How to write a lot– in theory

I’m in the process of updating/upgrading my RSS feeds on blogs and my own blog spaces– look for an alert to a new blog address soon– and through this process, I stumbled across an entry on Nels “A Delicate Boy” Highberg’s blog (and he cites a much longer and detailed entry at the pseudo-anonymous blogger’s “New Kid on the Hallway” site) about a book called How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia. I think both of these other blogs do a much better job than I can in terms of a review/explanation, particularly NKH.

What I take from these reviews is that Silvia is trying to make two basic points. First, write every day/often/just do it/etc. Second, put writing time into your schedule, and he (apparently) argues that academics ought to schedule the time of their writing just like they would schedule the time of their teaching. No excuses.

Now, this is all fine and good advice, it’s one of the main lessons I learned as a writer over the years, it’s advice I give my grad students working on projects, and it’s advice I have been trying to follow myself in my own writing this last year. But I’ve struggled lately to follow this advice, and it makes me think about it a bit. In the opening pages Style, Lessons in Clarity and Grace, one of my favorite books on writing style (and writing advice of a sort, I suppose), Joseph Williams kind of mocks this sort of simplistic advice. He says something like “Telling me that I need to ‘be clear'” (and here Williams is making a not so veiled reference to Strunk and White’s famous advice book) “is like telling me to hit the ball squarely. I know that. What I need to know is how.”

It also seems to me that the advice on scheduling writing time and sticking to it no matter what is the sort of advice that either a) works in theory better than in practice, and/or b) is advice that comes from someone who doesn’t teach courses that involve a lot of time spent grading/responding to student writing. Interestingly enough, b) might very well be correct: Silvia is a Psychology professor, and he might not have to spend as much time reading and commenting on student writing. Time and the teaching of writing expands and contracts. The time I would have spent this morning writing I spent instead on commenting on short student projects– and thank God I’m just teaching one class (the other half of sabbatical lite is perhaps kicking in) and these were short essays. When I’m teaching a full load next year, this issue will be even more significant, though conversely, I hopefully won’t have to spend as much time with service/administrative stuff, which also has a way of expanding and contracting.

Anyway, then there is also the “bags of shit er, timesuck” that drop from the sky on academics everywhere: the request from some administrator for a detailed report that is due in two days, the brouhahas that get stirred up from nowhere and that demand immediate and exquisite attention, the emergency a student advisee has in terms of some kind of graduation audit or fee. Not to mention life in general.

And then, then there is also the distraction of other writing that takes away from “THE WRITING,” things like, well, this blog post.

Anyway, none of this is to discount Silvia’s advice. I am sure it is sound.

And be sure to eat write er right, don’t drink too much, get plenty of exercise, get plenty of sleep, spend quality time with your family and friends, read good books, watch good movies, recycle. And just write.

One thought on “How to write a lot– in theory”

  1. Right on, Steve. And on one of the things that such advice always leaves out is that it makes time for sitting down to write, but not the gestation time that I find important. I need to focus drive time in the car, walking between class, and/or other such non-writing times to think about my topic in between writing sessions. Otherwise, I just am not that productive sitting at the computer. In fact, some of my best ideas about a writing project come when I am away from the computer doing something else. It’s the old Eureka principle.

    So for me–and this is advice I have given to grad students about their dissertations–it’s really about focused attention, some of which happens at the computer, but some must happen at other times as well.

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