The university gave us gift cards for books for Christmas, and I spent them on academic self-help books. I expect that reading them will make me completely insufferable and, I hope, teach me something. Two of these books deal with how two write, but in very different ways: ”How to write a lot” by Paul Silvia and ”How to take smart notes” by Sönke Ahrens. In some ways, they have diametrically opposite views of what academic writing is, but they still agree on the main practical recommendation.
”How to write a lot” by Paul Silvia
In line with the subtitle — ”a practical guide to productive academic writing” — and the publication with the American Psychological Association brand ”LifeTools”, this is an extremely practical little book. It contains one single message that can be stated simply, a few chapters of elaboration on it, and a few chapters of padding in the form of advice on style, writing grant applications, and navigating the peer review process.
The message can be summarised like this: In order to write a lot, schedule writing time every day (in the morning, or in the afternoon if you are an afternoon person) and treat it like a class you’re teaching, in the sense that you won’t cancel or schedule something else over it unless absolutely necessary. In order to use that time productively, make a list of concrete next steps that will advance your writing projects (that may include other tasks, such as data analysis or background reading, that make the writing possible), and keep track of your progress. You might consider starting or joining a writing group for motivation and accountability.
If that summary was enough to convince you that keeping a writing schedule is a good thing, and give you an idea of how to do it, there isn’t that much else for you in the book. You might still want to read it, though, because it is short and quite funny. Also, the chapters I called padding contain sensible advice: carefully read the instructions for the grant you want to apply for, address all the reviewer comments either by changing something or providing a good argument not to change it, and so on. There is value in writing these things down; the book has potential as something to put in the hands of new researchers. The chapter on style is fine, I guess. I like that it recommends semicolons and discourages acronyms. But what is wrong with the word ”individuals”? Nothing, really, it’s just another academic advice-giver strunkwhiting their pet peeves.
However, if you aren’t convinced about the main message, the book provides a few sections trying to counter common counterarguments to scheduling writing time — ”specious barriers” according to the author — and cites some empirical evidence. That evidence consists of the one (1) publication about writing habits, which itself is a book with the word ”self-help” in the title (Boice 1990, which I couldn’t get a hold of). The data are re-drawn as a bar chart without sample sizes or uncertainty indicators. Uh-oh. I couldn’t get a hold of the book itself, but I did find this criticism of it (Sword 2016):
The admonition ‘Write every day!’ echoes like a mantra through recent books, manuals, and online resources on academic development and research productivity … [long list of citations including the first edition of Silvia’s book]. Ironically, however, this research-boosting advice is seldom backed up by the independent research of those who advocate it. Instead, proponents of the ‘write every day’ credo tend to base their recommendations mostly on anecdotal sources such as their own personal practice, the experiences of their students and colleagues, and the autobiographical accounts of full-time professional authors such as Stephen King, Annie Lamott, Maya Angelou, and bell hooks (see King, 2000, p. 148; Lamott, 1994, pp. xxii, 232; Charney, 2013; hooks, 1999, p. 15). Those who do seek to bolster their advice with research evidence almost inevitably cite the published findings of behavioural psychologist Robert Boice, whose famous intervention studies with ‘blocked’ writers took place more than two decades ago, were limited in demographic scope, and have never been replicated. Boice himself laced his empirical studies with the language of religious faith, referring to his write-every-day crusade as ‘missionary work’ and encouraging those who benefitted from his teachings to go forth and recruit new ‘disciples’ (Boice, 1990, p. 128). Remove Boice from the equation, and the existing literature on scholarly writing offers little or no conclusive evidence that academics who write every day are any more prolific, productive, or otherwise successful than those who do not.
You can tell from the tone where that is going. Sword goes on to give observational evidence that many academics don’t write every day and still do well enough to make it into an interview study of people considered ”exemplary writers”. Then again, maybe they would do even better if they did block out an hour of writing every morning. Sword ends by saying that she still recommends scheduled writing, keeping track of progress, etc, for the same reason as Silvia does — because they have worked for her. At any rate, the empirical backing seems relatively weak. As usual with academic advice, we are in anecdote country.
This book assumes that you have a backlog of writing to do and that academic writing is a matter of applying body to chair, hands to keyboard. You know what to do, now go do the work. This seems to often be true in natural science, and probably also in Silvia’s field of psychology: when we write a typical journal article know what we did, what the results were, and we have a fair idea about what about them is worth discussing. I’m not saying it’s necessarily easy, fun or painless to express that in stylish writing, but it doesn’t require much deep thought or new ideas. Sure, the research takes place in a larger framework of theory and ideas, but each paper moves that frame only very slightly, if at all. Silvia has this great quote that I think gets the metaphor right:
Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.
Now on to a book about academic writing that actually does aspire to tell you how to have deep thoughts and new ideas.
