Monday, 23 May 2016

Post 83: Book Review: Scheduled Writing, Habitual Writing, or "How to Write a Lot"

This post is written with, once again, big hugs and thanks to my colleague Dr. Garrett Richards, now a post-doc at the University of Saskatchewan, who recently recommended the book the title of this post refers to.

"How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing" by Paul J. Silva is a practical, no-nonsense book geared at helping academics (and graduate students) learn how to write more productively. While the book specifically targets psychology graduate students and academics, its principles are general enough to appeal to those across other disciplines, too.

From my reading of the first—excellent—three chapters, the basic messages of the chapters are this:

1. Writing is a skill that can be learned, especially if one is willing to put in the time to learn how to write well.
2. "Academic writing should be more routine, boring, and mundane than it is."
3. Scheduled, regular writing is more important than the number of hours in a day or days per week. (This is the establishing the mundane part of writing.) 
4. Any of the common excuses you make for not writing are not good ones, so don't make them. Some of the common and pervasive excuses that the book blasts in Chapter 2 are:

Wisteria on campus at one of the Chapel entrances. Very lovely!
A. You don't 'have the time' to write; you do: you allocate time to write every week/day, and are rigid about that time. This way, writing is regular and expected. 

B. Need to read more, analyze more data, run more tests... This is fine, as long as you actually do these things during your scheduled writing so you can get closer to putting words down on paper for yourself. Whether it's reading another article, running another statistical test, or reading through a journal's submission guidelines. As long as you're not using those things as excuses to avoid sitting down and working on or getting closer to what you need to be productive with your writing.

C. (This one is most obviously excuse-like:) Need a better desk, chair, computer, etc., in order to write. Need the 'right' notebook, or something like that. **Note: I haven't encountered this excuse myself, and while I can't say as much about the other ones, I haven't found myself talking about this, either. But in short, you don't need the latest and greatest technology in order to write.
As a side note: If you have an existing repetitive-strain or motion injury (I've dealt with one of these myself before), then do do your homework and figure out what ergonomics you need to change in order to be able to write comfortably, and without injury. I've written about my discussion with the on-campus ergonomics person here. 

D. You want to wait until you feel like writing. This one has to do with feeling inspired to write, and the idea that the best writing comes from those inspired emotions. However, this leads to inconsistent, erratic writing patterns that usually doesn't produce a lot of words, and if you want to finish your thesis, then you need to regularly be putting words to paper and doing something with them.

Lovely white harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) with tiny dragonflies in them!! Walking James Bay this May. 
Chapter three starts in on some motivational tools to get writing. And I've found some of them helpful myself.

The first is setting small, manageable project goals. You want to be able to measure your progress and keep moving forward in a way that you feel good about. Setting small milestones is a great way to get to passing big ones. You can also have an ongoing list of things that you want to write, which, when you have a regular writing schedule, become an ordered list of things to do. "A binge writer," Sylvia writes, "would feel anxious when confronted with this long list of writing projects, but you have a schedule." And you will get all your writing done in your scheduled writing time. :) (There's a lot more in the book about goal setting... and I'm really squishing this material down. Forgive me.)

Prioritizing your writing projects. Silvia suggests this order of things after his discussions with successful graduate students:
1. Projects with deadlines (eg. papers for classes, grant proposals, etc.)
2. Curricular writing (eg. a thesis!)
3. Professional publications (eg. an academic article or a white paper)
4. Other, miscellaneous writing (such as this blog!)

Then Silva spends a bit of time discussing monitoring your progress, or collecting data about yourself and your writing habits, behavioural patterns, and outputs. You set yourself a writing schedule for 8AM-10AM every morning of the Mon-Fri work week, but you are not a morning person, and you get discouraged because you sleep through your start times. Okay, so maybe mornings aren't your best time to write. But you can keep track of different times you set to write for yourself, and track that data! Then you can start to see when you meet your writing goals (keep them small and manageable), and then you keep up your momentum and motivation.

This chapter finishes with a quick note about writer's block. Basically, Silvia argues that academic writers can't get writer's block. "What are you trying to write?" he asks. "You're not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart. The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might (p. 45)."

He goes on to say: "Saying that you're not writing because of writer's block is merely saying that you can't write because you aren't writing." I think this is true enough. When I think of things that prevent me from writing (impostor syndrome, fear of failing, perfectionism...), these are things I allow to get in my way, but not because I don't know what to say. It's because I'm afraid that what I'll write won't be good enough. Though if I think about that, that's what revision is for!! :)

Meet Stewie: the tiny and oh-so-cute deep sea octopus print from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 Exhibit at the Royal BC Museum that I received as a lovely late-birthday present. <3
As a graduate student, human being, and world citizen, you do have lots of things to write and say and share, whether it's for yourself or for others. It's a lot less stressful sitting down to write out a draft of something, revise it, and figure out how best to express it than to get caught up in worrying about how you might say the things you want or need to, but not giving yourself the change or set up to be successful in doing so. (I write this as a reminder to myself, as well.) :)

The book has five more chapters, continuing on with how to form your own specific writing group, a discussion of style, one chapter each on how to write journal articles or books, and finishes with a short chapter on "The Good Things Still to Be Written", or reinforcing how scheduled writing will be rewarding, that you will spend more time writing, as opposed to wanting to write, that you will enjoy life more because you aren't stressing out about how much not writing stresses you, and that you can write as much or as little as you want. Cheers to that!

And, as the book mentions: "Let everyone else procrastinate, daydream, and complain-spend your time sitting down and moving your mittens."  Wishing you much happy, scheduled, regular, and mundane writing ahead!

Sylvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.   

No comments:

Post a Comment