Review – Paul J. Silvia: How to Write a Lot


Reading about writing is probably one of my favourite procrastination activities. There are whole shelves filled with academic writing handbooks and manuals, but this book was a game changer for me. Here’s why…


A colleague recommended this book saying she wished she had read it at the beginning of her PhD, as it would have spared her much trouble. Oh, so there’s a shortcut, an easier path? I didn’t take long to persuade me. Silvia’s book is relatively short, but it is by no means a shortcut or an easier path. However, it does work and that’s why I’ve been heartily recommending it myself.

Apart from delivering what it promises, it is also funny, though cruel at times (only to our lame excuses), and its guidelines are supported by actual research into writing practices. I don’t know about you, but seeing surnames and years in brackets always reassures me. (Footnotes less so, they seem messy and clutter my pages. Impeccable reasoning, right?)

Image credits: Youske Muroya / CC BY-NC 2.0


In any case, Silvia is an academic himself (one with an intimidating list of publications too!) and knows academics very well. This means he understands how they (we?) like to build group solidarity around shared hardships and goes to unveil the barriers we construct on the way to becoming productive writers. He proceeds to deconstruct this pen/keyboard martyrdom, one barrier at the time. This guide also includes advice on starting a writing group and helpful chapters on the technicalities of academic writing and style. To be completely honest, I’ve read these in the first go, but never went back to them.

The chapter on barriers, however, is often on my reading list. Why? Well, I find change hard and I cannot turn over night from a binge writer into a disciplined, productive one. I need to re-read these points every now and then, and remind myself how to overcome the most common writing barriers:

BARRIER #1: We don’t have the time to write. Nonsense. We don’t make time for writing is far more accurate statement.

SOLUTION: Make time! Schedule your writing and stick to the schedule.

HOW DID IT WORK FOR ME: Turning writing into a habit is difficult and I particularly struggle to balance my part-time jobs, reading, thinking and writing, with attempts to do social human stuff. Nonetheless, setting (and reaching) goals, however small, is ever so pleasing. I find it helpful to always go to the same place, if not time too, in order to develop a sense of routine. Small, manageable chunks and rewards do the trick as well, but I still have a long way to go.

BARRIER #2: We need to do more reading, analysis, etc. There is an exciting new journal article out, it should definitely be included in our literature review. The figures seem funny, maybe I should check them again… All of these feel like (and in fact are!) work, and it’s hard to resist them and go back to writing.

SOLUTION: Then do it and get on with your writing. Writing includes and is based on research. All of these activities are essential and, as such, can and should be scheduled  in your writing plan too. However, there always comes a time when you’ve done enough and it’s time to write.

HOW DID IT WORK FOR ME: This is a hard one. I often ask my supervisor for input (they seem to be more realistic) on which areas really do need more reading and where I actually just need to start writing.

BARRIER #3: We need to do / get new _____.  It’s funny how, when cornered in by deadlines, your chair becomes squeaky, the laptop is slow, your desk is untidy, the weekly shopping and vacuuming are long overdue.

SOLUTION: No, you don’t. Sit down (or stand up, if that’s more comfortable) and write!

HOW DID IT WORK FOR ME: This wasn’t really an issue for me, although I did notice I do get especially sensitive to mess when I need to start writing, whereas I’m usually more of a dust-if-you-must type of person. What I tend to do is make a list of things I need to get or have done and deal with it AFTER I’ve written something. Adding stuff to the list feels like I’ve addressed it and leaves no excuses to run away from the desk. Dusting can wait.

BARRIER #4: We have no inspiration. We don’t feeeeeel like writing, we’re not in the mood, there’s no spark…

SOLUTION: Guess what? You don’t need to wait for inspiration, you need to sit down and write. (Also, Neil Gaiman and Tad Williams agree here, and these gentlemen might know a thing or two about writing.)

HOW DID IT WORK FOR ME: Ouch… There goes my last line of defence. Silvia goes straight for the head by asserting that writing block is non-existent (very much like unicorns :)), it is just a state of non-writing. The best way to deal with it is to write. Just hours away from the deadline, I have often asked myself: Why on Earth haven’t I done this sooner, this is so simple – you just need to write… I hope I’ll start embracing this sooner in the writing process, preferably before the panic begins.

I don’t feel I have done justice to this incredibly useful, sensible and practical guide, but these parts really hit home for me.  I’ll leave you with my favourite paragraph from the book, a bit sad perhaps (although big paint sprayers sound kind of fun!) but, above all, eye-opening:

You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart. The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might. People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out to friends whom they wish to inspire. Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement. (p. 45)

Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.*

Have you read this book? If so, how did you find its approach? Which other titles or advice have changed your attitude towards writing?

Let me know in the comments section. I could always use new reading suggestions… 🙂

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

 *Actually, please do pass this on to friends whom you wish to inspire! When logged into the Library account, Warwick students can find the book here.

5 thoughts on “Review – Paul J. Silvia: How to Write a Lot

  1. Thanks, Ana! Just what I needed, especially #4. Right, the new regime starts…. hmm, I’m busy tomorrow, and Thursday, and Friday, and away at the weekend… No! It starts NOW!

  2. Absolutely agree with every point. Still, I believe that in each case the most difficult is the beginning. You need to overcome yourself even when no desire to write and set the desired tempo. It works for me every time. Also important sequence and not one I think so When all of these points are made, you should work on productivity, here’s another article with good advice on this matter . This is my simple formula.

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