How to Write a Lot (2007)

Paul J. Silvia (2007). How to Write a Lot. Washington: American Pschological Association.
My rating: *****

How to Write a LotHow to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia

One of my hobbies is reading books, articles and blog posts by academics on how to write productively. My current reading on this topic is Paul J. Silvia’s entertaining and useful book How to Write a Lot. Silvia is based in the Psychology Department at the University of Carolina.

The book contains such encouraging advice as this: ‘Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write. Prolific writers make a schedule and stick to it (p.12) … There is no other way to write a lot’. (p.17) And this is of course the advice that all books of writing advice continually hammer home. The only solution is the practice of writing itself. One does not have to be brilliant, one just has to do it and not worry unduly if the quality is variable. As long as one is getting it out there. If today one is less than stylish, one has still succeeded in putting words on the page and tomorrow is always another writing (and editing) day.

On its last page, this cheerful and practical book exhorts the reader to enjoy life and to find balance. The goal is not to write oneself into oblivion, but to schedule writing activity so one can enjoy other activities in life free from the guilt of writing tasks undone. The author also creates a space of freedom for the reader suggesting: ‘Write as much or as little as you want to write … Publishing a lot does not make you a good person, psychologist or scientist’ (pp. 130-1) – something that sounds dangerously like heresy in the current university environment.

I will also cite the following, as it is a bit of a hobby horse of mine and one on which I am in total agreement with Silvia. Just substitute any other other humanities discipline of your choice for ‘psychologist’.

The great psychologists are remembered for their great books. No one reads the journal articles that Gordon Allport and Clark Hull wrote; people read Pattern and Growth in Personality (1961) instead… Psychology’s obsession with journal articles has inspired a lot of books, chapters and articles about how to publish articles (eg Sternberg 2000); there are few resources for aspiring book writers… Writing a book is more intellectually rewarding than writing an article. Books matter more than journal articles, chapters in edited books, and edited books, and they offer a chance to tackle big questions and to draw controversial conclusions. (pp. 109-110)

4 thoughts on “How to Write a Lot (2007)

  1. Thanks for this Clare. Completely agree about the relative merits of books over articles, though of course it is not an either/or, and many of the great psychologists (or whoever) also wrote articles – these, as today, can be side projects, initial explorations, parts of future books, etc.

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  2. It most definitely shouldn’t be an either/or situation. But what worries me at present is the lack of balance in the institutional recognition of the value and roles of different forms of writing.

    And of course not all journal articles are of lesser importance than books. One can cite, for example, George Akerlof’s famous article on the sales of cars, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1970. He eventually received a Nobel Memorial Prize for the article in recognition of the article’s contribution to economic theory.

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  3. Hi Clare, I came across another possible way to get enough time to write yesterday… Just get sick enough so that you’re bedridden, but not too sick to work! A quote from Elizabeth Barret Browning in 1838: “Lying in bed until two [is] very useful in enabling an invalid to get thro’ a good deal of writing.”

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  4. I like it! One could become a langorous and sickly Victorian writer. If one was productive enough to make lots of money from your invalid writing, you could maintain yourself in style on your couch with sweetmeats and sherry to the ready!

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