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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 18


Getting back on the horse: on breaks and breathing

One happy, if potentially tiring, side effect of writing for the profession: the more you participate, the more you'll be asked to do; the more well-known your work, the better your chance of having future work accepted. (Librarians are likely all too familiar with this phenomenon, the reward for good work, of course, being more work!)

If you find you are the type of person who likes to write and likes to say "yes", remember the importance of also building some downtime into your schedule. In the excitement of expanding your writing career and having the opportunity to share your ideas and experiences with others, it becomes all too easy to forget to stop and breathe, to pause and take the time to connect with those around you.

Switching gears

After you have finished a longer work such as a book manuscript or a lengthy refereed article, you may at the very least be suffering topic fatigue and need to concentrate on something else for a bit. If you want to give your mind a break, while still keeping your hand in and your writing muscles exercised, you might try:

  • Switching gears and focusing on an entirely new topic.
  • Doing some research for a new project, but forgoing writing itself for a couple of weeks.
  • Catching up on your professional reading, making notes and marking pages where others' words spark your own ideas.
  • Taking some time off and letting new ideas percolate, or reflecting on what is important to you and where you want to go next.
  • Freewriting, journaling or trying your hand at fiction or poetry or another very different genre.
  • Blogging, commenting on others' blogs, or participating on e-mail lists.
  • Thinking about creating a conference presentation, poster session, or panel that uses the work you've just finished in a different way.

If you need a bit more separation, take a real break! Unplug the computer, get outside, bake cookies, clean out closets, read some fiction or manga or poetry, play with your dog or your kids, and avoid anything writing related for a week.

Give yourself permission to rest, and give your brain a chance to rest and switch gears. Consider giving yourself a deadline, though. The longer your break, the harder it will be to "get back on the horse" and get back into the swing of writing. Bigger projects may require proportionally longer breaks; never feel guilty about taking the time you need to refresh your thoughts and find new inspiration.

Also, never give in to the temptation to use your break to dwell on what you could have done, what you might have written, or to rewrite or edit material you have already turned in. The point here is to move on, rather than to look back on what might have been.

And now, for something completely different…

As with physical exercise, if you always exercise your writing muscles in the same way, you'll become bored, plateau, and fail to stretch in new directions. And, in writing, boredom always shows! When you get to the point where you feel as if you are locked into a certain type of writing, or that you can churn it out in your sleep, make a deliberate attempt to branch out.

If you have always written peer-reviewed articles, try your hand at book reviews or an informal newsletter article. If you have always written short opinion pieces, try putting together a proposal for a longer peer-reviewed publication. If you have written journal articles for years, think about taking the next big step and submitting a book proposal.

Take every opportunity to keep your writing career fresh and interesting. When pondering whether to say yes to a new project, take difference into account. If your initial reaction is excitement, if you're intrigued, then ignore the little voice in your head that wonders whether you can really tackle something different. You can!

Remember what's important

I do believe in the importance of writing, of the profession, and of each of us contributing to the ongoing professional conversation in his or her own way. Yet, we need to keep an eye on what is really important; we need to think about broader importance vs. personal importance.

We write in the first place to establish connections with other living, breathing human beings – to reach out to other librarians, to share ideas and inspirations and to participate in our larger community. The paradox, of course, is that writing can in itself be an isolating activity.

We need to find balance between our writing lives and our personal lives. I recently read an autobiography of Isaac Asimov, the amazingly prolific author. I'd always wondered how he managed such remarkable productivity – and he here explained his own self-centredness and the ways in which his devotion to his work interfered with many of his personal relationships. (While I admire Asimov's writing, I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be married to the man!)

Breaks are important, not just to give your mind a rest, but to give you a chance to reconnect. Writing is professional conversation, but we need real conversation, too. When we are focused on a big project or on exciting research, it's too easy to neglect the people who are important to us.

Why not take a minute to tell them now. Go ahead… I'll wait! And, so will whatever you're working on at the moment.

See also

Farkas, M. "Delta Gorran" from Information Wants to Be Free.

Stephens, M. "The balanced librarian" from Tame the Web.