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© Walden University Writing Center 2019
We're excited to introduce our first Book Club episode! Writing instructors and PhD students Kacy and Cheryl chat about Paul J. Silva's How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Whether you've read the book or not, listen in to hear what Kacy and Cheryl found particularly useful, what advice was less relevant for them, and how they are using the suggestions in their own writing practices.
CLAIRE: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Claire Helakoski,
KACY: and I’m Kacy Walz. Today is the very first edition of the WriteCast book club! I’ll be discussing Paul Silvia’s How to Write A Lot with Walden Writing Instructor Cheryl Read. Hi, Cheryl! Welcome back to the podcast! Regular WriteCast listeners will remember Cheryl from Episode 62 – where we talked about How to Start and Sustain a Writing Group. Before we start talking about How to Write A Lot, could you re-introduce yourself, Cheryl?
CHERYL: Sure! I’ve been a Writing Instructor here in the Walden Writing Center for about 2 years now and have been teaching academic writing for 10 years. I’m also currently working on my dissertation for a PhD in English, so I’m really excited to be here and talk about this particular book with you today!
KACY: Those of you who caught Episode 62, you’ll already know that Cheryl and I have a writing group to support each other through our dissertations, and it seems fitting that we both found our way to Silvia’s text. The book caught my eye when a former grad-school colleague posted a review of it on GoodReads. She had really positive things to say, and this was during a time I was really struggling to stay motivated with my own writing. How did you come across How to Write A Lot, Cheryl?
CHERYL: It’s been a while since I first bought and read this book, but I think I came across it during my PhD coursework when I was looking for ways to kind of improve my relationship with my writing. I had started by reading some writing advice by Robert Boice, who is also great, and then I must have stumbled across Silvia’s book somehow.
KACY: I like Boice’s writing as well! And he actually kind of has a similar tone and outlook on writing that Silivia presents. If you didn’t get a chance to pick up a copy of Silvia’s book yourself, How to Write A Lot is a fairly quick read with chapters like “Specious Barriers to Writing A Lot” and “Motivational Tools,” and it also includes a list of Silvia’s own favorite books – I think some of Boice’s books might be in that book. Silvia has a very informal tone throughout the book – a little bit of humor, a little bit of tough-love.
CHERYL: I think tough love is definitely the way to put it! Silvia is very straightforward and no-nonsense. And although he has some great strategies in this book, it can be summed up pretty simply: sit your butt in the chair and get writing!
KACY: Yes exactly! One quote that really stuck out for me comes at the very beginning of the book – on page 15 – Silvia writes: “making a schedule is the secret to productive writing. If you don’t plan to make a schedule, gently close this book, clean it so it looks brand new, and give it as a gift to a friend who wants to be a better writer.” Making and sticking to a schedule is the primary recommendation Silvia makes throughout the text, and he returns to its importance again and again.
CHERYL: This is so true for me! As I’ve mentioned on previous episodes, I’m fitting in my dissertation work alongside a full-time job and a toddler who demands a lot of time and attention—a lot of Walden students are in a similar situation. So, in order to do all that I keep a very regular writing schedule, and I write in the early mornings so that my writing is done before there is a chance for my day to be derailed by something crazy like having a sick kid. I’m maybe a little weird in that I’m a writing instructor who doesn’t like actually writing very much, so sticking to my schedule helps me make sure that I get the writing done. If I waited until I felt like writing… I’d be waiting for a long time.
KACY: That reminds me of another point Silvia makes that’s stuck with me. A popular excuse for not writing is talking about writers’ block, and Silvia has zero sympathy for a writer who claims this disease. According to Silvia, “writer’s block is a good example of a dispositional fallacy: A description of a behavior can’t also explain the described behavior. Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing. Saying that you can’t write because of writer’s block is merely saying that you can’t write because you aren’t writing” (46). In fact, in an earlier section of the book, Silvia references a study by Robert Boice (he’s the author both Cheryl and I mentioned earlier) where writers were broken into three groups: one was told they could only write during writing emergencies—I’m not really sure what those would be, but that was when they were told to write--another was told only to write when they were inspired to write, and the third was told they had to write every day. So similar to your schedule, Cheryl, Boice required that they make that a really big priority to do some writing every day.
