Book Review 02: How To Write A Lot

After the success of the first book review, I'm at it again.  Our second book review victim is "How to Write a Lot", by Dr. Paul J. Silvia.

click the image to buy it on Amazon (don't worry, I don't profit!), or check your local library

Paul is a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina.  This book is primarily aimed at an academic audience—the subtitle is "A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing"—but it's lessons are applicable by anyone struggling to write at the desired volumetric rate.

This book breaks the process down in seven sections:
  1. Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot
  2. Motivational Tools
  3. Starting Your Own Agraphia Group
  4. A Brief Foray Into Style
  5. Writing Journal Articles
  6. Writing Books
This book is concise, well-written, and Does What It Says On The Box: ★★★★★, highly recommended.


Paul does an excellent job of introducing of framing the problems of the typical writer:
Writing is hard, and I constantly fantasize about all of the writing I'm going to do over a long weekend or a vacation.  The long blocks of potential writing time continue to pass by, and I always seem to have much less to show for it than I anticipate.  Most of my writing projects are completed at the last possible second, and I have a backlog of writing projects that I've never managed to make much progress on.
The book's stated goal is to strip away the magical mysticism (and associated fear and superstition) surrounding the writing process and reduce it to what it really is: sitting down and moving a pen or punching a keyboard.  Writing a lot is a habit just like any other, and the book seeks to show you how to train yourself in that habit.

Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot

"I can't find the time to write", aka "I need long periods of time to write"

Discard the poisonous 'finding time' mentality—ALLOT time.  Binge writing is unsustainable and incompatible with your real-world responsibilities—make a schedule to write regularly and adhere to it.  Other people will not necessarily respect your writing time, so you're going to have to defend it.

"One more analysis/one more article/one more <other excuse>, then I'll start writing"

All of the preliminary work that you need to do to successfully write something—data analysis, reading other articles, preparing figures—falls under the domain of 'prewriting'.  Break this procrastination habit by doing prewriting during your regularly-scheduled writing time; otherwise you'll never 'find the time' to do any of it.

"I need a new computer/nicer chair/better pen before I can write more"

No you don't.  Plenty of novels have been written on particle board desks and folding chairs.

"I'm waiting until I feel like writing/feel inspired"

How's that going for you?  You bought this book, so probably not so well.

You're probably never going to feel inspired to write up an operating procedure or an instruction manual, but these are things that sometimes need to be done.  Writing is not a mystical inspired activity—in many ways, it has more in common with mowing the lawn or shoveling snow than it does with any epiphany-driven activity.  Serious writers become better writers by writing a lot on a regular basis.  There are no shortcuts.

Motivational Tools

Set goals for your writing project

Figure out everything you are interested in writing in the next year and write it down.  Prioritize these projects.  Then write down the steps you'll need to take to complete your first project, and prioritize these steps.  Set a specific, focused, concrete goal for your scheduled writing time, and get to it.

Monitor your progress

Use a notebook or make a text document or a spreadsheet to keep track of your progress toward your writing goals.  Record when you write, whether or not you meet your goal, and any other information you might like to track.  Reward yourself for your successes, but never by skipping scheduled writing!

Writer's Block

Academic and technical writers do not rely on 'inspiration' and cannot get writers block.  My favorite quote from the entire book: "Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and the portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement."

Starting Your Own Agraphia Group

'Agraphia' is the pathological loss of the ability to write.  An Agraphia Group is essentially a social support group for those struggling to write more.

Meet briefly once a week and set writing goals as a group.  Stick to writing goals only!  By making yourself accountable to others, you're more likely to accomplish your stated goals.

Establish some sort of social reward system (baked goods?) for success, and 'strongly encourage' the slackers to pick up the pace.

Consider having the group read books on writing, such as On Writing Well (Zinsser, 2001) or Junk English (Smith, 2001).

Drink exorbitant quantities of coffee.

A Brief Foray Into Style

Academics especially tend to have very poorly-developed writing style.  They overcomplicate things to sound smarter, using big words and convoluted phrasing when simplicity would suffice.

Omit needless words.  Simplify sentence structure.  Only use abbreviations when they actually simplify your writing.  Understand and utilize parallelism.  Learn and practice proper usage of the colon, semicolon, hyphen, em-dash, and en-dash.  Reel in inappropriate comma usage.  Avoid passive, limp, and wordy phrases.  This chapter includes plenty of examples, and sparked my ongoing love affair with the em-dash (—).

Above all: write first, revise later!  You can tweak all you want, but focus on getting the superstructure down before you worry over what color to paint the walls.

Writing Journal Articles

Guidelines on how to structure an academic journal article and how to manage the writing and review process.  A good overview, but not really relevant to non-academics.

Writing Books

There are many possible reasons for writing a book: understanding a field better, understanding your own thinking about a field better, conveying ideas that are too complex for other, shorter media.

The process is fairly straightforward: find a coauthor who complements your knowledge and style and writes a lot, outline the book, and then write it!  Organize your progress and resources by chapter, and work your way through sequentially.  Don't bother writing the introduction until you've finished everything else: the final product will almost certainly look totally different from what you originally imagined.

This chapter also includes advice about approaching a publisher and signing a book contract.

And that's it!  An ironically short book on writing more, but the tenets are simple.

This all sounds very good in theory, but how does it work out in practice?  How have I put this book's lessons to work in my own life?  Check back in tomorrow for an extended discussion.