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.
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.
I have other more “pressing” things to do this morning. Perhaps some housework. Definitely some teaching prep and student feedback. Maybe research. But I feel like I needed to write this morning to get rid of a certain clogged feeling. So I’m setting a timer for 30 minutes and writing. Let’s see what happens.
I guess I’ll start looking at the feeling more directly. I’m not quite sure what it is, but it feels a bit like cabin fever for the mind, like I’m stuck doing similar intellectual activities. Or just sort of stuck in a general life way. I was doing a freewrite the other day, and this came out describing the feeling:
I don’t know how I got here. Well, I know in a literal sense, the sense that if a cop were to ask me how I got there, I could tell him. Tell him in pretty solid detail. And I’m not trying to be all abstract, thinking about genetics and geology and all that—how I got here in space time or geologic time. No, it was really more of a feeling, really. Like I was drifting in an aimless current and suddenly beached like a piece of drift wood, with the current flowing further down stream.
I think this sort of mood is pointing to some of the intellectual ambiguity that comes from overthinking existence. To thinking, learning, being, but not necessarily acting because despite all this thinking and learning, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do. Or how to do what you want to do. Or what there is to do.
Right now, in terms of my life, I’m on summer break before entering my second year of coursework in a 4-year PhD program in composition and cultural rhetoric. I’m teaching a summer class. I’m vaguely trying to work through an idea about video games, trying to improve my programming literacy, and read for exams next summer. But I am, largely speaking, in coursework.
This brings me back to writing and that clogged feeling. One of my friends and colleagues described that coursework feels like being a sponge loaded up with water, and since you are not doing much non-reflective writing, you don’t have an outlet to squeeze out all this intellectual saturation.
I also think this feeling has a connection to another conversation I had–a few times, actually–about the “selfish” nature of grad school, especially when it is intensive and absorbing. Doing all of this learning feels a bit cut off. A professional writer has an audience, but in coursework, I’m not sure why I’m learning quite yet, what all this knowledge is supposed to lead to, what I’m supposed to do with it.
This seems to be one of the difficult things about knowledge production to me. In the past, I’ve generally looked at intelligence and what I would term intellectual productivity in an emergent, almost playful sense. That ideas come from playing with other ideas, thinking through them, talking through them, etc. I’m having a hard time transitioning to the “production” of knowledge, from learning as work in stead of play. Learning, even when it was difficult, has always been play to me, not “work.”
I suppose I’ve been dwelling on this “work” and “play” distinction lately, which I imagine is inevitable when researching play and games. I’m not sure what keeps sticking me to it, though.
I suppose it’s the question of why work matters. Why we work. Why we work hard, in particular. Many don’t have a choice–it’s work or die–but I think a lot of people do have some choice about work, or at least the illusion of choice, and the existential anguish involved with that (maybe false) choice. This is one issue. That sense of “am I doing what I love?”Or even, “Can I do what I love?”
But that’s not the only question. One has issues like “fullfilling work,” a fairly recent idea, or the odd tyranny of play that may happen when one is expected to know certain media and play becomes work. The difference between productive hobbies and wasting time. Production v. play. What it means to earn a “living” and not just “an earning.” When a passion becomes something else.
My timer is winding down, so I guess I’ll end in this messy set of contradictions. But I think this this particular fixation does point to larger things, or could. I’m just not quite sure yet.
Days are pretty packed affairs. Like over-stuffed omelets. Seemingly compact and straightforward on the outside–24 hours, dawn to dusk, 9-5, breakfast to dinner–but within the structured folds of our narrating scheme a lot can take place.
Today, in a mundane sense, I didn’t do much. I prepped for teaching, which involved me reading a lot of articles and book chapters. I talked a bit with a friend, dropping him off while navigating construction-marred streets further thinned with parked cars. I drove home in an oddly bristling, bustling early bird rush hour. I discovered that my car may need a new tire, is overdo for inspection, and has a wonky door. Stressed and a little sickened by the world–like Trump’s remarks this afternoon on the shooting–and the layered little anxieties of my own life, I meditated. Now, I am writing.
I don’t know why I list this little litany. I don’t suspect it makes for good reading, much like those old journals of daily meals or routines that historians–and few others–go bonkers over. But I feel like I just wanted to put some of the basic things I did, leaving out even more granular things like meals or a nap I took.
It may be an odd connection, but doing this reminds me of Lev Manovich’s distinction between the non-narrative, collective pool of data that comprise databases compared to the more narrative, often linear data in a novel. A novel has a beginning, middle, and end with well-orchestrated plot points punctuating the read, making “arcs” or “movement.” And essays do the same thing, for the most part.
