Five lessons learned from How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia

Graduate student Sarah Bourdeau presents a summary and critic of Paul J. Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot (2007). She presents five strategies proposed in the book that can be applied by anyone who wants to get their writing projects off their to-do list.

Do you procrastinate when it comes to writing? When a deadline is approaching, do you try to write it all in a couple of days? Do you have an ongoing list of projects that you’re really excited about, but haven’t got around to it because you are lacking the required pressure to start working on them?

I understand the struggle; I was a professional binge writer. I procrastinated for days on end, letting multiple projects sit for months before I decided to work on them again. Of course, because I waited for so long, I forgot most details and nuances related to these projects. This led me to spend way more time than I would have if I had just done them at the beginning. Earlier this summer, while I was procrastinating, I read How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia. It was the most productive procrastinating moment of my life! Here are the main five lessons I learned from Silvia’s work.

1. Just do it

Let’s not lie to ourselves, writing is hard, but it is also pretty simple. In order to write, you have to be in front of your computer and type letters on your keyboard that will eventually form words, sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately articles ready to be submitted. Just put your ideas out there, write them as they come, and edit them later. The first draft may not be what you want in terms of quality. But at least it’s something you can work with and build on as you go.

I also find that free writing helps clear my thoughts. When I get stuck on a writing project, I take a good old-fashioned pen and a piece of paper. I sit down and write everything that comes to mind. Every single time that I do this, it really helps me to come up with amazing ideas for a new project or to work through my thought process.

2. Make it a Rendez-Vous

If you want to just do it, you have to set time aside in your day. Once again, let’s not lie to ourselves. Graduate studies are intense. When you’re not in class, you’re probably preparing for them, working (inside or outside of the university setting), applying for scholarships, getting involved in extracurricular activities… Eat, sleep, work, repeat! Oh and I’m not even talking about maintaining a respectable social life. Let’s face it, we are pretty busy. But most of us also have a lot of flexibility as to when and where we work, which makes it actually pretty easy to postpone writing.

If you want to achieve your writing goals, you have to schedule periods in your week to do so, and respect these time slots as you would any other appointment. Would you cancel an appointment with your advisor to sleep in a little longer or to watch some Netflix? Would you scroll through Facebook while you’re in a meeting? No? Well, do the same with your writing time. If you need help to focus on your work and stop distractions, you can try apps like Self Control. In the long run, all of those scheduled periods will add up and you’ll finally get through those writing projects.

I’m a morning person, so for me, waking up early and spending two hours on writing projects every day of the week works. But trying to do the same at night just doesn't make the cut. Just find the time you’re less likely to be disrupted by other things work-related, or distractions. And then, stick to it.

3. Prioritize

Now that your sitting in front of your computer during your scheduled writing time, you have to know what projects to work on. Make a list of all the projects, and assess their priority. Silvia offers great advice as to what should come first. Personally, I usually put emphasis on projects with deadlines approaching, or those that don’t require too much time investment. Also, as a student, your school work and thesis should always be your number one priority. The goal is to finish that degree, right?

If it goes so well that you eventually find all of your projects either finished or in revision, use your scheduled time to do anything that will help you with your writing. Maybe doing statistical analysis, brainstorming, reading articles you’ve piled up, or books like How to Write a Lot. The important thing here is to keep it up with your schedule and make it a sustainable habit.

4. Basic psychology

Apply the basic psychological principles you learned at the beginning of your undergrad studies. Assess your goals (make sure they are SMART), monitor your progress and reward yourself when you get there. You can even start a support group (Silvia calls them agraphia group and offers great advice as of how to implement one) where you can get social support by sharing with others your goals and progress regarding your writing.

5. Use the simple route

You don’t have to use unpronounceable words to sound smart. Actually, you’ll look smarter if you know how to get straight to the point. Your articles will actually be more pleasant to read, and easier to understand. Silvia devotes a whole chapter to style, and he offers great advice and resources to help you learn how to make writing easy.

To sum it up, if you want to write, just do it. Use strategies like those proposed by Silvia to help you do so. These strategies can also be beneficial for anything you always seem to put off. Set designated time in your week for those tasks, prioritize, set goals (specific achievable realistic goals), and track how you’re doing. You’ll be just a sentence away of getting your work published and it might be much sooner than you would have ever imagined.

Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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