I recently just finished reading How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia. Hilary Parker had recommended this book a few years ago and I just got around to reading it. I highly recommend it: it's not expensive ($10) on Amazon and it's free if you swing by my office and borrow my copy. In this post I wanted to summarize some of the key points and reflect on my experience after trying the strategies recommended.
Make a Writing Schedule and Stick to It
If you didn't read the section header, let me reiterate:
Make a Writing Schedule and Stick to It
Silvia argues that making a schedule and sticking to it is the only strategy that works for writing. Though this one statement summarizes the book's message, you should still read it. The title of the book denotes it as “A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing”. The book tells you not only that making a writing schedule and sticking to it is what you must do to write, but how to do it. In addition, chapter 2 – my favorite – list specious barriers to writing (aka excuses) that people (including me) make that stops them from even starting to write. This chapter helps you realize that no thing or person other than you is stopping you from writing.
Outline Your Writing
One of the things I've heard since grade school for writing that I still am not good doing is outlining. You wouldn't build a car, toy, or building without a schematic, concept, or blueprint. Write an outline first – it can change later – before the full text.
Make Concrete Goals and Track your progress
As a biostatistician I'm trained to look at data – all kinds of data.
Whenever someone makes a claim, I reflectively think “Where is the data to back up that claim?”. When I say I'm going to write more, I need data. Therefore, I have to track it, even if only for myself. Silvia promotes a database or Excel spread sheet for tracking. Though I tend to discourage Excel for data collection, Excel is not a bad option for this single-user single-use purpose. Pick something that's easy for you to use for tracking and format the data so it can be analyzed with statistical software. I will track my progress and may report the results in another post.
Similar to the stage of an outline for your manuscript, tracking your progress takes planning. At the beginning of a session, you must set your goals (plan) and record if you met those goals or not. The goals must be concrete. “Write X paper” is not concrete; “writing 100 words on paper X” is. You don't have to -and probably shouldn't- write 10,000 words in a session. Goals don't have have to be actual “writing”; doing a literature review, editing a paper, incorporating comments, or formatting are all part of the writing process. Your scheduled time is when you should do all of these parts of writing.
Start a Agraphia (Writing) Group
Writing is hard – friends help. Silvia calls the writing group an agraphia group as agraphia is the loss in the ability to communicate through writing. Peer pressure exists, even in graduate school; use it to your advantage. You are not alone your fear/disdain of writing and your fellow grad students are a valuable resource. Having a bunch of “Not met” goals on your progress sheet is different than telling someone that you didn't meet your goals 3 weeks in a row. No one wants feel like a failure, so this positive peer pressure will push you to perform.
Also, editing papers can be boring; you've been with the topic and paper for so long it's no longer exciting to you. To others, it's usually novel and easily seen as great work. Mistakes and unclear thoughts can be corrected. You may think something is clear, but fresh eyes can determine that for sure. Use your group to peer edit. You can use this editing to find out what your classmates/colleagues are doing in their research as well.
You (and the Rest of Us) will get Rejected
Your paper will likely get rejected. Now you can submit to the Journal of Universal Rejection, and you'll have 100% guarantee of rejection. For some journals, that may not be much higher than their actual rejection rates. If you get rejected, you're in the majority. Silvia notes that getting a paper back for revision is a good thing – it passed the level of flat-out rejection. I didn't always see it that way before. Moreover, Silvia says to write assuming your paper will be rejected. He says that this will make your writing less defensive and better. So you'll get rejected, but remember:
- Take the criticism constructively – most reviewers want to make your paper better. Realize that.
- Be quick and methodical with revisions. Revisions are higher priority than first drafts. Make sure you respond to all comments or explain why you haven't incorporated some reviewer's comments.
- Don't let mean reviewers get you down. One quote I remember from a friend when I was younger that stuck with me: “I gotta be doing something right – cause I got HATERS!”. Let them fuel your hate fire. If you've ever heard the phrase “dust your shoulders off” and didn't know where it came from read this. Use If you can revise, incorporate their comments. Getting angry or writing angry letters just wastes time where you could be doing more writing on of your topics.
- If it wasn't clear to the reviewers, it's not clear to the readers.
NB: What I could find for statistical journal acceptance rates: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jps/, http://imstat.org/officials/reports/AnnualReports2010.pdf, and http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/bcoull/ENARJrWorkshop/XLPub2006.pdf.
Time is a Zero-sum Game (or is it a flat circle?)
The time in a day is fixed and finite; each day is as long as the others. One of my friends and fellow Biostat grad students Alyssa Frazee likes to say frequently that “Time is a zero-sum game” in the sense that the activities we do now take up time that could be used for other activities.
As a result, many times I ask myself “When is it okay to relax?”. This feeling is common when I am writing a paper. Scheduling relieves much of the stress of when I am supposed to write. Meeting the goals for the days allows me to let go more easily and feel that it is OK to relax if my duties are done. There are fringe benefits to making a schedule.
I Write More
Again – I've only done it for about 2 weeks, but I feel as though I'm getting more done for my papers and writing more. The data will tell, and I don't know if I have a good comparison sample.
Don't Stop Writing
At one point, Silvia notes that you should award yourself when meeting goals but that award should NOT be with skipping a writing session. He likens it to awarding yourself with a cigarette after successfully not smoking for a period of time.
Creating a writing schedule is easy; sticking to it is hard. Try it for yourself and read his book. I think you'll be writing more than you think with this strategy. Let me know how things turn out!
Extra Links for Writing
- Research Tips
- Another outline of the book http://rfmh.nyspi.org/KAD/Portals/16/File/How%20to%20Write%20a%20Lot.pdf