“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.

Theological Writing Handout 0.7, Beta

The next revision of the Theological Writing Handout is now available, and it can be previewed and downloaded below. As always, comments identifying errors or suggesting improvements are welcome. For anyone who may be interested, a change log from the previous version (0.4.1) is also available.

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Book Review: The Office of Assertion

Scott Crider
Scott Crider

Scott Crider teaches in the English Department at the University of Dallas. His book, The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay, is intended to provide an introduction to “the classical art of rhetoric and composition” (xi). While providing this introduction, Crider specifically seeks to argue that rhetoric is, as a liberal art, a noble pursuit and to improve the readers ability to write academic prose (2).

The introduction defends a distinction between rhetoric and sophistry, between “persuasion aimed at the truth . . . and persuasion aimed only at the appearance of truth” (4; cf. 119). Following Aristotle, Crider affirms that rhetoric is not primarily formulaic, although it does involve certain formulas; instead, rhetoric is primarily a mental faculty (5–7). Having truth as its goal, fully formed rhetoric “in its finest and fullest manifestation is a form of love” (12). In addition to discovering means for persuading an audience toward truth, the rhetorical faculty carefully attends to what arguments will function best in a given situation (7–9; cf. 59).

Rhetoric begins with invention, some conception of an argument, and invention commonly has five topics: definition, comparison, relationship, circumstance, and testimony (29). Once the rhetor has refined an argument well enough to have a coherent thesis, the rhetor can use these topics to chart a course toward demonstrating the thesis (30). The additional, subsidiary arguments and the manner in which they are drawn together toward the thesis are best organized according to an “immanent design,” or an arrangement that arises from the arguments themselves rather than one that is simply imposed from without (e.g., the five-paragraph essay form; 43–47).

Even if written to people who have similar interests, an argument’s introduction should convince its audience that the argument is worth reading (49). This introduction calls for a certain degree of creativity to find some way of painting the argument’s substance in a way that will please and intrigue the audience; if a rhetor succeeds in this task, the audience will be more willing to spend the time and effort to ponder the argument proper (53). The introduction should also briefly outline the essential contours of the argument that the rhetor intends to prosecute; doing so aids the argument’s rhetoric by providing the audience a concrete set of expectations, which the rhetor can attempt to meet (55–56). Along the way to meeting these expectations, the rhetor should consider and account for possible counter-arguments (59): What weaknesses in the argument do these potential contraventions suggest? How can these weaknesses best be remedied? After prosecuting the argument, the rhetor should briefly conclude (61–62). Conclusions frequently summarize; they may also suggest additional implications that the central argument has, emotionally move the audience, or return to a theme or idea included in the introduction (62–63).

Throughout the introduction, argument, and conclusion, the rhetor is also constrained to use an appropriate style of language because an inappropriate style will hamper the audience’s reception of the argument (73–74, 77–78, 84). Particularly apt for academic writing is a kind of “middle style” that steers a middle course between the colloquialism of conversational language and the elevation of highly stylized discourse (74–77). This middle style includes conventions about word choice, sentence construction, figures of speech, and formatting (79–104). Together, a rhetor’s use of these elements suggest certain things about that rhetor and give the audience a certain picture of who the rhetor is—a picture that may aid or inhibit the rhetor’s persuasive task.

Once constructed, an academic writing needs a second look that does more than seek opportunities to make editorial changes (109). The writing needs to be evaluated in terms of the degree to which it fulfills its required objectives, the sharpness of its focus, the clarity of its thesis, the development of its logic, and the completeness of its explanations, and the piece should be revised accordingly (110). Such revision allows a rhetor to enhance the craftsmanship that the argument exhibits and the argument’s ability to move its audience toward truth (118).

Given Crider’s stated purpose to provide an introduction to rhetoric for the academic essay, The Office of Assertion is a helpful, concise, and in its own way, pleasant book. At various points, some readers might wish for more specifics or more direct instruction, but on Crider’s conception of rhetoric as primarily a faculty of the mind rather than a set of independent techniques, the book strikes a nice balance between generality and specificity. Crider seeks not so much to show his readers directly how to write good, academic essays as to show them how to think—how to have the kind of mind that produces good, academic essays. Style is a component of this larger package, but mere mechanical observation of grammatical or stylistic “rules” can, quite possibly, fail to induce other elements of good essays, like invention and organization. By contrast, a rhetorically-trained mind naturally seeks out effective style. Thus, Crider’s book and the relationship that he advocates between rhetoric, academic writing, and style have much to commend them as aids toward delightfully introducing oneself and one’s audience to truth.

In this post:

Scott Crider
Scott Crider

Excellence in Writing

In preparing for another revision of the Theological Writing Handout, I am rereading William Strunk and E. B. White’s little classic, The Elements of Style. The fourth edition contains a forward by Roger Angell, White’s stepson, where Angell recalls the following pattern of behavior from his stepfather:

Each Tuesday morning, he would close his study door and sit down to write the “Notes and Comment” page for The New Yorker. The task was familiar to him—he was required to file a few hundred words of editorial or personal commentary on some topic in or out of the news that week—but the sounds of his typewriter from his room came in hesitant bursts, with long silences in between. Hours went by. . . . When the copy went off at last, in the afternoon RFD [Rural Free Delivery] pouch—we were in Main, a day’s mail away from New York—he rarely seemed satisfied. “It isn’t good enough,” he said sometimes. “I wish it were better” (ix).

Striking is the fact that someone like White should wrestle so much and so frequently with composing these weekly essays, which were, admittedly, of a rather different cast than an academic paper or monograph on the New Testament. Still, there is a pattern of attention here to the craftsmanship involved in composing such an essay that we New Testament students would also do well to observe. Arguments about this or that interpretive point must surely be sound, but sound arguments presented winsomely should quite easily repay the additional efforts required to compose them. To borrow some biblical phrases, good, academic writing (much like good, academic presentations) combines “words of truth” with “words of delight” (Eccl 12:10).

In this post:

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White

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