Motivation and Encouragement for Dissertation Writers Across Disciplines

Guest Book Review: How To Write a Lot

In contribute, dissertation writing manuals, guest post, reviews, writing tips on November 5, 2010 at 7:13 am

I’m out of town at a conference this week, so instead of the usual blog carnival post I’m happy to share this guest review from a TD:D reader, Tim Rutherford-Johnson.  If you would like to contribute a guest post or review, write to tododissertation [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks for your contribution, Tim!

Book review: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul J. Silvia (American Psychological Association, 2007)

I’m an ex-academic (a PhD who gave up searching for non-existent jobs) who should already be a pretty productive writer (post-PhD I make part of my living selling my words). Nevertheless, this book had its effect on me. Silvia’s appealingly straightforward central tenet is this: productive writers schedule when they’re going to write. I’ve read this excellent truth many times before and yet it is only reading Silvia that has prompted me to open up iCal and start blocking a few hours a week as dedicated writing time. The beauty of the system is that you never need spend time worrying about not writing: you simply write in your scheduled hours, and stop thinking about it outside them. Suddenly I don’t feel the pressure to burn my Sunday afternoons writing any more. Nice!

So in its straightforward, no-nonsense fashion How to Write a Lot can teach even this old(ish) dog a new trick. But there’s more to it than just scheduling. As the name of this book’s publisher indicates, Silvia is a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and he isn’t afraid to pull in scientific support for his arguments, whether they be the productivity benefits of regular writing or the myth of writer’s block.

At its best, this gives his suggestions a reassuring basis in scientific evidence – this a self-help guide that has the support of peer-review. When an author is able to reference experimental data that shows why steady, regular writers are more productive than “binge” writers I’m more inclined to take their advice seriously. However, the blend of science and light-hearted tips also gives How to Write a Lot something of a split personality.

For one thing, most readers will be surprised at Silvia’s insistent focus on the “we” of psychologists rather than addressing himself to a general academic reader (as his title does). Most of his points are generally applicable to all academic writers – there is a very handy little chapter on style from which all authors could benefit – but it is wearing to have to convert the specific into the general on every other page. The problem becomes acute in the chapter on “Writing Journal Articles”, whose breakdown of an article’s structure (Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion) is probably too peculiar to science papers to be much use to authors in the humanities. Yet more oddly, Silvia’s focus on his own discipline of psychology leads him to make occasional, bizarrely blinkered statements such as “If you would like to write a book, you won’t find much practical advice about how to do it”.

And although How to Write a Lot is introduced in its first line as “not a scholarly book” it is needlessly referenced as though it were one (“When T. Shelley Duval and I wrote our book about self-awareness (Duval & Silvia, 2001) …”). Unnecessary clutter. How to Write a Lot is, therefore, a slightly bumpy read, but it has more than enough good points of advice to make it an invaluable purchase for any serious academic author.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a Musicology PhD who got out to become a specialist academic proofreader, and a writer on music.

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