How to write a lot

PhD students have to do a lot of a lot of reading. One of our philosophies at the Whisperer is to ease that burden by doing some of the reading for you. We can’t read about quantum mechanics or global terrorism, but we can read books on doing a thesis. With that in mind I present our first book review.

A while back Paul Gruba, co-author of “How to write a better thesis”, recommended a book by Paul J. Silvia called“How to write a lot”. Since I respect Paul’s judgment I dutifully went to the RMIT library, borrowed it and took it back to my office. I’m sorry to say from this point its fate was similar to many books I borrow – I skimmed the first couple of pages for the key messages then put it on my TBR (to be read) stack.

As is the way of most books that end up in TBR, “How to write a lot” gathered dust until the library hassled me to return it. Yesterday, gripped with that compulsive fear of being dull that teachers sometimes get, I went to the library to seek some inspiration for my upcoming workshop “Writing – from chunks to chapters”. I grabbed the book and, mindful of my failure last time,  took “How to write a lot” with me to read on the tram.

I got to page 44 by the time I reached my stop and I was hooked. My standard approach to books on writing is brutal. If they are boring and hard to read the person shouldn’t be trying to teach you to write. This one read, as they say, like butter. As an added bonus it made me laugh out loud in parts.

It was so good I assumed the author must be some old timey academic who had chosen to finally dispense his wisdom in this compact little volume. Imagine my chagrin when I looked at the publishing details and found out that the guy is 6 years younger than me. Crikey.

The takeaway message that Paul Silvia has for us in his book is that there is no such thing as academic writer’s block. He claims that, just as the  people who believe in UFO abductions tend to be the ones who get abducted, only those academics who believe in writer’s block get writer’s block. As he amusingly puts it:

“Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with the big paint sprayers who repaint your basement” (pg 45)

According to Paul Silvia, the key to writing a lot  is to schedule time to do it. But if I leave you with the impression that this is all there is to this book I would be selling it short. Dr Silvia is a psychologist and he makes some astute (and rather uncomfortable) observations about academic behaviour. In particular about the excuses we tell ourselves about our inability to write as much as we would like.

One of these excuses (definitely my preferred one) is that we don’t have time to write. Rubbish says Paul Silvia. The reason we don’t have time is we don’t make time by scheduling in writing along with all the other things we have to do. He accuses many academics of being ‘binge writers’ who think they will get their writing done only when they have a long stretch of time to do it. These writers may well be productive during a holiday or weekend. Dr Silvia points out this might be one of the reasons why academics can be difficult people to be married to.

Dr Silvia is a self confessed obsessive about his scheduled writing time and writes every week day from 8am to 10am. It obviously works for him because he has an impressive list of publications. My first thought on reading this was that he must not have children because that routine would be impossible for me. But maybe I am just making excuses?

I’m sure there are many of you who are like me – capable of being very productive writers if properly motivated. While finishing the last draft of my thesis I was working full time and could only write after 7:30pm when my 7 year old boy was in bed.  Writing at night was pure torture after a full day of writing at work, so I made a pact that I had to do at least an hour a night. If, after an hour, I was hating it I stopped. This worked for me and I finished – quicker than I thought I would. Often all I needed was application of bottom to seat and then I could go on for a couple of hours. If not I watched TV without guilt.

Paul Silvia must be interesting to live with because he even goes as far as using SPSS spreadsheets to track his word count. He claims this gives him a sense of achievement and an ability to be able to estimate how long it will take him to do something. I susoect I wont ever reach that level of nerdiness, but I think he is onto something.

Research shows that those dieters who keep a food diary lose twice as much weight as those who don’t. Maybe one way to overcome academic binge writing is to approach your thesis weight watchers style by tracking your energy input and output?

Anyway – go and read “How to write a lot” – if you can make the time. There are many other tips to increase your productivity and a surprisingly good section on grammar.

Related Posts

5 books to help you with your PhD

The literature review – knowing when to stop

38 thoughts on “How to write a lot

  1. Beatriz Maturana says:

    Great post Inger, thanks! Will try to give the schedule a go. I think the key is to be able to visualise the achievement (eg number of words)–the opposite is frustrating.

  2. Dhirendra Singh says:

    Thanks for the post Inger.

    One trick that works for me with writer’s block (read procrastination of any kind) is to put on a favourite album and say to myself that I will work wholeheartedly for the duration of the first song – and if I’m still unmotivated after that then I’ll give up.

    Usually that’s all it takes to kick start a productive session.

  3. Susan Inglis says:

    I have also read the book and summarised it for a research group as part of my thesis on knowledge sharing. One of the things they were having trouble with was finding the time to write publications from their research. An idea from the book that I thought was useful was establishing a writing group. You commit to writing a certain chapter by a certain time. I am doing this with my supervisor at the moment as there are three of us writing up our Doctorate. It is working really well. I must be extrinsically motivated as having an agreed shared deadline really works! I am making great progress.

    In terms of time management a key is to focus on doing what is important. if finishing the thesis is important it needs a disciplined approach to get it done (and get it out of the way to get on with real life!!) To inspire me I’ve drawn a poster of receiving the Doctorate and all the things I want to do post-Doctorate (which does include drawing on the learning from the thesis, as well as bird-watching and scuba-diving). So this helps me to keep focussed!

    Keeping a journal from the start and then reminding yourslef why you are doing it is another valuable activity. I recently read back through 5 years of journalling (part of my data) and it reenergised me because I still feel the topic is important. Finding ways to reignite the passion is helpful when things get tough…

  4. angcwabe says:

    Hi Guys. I have just completed my ND: Information Technology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Next year will do BTech IT from there I want to go straight up to PhD. I would like start researching now and make research my hobby. Where can I start to pursue this dream.

  5. Steve Moss says:

    This has given me an urge to write a plugin/script (for Word?) that can track productivity by recording words written over time! It would be cool to visualise this using something like a time series plot over different periods such as days, weeks and months!?

  6. David Pang says:

    Paul de Silva’s idea of developing writing habits is akin to the dynamics of writing: ‘word by word’, ‘brick by brick’ and so on. If we write a ‘bit’ everyday, imagine the amount of writing you have done after a week, a month, 365 days .. It makes sense to develop a habit of writing regularly. Writing productively is about Academic Assertiveness which is the aggregation of Goal + Motivation + Discipline + Habits = Academic success (e.g. PhD in 3 years, x number of publications a year).

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  9. andrewwentmad says:

    Love the site, hate my thesis.

    But anyway, the link to the workshop “Writing – from chunks to chapters” doesn’t seem to work.

    Are you able to share the presentation and notes, or do you discuss this issue in any other blog posts?

    You probably have a fair idea considering all the positive comments you receive, but for dramatic effect I’d just like to say that you have no idea how helpful and encouraging your site is!

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