A Plea for Scholarly Engagement

Steve Runge has posted a fantastic essay on “The Bane of Dismissive Scholarship.” Among his most poignant statements are the following:

[T]he literature review and preparation for writing the paper. . . . is where I should be adding to my already profound arsenal of Knowledge, filling my cup til it runneth over. Realistically, I feel like many use this stage to fill their quiver with barbs that they will launch at other scholars. Why? Because some folks seem more interested in being right than in getting it right. . . . The specific issue that has got me in a tizzy is folks getting it mostly right, but being dismissed because of the portion that is lacking. To put it another way, instead of remodeling the missing element of the structure, they demo the whole thing so that THEY can be the builder, THEY can save the day. . . . It behooves me in writing my paper to stop and ask what my objective is: to be right or to get it right? If I am claiming something that no one else has ever claimed before, I have good reason to fear. If I am claiming something that represents the core idea the grammarians have expressed for over a century and I can build on or clarify that argument, there is a far greater chance of getting things right. It is a win-win: in getting it right, I get to be right (Runge, “Dismissive Scholarship”; italics and capitalization original).

The rest of the essay further presses home these points, and the post bears reading in its entirety. The whole post also reminds me of a very pithy sentence from Anthony Weston: “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet” (Weston 6; cf. Gadamer 302; Machen, quoted in Baird 352).

In this post:

William Baird
William Baird
Hans Georg Gadamer
Hans Georg Gadamer
Anthony Weston
Anthony Weston

Creating Research Timelines in Excel

Although it certainly can be used otherwise, a progress tracking system like the one Paul Silvia suggests in his book How to Write a Lot seems to work best for writing that can be open ended: by following a regular writing schedule, projects can regularly and reliably come to completion. What happens, however, if one is working under a deadline (be it self-imposed or not) and, therefore, needs to develop a writing schedule backwards from this due date?

This spreadsheet is at least an elementary attempt to provide a tool for performing such a task. Yet, one obvious limitation of this spreadsheet method is that all the writing projects are arranged serially along the completion timeline rather than allowing for working on more than one project at once.

If anyone else should find this tool useful and has refinement suggestions, I would be very interested in seeing them. These formulae appear to work on Google Docs exactly as they do on Excel when that program is operated on a Windows platform, but to my understanding, Excel calculates dates differently on Mac OS than it does on Windows, so Mac users may need to adjust this spreadsheet’s formulae.

Tracking Writing Progress

In How to Write a Lot, Paul Silvia provides his own progress monitoring system as an example (39–45). Since finishing the book last month, I have been adapting Silvia’s database format to a Google Docs spreadsheet that will track some additional data in addition to the data that he finds helpful. Since it has been helpful thus far, I thought I would make it available with some sample data.

Some Additional Details
Column E: I am working on estimating the average number of words that I write in an hour (including time for research), and thus far 175 seems fairly close, hence that value running down the E column. Behind this number is actually the formula =350/2—for an average of 350 words on one of my standard pages (including footnotes) and an estimated 2 hours for writing that page, though I have a sense that something like 2.25 to 2.5 might be more accurate.

Column F: An overall daily goal calculated based on =[Column D]*[Column E].

Column G: The results of a word count (including footnotes) at the beginning of the day. As the spreadsheet above shows, however, I did not start tracking beginning and ending word counts until May 29.

Column H: The results of a word count (including footnotes) at the end of the day.

Column I: A daily progress total based on =[Column H]-[Column G]. Cell I2 computes the average daily progress.

Column K: A daily progress measure against the daily goal based on =[Column I]/[Column F]. Cell K2 computes the average amount of the daily goal that is actually met each day.

Column J: The cells for each work day use the formula =IF([Column K]>=1,1,0). If a given daily goal is met, Column K = 1, or if it is exceeded, Column K > 1. In either case, this formula returns the binary value 1 (= Yes). Alternatively, if the daily goal is not met, the formula returns the binary value 0 (= No). Cell J2 then averages the values in Column J to determine the portion of the work days that meet the daily writing goal. The significant disparity between Column J and Column K appears because, as would be expected, some days have been more research intensive and other days have seen more writing.

Column L: Column L indexes how much “life happening” has affected the actual writing progress made versus the progress that was planned. A negative number indicates the number of planned writing hours that were spend on some other task(s), and a positive number would indicate additional, unplanned time devoted to writing. Cell L2 provides the total number of writing hours that actually happened over or under the planned number of writing hours.

“How to Write a Lot”

Paul Silvia
Paul Silvia
Paul J. Silvia teaches psychology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. In
How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Silvia chiefly pleads with his readers to set aside specific, regular blocks of time for writing and to adhere steadfastly to this schedule (16–17). “The secret,” he says, “is the regularity, not the number of days or the number of hours [allotted for writing]” (13). Silvia argues that observing such a regular writing schedule will allow an author to produce better material more efficiently (1). “More efficiently” does not, of course, necessarily indicate that all academics should publish a large quantity of material; those whose interests lie elsewhere can still use a regular writing schedule to produce the quantity of literature that they wish. Thus, Silvia suggests that a more accurate title for the volume would be How to Write More Productively During the Normal Work Week with Less Anxiety and Guilt, but he humorously recognizes that such a title may well have inhibited book sales (130).