Hey all, it’s been a while. Though I’ve kept blogging on a school-based site, the nature of the blogging has been more academic, mostly reaction to readings or conferences. It wasn’t the sort of writing I was doing here.
But I think I’ve come to miss this space. Primarily for three reasons. First, it’s a chance to voice my thoughts in a public setting that is a more involved than most social media. It’s uncanny, for example, that my last post before the hiatus was about gun control, since the news of the Orlando shooting has left me blank and sort of shell shocked without a space to vocalize anything. The echo of the news is sort of reverberating in my body and thoughts but not really going anywhere. I’m not ready to talk about it, but I need a space to just sort of say that. That I am literally sickened and dazed at the news and can’t seem to figure out next steps or previous steps or any steps at all. This blog used to be that space, and I guess it is today.
Second, while I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I’ve been writing in a vacuum. True, I’ve been writing to peers and professors, occasional strangers, and fellow academics at conferences, but I miss a public place interface with an audience on a semi-regular basis outside of academia. Not a big one. Or a constant one, likely. But someone. Because I miss the sense that now and then my writing was doing something. It was a small something, but the occasional thank you message or thought was more nourishing than I gave it credit.
To work on my PhD, I’ve come back “home” to my birthplace in Syracuse. I’ve even come “home” to my parent’s house, where I grew up. I suppose I’ve always been hyper-sensitive to ideas of home. What it is. What it means. And now I’m experiencing a certain renaissance of that sensitivity.
I suppose I awoke one day from a more unquestioning view of home when I traveled abroad alone for the first time. Something about traveling alone–the hotel rooms, the airports, the isolation–brings on such thoughts. Particularly because I had to spend the night sleeping in Newark Airport, shivering from the air-conditioned cold and woken up every view minutes by an automated message.
Before that, though, it began by looking at the workers as the airport drifted into evening hours. With fewer people there, the isolated workers stood behind empty lines. In the gray and metal guts of this whale, we stood, all of us just there by chance, all strangers.
New walls are like strangers. They are alien and unfamiliar. Unwelcoming. Distant. People try to make a place homey by painting it certain colors. By getting comfortable chairs. By getting paintings by Mary Cassatt or Monet, maybe.
But what is it about that chair we sit in at our favorite cafe, that parking place we always park in, that bench we always sit at in the park? Why are we so attached to bits of wood or blacktop? So pissed off when someone robs us from our place? And feel so alienated by new walls, even if they have nice, warm paint?
Places have memories, like people, and like people’s, they fade. Trees with hearts carved by pocket knives get blown over by summer storms. New growth fills once-empty hiding spots. Buildings get weather-stained and worn. The “regulars” we knew in a place shift. Drawn to different places without goodbyes.
I once wrote in a journal that home is a geography. It is a concrete place. At the time, I was traveling a lot. And it is, I think. It is a place. Like a parking space or a bench. But like Heraclitus’ river, it’s always changing. It’s always becoming something that isn’t home. Like entropy. Shifting away from us, as we grapple and try to impose home on the world, onto the raw, living geography of a place.
My dad is a child psychologist, and one of the tests he gives is having a child draw a house and a family. The kids scrawl doors with heavy padlocks, families missing fathers, a grave for a dead dog, terrifyingly tall mothers, fences “for keeping bad guys out,” monstrous siblings, smiling stick-figures holding hands. He interprets the image using certain criteria.
It reminds me of a short story by Varlam Shalamov called “A Child’s Drawings.” The narrator finds a child’s drawing book. At first, he thumbs through the pictures of the countryside. Bright, crayoned-on sunsets. Then barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and planes start to cover the pages.
In the end, another guard comes and throws out the notebook because they can’t burn it, where it gathers frost on trash heap.
The iconography of a child’s drawing. It’s hues and stick-figure people. It’s trapezoid houses. It’s fences and locked doors. It’s smiles. Permeated by “home,” whether that home is a mansion on a hill or an apartment in a war zone. Whether it is filled with trauma or love.
I need to write more–so says every “writer” or writing-enthused person I’ve met. But something always gets in the way. Or perhaps the opposite occurs. An existential sluggishness pauses our pen strokes on the page. You have the time, but it’s never the right time.
Lately, I’m going through some busy changes. Driving more. Starting up my PhD soon, at teaching orientations now. Reading lots of interesting books. Meeting new people. In the usual paradox, such change takes time, but it also requires the time to process. It takes away time to write, yet provides the right “time” in different sense.
Perhaps, its a matter of Kairos. For rhetoric, Kairos refers to the apt time for a rhetorical move. It’s that moment when you slip in that well-received one-liner or publish that rabble-rousing pamphlet to waiting hands.
