How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia

In continuing with my interest in the transition from student to scientist, I read this book by Paul J. Silvia, a psychology professor.  Since an academic researcher is judged largely on his writing, I thought learning how to be a prolific writer would be beneficial.  His secret is rather simple and is commonly seen in books on writing; adopt a strict writing schedule.

The author writes every Monday-Friday from 8-10.  He considers this time to be booked and schedules no meetings or other obligations during this time.  I mentioned this to a friend and his immediate reaction was how selfish it was.  This appears to be a common reaction as people do not take scheduled writing time seriously since it can be done at anytime.  The author’s point is that writing is part of his job; would it be selfish if a professor refused to schedule meetings during his teaching time? Consistent writing is difficult, and by not maintaining a schedule, it becomes easy to procrastinate and prioritize other obligations ahead of writing.

I have tried to maintain a schedule before, but I eventually reach a point where I have nothing to write—usually I need to run more experiments or read more background literature. I would turn my focus to other work and never return to my schedule; once the schedule is broken, it is difficult to resume. According to Professor Silvia, you do not necessarily need to write during your writing time. If you cannot write, then use your time to work on anything that needs to be done so you can return to writing.  The important thing is to maintain the schedule even when you are not directly writing.

The book contains discussions of several other topics like writing books, writing journal articles and monitoring your progress, but the other topic I would like to mention is handling rejection. As someone who has only recently begun submitting journal articles, I found his discussion of rejection helpful. No journal accepts more than 50% of their submissions—according to Elsevier, they reject 80% of manuscripts even before editors select reviewers—so you should always expect and be prepared for rejection. Reviewers will be overly harsh; do not take it personally and attempt to improve your manuscript based on their suggestion.

If a successful professor who writes books about writing has this view on publication, then I certainly should not expect an easier road. He included an example rejection from an associate editor that diplomatically summarized the reviewer’s concerns; the actual responses from the reviewers must have been much worse.  The next time I receive reviews I think I will reread his rejection and remember it happens to everyone.

Both reviewers believed your manuscript was below publication standards.  One reviewer believes that the manuscript did not make significant contributions, misinterpreted opposing theories, offered conclusions not well tied to research evidence, and was plagued by imprecise writing.  The other reviewer believes that the manuscript falls short of advancing a complete and accurate model, makes unsupported claims, omits general important studies and ideas, and makes some faulty theoretical assumptions and criticisms.

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2 Responses to How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia

  1. Pingback: Reviewing Another Subfield | William Hartmann

  2. Pingback: Two Years in Peer Review | Between Zero and One

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