To motivate his readers to take his advice about writing schedules, Silvia addresses four common barriers to productive writing and regular writing times (11–27). First, Silvia addresses the difficulty of finding large blocks of time to write by asking his audience to consider writing to be part of the set of required tasks that academics have. “Do you need to ‘find time to teach’?” he queries, “Of course not—you have a teaching schedule, and you never miss it. . . . Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write” (12). Second, Silvia cautions against the literary paralysis that can result from a constant feeling of needing to read more about a topic before writing about it. Doing this reading during one’s scheduled writing time can eliminate the roadblock it presents to the writing process (18–19). Third, perceived workspace or equipment inadequacies cannot be allowed to be deterrents from writing (19–23). Fourth, waiting for inspiration or “feeling like writing,” at least for those who do not intend to produce novels or poetry, should not dissuade someone from a regular schedule because keeping that schedule will itself generally prompt more ideas for writing and more occasions when an author feels like writing (23–27).

After attempting to dispatch these common roadblocks to productive writing, Silvia suggests some “motivational tools,” including: setting reasonable goals to achieve within one’s regular writing times, prioritizing different projects appropriately, and monitoring one’s progress (30–45). He also comments at length on starting and running a writing accountability group (49–57).

Silvia briefly discusses some characteristics of good writing style (59–76) before giving specific counsel for writing journal articles (77–107) and books (109–25). For journal articles, Silvia provides numerous specific tips (78–98)—some of which specifically relate to his own field of psychology but may still apply to articles submitted in New Testament studies—and a general counsel: Assume that any article submitted will be rejected (98). Silvia intends this counsel to calm fears about “what if. . . ,” and he encourages his readers to think of article rejections as a “publication tax,” or a cost that must be payed to have other things published (100–101). For books, Silvia suggests finding a co-author if necessary (112–13), and he provides some tips for authors when they want to “sell” their books to publishers (118–23).

While Silvia’s book contains numerous, practical hints for various issues that arise during the writing process, the book has a unified message: “Make a writing schedule, keep it, and you will write more than you do.” The “plan and persist” mantra is, perhaps, somewhat oversimplified at times, but this simplicity too serves Silvia’s purpose. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, in the end, does “guide,” but this guidance is designed also to motivate.

Looking at beginning the dissertation phase here at Southeastern later this year, I found Silvia’s book encouraging, but perhaps more encouraging is a very simple writing schedule. If someone were only to average one page each week day, that person would write about 261 pages each year. At about 350 words per page, our hypothetical student would write in one year 91,350 words on a project where something around 100,000 words seems to be a fairly standard finishing length. Others who have already walked this road will certainly have a more nuanced perspective, but at the beginning of the road at least, such things are encouraging.

In this post:

Paul Silvia
Paul Silvia

Zotero 2 Beta Launches

Zotero is a bibliographic and research management addin for the Firefox web browser. The latest test release, 2.0b3, succeeds Zotero 1.5b2.1 with some substantial improvements, particularly by increasing Zotero’s flexibility and usefulness for research collaboration among several, different Zotero users.

In addition to the resources on Zotero’s website, Tommy Keene has a good quickstart guide over at Nerdlets.org, and he plans to post a fuller review and guide for Zotero 2.0 fairly soon.

PDF Markup Tool

I recently found a thread on the Zotero forum that mentions the PDF XChange Viewer, which is supposed to allow users to markup PDF files.

Especially if you use Zotero, you may want to use PDF XChange as your default PDF browser plugin. After installing PDF XChange, you may still need to do the following:

  1. Open PDF XChange.
  2. Go to the “Edit” menu, and click “Preferences.”
  3. Under “Categories,” click “File Associations.”
  4. Check “Display PDF in browser,” click OK, and close PDF XChange.

Also, if you have the Adobe Acrobat plugin installed in Firefox:

  1. Open Firefox.
  2. Go to the “Tools” menu, and click “Add-ons.”
  3. Go to the “Plugins” tab, click the “Adobe Acrobat” plugin, and click “Disable.”
  4. Close the “Add-ons” window.
  5. Go to the “Tools” menu, and click “Options.”
  6. Go to the “Applications” tab, and find the content type “Adobe Acrobat Document.”
  7. For this content type, select the “Use PDF XChange Viewer (in Firefox)” plugin for the action type.
  8. Close the “Options” window, and restart Firefox.

Thus far, PDF XChange seems to be working quite well. Comments are not yet searchable in the most recent build, but searchable text from the PDF itself remains searchable. So, at least initially, PDF XChange looks like it might help save trees, cut printing costs, and streamline workflow.