How to Write a Lot: Advice from Paul J. Silvia

For an introductory seminar on academic research, my professor assigned us to read How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia. In this hard-hitting little book, Silvia sounds like a fierce training coach: if you want results, you’re just going to have to put the time and effort in. Make a writing schedule, says Silvia, and stick with it. If you wait until the muses breathe on you, or until you’ve exhausted the research on your topic, you’ll never write anything.

Paul Silvia challenged and inspired me. I don’t want to forget what I learned from him. Here are some key principles I’ve culled from his book.

1. Quit the excuses.

Many writers have a list of excuses, or “specious barriers” which Silvia demolishes. These excuses include, “I don’t have time to write,” “I need to do more research,” “I need better equipment,” or “I’m not in the right mood.” These excuses come mostly from “binge writers” (a group that Silvia consistently lambasts)–people who prefer intense bouts of frantic writing over scheduled, methodical productivity.

2. Schedule a time to write, and stick with the schedule.

Writing is hard work. It takes self-disciplined and commitment. Academic writing in particular shouldn’t depend on the coming of a certain mood. Instead of waiting for the right moment, you must make the right moment by putting writing time into your daily schedule. Use that time for writing, not research, and stick with it.

3. Set concrete goals.

During you scheduled writing time, set specific goals for how many words you will write. Monitor your progress so you can see how you are developing as a disciplined writer. And don’t buy into the myth of the “writer’s block” (code for laziness).

4. Join or start a writing group.

Silvia suggests that writers start an “agraphia group”–a community of people who want to be accountable to others to write more. Members in these groups should share their goals with each other, and report on how they have met these goals each time they meet.

5. Learn to write well, not just a lot.

Productive writers should also be interested in writing well (chapter five). Unfortunately, many academics think that opaque writing makes them sound intelligent. Perhaps they have never learned to write clearly. To avoid dull and confusing writing, writers should use concrete words, simple sentences, and strong verbs.

6. Make sure writing stays in the right box in your life.

Silvia admits that writing is not everything, nor should be. We are real people who need physical exercise, family time, and recreation. Being disciplined with writing helps keep it in its proper place rather than exploding our lives when a deadline comes up.

How Can We Teach Children About Worship?

Fatherhood Religious Stock PhotosI’ve been reading Worship by the Book  (edited by D. A. Carson). This morning I came across a valuable insight for parents who wish to teach their children about true worship:

Kids of that age [10-12 years, and presumably younger] do not absorb abstract ideas very easily unless they are lived out and identified. The Christian home, or the Christian parent who obviously delights in corporate worship, in thoughtful evangelism, in self-effacing and self-sacrificing decisions within the home, in sacrificial giving for the poor and the needy and the lost–and who then explains to the child that these decisions and actions are part of gratitude and worship to the sovereign God who has loved us so much that he gave his own Son to pay the price of our sin–will have far more impact on the child’s notion of genuine worship than all the lecturing and classroom instruction in the world. Somewhere along the line it is important not only to explain that genuine worship is nothing more than loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, but also to show what a statement like that means in the concrete decisions of life. How utterly different will that child’s thinking be than that of the child who is reared in a home where secularism rules all week but where people go to church on Sunday to “worship” for half an hour before the sermon.

I was struck by the fact that children learn what they see us do. What we do consistently and passionately they see as important. Conversely, what we do inconsistently or without passion, they see as unimportant. Not only that, but we must actively interpret our actions to them. We are going to church to worship with God’s people. We are giving this tithe because everything we have comes from God anyway.

Here are seven commitments with regard to teaching our children using concrete actions:

  1. If I will teach my children that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation, then not only will I explain the Gospel to them, but also they will see me sharing the Gospel with others. When they are old enough, they and I will share the Gospel together.
  2. If I will teach my children that God can be trusted to provide for us, then we will be generous in giving to needy people together.
  3. If I will teach my children that corporate worship is essential, then we will consistently gather with God’s people together.
  4. If I will teach my children that the Bible is the Word of God, then we will read it, sing it, and memorize it together.
  5. If I will teach my children that marriage is a wonderful gift from God, then my children will see my wife and me treating each other with love and respect.
  6. If I will teach my children that sin dishonors God and always brings sorrow, I will abhor sin myself, shield my children from undue exposure to sin, correct them when they commit sin, and humbly admit it when I commit sin against them.
  7. If I will teach my children that God loves them, then I will do my best to show love to them–not only by providing for their physical needs, but also by listening carefully when they speak, playing with them, and treating them with tenderness.

How Mortimer Adler Helps Me Read Philosophical Literature

When I introduce people to Mortimer Adler’s classic guide on intelligent reading, How to Read a Book, most merely give it a dismissive glance and ask, “Why would anyone read a whole book on how to read a book?” The more politely inquisitive might go so far as to ask, “If someone doesn’t know how to read a book, how would he be able to read that book?”

Adler soundly answers these questions at the beginning of his book. Simply recognizing the meaning of the words on a page and reading a book well are radically different things. I was reminded of this fact yesterday when I found myself dragging my eyeballs across the readings in Philosophy of Religion, trying to follow the strands of William Alston’s argument for a perceptual model of religious experience. “If I hope to get this,” I thought, “I need to refine my skill in reading philosophical works.”

I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified to help me than my friend Mortimer. He has a section in How to Read a Book specifically devoted to the reading of philosophical literature. His most helpful (and probably most important) piece of wisdom is this: when reading works of philosophy, seek to discover the problem the author is seeking to solve or the question he is seeking to answer. Sometimes the author will state the problem or question. Sometimes he will not. Nevertheless, if I as the reader fail to grasp this, I will inevitably go away scratching my head in confusion.