How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007)
Many of us find it difficult to manage the task of academic writing among all of the activities that occupy our time. As greater writing expectations begin to emerge within our academic careers, anxiety and excuses often get in the way of producing written output. In this amusing book, Silvia provides insight into why graduate students, faculty members, and academic researchers have difficulty producing written text. He offers hope for aspiring academic writers by emphasizing the idea that writing is not a fixed ability; it is a skill that can be refined and developed over time. This collaborative book review was completed as a part of a special seminar on Faculty Work and the Academic Workplace, offered through a Personnel Preparation: Leadership Training Grant funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.
In this "how to" manual on increasing one's academic writing, Silvia begins by explaining why many academics struggle to produce written work. Because academic writing can be perceived as a daunting task that requires the integration of existing literature, the use of complex statistical analyses and methodological procedures, and the expectancy of high writing standards, people often create seemingly plausible and superficially attractive excuses for a lack of productivity. For example, some point to the need for big chunks of time to devote to writing or the need for further analyses prior to writing, while others simply argue that they lack inspiration to write effectively.
To further illustrate this idea, Silvia attempts to normalize problematic writing styles, such as describing the "binge writer" who goes days without writing and only when an immediate deadline emerges does he or she write consecutive hours. Although this strategy may bring academic writers some success, this anxiety-provoking strategy is less productive than writing regularly and can lead to feelings of guilt for the lack of consistent production. By creating these characterizations, Silvia encourages readers to analyze their current writing strategies and develop areas for improvement. Before attempting to create solutions, writers must first identify the problem getting in the way of academic writing time.
According to Silvia, scheduling is the secret to regular and productive writing. The first tip that Silvia provides to academic writers wanting to increase their writing productivity is to create a scheduled time for scholarly writing just as they schedule time for meetings, teaching, and studying. In Silvia's candid and engaging literary voice, he states that academic writing can be effortful, painful, and boring. This being said, it is easy to put off writing and prioritize other activities. Thus, the power behind effective scheduling is the individual accountability that it creates for the writer. Allocating time to write, as opposed to finding time to write, eases anxiety of and can lead to higher levels of academic writing.
Silvia provides an array of motivational and behavioral strategies that can assist regularly scheduled writing. Setting goals, prioritizing projects, and monitoring progress can allow the writer to feel proud and accomplished, as well as promote adherence to daily routines. Another helpful suggestion for current graduate students working on their dissertations and early career faculty members working towards tenure is the development and use of a writing group. Working together with other writers with similar interests helps group members to monitor progress, focus on writing goals, and make this often internal process become increasingly an external one.
Many suggestions that Silvia proposes in his book are helpful recommendations, though some chapters are differentially applicable to graduate students and faculty. In his book, Silvia provides several pedagogical chapters regarding writing scholarly journal articles and books. For example, these chapters include advice regarding how to write meaningful manuscripts, navigate the publication process, and guide the reader through the publication process. Although Silvia provides rich information in these areas, academic writers at varying levels of their professional development may find these chapters differentially important. Additionally, Silvia's advise about strictly scheduling blocks of time for reading and not allowing anything else to take priority may be too rigid for some. Furthermore, it can be argued that the chapter on style is outside of the scope of the theme of the book, suggesting that the author may be attempting to cover too much content within one published work.
Overall, How to Write a Lot is a relevant, therapeutic, and valuable asset to the academic writer's library. This quick read not only encourages writers to identify problematic habits and baseless barriers to productive writing, but also provides practical behavioral suggestions to promote text production and increase one's writing fluency. Academic writers, from the graduate student to the tenured professor, will find this book to be applicable to scholarly life and we feel the text can serve to inspire readers to prioritize writing.
Hannah Fish, MA
Danielle Palmer, MA
Anisa Goforth, MA , and
John S. Carlson, PhD
Michigan State University
Tami Mannes, MA
Joshua Plavnik, PhD,
Summer J. Ferreri, PhD
Angela Maupin, MA,
Emily Sportsman, MA
Evelyn R. Oka, PhD