Paul J. Silvia: On Writing

This is the latest in a series of interviews with APA Books authors. For this interview, Linda McCarter, Senior Acquisitions Editor at APA Books, spoke with Paul Silvia, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He is the author of many journal articles and books, including Write It Up: Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles (2015); Public Speaking for Psychologists: A Lighthearted Guide to Research Presentations, Job Talks, and Other Opportunities to Embarrass Yourself (2010, with David B. Feldman); and the bestseller How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007).  In November, we published his most recent book, What Psychology Majors Could (and Should) Be Doing, Second Edition: A Guide to Research Experience, Professional Skills, and Your Options After College, with Peter F. DeLaney and Stuart Marcovitch.   

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.


paul silvia

Paul J. Silvia, PhD, is a social-personality psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He has served as the director of the department’s honors program, and he teaches undergraduate courses on creativity, personality, academic writing, and professional skills.  

LM: You’ve been writing about writing for a long time. Has your own writing process changed over time? If so, how?

PS: My “process” is basically obdurate stubbornness: write according to a schedule, typically a bit every weekday morning. If we write a little every week, things will work out. People spend so much less time writing than they think they do.

The scheduled times, though, have changed. Having kids shifted my writing to much earlier in the morning than before, but I still write every weekday. I probably spend less time writing than I did in 2007 (around 10-12 hours a week instead of 20), but I use my time better and choose my writing commitments more carefully.

LM: What writers, academic or otherwise, have influenced you?

PS: My own sense of style owes much to William Zinsser and Sheridan Baker. Baker’s book The Practical Stylist had an enormous effect on my writing. My writing seems warmed-over if you read his book.

Anyone looking to write a book ought to read Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing, which mixes practical advice and quirky hilarity in a way I admire.

Beyond the books about writing, I owe a lot to two psychology professors I worked with as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California: Denis Mitchell and Shelley Duval. Denis Mitchell was the first person to explain to me that writing is the crux of all scholarship. He used to say “Write the book!” meaning that the people who are known for an idea are the ones who wrote review articles and books about it, not necessarily the ones who had the best ideas and did the best studies. It’s hard to unpack all that I learned from Shelley. He invited me to co-author a book with him even though I was still in grad school.

In hindsight, I can see how lucky I was to get such good mentorship as an undergrad, so undergraduate professional development is one of my passions.

LM: What are you reading currently? 

PS: In 2016 I combined two self-betterment goals: (1) waste less time reading online and spend more time with actual books, and (2) read the books I own before buying new ones. I’m going to roll this goal over in 2017 because I’ve been tearing through my shelves.

I tend to impulsively grab non-fiction books that seem interesting, so the topics are eccentric.

I just finished reading The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art, by Anjan Chatterjee. It’s an elegant and provocative book. Before that, I read Felix Martin’s Money: An Unauthorized Biography, a quirky history of the development of money over the centuries, and Alexis McCrossen’s Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life, a fascinating look at the concepts of time and modernity in American history.

Next up is probably Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy. (I’m trying to read the entire Oxford History of the United States).

LM: In November, we released the second edition of What Psychology Majors Could (and Should) Be Doing: An Informal Guide to Research Experience and Professional Skills, which you wrote with Peter Delaney and Stuart Marcovich. What do you think has changed since the first edition came out in 2009?  What should psychology majors be doing differently today, and what does the new book do differently?

PS: The post-college landscape is so different for psychology majors now. We wrote the first edition at the tail end of the boom years, when psychology majors easily found jobs right after college. Because of the bright economy, students handled career uncertainty more easily.

These days, the competition for graduate school spots and jobs is much more intense. I think students are thinking about their post-college life with a colder, more pragmatic eye. They want to know that something will be lined up after graduation.

The new edition resembles an all-new book. It is 50% longer and 40% less zany (let’s just say that not all jokes age well). We have much more to say about the world of work, writing CVs and personal statements, and about the nuts and bolts of preparing for jobs and for grad school.

write it upLM: What prompted you to write Write It Up, and how does it differ from How to Write A Lot?

PS: How to Write A Lot focused on motivational problems in writing, and I think most of its audience is outside of psychology. Write It Up is a “street level” look at writing empirical articles for fields that follow the APA Style Intro-Method-Results-Discussion format.

Like anything else, article writing is easier when you have some tricks, tips, and strategies. I try to distill what I learned the hard way and what others graciously taught me. It starts with picking projects worth writing up and choosing journals, shifts to writing the sections of the article, and ends with dealing with journals.

how to write a lotOddly, a theme of Write It Up is that we should probably write less. I think people should “write for impact” instead of for “mere publication.” People will accomplish more if they focus on their best ideas and craft their papers to be as compelling as possible.

I had wanted to write a book about how to write good journal articles for a long time. But most of these strategies are tacit, and I couldn’t work out my ideas on paper. It took me much, much longer to plan and write Write It Up than most of my other books.

For what it’s worth, I’m proudest of the writing in Write It Up. It was hard to pull off.


LM: On your research page, I noticed that one of your interests is interest. What first got you interested in interest? And how do you study interest?

PS: A person who studies interest and curiosity ought to have an answer to that, but I don’t. I suspect that I got into this field because my curiosity is easily tickled, and I take on new hobbies more often than is prudent for a grown man.

Most of my research on interest is done in the context of aesthetics and the arts. It’s a small but valiant area with some incredible researchers. It’s easier to study interest in a context like art than in other areas, like academic ideas, essays, or people.

LM: On a personal note, I know you like to buy and restore old watches. Are you working on any now? What is it about restoring watches that you find appealing?

PS: I do catch-and-release watchmaking as a hobby: find them, fix them, and let them back into the stream for someone else to use and enjoy.

A recent patient belongs to a friend of mine. It’s a big Elgin pocket watch from 1890 (a 15J “G.M. Wheeler” Grade 75, for the fans out there). It was the watch his grandfather used while working in a sawmill, and the case has some scary nicks in it. After that, I have a big pile of Illinois pocket watches waiting in intensive care. I blog about the watches I work on in what might be the world’s least necessary blog:

The inner workings of watches are so complex and elegant that it is amazing that people made them so long ago. Watches have dozens of absurdly tiny parts, some measured in the hundredths of millimeters. Placing a .08 mm staff into a .085 mm hole requires a patience and inner calm that doesn’t come naturally to me.

LM: Are you writing anything now?  

PS: The academic life has grant-writing seasons and book-writing seasons. I think the long, bitter winter of grant-writing is nearly over, and the book ideas are coming out of their houses and starting to shovel the sidewalks.

I write down all my ideas for books and articles, and I have around 30 book ideas. Around 18 of them are inane and 2 are good, but I don’t know which 2 yet.