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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 21


Write what you know?

You've all heard it: "Write what you know". This injunction, on the face of it, seems perfectly reasonable. After all, if you aren't writing what you know, you're obviously writing what you don't know – which, on the face of it, seems problematic.

Writing what you know can be a great starting-point, serving as a natural source of inspiration. The library literature delights in "how we did it" articles, which outline completed projects or describe new services, and talk about lessons learned. (These types of articles can of course be quite useful to other practitioners wanting to emulate your success.) Peer-reviewed journals delight in articles which outline the results of research you have done.

Taken too literally, though, "write what you know" can prove intimidating for beginning writers, library school students, and anyone pondering an article outside the "how we did it" genre. The idea that librarian authors should only write what they know can paralyse potential writers, who feel that others hold more subject knowledge, or that they haven't yet become expert on a given topic. This robs their colleagues of their potential contributions to the literature, and robs them of the opportunity to publish and to learn.

Take heart, though, because…

You know more than you think

You know more than you think about writing, research, and the process of creating a coherent article. You learn from every professional activity, every conversation with other librarians, and every bit of professional reading you do. Keep in mind:

There is always someone out there who knows more than you

Take this as a given, but don't let it paralyse you. Spend less time comparing yourself to others, and more time thinking about how you can contribute.

You have something to say

We all have opinions about this profession and the issues affecting the field. Participation in the profession in itself gives you the right to have a voice. If writing for big-name publications seems overwhelming, start small: write a conference report, an opinion piece for your local newsletter, a book review, or a how-to piece for your state library association's journal.

Write about what interests you

Interest in a subject provides the commitment you need to learn, and the passion you need to produce interesting and engaging work. Take the time to become an expert in your areas of interest.

Librarians are trained to research

This gives us an automatic leg up on other writers – who sometimes even hire library professionals to research for them! Write about what you can find out, what you want to learn about, rather than what you already know. Just as every reference transaction offers an opportunity to learn, so does every piece of writing you do.

The earlier you start, the more time you get to build a writing career

Students and new professionals often put off writing on the assumption that they have plenty of time, or that they need to establish their careers before beginning to publish. This begs the fact that publishing itself helps build a library career, and that the acts of writing and researching help build the foundation of knowledge that lets you succeed as a professional.

You may even be asked to write on a new or unfamiliar subject

Editors treasure their relationships with good writers. Once you have proven yourself by writing well on one topic, an editor may ask you to submit a piece on another subject you know less well. Be prepared for this possibility.

Writing on unfamiliar topics lets you grow

You learn and grow and extend your career partially by choosing areas of interest to explore. One way to do so is simply by researching various topics and reporting on your findings and observations. Each time you learn about something new, you become more valuable – both to editors and to the profession.

Writing on unfamiliar topics lets you battle burnout

Stretching beyond the familiar and comfortable lets you keep up with new developments, escape boredom, and move beyond your day-to-day duties.

Writing on unfamiliar topics makes you more aware of your words

"Experts" often find it difficult to explain their work or pet subject to non-experts; they assume too much previous knowledge, fall back on insider jargon, or use overly complex language. Writing while you yourself are learning a subject makes you aware of how outsiders will view your work, and makes you conscious of the precise steps involved in every process you explain.

With all this in mind, think about turning it around. Deliberately seek out opportunities to stretch yourself by writing a bit outside of your comfort zone.

Turnabout is fair play

It may help to turn things around, or to "know what you write". In other words, by the time you submit a work (and most definitely by the time it appears in print!), you should know your subject inside and out. Turning around the truism frees you up from needing to claim expert status when you query, when you start a research project, or when you commit to a project – but does make you responsible for your own learning.

Learning while you write also lets you pay it forward, passing your newly-acquired knowledge on to others. We're often most excited about topics when they're new to us; when we first figure things out and see how they can make our lives or our institutions better. Tap into that excitement, and share your enthusiasm for your discoveries.

Still not convinced? Just for fun, check out this related comic on Will Write for Chocolate. See, things could be worse!