Book Review: How to write a lot

How to Write a Lot, Paul J Silvia, APA Washington, 2007.

This is a great little book. Apart from its content and central message (which is obvious), I love the style. There are no boxed asides, no “Top Ten Hits from the Best Writers“, no planning charts,  or any other visual false idols, which make you feel like you are going to be a better writer having looked at them. Instead, it’s like a book of old, containing just paragraphs of text (imagine that!), with a simple but elegant imprint. The occasional New Yorker cartoon matches the author’s dry sense of humour.

Writing takes time

The message of the book is simple – allocate time to writing. But you don’t need a book to tell you this. The first chapter sets the theme for the book. Writing is hard, and there is no easy way to write a lot. To write a lot takes hard work – so you need to allocate time to it. The honesty is refreshing.

The honesty continues into chapter two, where several “specious barriers” to writing are easily (and amusingly) dismantled. I must admit to holding onto a few of these barriers myself (“needing a space to write” being among them), and as a practical outcome of reading the book, I am willing to approach writing anew. Chapter three discusses motivation, and the very important aspect of monitoring. In monitoring my own writing of a major document last year, I couldn’t refute the damning evidence that I was, like most academics, a binge writer. Binge writing is an uncomfortable, unpleasant experience. Deadlines loom, writing is fast and there is little time for reflection. The output is satisfactory at best, and one is left with a sense of “I could have done that better but I didn’t have the time”. I admit (as the book itself astutely states) that there are a few major writings of mine, including some academic articles, that I look at now in horror and wish I could rewind the typewriter and redo. Regularly writing means that the notion of binge writing no longer holds.

After reading the book you are left with a sense of "Yes We Can!" (Picture Credit: Marcn on Flickr - link below)

Style and academic output

Chapter four outlines the benefit of writing in groups – simply because social pressure is a useful motivational tool. This shouldn’t be a surprise to academics, as we recommend with good reason that students study in groups for similar reasons, and more. Chapter five discusses some elements of style, and while I don’t think it is necessary in this book, there are some amusing pet-hates the author clearly needs to get out of his system. The comment on “existing literature” (p. 62) makes the book a worthwhile read in itself. Chapters six and seven discuss journal articles and books. While there are some elements in these chapters that will be useful to newcomers to this area (including some details on layout of paper and what to do when a reviewer gets nasty), the core message of the book is in the earlier chapters – allocate time to writing and many of the problems associated with writing disappear.

Overall

The book is easily read over two or three cups of coffee, during times when you could be writing I suppose. But after reading it, I am left with a clearer sense of “a writing approach”, that a book with lots of plans and graphics could never have given me. This is mainly due to the author’s own style of writing, which to coin a favourite phrase, gives me a feeling of “Yes I Can!”.

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