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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 8

Time keeps on ticking...

Busy librarians often complain that they lack the time to devote to building a publishing career. The very thought of producing lengthy peer-reviewed articles, reading books in time to write reviews on deadline, creating and conducting valid research studies, or investing the time into finishing a book-length manuscript makes them break out in hives. In other cases, a bad first project that took over their lives for a time makes them reluctant to repeat the experience.

Do I ever sympathize!

All evidence to the contrary, though, most librarian writers do indeed lead busy lives outside of their prose, taking the time to hold down day jobs, raise children, pursue hobbies, eat dinner, and maybe even read a book or two every once in a while. So, where do successful writers find the time, and how do they achieve balance? The suggestions below will be most applicable to those who want to make writing for the profession a regular part of their careers; if you are a tenure-track librarian just looking to publish a couple of articles, or simply interested in contributing occasionally as the muse or mood strikes, then you will want to scale down this approach to match your needs.

Get consistent

Julia Cameron offers the concept of "morning pages", where you get up each morning and write at least three longhand, free-flowing pages on any topic, without judging or editing or criticizing your own work. While this often works well as an unblocking technique for fiction writers, something similar, whether you call it morning pages or freewriting, can work for you, too.

Your writing muscles get out of shape just like any others, and the best way to ensure that you are able to write consistently and reasonably quickly is to... well... keep writing consistently and reasonably quickly. Write something every single day. It doesn't all have to be publication quality, it doesn't even have to be library-related – but it does have to be down on paper or on screen.

This is one good use for a blog or other self-publishing venture (see last month's column), although do beware of letting your work out online in too rough of a form. You can also write longhand or on your own PC for personal consumption and never let your scratchwork see the light of day. You may be surprised, though, at how many ideas find eventual fruition or by how many thoughts you manage to work out, just by consistently writing them down. You will also be surprised by how pleasantly your work can flow when you make it part of your everyday life rather than consistently procrastinating until deadline.

In an interview for YBP Library Services, Walt Crawford, the internationally recognized writer and speaker on libraries, estimated he writes about 250,000 words a year. Yes, that is a heck of a lot of words. But, let's stop and think about this for a minute. One double-spaced typed page is about 250 words. If you wrote just one double-spaced typed page every single day for one year, you'd have 91,250 words! If you got ambitious and wrote two pages a day, you could take some time out for spring break, having the flu, taking Saturdays off, or just plain old mental recovery time – and still end up having written comfortably over 100,000 words.

If numerical goals make you uncomfortable, try setting aside specific blocks of time instead. Do you have half an hour free each morning? An hour at night before going to bed? An hour when the kids are napping or when Sesame Street is on? Call this block your writing time, turn down the ringer on the phone, make it clear what constitutes an emergency where people can bother you (house on fire) and what does not (can't find the grape juice).

Of course, most of these daily words may not be publishable in their original form. But, how many usable articles could you distil out of this work? How many of these pages might turn into ideas that later see the light of day, even if the original iteration justifiably disappears forever? Try devoting half your time to writing and half to editing and organizing your existing content, or half to writing and half to researching and collecting ideas. Find the balance that works best for you.

Get organized

One problem we have in maximizing our time comes when we fail to organize the work that underlies our writing. As librarians, we recognize the importance of organization, of being able to find a given item or piece of information when needed. Apply this principle to your own work; it deserves it!

Julie Hood's "Files, piles, and stacks...get organized for 2005" gives some suggestions for organizing ongoing writing projects that will be especially useful to anyone working on more than one project at a time. Use, though, any system that works for you and enables you to put your finger quickly on a needed piece of information, or to recall items you have read or skimmed and wanted to keep for future reference. The main point of organizing is to reduce the time you spend finding the content you need to do your work, and increase the time you have to spend actually writing.

Think also of your everyday efforts to keep current as research. Clip articles for future reference, bookmark websites and blog entries, and use your super-secret librarian skills to organize these in a manner that will let you recall them when needed.

Get going!

You've written, you've organized – now, how to turn this flow of productivity into publishable work? After taking a month or two to simply write, the first skill you will need to develop is the ability to let go. Look at your piles of papers and pages and words. Some will be duplicative – of each other, of something you just read in the literature. Some will be confusing – what were you thinking when you wrote that? Some will have seemed important at the time, but now not necessarily worth the effort to pursue.

Pull out the parts that still interest you, that contain the gem of an idea, or that, in wonderful but rarer cases, contain the bones of a full-fledged article or book proposal. Now you have the genesis for creating publishable work; you have ideas written down that you can expand on, combine, and otherwise use. It is always more difficult to start from scratch than to take the usable sentences, paragraphs, or even fragments from your previous writing and expand them into a complete work. Consciously perpetuate this writing cycle, and you will be able to make the most of the time you have available – and should never run out of ideas!