I’m not very good at thinking in the long term.) What I do, what I spend my time on, becomes what I prioritize, even if it’s not actually what I value more.

All this makes me wonder how things might have been different if I had gone to grad school where activities matched priorities – where grad students didn’t teach, or at least, not nearly as much. I’m not saying that my grad experience is the only reason I’ve ended up with this mentality, but I think it’s one reason. In any case, Bittersweet Girl’s post helped me figure out some more reasons why I haven’t actually put my money where my mouth is.

Everything is clearer in hindsight

Something that comes up a lot in job applications (or fellowship applications, or annual reviews, or tenure reviews) is the idea of the research agenda. In each of these cases, the research agenda is something you demonstrate to others that you possess – a carefully thought-out understanding of what your research does, where it fits into broader concerns of the field, and especially, where it’s going to go, to produce a coherent and significant body of work.

I get all that, and I even have a research agenda. On paper, I like to think it even looks okay.

But what really strikes me when I think about my research agenda is how much it’s been shaped by chance and happenstance.

Oh, I have plans, don’t worry – plans and goals and intentions. From the very first time I went on the market, with dissertation barely (or not quite yet) finished, I had a follow-up project waiting in the wings. The trajectory there, of course, is supposed to be: finish dissertation, turn it into a book, begin follow-up project. Well, I finished the dissertation, and have actually finished the follow-up project, too, at least for the moment (in theory it could be expanded into something larger, but I’m okay with pausing here right now). The book? Still in progress. And in the meantime, I have a NEXT next project all ready to go.

I never realized when I was a grad student how much one’s research agenda gets defined retrospectively, looking back at conference papers and publications and reading the shape of a career like auguries in bird guts. For instance, my first publication came right out of my dissertation. The opportunity dropped into my lap with the CFP for an essay collection, right on my topic, that my advisor stuck in my mailbox. Voila, a publication. Now, it turns out that this portion of my dissertation has pretty much nothing to do with the direction my book has taken. But the essay collection turned out to be a really good one (no thanks to me) and one of the few studies of this subject specifically, so people actually read my essay on occasion. It’s probably my most visible publication, and publicly it marks me as a scholar of X. Thing is, today, X is really only a small part of my larger interest in tangentially-related, larger issue Y (for me, X is a phenomenon that provides evidence for Y, which is what my book talks about). Regardless, this spring I’m giving a paper on X, because someone put together a session on X and wanted me to participate specifically as an X scholar. I still find X fascinating, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t decide if it’s regressive to present on X again, or if it’s actually cool to reestablish my place in X scholarship. Am I simply returning to one branch of my research tree, or am I wandering away from the defined safety of my research path?

Most of my other publications come from conference papers, but where the conference papers came from has been pretty random:

  • Someone asked me to be on a roundtable for a scholarly society (I think they needed another warm body); the society’s journal decided to publish those comments as-is.
  • Some medievalist friends of mine and I decided we wanted to hang out together at a conference, so we came up with a session for a big conference across the pond, and then the conference organizers decided to put together an essay collection from that conference’s papers, and accepted mine. Our session was by no means bogus – we all work in the same geographic area and share similar interests/approaches, and I think the papers worked really well together – but it didn’t arise from any long-term research plan.
  • A paper I need to revise-and-resubmit got written when another grad school friend e-mailed me to say, Hey, the AHA is on theme X this year, and I want to do a session on Y – got anything you could present?
  • I presented the (first) follow-up project I mentioned above as part of a session in a series of sessions around a particular theme, and wholly serendipitously a publisher contacted the organizer of those sessions and said they’d like to see the papers put together as an essay collection.

I could go on, but my basic point is this: I can go back to my papers and publications and projects and see connections and relationships between everything I’ve worked on. It’s a modest little body of work, but there’s nothing wrong with it (except that I could have produced more. But we won’t go there now). Thing is, calling it an agenda seems to imply some kind of guiding purpose – one beyond "present some papers and write some articles" – that I’m not really sure was there.

The NEXT next project I mentioned? (The project that always looks so tantalizingly sexy when your current project is old, flabby, and boring?) That, strangely enough, really does derive solidly from my book, following up many of the same central themes and questions but in a totally different way. Should I actually finish the book, and write the next one, I will feel like I have a research agenda indeed. What I don’t know, though, is whether when I get there it will look anything like I’d imagined.