Writing requires its own Kairos sometimes. Some don’t have that luxury. Take William Zinsser. He wrote whether he wanted to or not. And so do most writers. Many writers can write without needing that kairotic timing. Tohugh they may notice the missing drive and verve.
But other writing, especially the self-processing kind, needs the right time. Like Poe said of his poetry: “they must not–they cannot at will be excited, with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry compensations of mankind” (Preface). Perhaps this is a romantic conceit, but I think not completely.
Writing is never an isolated act. Whenever we dive into the writing process, we are already taking a heap of things with us, “in strange places crammed, the which we vent in mangled forms,” as Shakespeare might say.
We have things we’ve read. Conversations we’ve heard. We have memories. Hopes. We have the sound of a clock ticking at our back and a wind outside. We have the residue of our days or the deep water that flow within. Our sense of thrownness. Our loneliness. Our “human need for justification,” as Burke calls it, that goads “a need of struggle” (Attitudes Toward History 124).
We have our technology. Our circulation and outlets. Our anticipations and fears. Our habits and timing. Our language–a rich bag of bastardized, conglomerated, etched, stretched and beautified/uglified meaning and tonality. And as Burke says, “no one quite uses the word in its mere dictionary sense” (Philosophy of literary Form, 35). Instead, it has a much deeper dimension. A much deeper “symbolism” and set of connections.
Which leads me here. Sharing a few thoughts like unpolished stones, set (or rather, dumped) into a sea of C++ and html. My goal is not to edit or reach a conclusion, nor even state a thesis. It is not to teach. It is to explore, make sense of, essay, and meander. Like a Hazlit or a Montaigne, perhaps, but without trying to be like them.
Just being–walking with hands, and keys, and cursor. Just writing. Writing as being.
Playdough. Tiny hands tweak, pinch, stretch the dough into tinsels, meaty threads, snakes curling into snail shells–suddenly smashed flat, “like pancakes,” and rolled smooth in young palms into spheres. Perhaps, with a few gentle, well-placed tugs, the children teas out arms and legs, or a simple face, then the fingers close, vise-like, dough peeking slightly from the spaces between, molding shaping it into a small brain, nooked and crannied, and grained with palm lines.
Then, at the end of the day, it all goes back in the plastic can, smashed, once more, into an uneven cylinder. “Don’t forget,” say the teachers, “or else you won’t be able to play with it anymore.” Sealed behind primary-colored lids and walls, the malleable plaything remains withdrawn and dormant, waiting.
“Writing is revision.” A teacher I once shadowed said this a few times. So did I to own students, thinking it a properly provocative, axiomatic phrase. Something White Lotus from Kung Fu might say if he taught first year composition.
But, to be honest, I don’t really know what it means. Is it a reference to something like Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes and their “cognitivist approach to writing,” in which revision and pre-writing are part of the “writing process”? Or perhaps it’s a more political adage, on the “revision” of ideological entrenchments and social structures. Writing allows one to “revise” the state of things, both inside our heads and outside, in the world.
Or it may stretch the never-ending inventive tweaking that revision entails over the whole of writing. In other words, writing is a constant “revision” of sorts, a constant trying to get words out as best as we can. We are never done. The moment we pick up our pens, we are already revising. The moment we “finish,” we are still revising.
If one mentions (or Googles) Albert Camus, the word “absurdity” is not far behind–neither is “existentialist,” which is a whole other issue. But, as with most cases of historical association, things are more complicated.
The “absurd” is the first of three philosophical progressions for Camus. During WWII, Camus wrote the trilogy of the absurd: the play Caligula (1944), the novel The Stranger (1942), and the essay TheMyth of Sisyphus (1942). This, he said, would be his guiding process, tackling his ideas with a play, a novel, and an extended philosophical essay.
His second trilogy centered on revolt, inserting human values in the face of nihilism. Writing the book-length essay The Rebel (L’Homme révolté, 1951), Camus received a wave of criticism. For one, he attacked the French left, which included his friends Sartre and Beauvoir, because they knew about the atrocities of the GULAG and still supported Stalin.
But more pointedly, Camus also changed his thoughts. He no longer was the “prophet of the absurd,” but the spokesman of revolt. While some argue this shift was a complete rejection and others say it forms a “continuum” with absurdity, both represent a shift.
As Camus writes in his essay “Enigma,” “Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusion. A thousand voices are already telling him what he has found, and yet he knows that he hasn’t found anything.”
Camus was still searching, still stumbling and exploring his ideas, flashlight in hand, but his public name was already solidified–and, in many ways, remains so.
Playdough is revision. You’re never done tweaking or sculpting it. As it’s name suggests, playdough is always “play,” never product. Pure process, pure doing, all about feeling the grainy pliant substance stick and fold with your fingertips. And each time, it goes back in the container, like an artist who scrubs away his canvas just to start again.
