Friday, August 24, 2012

How to Write a Lot

Another book on how to write; this time, a lot. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia is short, light-heart-ed throughout and good. It primarily attends to academic writing in the field of psychology but also contains essential advice that holds true for any science writer in academia.

By 'writing', Paul means not only the act of putting words onto a medium but includes any and all tasks related to generating those words. Thinking, analyzing data, drawing graphs, reading related literature, making notes, editing and re-writing, revising a manuscript, writing rebuttals... activities that makes you progress in a particular project involving writing. However, it doesn't include doing peer reviews of research, chatting up with colleagues even on a research problem, discussing research with your students, teaching, committee meetings and so may be already doing "a lot" in any or all of these, but these are not writing activities. Not surprisingly, 'blogging' doesn't feature at all -- neither in the 'writing' nor in the 'not writing' group of activities. Perhaps, one should neither schedule nor feel distracted about pastimes.

The first two chapters -- if not the rest -- are worth the price of the book. The second chapter on Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot hits the mark with humor. It correctly identifies some of the 'lies' we tell repeatedly until such time we start believing them as 'reasons' for not writing more. Complaining about 'not finding time' is one such. One should not 'find' time to write; one should make time to write.

Here is another sample from that chapter:

When unproductive writers complain that they don’t have fast Internet access at home, I congratulate them on their sound judgment. A close look at Figure 2.1 (where Paul shows a picture of his writing desk with an old laptop and few other rudimentary stuff) shows that there’s no Internet cable plugged into the computer. My wife has fast Internet access in her home office, but I don’t have anything. It’s a distraction. Writing time is for writing, not for checking e-mail, reading the news, or browsing the latest issues of journals. Sometimes I think it would be nice to download articles while writing, but I can do that at the office. The best kind of self-control is to avoid situations that require self-control.

“In order to write,” wrote William Saroyan (1952), “all a man needs is paper and a pencil” (p. 42). Equipment will never help you write a lot; only making a schedule and sticking to it will make you a productive writer.

I could immediately relate to the above advice. A not so different sentiment is discussed some years back in Disconnecting Distractions essay by Paul Graham. He uses two computers, one with the internet and the other where the real work gets done, without it.

At the end of the second chapter Paul Silvia provides the remedy for thwarting such 'writing barriers': Schedule your writing and stick to it. That is the only way one could write a lot; at least in academia (non-fiction). Sounds too simple? Scheduling a task means hermetically sealing oneself from the rest of the tasks and thoughts that life's juggernaut generates at any instant and doing only that task, come what may. From my limited experience, I would agree with him.

The rest of the book, in my opinion, is an overstatement of this idea. If you can take my 'blogger' words for granted, close this book at the end of the second or perhaps third chapter (Motivational Tools). And make a schedule for your writing and stick to it. OTOH, go ahead and read the book and then schedule your writing; the results should convince you that you should have taken my word.