CHERYL: Yeah, I remember that study. On it, not only did the people who were required to write produce more than three times the number of pages than the wait-for-inspiration group—which, that part might be expected, because they have to write so they’re going to have more pages—they also reported half as many days spent between coming up with creative ideas to include in their writing, so they were producing more and were more creative!
KACY: Can you think of a better argument for creating a writing routine? It’s like you’re scheduling your inspiration!
CHERYL: Exactly! Another tip I’ve taken from Silvia’s book is to keep track of your progress. This helps you objectively measure how much writing you are getting done and helps you see how far you’ve come, even when there’s a long way to go. I’ve been keeping track of both my time spent on writing each day and the number of words I’ve written. And I’ve found that this data can come in really handy when I’m thinking about tweaking my writing schedule. Either to add more time or to say, maybe I need to back off the writing time. So, because I have that data, I can take a look at how much time I’ve actually put in in the past, and that gives me a sense of how much time I should go for in the future. And then the other way that I’m keeping track is, I have a calendar sticker chart on the wall by my desk—it includes deadlines, time off, vacations, anything else that might impact my writing time in some way. I put a star sticker on it for every day after I work on my dissertation. It might seem silly, but when I look at that calendar that has these stars on all those days, I feel so proud. It feels great!
KACY: I love that idea!
CHERYL: Thank you! Do you keep track of any writing data, Kacy?
KACY: I try to, because, similarly I feel like I need that motivation. It can seem like the finish line is so, so far away, particularly with something like a dissertation, and so, having those kinds of notes or stickers – I love the idea of stickers – to see that, you know, that you’re making progress, I think is so important. And, I’ve actually been using a website called my tomatoes that allows me to track the number of 25 minute “poms” or “pomodoros” that I complete each day. I think actually it was you, Cheryl, who introduced me to the pomodoro method. For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, the pomodoro method is a technique where you set a timer for 25 minutes, and the goal is to focus on a single task for the full 25 minutes. Once the time goes off, you give yourself a five-minute break. I really like it because, similar to Cheryl’s situation, I’ve got a lot of different things I need to work on each day, but I always have at least 30 minutes I can devote to writing or reading or doing something to progress in my dissertation work. The pomodoro method keeps me from thinking that—just because I don’t have a huge chunk of time to write, that I shouldn’t even try to start. And that’s actually another point that Silvia makes: he refers to the common idea that we’ll get so much done over the weekend or during a school break, but that if we’re always waiting for these giant blocks of writing time to write, we’re not going to get much accomplished.
CHERYL: Yes, absolutely. I think the pomodoro method is a really good fit for the rest of Silvia’s advice, and I find that telling myself I only have to try for 25 minutes, and then if I still don’t want to do it, I can stop, that’s such a great way to get myself going on those “I don’t wanna drag myself to my desk” days. Because, most of the time, if I give it ten minutes, 25 minutes, I’ll keep going.
It seems like we both agree with a lot of what Silvia recommends. Did you find anything you disagreed with?
KACY: I don’t think I necessarily disagreed with any of Silvia’s suggestions, but I don’t think all of them necessarily apply to my own situation. One of his suggestions is to use other writing projects as motivation or maybe like, filler, if you just kind of need a break from whatever you’re working on at that moment...but, I am putting this rule on myself that I can’t start anything until I finish my dissertation. And I’m not even thinking about other projects, so while I like the idea of using another project, kind of that idea that we’re always excited to start something new, right? As kind of that carrot, for finishing your current project, it’s just...not necessarily that helpful for me in my situation, where I’m just trying to really get this dissertation done.
CHERYL: Yeah, I’m right there with you, Kacy, and I think it comes down to writing time for me. Because if I only have an hour each day to work on writing, and I want to finish my degree soon! I’m ready to finish! Right now, it just makes sense for me to focus only on my dissertation. But I could see rotating projects being useful in other contexts.