”How to take smart notes” by Sönke Ahrens
”How to take smart notes”, instead, is a book that de-emphasises writing as a means to produce a text, and emphasises writing as a tool for thinking. It explains and advocates for a particular method for writing and organising research notes — about the literature and one’s own ideas –, arguing that it can can make researchers both more productive and creative. One could view the two books as dealing with two different steps of writing, with Ahrens’ book presenting a method for coming up with ideas and Silvia’s book presenting a method for turning those ideas into manuscripts, but Ahrens actually seems to suggest that ”How to take smart notes” provides a workflow that goes all the way to finished product — and as such, it paints a very different picture of the writing process.
The method is called Zettelkasten, which is German for a filing box for index cards (or ”slip-box”, but I refuse to call it that), and metonymically a note-taking method that uses one. That is, you use a personal index card system for research notes. In short, the point of the method is that when you read about or come up with an interesting idea (fact, hypothesis, conjecture etc) that you want to save, you write it on a single note, give it a number, and stick it in your archive. You also pull out other notes that relate to the idea, and add links between this new note and what’s already in your system. The box is nowadays metaphorical and replaced by software. Ahrens is certainly not the sole advocate; the idea even has its own little movement with hashtags, a subreddit and everything.
It is fun to compare ”How to take smart notes” to ”How to write a lot”, because early in the book, Ahrens criticises writing handbooks for missing the point by starting too late in the writing process — that is, when you already know what kind of text you are going to write — and neglecting the part that Ahrens thinks is most important: how you get the ideas in place to know what to write. He argues that the way to know what to write is to read widely, take good notes and make connections between those notes, and then the ideas for things to write will eventually emerge from the resulting structure. Then, at some point, you take the relevant notes out of the system, arrange them in the order into a manuscript, and then edit over them until the text is finished. So, we never really sit down to write. We write parts of our texts every day as notes, and then we edit them into shape. That is a pretty controversial suggestion, but it’s also charming. Overall, this book is delightfully contrarian, asking the reader not to plan their writing but be guided by their professional intuition; not to brainstorm ideas, because the good ideas will be in their notes and not in their brain; not to worry about forgetting what they read because forgetting is actually a good thing; to work only on things they find interesting, and so on.
This book is not practical, but an attempt to justify the method and turn it into a writing philosophy. I like that choice, because that is much more interesting than a simple guide. The explanation for how to practically implement a Zettelkasten system takes up less than three pages of the book, and does not include any meaningful practical information about how to set it up on a computer. All of that can be found on the internet in much greater detail. I’ve heard Ahrens say in an interview that the reason he didn’t go into the technology too much is that he isn’t convinced there is a satisfying software solution yet; I agree. The section on writing a paper, Zettelkasten-style, is less than five pages. The rest of the book is trying to connect the methods to observations from pedagogy and psychology, and to lots of anecdotes. Investor Charlie Munger said something about knowledge? You bet it can be read as an endorsement of Zettelkasten!
Books about writing can reveal something about how they were written, and both these books do. In ”How to write a lot”, Silvia talks about his own writing schedule and even includes a photo of his workspace to illustrate the point that you don’t need fancy equipment. In ”How to take smart notes”, Ahrens gives an example of how this note taking methods led him to an idea:
This book is also written with the help of a slip-box. It was for example a note on ”technology, acceptance problems” that pointed out to me that the answer to the question why some people struggle to implement the slip-box could be found in a book on the history of the shipping container. I certainly would not have looked for that intentionally — doing research for a book on effective writing! This is just one of many ideas the slip-box pointed out to me.
If we can learn something from what kinds of text this method produces by looking at ”How to take smart notes”, it seems that the method might help make connections between different topics and gather illustrative anecdotes, because the book is full of those. This also seems to be something Ahrens values in a text. On the other hand, it also seems that the method might lead to disorganised text, because the book also is full of that. It is divided into four principles and six steps, but I can neither remember what the steps and principles are nor how they relate to each other. The principle of organisation seems to be free form elaboration and variation, rather than disposition. Maybe it would work well as a hypertext, preserving some of the underlying network structure.
But we don’t know what the direction of causality is here. Maybe Ahrens just writes in this style and likes this method. Maybe with different style choices or editing, a Zettelkasten-composed text will look just like any other academic text. It must be possible to write plain old IMRAD journal articles with this system too. Imagine I needed to write an introductory paragraph on genetic effects on growth in chickens and were storing my notes in a Zettelkasten; I go to a structure note about growth in chickens, pull out all my linked literature notes about different studies, all accompanied by my own short summaries of what they found. Seems like this could be pretty neat, even for such a modest intellectual task.
Finally, what is that one main practical recommendation that both books, despite their utterly different perspectives on writing, agree on? To make it a habit to write every day.
Sword, H. (2016). ‘Write every day!’: a mantra dismantled. International Journal for Academic Development, 21(4), 312-322.
Silvia, P. J. (2019). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Second edition. American Psychological Association
Ahrens, S. (2017). How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.