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Publish don't perish – Instalment 2


Identifying and overcoming your self-imposed obstacles


Before we can start writing for the profession, we first need to get ourselves to a place where we are ready to begin. I often hear otherwise articulate and thoughtful colleagues demur by insisting that they have nothing to contribute to the literature, or that they just "can't write". Others, equally convinced that they can't write, but knowing that they have to, slog through and publish only as required for tenure. (Trust me, that always shows!)

This kind of self-deprecating attitude dumbfounds me. As librarians, we write all the time – from grant applications, to memos, to user documentation, to conversations on professional forums. As librarians, we are trained to research; as librarians, we spend plenty of time thinking about and discussing professional issues. What is it, then, about formalizing the process through publication that intimidates so many to the point that they decline to participate?

Where's the block?

Many of us can blame our elders, especially our middle school teachers or library school professors. When we contemplate putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, we flash back to term papers covered with red ink and last-minute all-nighters pounding out pages on a topic not of our choosing.

Worry not: editors just don't have red pens. They don't have the time, and they don't have the inclination. Once you push past this block, further, you will find that writing on a subject that truly interests you is a night-and-day difference from writing on an assigned topic. The more natural your topic, the less panic-inducing the process.

Other would-be writers have more personal reasons for their procrastination. Some may stop after their first rejection. Here, you are only stymieing yourself - maybe your work is right for another publication, maybe it just needs a bit of polishing, maybe the editor already has a similar topic lined up. Rejection is a natural part of the process; use it to hone your work and improve your odds of success next time.

Others think they're too new, too young, or too inexperienced to have anything to contribute. Unlikely! What have you learned that will be useful to your even-newer, even-younger, even-more-inexperienced peers? What do you wish you knew starting out, starting school, looking for that first job? What do you want to learn? Why not research and write about it? Why not seek out and publish with a more-experienced colleague? Why not look for publications that specifically welcome new writers?

Still another group of would-be writers argues that they're too busy with their day-to-day duties to put the time into writing for publication. This, I do sympathize with, but why use it as an excuse to avoid writing altogether? Look for simpler, shorter options – write a conference report, a short informal article for your local association newsletter, or a first-person account of your experiences for an online publication. Straightforward projects that take little time to complete can build your writing portfolio and confidence.

Start slow, move easily

You have to begin somewhere. Realize first that publishing is a two-way street: while you depend on editors to publish your work, they rely on writers to fill their pages. When I surveyed published librarians, a number mentioned that their first published piece was solicited by an editor who heard them speak, saw a thoughtful post they made to an e-mail list, or had a conversation with them at a conference. Editors wouldn't be out there actively soliciting articles if they weren't interested in finding and nurturing new talent.

As an editor of an online library-related publication, I find that locating writers for a given issue is sometimes like pulling teeth. I often talk to other editors or read their comments about the difficulty in finding contributors willing to share their opinions, even on topics that seem as if they would be of interest to many librarians. Between publications actively seeking authors and the tendency of librarian authors to focus on big name journals and publishing houses, opportunities abound for writers willing to take advantage of smaller or less well known publishing outlets.

Your job, then, is simply to find editors who want your work. Think realistically here. If you're just starting out, or if your confidence is shaky, why not contact publications that publish work from others just like you. Don't start with The Journal of Academic Librarianship; start with Info Career Trends or LISCareer.com.

Do it anyway

Trust me: If you can speak, you can write. If you can think about our profession, if you can set up programmes and services in your institution, if you can discuss solutions and ideas and problems and issues with your colleagues – you can write!

The more you write, the more you will develop the self confidence to continue. Aim for that first published work and move on from there. Take the time you spend thinking of excuses for not writing, and put that time and energy into your work.

If you are interested in being published, yet feel too unready to show your writing to others, then start out with prep work. Begin researching a topic of interest. Start a clippings file, start bookmarking websites, start e-mailing yourself articles. Do your daily professional reading and think about which publications match your comfort level in tone, subject, and style. Bounce ideas off of colleagues, whether online or in person. Sign up for library writing related e-mail lists and blogs such as:

Read some books that encourage new librarian authors, starting with:

  • Crawford, W. (2003), First Have Something to Say: Writing for the Library Profession, ALA Editions, Chicago, USA.
  • Gordon, R.S. (2004), The Librarian's Guide to Writing for Publication, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, USA.

The more reading, research, and thinking you do, the more you will get in the writing mind-set – and you may even find yourself anxious to begin! Give your enthusiasm a chance to shine, and be willing to take the plunge when you are ready.