How to Write a Lot: Main Takeaways

Silvia, Paul J. How to Write a Lot: A Guide to Productive Academic Writing. American Psychological Association: Washington, DC, 2019. Print.

Silvia tries to breakdown the usual pitfalls of academic writing and describes how writing schedules can help. He also outlines strategies for writing academic journals, books, and grant proposals—as well as thoughts on academic style.

Some key takeaways. Writing is hard, and building a habit—even a small one of 4 hours per week—can make a major difference, while waiting for inspiration or large chunks of time leads to “binge writing” before deadlines or no writing.

To create a schedule, set aside a regular block of time and defend it like a class from yourself and others. You need a “defensible” time, a time that you know you can make regularly. Also, stick to a regular place that yields results: don’t pick a place simply because you like it.

To start, make a list of projects and prioritize them, and each day or week pick specific tasks and prioritize them, creating word goals or section goals. He provides heuristics to help with this. As you write, don’t reward success with skip days, and don’t punish yourself by writing during free time.

His other advice on style–typical of Strunk and White and William Zinsser–says to use simple, direct language, omit needless words, and vary sentences and phrases with parallelism, readability, and clarity in mind. His advice on other academic genres, like journal articles, is also helpful: know your audience, break up the larger project in time and structure, and prioritize projects in ways that will benefit your career and research most.

Self-care and Students

This week, Jay Dolmage–a prominent disability and disability rhetoric scholar–has been to Syracuse for our department’s Spring Conference, giving a talk and leading a workshop (both were wonderful, and here are the materials and more on accessibility and disability studies). It, along with some other things, have made me think about self care and students.

I’ve always found that writing instructors have a unique connection with students, compared with other disciplines. We often have smaller classes, we tend to get a huge portion of the university, and we get a lot of frosh students. In addition, writing tends to involve many more skills than “grammar”: critical thinking, reading strategies, synthesizing ideas, formulating arguments, researching topics, analyzing primary and secondary sources, evaluating sources, cultivating and managing productive work and workflow strategies, etc.

And, perhaps in a more Romantic sense, writing, even academic writing, is a personal task. Though the image of the lone writer in some castellated tower is not accurate, writing and authorship–crafting a cohesive document that carries our mark and oftentimes our name–is something powerful, even in our information-saturated age. Issues of voice and privilege play a role, along with identity. And, one of my favorite adages from the field remains: “Writing is thinking.” Often, as we think through an issue by writing, we learn something new.

I am not saying that this is true for all writers nor with all writing, but it happens. And we often give a space for students to reflect on issues like identity and experience because literacies, in all their forms, are fundamental to how we exist in and experience the world. As the humanities get stripped and softened in many universities, “writing” provides a space to reflect on fundamental questions and experiences–should students and administrators allow it.

All this is to say that increasingly, though we already have too much to teach in a semester, I’ve been trying to address, or think about addressing, issues that are not immediately tied to writing. And this post, I want to stress self-care (or self care, with no hyphen?). Inspired by my colleague Allison Hitt, and others, I’ve increasingly made some space to address self-care with students, particularly strategies and experiences.

This deserves its own post or article, and the input of others with more experience, but for now, I often start with this article on perfectionism and procrastination. It disarms the usual narratives we and our students tell ourselves–and are told–about productivity and laziness.

But in a more general sense, I think “addressing self care” involves getting into the embodied, day-to-day experiences of being students and writers, of being friends and partners, of being sons and daughters (or something else, articulated or not)–in short, we get at being human.

And, it does not always work. And it can been exploitative and risky for you and students, with plenty of pitfalls–and is impossible with increasingly destructive teaching loads for adjuncts and others–but I feel like it is important to consider and strive for when possible, not only for our unique connection with students in higher ed, but also for the fact that questions of productivity, writing, and development involve care.

You cannot succeed, or even survive, if you’re always treading water.

And, as part of my own focus on technology, I also increasingly think it’s important to talk about privacy, cyber security, and technology habits as part of our profession. Media literacy, password security, the mental effects of social media, screen time, etc., are both questions of literacy and questions of self-care. As our digital lives and “flesh” lives infuse–as well as the literacies and skills we rely on to negotiate these lives–the importance of these topics increase.

I know I am not new at this, from Stuart Selber to Estee Beck–and Selfe and Hawisher and a bunch of other brilliant young and cornerstone scholars–writing instructors have long recognized the role of technology in composing. But, I think we also recognize the intersection of self, technology, and literacy in ways that are profound and unique. And increasingly important.

Why I love gardening

I love gardening because it represents hope and future. So often, we are trying to “get things done” or, like Hannah Arendt’s notion of labor, we are doing something that will need to be re-done at some point inevitably and likely in the near future. But gardening is a sort of tactile luxury saturated in promise.

So, currently, I have been cultivating a few herbs the past few months with genuine success. I just have one window, and they have sad days, but in general, they are doing OK.

Side note: anyone with gardening advice, feel free to post. But as you can see, I have a few pots with mostly soil. I decided on a whim to get some seeds and see where they went. I often buy plants, and I may do so again, but here we are. And a few days ago, my pea plant started sprouting.

And, seeing this little pea burst up felt really good. It is likely a bit basic, but I appreciate testing the soil and sun each day and seeing, almost stork-like, if the soil brings new life. And I know farmers have a different situation and that is why I call this “gardening” or even vanity gardening, as I am doing this out of a love growing plants, not out of livelihood. (Side note: give farmers help and support local agriculture.)

As I started, this is about hope. And since it is spring here–hell yeah, more flower pics soon–I always come back to one of my favorite poems, Charlotte Smith’s Sonnet Viii, “To Spring.” It is a mixed poem with the end, but I always come back to that “AGAIN” that starts it, as it expresses a sense of renewal. But gardening represents more than renewal; it represents genuinely new life. Time to get started.

A paragraph

Earlier this week, I met with my adviser, and we talked about writing. I have had a hard time writing anything: academic, creative, teachery, etc. And to give some stakes, (1) I have prospectus due soon and (2) I recently failed to write chapter that was due. But we talked about writing a paragraph each day to get better. So here is my paragraph.

I remember once living at Mount Irenaeus as part of an internship. I woke up each day at five in my tent. Side note: the three “companions” lived in a trio of tents on platforms up a hill, near the chapel, while around six friars lived in the buildings below. It was a tradition started in the mid-80s.

In any case, I would wake up, open up my mosquito net, and open the tent flap. Sometimes animal prints etched some nearby soil. I rubbed my tired eyes and started down the trail, and after leaving a small grove, I saw the distant Allegheny foothills, robed green beneath a broad horizon, the sun just starting to inch up.

And I walked to the garden and watered the plants, the hose adding to the dew before the caustic summer. I did not need to do this, but I loved it. I then showered up and meditated. And then rushed to morning prayer, where we read psalms in meditative postures. I was still skeptical of God at the time, but the sing-song peace and poetry of the Breviary and books set a calm. As well as the sitting. And the silence.

And from there with sleepy hugs and handshakes we went down the hill and ate, getting ready for the day, amid laughter, teasing, and tea.