Sunday, July 26, 2015

Non-knitting content: How to Write a Lot by Paul J Silvia and how I was inspired to write a lot

I have been alluding lately to my thesis writing and how badly it is going. I am in the writing-up part of the process, which means I have pretty much done all of my research and I’m attempting to form it into a formal document which I will submit for assessment. The truth is, I am really struggling with it right now. I had all of last week to focus on writing and focus I did – I spent at least 40 hours with my bum on my desk chair sitting at my desk looking at my computer. But, at the end of the week, I felt no closer to finishing my goal than I had at the start. I’d done stuff – updated my Endnote library, changed fonts, moved paragraphs around, printed and highlighted a lot of articles – but that was really all just faffing. I had done work but it wasn’t productive or effective and I knew that if I kept going like that I would never ever get my thesis done.

In desperation, I followed one of the recommendations from the Thesis Whisperer and borrowed How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J Syliva (I know that some would say reading about writing is just another form of procrastination but they would be wrong). Oh my God! This book is amazing. In the course of my professional life I have read dozens of books on writing, grammar and style and this is hands-down the best book I have ever read on writing. Silvia begins by acknowledging that writing is hard. If you’re an academic, chances are you find research and data-collection somewhat enjoyable (I do!). Writing, on the other hand, can become “a sordid drama” (7) of excuses, guilt, procrastination, anxiety, avoidance and defensiveness (all of which I experienced last Tuesday alone). Silvia argues that writing shouldn’t be that way – it should be a mundane, regular part of the academic experience, just like teaching is. It should be just another thing that we do as academics, no drama, no stress, no angst. Silvia writes:

How to Write a Lot views writing as a set of concrete behaviors, such as (a) sitting on a chair, bench, stool, ottoman, toilet, or patch of grass and (b) slapping your fingers against the keyboard to generate paragraphs. You can foster these behaviors using simple strategies. Let everyone else procrastinate, daydream, and complain—spend your time sitting down and moving your mittens. (7-8)

Sounds fantastic!

Reading further, I found out that I was what Silvia categorises as a binge-writer – I faff about and procrastinate all week before spending one day just banging out words. As he notes, that’s a stressful and ineffective way to work. To become a productive writer, he says you need to institute an ongoing set of behaviours. These are as follows.

Firstly, you must set aside a regular time to write and stick to it. He says he gets out of bed and spends two hours writing every morning, before even showering. I can’t do that – I need to start the day with a coffee and the paper – but I am productive in the morning, so I have picked 9-11am every weekday. I programmed my phone so it goes into “do not disturb” mode on those hours every weekday and I will turn off the modem. I also have non-academic writing I like to do to keep me grounded in everyday life (like this blog!) so I also plan on scheduling an hour for writing in the evening from 4-5pm.

You can't see it clearly here but there are two mini whiteboards to the left of my computer with my academic and non-academic goals for the week outlined
Secondly, you need to set a list of goals. I have written a list of both academic and non-academic goals for the week. As well as weekly goals, daily goals must be set. Silvia says priorities need to be drawn up but because I am working on just the one project, that doesn’t apply to me now (although it will in the future as I start to work on different projects at the same time). I want to note here that writing doesn’t just mean adding words to documents – it could also be reviewing the literature, checking references or page proofs or reviewing others’ papers. Getting something published involves all of these processes, so they are all part of “writing”.

Ready to work with coffee, water, study knitting and a notepad for jotting down stuff like things that need to be looked up on the Internet or non-writing tasks that I need to remember to do at some stage
The final steps are to monitor your progress and reward yourself. These steps are hard! Silvia uses an SPSS spreadsheet to check whether he’s met his daily goals and to track how much he’s done on which project. I am traditionally very bad with this kind of thing – I’ve never kept a food diary or money tracker for more than two weeks. This seems pretty simple, so hopefully I can do it. In terms of rewards, I’m not really sure how best to reward myself. I really have weekly goals that I have to meet if I’m going to submit my thesis on time, so maybe every Friday if I’ve met my goals I can go out for Friday night drinks? But Saturday morning hangovers are not conducive to good weekends…I’ll have to think about it.

Reading this book has been a transformative experience for me. Last week I felt panic every time I thought about my thesis. I went to every length possible to avoid actually working on it and instead worked around it every way I could. But like Silvia says, why make writing such a special activity? It’s hard, but so is finding the motivation to go for a swim twice a week when it’s six degrees outside and I manage to do that without fail. If I can be disciplined in other aspects of my life, there is no reason why I can’t be disciplined with writing as well. I feel more positive about my thesis today than I have for months. Realistically, I know that I need to do more than two hours of work a day to get it done but I really feel if I use that solid time as a base, I can get this stupid thing done. Thank you, Paul J Silvia!

There was one distraction he did not give me any advice how to deal with though…


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