Book Review – How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing
• by Paul Silvia
• Publisher – American Psychological Association
• Copyright – 2007.
• 132 pages

Rating – 8.5/10

Review – My wife and I are both academics. Early in adult life, both of us focused on earning our academic credentials and starting our careers. Then we had kids. Our first daughter arrived in 2009 and the second was born 13 months later. Life changed – a lot. Pre-kids, we never had any trouble finding time to pursue our research agendas; post-kids, it’s been “a whole ‘nother story.”

Way back in 2009, we attended a scholarly conference & Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot caught my wife’s eye.  She bought a copy, read it, and became an instant fan. A few months later, daughter #1 arrived. With the start of fall classes this year, we both resolved to rejoin the scholarly race. I decided that reading Silvia’s little book would help keep me on track.

Short, with Much Wisdom

By Silvia’s admission, the point of his book is very simple. He advises scholars who want to be productive to set a writing schedule – and stick to it. Silvia states that – the title notwithstanding – one does not have to “write a lot.” Rather, he says that you should regard writing time as an “appointment with yourself” to do your research. He points out that – after all – scholars don’t miss our classes due to other commitments; he suggests that we apply the same committed mindset to our research.

The crucial portions of the book deal with the need to set goals and keep track of one’s progress toward them. (Silvia backs his position by citing the relevant psychology literature). Silvia uses an SPSS (spreadsheet) file to keep track of his daily progress. My wife and have both made our own files (using Excel) and they have helped keep us on track during the inevitable rough patches in our research.

Style to Spare

Silvia is an engaging writer. One way that he maintains interest is by giving readers glimpses into his writing life. Silvia states that each weekday he gets up, flips on the coffee pot, and works from 8 to 10 a.m. on his research. That’s it – he doesn’t work on the weekends or at other times. The reader can picture Silvia working away, based on the book’s descriptions of his Spartan writing area that is covered in coffee stains.

How to Write a Lot is that rare academic book that one wants to read. Silvia has a great sense of pacing and doesn’t allow things to bog down. Consider the following passages –

  • On a scholar’s place in the writing world – “Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement” (p. 45).
  • On the mindset that scholars should have regarding rejections – “To write a lot, you should rethink your mental models of rejection and publication. Rejections are like a sale tax on publications: The more papers you publish, the more rejections you will receive. Following the tips in this book will make you the most rejected person in your department” (pp. 100-101).

A Big Can of Worms – Disappointments

While I really enjoyed this book, I had a few frustrations with it. How to Write a Lot’s strength is its brevity. But that can also work against it. Chapter 5 – titled “A Brief Foray Into Style” – is simply too brief to provide much value. Style is crucial, but becoming a stylish writer is a book (or a series of books). No one – Silvia included – can begin to do it justice in a chapter. (Fortunately, Silvia provides a fantastic bibliography that will help readers who want to explore the issues raised in the book in more depth).

I didn’t get much from Chapter 4, either. That material concerns starting a writing group to help encourage you to stay on pace with your research. There’s nothing wrong with this material – it’s just not the way that I work. However, other readers might have entirely different reactions.

Silvia is pictured below.

Summary – So Far, So Good

In research – as in politics – it’s always dangerous to read too much into “early returns.” But after six weeks of constant work, my wife and I are both enjoying our newfound research productivity. We would recommend How to Write a Lot to any scholar seeking to improve his or her research output.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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