Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot (American Psychological Association, 2007).
The basic premise behind Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot is that the only way to getting writing done is by writing. Silvia demystifies the craft of writing and reminds us that there is no magic solution: writers simply sit their behinds down (or stand, for the conscientious who prefer standing desks) and put words to paper—or screen. “Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write,” Silvia says. “Prolific writers make a schedule and stick to it. It’s that simple” (12). The key is regularity, he adds, not the amount of time spent. Whether one devotes 4 hours per week or daily blocks of time, it is important to set aside that time which slowly accrues and yields dividends of writing output. Additionally, be specific with goals for the day. Rather than “write today,” set yourself the goal of “write at least 200 words today.” Then reward yourself (e.g., a snack, a coffee, etc.).
Some writers believe that every second of the allotted “writing time” must be devoted to writing. However, Silvia encourages writers to use the time for anything that would ultimately contribute to writing. So, for example, if you must do more research, then spend that time digging through articles. If you want to read a book on writing, then read it. In the end, Silvia frees the writer from guilt that besets many a writer. (Thanks to Ryan Vasut for bringing up this point with me in conversation.)
One suggestion Silvia offers is of forming a writing support group for people who want to write “faster and better.” A colleague of Silvia suggested “agraphia,” the term for the pathologic loss of the ability to write (51). While some writers like to work collaboratively, others prefer to be secluded from the world. Regardless, to greater or lesser degree all writers should have some network to bounce ideas and receive constructive feedback and input. This year I’ve joined an online writers’ consortium hosted by Jonathan Rogers, author of a recent biography on Flannery O’Connor and a trilogy of children’s books (which I highly commend). The desire is to “offer each other encouragement, accountability, advice, and –hopefully—a growing conviction that the long journey of the writer is worth the effort.” If interested, consider joining yourself!
Silvia also has a brief section on style. He bemoans the poor writing that infects much of academic writing—academese that is stuffy, impenetrable, and unenjoyable. Silvia encourages writers to choose good words. (I would add choose the right, or precise word.) He writes, “The English language has a lot of words, and many of them are short, expressive, and familiar—write with these words” (61). And Silvia says the writer is to write first and then revise. Many writers are needlessly squander time and mental energy in analyzing each sentence as they write. This often derails the thought progression. “Revising while you generate text is like drinking decaffeinated coffee in the early morning: noble idea, wrong time” (76). Instead of a desire to turn each sentence into a masterpiece, unleash your fingers on the keyboard and freely write. “Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a nonnative speaker” (76).
There are many more takeaways from this book. It is a quick read and I commend to all who want to write a lot.