Book review: How to Write a Lot – A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing

I read ‘How to Write a Lot – A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J Silva published by American Psychological Association – I have a copy of the 1st edition (2007) which is the one I am reviewing below but I have linked to a more recent 2nd edition (2018).

Introduction

To write well, you need to choose good words.

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This is a short and accessible book from the US Psychology Academic. The background of psychology becomes more important through the book and it is intended to be a ‘tap on the shoulder’ type book nudging reluctant academics and people who need to write in academic contexts, towards writing. I can’t remember how I came across it, if it was on a reading list or a recommendation (mostly how I decided what books to buy).

Context

As mentioned above, the author, Paul Silva is an academic psychologist based in the US. He has taken the approach of writing in a conversational manner and the book is intended to spur writers who may not see themselves as writers to ‘get on with it’. It would be of less use to experienced writers who have their own systems in place.

Of course, it also serves as a means to delay actually starting writing because you are writing it but fortunately, it is a short book which does not need a lot of time to cover.

The author covers a broad range of topics at a steady pace, including starting out and just writing as well as, more specifically, writing for publication including journals and books. The book itself is 132 pages.

Summary

Delete very, quite, basically, actually, virtually, extremely, remarkably, completely, at all and so forth. Basically, these quite useless words add virtually nothing at all ; like weeds, they’ll in fact actually smother your sentences completely

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The book is divided into chapters that cover the areas you would expect, including knocking down those barriers, including the excuses like ‘I don’t have enough time’ or ‘I need to read more about X before I start writing’ as well as ‘I don’t have any space/working PC etc’. They’ll be all the usual ones you can think of. Silva comes back at the reader with responses, some more helpful than others.

Ultimately, the reason is often related to time or alternative priorities with work or life, to which the answer is, unsurprisingly, just write and allocate protected time to write. This isn’t a wonderful relevation but it is a message which can keep being knocked on the head to make sure it has a difference.

Silva may claim to not always have been a planner but a planner and a scheduler you need to be if you are going to write effectively and productively. Planning your writing, counts in the writing time and setting achieveable goals is important as well and give yourself deadlines if noone else is going to. He also talks about prioritising projects and how those priorities can differ and that needs to be fluid.

He likes monitoring progress by word counts or meeting specific daily goals which might work if reading is writing.

To Silva, ‘writers block’ is not something that happens to academic (as opposed to creative) writers. It is just ‘not writing’ and by ‘not writing’ you have ‘writer’s block’. The way to cure it is to write. This is about approaches, attitudes and excuses. It might be that some writing needs more editing than other writing because of the flow that develops but it can be progress and it can be measured all the same.

There is a chapter specifically about style and the importance of clarity in writing. This includes a good reminder to write for audiences that may not have English as a first language. The best writing is accessible and readable. Use jargon when it is necessary but don’t import it in if it does not add to the understanding of the reader. This may be a good discipline in all writing exercises and tasks. He reminds us, as writers to think of the meaning of the words you use, each one having a function to increase clarity. This is a lesson which stuck to my heart as I often write with excess verbosity.

Strengths and Gaps

Silva writes unapologetically as a psychologist and the book is published by the American Psychological Association (APA) so examples about journals and book are based on psychology. I don’t think this is a weakness or a gap so much as a ‘thing to be aware of’.

As he goes through the different parts of a paper and how to construct them, he includes a section on the importance of references and what the reference section means. I have not seen this in a book of academic writing previously but that might say more about my reading than about what is out there but I found this helpful.

It was useful to see a differentiation in the way writing would be approached when considering papers with empirical research and ‘review’ articles, both of which he covers.

This is, though a small book. It probably won’t teach you information you have not come across before regarding how to start writing and get writing but it is concise, clearly written and accessible. It is quite pricey though so might be worth tracking down in a library or getting a second hand copy (as I did).

Use in practice

This is an eminently practical book which has immediately led to some changes in behaviours and ways I think about writing. While it isn’t about innovative new methods, the point about writing is you just have to do it and the way to get better at it is doing more of it, so the book serves to grant permission to believe in yourself and your ability to improve by doing.

For myself, I tend to schedule writing time anyway. I write and study at weekends because I work during the week but it has made me consider how much time I may be able to add to weekdays before work and how to quantify the writing I do. For example, I am now editing this post at 5.45am when I usually get up for work at 6am. I’m also writing a blogpost instead of academic writing though, so swings and roundabouts. Writing is writing!

Silva makes writing – including articles and books, accessible. It seems like the ‘I can do it and so can you’ attitude prevails to the extent that I almost begin to believe it. More importantly, it is a fun book to read. It wasn’t difficult to sail through it quickly. It wasn’t an effort to read which some texts can be.

Conclusion

This is a useful addition to the toolkit for someone who is new to academic writing. It can also serve as a cheerleader in the resources to give more confidence to do what you do regarding writing and to feel better about writing than not-writing. Style is essential but practice embeds style. I would recommend this if you come across it, particularly in a library.

The link to buy it is at the top of the page – this is not an affiliate link. I bought this book for myself.

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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