It’s not “art for art’s sake,” but creative construction and exploration without a clear endpoint. Like a sand box or a “sand box” game, playdough provides a space to explore the space. That’s its end and means.
In a sense, it even differs from a “game,” our usual sites of play, as playdough has no constraints. No “rules” that structure the game. For example, in soccer (i.e. football), because you can’t use hands and arms, the “game” is to use one’s other body parts to head, dribble, kick, cross, and score.
Playdough has no “rules,” except, perhaps, a parent saying you can’t stick it on the rug.
Camus also wrote that writing is a “daily fidelity,” a daily act of holding onto and working one’s ideas and images into something that may take years. For some reason, Camus often latches on to five years, saying that one must have an idea five years before one starts writing about it.
Camus’ often forgotten first novel A Happy Death is a steppingstone to The Stranger. The character is a cold, detached Algerian named Mersault (a one letter difference from The Stanger‘s Meursault.). It evokes similar images, similar echoes and feelings, though the novels differ profoundly.
Scrapped and unpublished in his lifetime, A Happy Death may be a failure in some ways. Or a mere writing exercise, a book-length warm up for a new writer. But still, the question remains, how much does it stand on it’s own? How much is it part of The Stranger? And how much does the distinction matter?
I always remember that our English “essay” comes from “essai,” the French word for “trial” or “to test the quality of” (like metal in a furnace), echoing Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, which he viewed in a similar light. They were not meant to be polished, finished pieces, but “trials” and “attempts,” sketches or studies in a sense that tested his ideas.
Like Camus’ daily fidelity and playdough’s unfinished pliancy, Montaigne’s Essais were searching, roving, and unfinished–despite receiving countless edits, read throughs and revisiting. And like Camus writing, the Essais offer profound political and philosophical insights. Here, writing is revision, and revision is powerful.
Encountering most essays, however, we often see them as static and finished. We also see them as discrete and separate–or when not separate, as “derivative” or “remixed.” But technology provides a possible return to Montaigne’s Essais or a possible shift into the realm of playdough, of productive play, as our “interfaces” are often not static. Here, writing is much like revision.
Only I shudder to use the word “productive,” because it has become an instrumentally focused word, layered with nasty, anxiety-inducing overtones that make me wonder if I’m “doing enough,” and “keeping up,” and not “wasting time.”
So, in a sense, technology allows us to have interfaces of co-authorship, interaction, constant change, new mechanics of invention, etc., but we also need a culture that can explore this. We may have playdough interfaces, but we need a playdough culture, a culture that isn’t telling us what we have “found,” to paraphrase Camus, but relishes the play of the finding. Doing so, we may further liberate our technology and creativity to innovate and express. But most of all, it may bring more freedom and joy back into the creative process.
As I said above, it’s not art for art’s sake, but doing for doing’s sake. It’s about turning revision into invention and vise versa. It’s about taking our tacky, doughy language and playing with it, seeing what comes out as we stretch and flatten it into compositions.
I wrote my first piece on Medium, to try out the “medium” it offers for composing. It was really easy to use and fun. Feel free to check out the piece with this link. It’s about media literacy and the hands-on learning it often requires. Enjoy!
As I’ve alluded to in a past post, routine can be central to writers, or creative people in general. In an era that values efficiency and innovation–where so many want to be the next Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs–anything that encourages these traits gains an immediate capital.
For one, it can ease the strain required to enter the creative mode. As some research shows–so eloquently elucidated by John Cleese–one needs a space in time and place to innovate. Stuck with daily stresses, the creative mind can stagnate by worrying over the necessary pitfalls and backtracks required for the creative process. A set hour and a closed door pushes that stress outside.
Making set time also forces one revisit similar issues for an extended period. This helps to inspire seemingly sudden insights that actually occur through long-term reflection, the “slow hunch” as writer Steven Johnson puts it. Doing something everyday keeps one foot in the creative enterprise as the rest of the day unfolds. One never knows what may trigger the insight–a new task, an observation, or help from a colleague–but if one is miles away from an issue, they may never notice.
And at the most basic level, a routine keeps one disciplined by encouraging habits. In a reductive sense, a productive routine is nothing but a series of productive habits, i.e. of heavily ingrained actions that one does with little to no thought. If authors write everyday at 6:00 a.m., it becomes habitual. They keep writing then, regardless of other circumstances, just as one may brush one’s teeth before bed.
That said, breaking a routine can also be affective. While some thinkers, like Kant, were heavily routine and disciplined, others thrived on ambiguity and sprawling, uncertain days. Sometimes travel can be a handy catalyst, too. With it, one breaks from the daily perspectives and concerns of the routine. As one of my friend’s puts it, “Journey outward, journey inward.”