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.

Expanding a writing ecology

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.

Play(dough)

[Image from Learning4kids.net]
[Image from Learning4kids.net]

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.

II.

“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.

III.

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 The Myth 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.

IV.

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.

V.

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?

VI.

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.

Writerly Routines

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.

[image from dorkboycomics]
[image from dorkboycomics]

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.”

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Writing in the afternoon

Somewhere a few years ago I read in an anthology that you can’t write in the afternoon. It has to be in the morning or at night, said the author, but the afternoon was a dry landscape without inspiration. Nothing worthwhile grew there. Or if it did, it was weed-choked and gravelly, like a forgotten sidewalk.

I’ve always remembered that piece of advice. But here I am, writing in the afternoon.

What’s it like? Somewhere nearby birds chirp–robins, I think–and a drier rattles with its cargo downstairs. The day is quiet and cloudy, like a teenager not quite ready to face the sun, rolling up a gray ruffled blanket over his eyes as the sounds from the road–the sounds of people awake for the past five or six hours–filter in. Already, I’ve been to a graduation and eaten two meals. I’ve done some cleaning and exercised. I did some work and read. I still have more to do later on today: write a press release, clean more, cook dinner, do some thesis research.

And that’s the odd thing about writing in the afternoon–the part that makes it hard: you are mid-stride in your 24-hour step through life. Stopping to write, you feel adrift. You’re drowsy from a morning of tasks, and a stomach of food, but you know you can’t rest, realistically, after you write. The day must go on.

But despite these difficulties, it has a certain thrill.

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Some thoughts on theater

Two weeks ago, I went to a college theater festival in Maryland. Surrounded by crazy

Photo from the festival: a few of us in Midsummer Night's Dream Costumes, designed by Emily West
Photo from the festival: a few of us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream costumes, designed by Emily West (Far right)

theater types, plays, and workshops–including one that taught how to use a feather to achieve inner balance–the nine of us who went had theater on the brain–still do, I suppose.

Since ninth grade, when I acted in my first play, theater has remained an integral part of my life. Many of my friends have been actors and techies, and my evenings–sometimes weekends–often get swallowed by it. Whenever I can, I try to see plays.

It’s a fascinating art. Is has the fragility of music and the visual complexity of painting, kinetic and dynamic like dance, yet grounded in the permanence of writing. It uses space and resonance in ways a film never could and the vocalization of everyday poetry.

And it’s immediate, like life.

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Own it: Authenticity

Rain clouds loomed outside as I sat across from my spiritual advisor, Br. Robert, in the simple room. “You have to own it,” he said. “You’re an artist. Own it.”

He talked about his early years as a friar. The other friars didn’t think much of his penchant for painting, forcing Br. Robert to sacrifice his own time, money, and space for it. At one point, he even tried to suppress the urge because it interfered so much with his religious duties. Just as Thomas Merton complained about his “double” as a writer pestering him during his early years with the Trappists, Br. Robert struggled with the artist fighting for expression from within.

When he left the friars–and the Catholic Church for a time–Brother Robert lived on Skid Row, trying to make his work as an artist. He found a deep, resonant calling. Surviving on rice and beans–tuna fish, when he could afford it–he scraped by, but his art taught him his vows better than his stint with the friars. Poverty. Obedience. Chastity. The words clarified as the years wore on.

For Br. Robert, devotion to art proved a devotion to God.

“Own it,” he had said. The words made sense as he said them, but didn’t resonate. As the years has pass, the words Br. Robert and I shared deepen and clarify, like his vows. Tempered and stretched by experience, his wisdom grows. I understand him now.

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Novel

I started on my novel again Monday. I began it during my winter break from mid-December to mid-January, then Imagetook a hiatus during school. I’ve been home for summer for about a week, but spent most of last week finishing final essays and creative writing assignments for classes and proofreading a literature magazine.

It felt great to hit the page again.

I’m going back to the beginning, editing to where I left off and resuming with all the threads in mind. It’s about 50,000 words now, which is about the length of The Great Gatsby. I aim to make it about 100,000, the typical soft-cover length.

So far, working on the novel has been hard but rewarding, especially since I’m neither a professional writer nor do I know what I’m going to do with it. But it begs completion. That’s enough.

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A word on writing: Craft

Before shifting to philosophy, I was a journalism major. My passion was and remains writing and reading, although my topics have shifted over the years. I read grammar books for fun now and then, and get excited over a well-placed comma or a finite distinction, the difference between farther and further or prophesy and prophecy, for example. I think in words and try to pin down everything I can into coherent syntax. I recognize this has limits, but it’s how I process the world. Besides, language has immense expressiveness.

I have no other credentials than an ongoing college education; a passion for the page; a computer weighted down with essays, poems, short stories, and half-finished novels; and an exhaustive reading list. But I hope my opinion has some depth to it, and can entertain–or interest–a reader.

I think writing is a craft and a type of magic, a dichotomy made by Carl Sessions Stepp in his book Writing as Craft and Magic. Today, I’d like to talk about the first part: craft.

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