On Writing: Paul J. Silvia

pen and notebook

As summer is heavy-duty writing time for many academics, it also seems like a good time to revisit some favorite advice about writing. Thus the beginning of an occasional series of posts this summer on writing about writing.

It’s crucial to be able to measure your progress on a writing project in some way. Tracking your progress on any desired behavior or habit has been shown to improve your adoption of the new habit, simply from focusing your awareness of your behavior through your tracking mechanism.

In order to track a behavior, you have to know what you’re measuring. For many people, setting a word count as a daily target works very well as a measure of their writing habit, and motivation to keep making incremental progress. In The Rule of 200 Erin explains that for her, having a daily rule that she must write 200 words creates consistency:

I write 200 words a day, every single day, until I have an entire draft. “Every single day” includes weekends, long days on campus, holidays, even my own birthday.

But word counts don’t work so well for some other writers (myself included), especially if you’re in the early stages of a project. By the word count measure, some writing days don’t look like much — but an hour of mindmapping or deep thinking can also move a project forward significantly. So for some people, a daily time goal — whether it’s 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, or more — works better for getting in the habit of regular writing progress.

In graduate school, I remember having conversations with friends about whether the day’s work “counted” if it didn’t directly show up as words on the page. If you only count words, it can be very disheartening to know you’re working hard, but that it doesn’t count. That’s one reason I often suggest a time-based goal to people seeking to improve their productivity and their happiness.

That’s why when I read Paul Silvia’s acerbic but often wise How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing I was delighted to come across this passage:

Do whatever you need to do during your allotted writing time. Need to crunch some more statistics? Do it during your scheduled time. Need to read some articles? Do it during your scheduled time. . . . Writing is more than typing words: Any action that is instrumental in completing a writing project counts as writing.

Key here is the word “instrumental.” Reading a few articles that lead you forward in your writing isn’t the same thing as chasing stray thoughts around the internet.

Throughout his book, Silvia emphasizes the need for regular, scheduled writing sessions that you commit to and protect from external demands. Knowing that you have two hours blocked off every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for working on your writing allows you to use the time to its best purpose, rather than fixating solely on word count.

In his chapter on tracking, Silvia explains that he tracks both whether he showed up for his scheduled writing session and his word counts, so that he can see the larger patterns of when he does more active writing and when he’s doing other kinds of writing work.

Silvia’s book is aimed at students and faculty in Psychology, but contains lots of good advice for academic writers in other fields as well.

What are your favorite advice books on writing? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user Rob Allen]

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