An update (because I know you couldn’t live without one)

My essay has, at long last, been purged of all those messy notes in all caps telling me to ADD CITATION HERE or CHECK THESE NUMBERS or ADD COMMENT RE: EMINENT SCHOLAR’S WORK. Hooray! Now I just need to, um, cut way too many words. But I can do that – I’m good at cutting. Really. (I just never exercise this skill on my blog posts.) So I’m thinking I might be able to send this sucker out this evening or, at the latest, tomorrow morning. Huzzah! Monkey on back goes bye-bye (soon, at least)!.

I had to laugh because I worked today at, yes, the coffeeshop – home is way too distracting right now, I keep looking around at things I need to pack or pitch – and when I got there, I saw someone from Former College  – who was denied tenure this year. I’ve seen him here quite a bit. Maybe history prof is right, maybe it is the coffeeshop! Though I have to confess that I’m more inclined to celebrate the fellowship of the rejected at this point, and so this makes me like the coffeeshop even more.

Speaking of fellowship, I was thinking again today at how good my grad program was at instilling fellowship in its alumni. When I resigned from this position (that sounds much better than saying "when I lost this position"), a friend of mine from grad school told another mutual acquaintance, who e-mailed me right away to let me know about a position that was opening up where s/he was working. This person isn’t someone I’m in touch with at all or ever knew very well, yet s/he actually contacted me at a couple of addresses to make sure I got the message. It was really nice. And I get the sense that not all grad programs foster this kind of behavior.

Finally, I am so craving dessert right now. Who’s bringing me ice cream?

Yet another reason to work a little bit every day (or close), rather than to work in binges

Because when you’re trying to finish typing in revisions scribbled on what you think is hard copy of the most recent draft of an essay, you’re much less likely to realize that the version you have in hard copy and the version you have on the computer aren’t the same, if the last time you looked at said essay was more recent than THREE MONTHS AGO.

(It is, however, reassuring to realize that when faced with the same infelicitous phrase you actually already corrected three months ago, you fix it the same way. Consistency is good.)

So, in case you were wondering…

… I actually spent an hour on the essay revision today.

(And that’s a full hour of work according to the little egg timer on my computer – not an hour of "I’m going to sit in front of my computer and open the file and mess with the font and change the footnote format and check my mail quick and oh let me respond to this message and then check my calendar and oh yeah, does the title of this paper look better like that or like this? and maybe I should add a word here, no, take it out, ooh who’s on Letterman tonight?…")

And you know what? it was painless and even fun.

It worked partly because I had minimal prep today (we were covering stuff I’ve discussed a zillion times), so could take the time. And partly because I chose not to wallow in time-sucking surfing of the internet.

Which, of course, I did NOT choose to do this evening, which is why I’m still up right now, reading a tale about how a monk tricks his enemies. And I have another reading assignment about a neurotic nun to complete, too (doesn’t it seem like a good idea, when your book orders are due, to assign all new readings? and doesn’t that suck when the time comes actually to, you know, READ them?) (although I should admit that the new readings are also making some old classes fun for me, because I was SO SICK of what I had been doing!).

And I also have six or seven papers to grade.

But tomorrow is Friday, YAY! Although I have a late-afternoon meeting, BOO! Anyway, my plan is to read some more tonight, finish in the morning, grade the papers before class, and then spend the time between class and my meeting doing more work on the essay revision. (It can be easy work like looking up footnotes, ’cause hey, that has to get done too!)

Although if I end up spending that time hanging out with my immensely cool junior colleagues whose company I really enjoy, well, hey, that has to be done sometimes. There’s always Saturday for uninterrupted research time.


Sometimes I wonder why it is that I don’t really work at home much. And then, every time I do try to work at home, I remember why it doesn’t work.


Isn’t he cute? Wouldn’t you like to have him come live with you? Please???

ETA: I know there are some of you out there to whom I owe e-mail… sorry to be so negligent, I’ve just been incredibly slackalicious lately! I’ll get in touch soon, I promise.