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CAREER ADVICE

How to write a lot

At Congress, a popular Career Corner seminar gives actionable advice on how to increase the quantity, quality and enjoyment of your writing.

By ASHLEIGH VANHOUTEN | JUN 16 2015

“Our goal is to give proven strategies on how to be more productive through writing – using our experiences, best practices and good science to illustrate how professors can use their time best,”  explains University of Ottawa political studies professor Mark Salter, regarding his Career Corner session, “How to write a lot,” which took place during Congress earlier this month. “We’re providing ways to motivate yourself to write every day. When you do that, you are happier and more productive. You write more and you’re happier with what you write.”

The session, now in its fifth year, addresses the obstacles writers face and how to overcome them. For example, it gives  “tips on how to be more strategic about writing – writing for a purpose, for a specific publication or specific career reasons – so you can pour your natural curiosity into shapes that are better for editors.” The session also covers such topics as why one should aspire to write a lot and how to improve actual writing and revising skills.

Actionable items include creating a task list each day and being strategic about what work is best done at what time of day—for example, performing high-cognitive tasks in the morning when you’re most alert and low-cognitive tasks like answering email in the afternoon when you’re more sluggish. “One needs to plan for emotion, not just intellect. It’s the feelings about writing that are as important as the intellectual product of writing,” says Dr. Salter.

Distraction, more than ever, is a barrier to effective writing, and Dr. Salter believes that removing choice from your day can help. “Some profs use a computer program called Freedom, which freezes you out of the Internet for a specific amount of time. My productivity increased when I began giving myself specific, limited time to check email.” Computer timing sites like tomato-timer.com are also helpful, allowing you to schedule regular breaks from your work.

Writers should not underestimate the value of untouchable, uninterrupted time to write – time not peppered with Facebook breaks or checking your phone or email. But this doesn’t mean you must sequester yourself in a windowless room;  he says that getting together in writing groups can be beneficial to your craft.  “There’s something really motivating about that – it makes you less likely to squander your time. You’re way more likely to pay attention and be present when you feel like it’s a group activity, even when everyone’s doing it alone.”

Still, distractions are inevitable – life gets in the way, and that’s okay, he adds. Balancing your writing responsibility with all the other responsibilities you face helps put the enjoyment back into your work, allowing you to be present and appreciate all areas of your life. “Take away some of the pressure from yourself,” Dr. Salter says. “Things pop up: your kid gets sick, your computer crashes. Figuring out how to be productive and still be a good person, professor, colleague, parent – it’s really helped me really take the project of writing seriously.”

In Dr. Salter’s session, he also discusses barriers (see: excuses) for not writing, and how to promptly address them. Some of the answers can be found in relaxation and consistency, but the hard truth is that “waiting for inspiration” does not work, and that those who force themselves to write, even uninspired writing, write more and find more success in their writing. And, perhaps contrary to a traditional academic approach, binge writing is not recommended. “Evidence shows that you should set a goal you can meet every day and stick to it. Rather than support a binge-writing way of thinking, it’s much better to make it a manageable, daily activity. If you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to run a marathon’, you wouldn’t run 20 miles the first day and burn yourself out. It’s the same with writing.”

A key point of Dr. Salter’s lecture is changing your attitude towards writing – making the task fun, enjoyable and more of a consistent practice and part of your daily life than a dreaded duty. “The more you write and the less crisis-driven it is, the more it becomes a practice and a craft. Part of it is changing the emotional relationship you have with the writing so you’re not anxious and worried about it.”

Ultimately, the workshop is a practical one that offers real examples, discussion with the audience and strategies to get started improving your writing immediately (and it doesn’t hurt that 15 copies of Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot were raffled off during the seminar). After some five years of presenting this workshop, Dr. Salter still finds enjoyment in it and hopes it continues: “I keep doing it because I need the reminder too,” he says.

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  1. Jano Klimas / June 17, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    Thank you for a stimulating blog. How to write a lot started my real interested in the science of writing a couple of years ago. I’m especially interested in interventions to improve the productivity of addiction researchers. One such example is a recent study by Dr James Sorensen published in the Substance Abuse journal on April 20, 2015: Scientific Writing Seminar for Early-stage Investigators in Substance Abuse Research http://t.co/twOus37lF1

  2. Sadaf / June 18, 2015 at 2:19 am

    thanks for sharing. Hope you continue doing it for ever!

  3. Eva-Lynn Jagoe / June 22, 2015 at 10:54 am

    I am torn as I read this article. For sure, there are few things more pleasurable than the flow of writing when it’s going well, when it feels like there’s a fluid connection between your thoughts and the words that you are typing. I believe that the best way to achieve this ease is through a regular practice of writing often. But I do not think that the goal is to “write a lot,” to become even more productive than most of us already are. The academy would do well to slow down, to allow more time for deep research, rewriting, and revision. Both in our own writing and publication records, as well as in our teaching, we should be moving towards spending more time on fewer words.

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