Another point that I do find motivating is when Silvia writes that “any action that is instrumental in completing a writing project counts as writing” (19). Some mornings, I wake up feeling distracted or I didn’t have a great night’s sleep. On those days, instead of sort of forcing myself to do that words-on-the-page writing, I instead use that same writing time for less demanding tasks, like maybe I format my references, I do some sentence-level revisions, or even search for sources in the library. And those kinds of tasks aren’t “writing” in the sense that I’m not putting new words down on the page or the screen, but they are still really important, and they still move my project forward, they still have to get done at some point. I think that having a more holistic view of this idea of “writing” makes the idea of writing on a schedule much more manageable. And it helps me show up on those days when I might not feel like it, and I always wind up glad that I did show up.
KACY: I love that point as well, Cheryl, and it’s definitely something I try to keep in mind. I know I have days when I do not feel like I want to do any dissertation work. And, I know that, like both of us, a lot of our Walden students are juggling multiple roles alongside working towards their degrees, and it’s really important to give yourself credit for all the work you accomplish each day.
CHERYL: Absolutely. I really think of academic writing as a long-term investment, whether you’re writing discussion posts and papers over the course of your program or completing a doctoral capstone. It’s just a lot of work! So, celebrating those everyday wins—and finding ways to reward yourself along the way—can make a big difference in your attitude towards your writing.
KACY: Definitely. And we hope that talking about Silivia’s book has maybe helped you shift your thinking, or keep thinking positively, about your writing progress. And we’re going to include some links to more information about the pomodoro method, and resources for crafting strong writing goals, and some more of Cheryl’s and my favorite quotes from Silvia’s book in our show notes. Cheryl, I want to thank you so much for joining me today and helping me with this first WriteCast book club episode!
CHERYL: Thanks for having me, Kacy! I’m looking forward to reading along with WriteCast again!
KACY: If you have any ideas about books you’d like us to discuss in future book club episodes, you can let us know at email@example.com. Cheryl, will you help me close out today?
CHERYL: I would love to! Until next time...keep writing!
KACY: Keep inspiring!
KACY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. You can find past episodes on iTunes and on our website academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. We’d love to hear from you. Connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter @WUWritingCenter, and on our blog: WaldenWritingCenter.blogspot.com. Thanks for listening!
- How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing
- Productivity 101: An Introduction to the Pomodoro Technique
- WriteCast episode "How to Start and Sustain a Writing Group (Episode 62)"
- WriteCast episode "Meet Your Reviewer: A Conversation with Cheryl Read, Writing Instructor and PhD Student (Episode 49)"
- WriteCast episode "5 Tips for Establishing a Writing Practice (Episode 17)"
Kacy's favorite quotes from the book:
- Specious Barrier #1: “I can’t find time to write." "Why is this barrier specious? The key lies in the word find. When people endorse this specious barrier, I imagine them roaming through their schedules like naturalists in search of Time To Write, that most elusive and secretive of creatures...If you think that writing time is lurking somewhere, hidden deep within your weekly schedule, you will never write a lot...Finding time is a destructive way of thinking about writing. Never say this again. Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write" (12).
- “Struggling writers who ‘wait for inspiration’ should get off their high horse and join the unwashed masses of real academic writers. The ancient Greeks assigned muses for poetry, music, and tragedy, but they didn’t mention a muse for journal articles written in APA style” (26).
- “On my list of maladaptive practices that make writing harder, Not outlining is pretty high—just above Typing With Scratchy Wool Mittens, just below Training My Dog to Take Dictation. Outlining is writing, not a prelude to ‘real writing.’ Writers who complain about ‘writer’s block’ are writers who don’t outline” (79).
- “You don’t need special traits, special genes, or special motivation to write a lot. You don’t need to want to write—people rarely feel like doing unpleasant tasks that lack deadlines—so don’t wait until you feel like it. Productive writing involves harnessing the power of habit, and habits come from repetition. Make a schedule and sit down to write during your scheduled writing time. You might spend the first few sessions cursing, groaning, and gnashing your teeth, but at least you’re curing during your scheduled time and not in binges” (129).
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