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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 29

Writing a column

Once you have developed a habit of writing for the library literature, you may feel inspired to take the next step and begin producing a regular column for one of the professional journals, magazines, newsletters, or websites. Make no mistake, though: this is a major commitment, and you should give the idea some thought before jumping in. Consider factors such as:

Can you meet regular deadlines?

"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
Douglas Adams

If you're a natural-born procrastinator, or find yourself scrambling to meet deadlines every time you write an article, you may not wish to take on this type of ongoing responsibility. While editors expect all contributors to meet their commitments, they place special expectations on their columnists – because they've entrusted them with a special role.

Whether you take on a monthly or quarterly commitment, regular column deadlines tend to approach rapidly. You may feel that you've just completed one piece, and the next already looms. If the thought of ongoing deadlines sends you into a panic, or if you know yourself and know your difficulties in writing to deadline, you may wish to explore other opportunities.

Do you have enough to say?

The most important consideration before taking on a column: do you have enough to say, month after month, to carry your piece? Before pitching a column idea to an editor or responding to a call for columnists, jot down 6-12 ideas. Try to have a backlog of topics to draw on during months when you're overloaded with other tasks. Write a couple of sample columns to see how long it takes you and how difficult you find the process. (You may be asked to produce samples when pitching a column idea to an editor, in any case.)

If you think you might someday want to write a column, do some self-exploration now. Work on different ways to develop your voice and your views on the profession. Start a blog, and post to regular, self-imposed deadlines; see if your writing on a given topic sparks more ideas and areas for further exploration, or if you feel "done" once you've covered an issue once. Sarah L. Johnson, reference librarian at Eastern Illinois University and quarterly columnist for NoveList's "What we're reading" series says:

"Both feature articles and columns require a thorough grasp of the material, but writing a column means you'll need to keep up-to-date with your subject matter, so that you can regularly inform readers about changes or new developments".

Realize also that writing a column differs from writing feature articles. You'll often have more room to express your own opinions, and columns' tone is often more conversational. Revisit your favourite columnists in several library journals and magazines, and read several months' worth of columns from each. Note how the columnists' personalities shine through, how they say something new or provide insight in each instalment, and how they pack a lot about topics into a circumscribed space – often one printed magazine page, or about 900 words.

Think about contributing a piece to columns such as Library Journal's "NextGen" or "Backtalk". Although these are written by different contributors each month, their opinionated tone and short length make them good candidates for feeling your way into the requirements of column writing.

How do you get started?

Editors like columnists. Regular columns mean one less space in their publication that they need to fill with an unknown quantity, or with an author who may not be as reliable as yourself; they also provide a known quantity for readers and a reason for them to come back. When pitching your column, therefore, you may be working from a position of strength, especially if you have previously written for this publication and have proven that you can write, can work well with your editor, and can meet deadlines.

To get started:

  • Think locally. Does your library or institution produce a weekly or monthly or bimonthly newsletter? Offer to write a regular column – these types of publications are always looking for content. Think about writing book reviews, highlighting library events, or giving your views from the director's corner (or children's librarian corner, or… ).
  • Associate yourself. Are you a member of a local library association? Associations and their associated sections and divisions often need newsletter editors (who generally help find authors, edit the publication and write an introduction to each issue). Newsletters also benefit from regular sections, so don't be afraid to approach an editor to propose a column on a topic of interest to the group's members.
  • Pay attention. Watch for calls for columnists in the publications you read, as well as on lists and job boards. When a long-time columnist moves on, publications often wish to carry on the column and look for someone to take up the torch.
  • Think long term. People are often asked to become columnists because of their previous relationships with editors, or with movers and shakers in the library world. Staying involved will improve your chances of publication in general, let alone getting a column, and will also make your writing stronger.
  • Be bold. If you've written for a particular publication and note some holes in its content, or have an idea for a regular topical column, tell the editor about it.

Meredith Farkas, distance learning librarian at Norwich University and new American Libraries columnist, says:

"My having an American Libraries column can be attributed to knowing the right people, not being afraid to ask for what I want, and having great timing. A columnist friend of mine knew that I wanted to be a columnist one day and suggested to Leonard Kniffel, editor of American Libraries, that I'd make a good columnist. When I was giving a workshop at ALA Headquarters in fall 2006, I also mentioned to the head of ALA Publishing that American Libraries should give me a column because I could help improve the magazine (yes, I do have chutzpah)… At the same time Leonard kept hearing about me from different people, American Libraries was in the process of redesigning its look and its focus. They'd done surveys and found that their readers wanted more technology topics covered in the magazine. So, when he finally contacted me and I pitched a column on technology success stories for the average librarian, he was already thinking about how to bring in that sort of content. I've realized that there is rarely one clear path to these sorts of opportunities, but the one thing you can't do is wait for opportunity to come knocking on your door".

As throughout your writing career, be proactive and be on the lookout for openings and opportunities.

How do you get going?

So, you've been offered a column. Now what? After careful consideration, jump on the opportunity to develop your unique voice and to share your thoughts, your viewpoints and your convictions about professional issues. Remember that your regular readers will come to expect a consistent voice.

Putting yourself out there with a regular column also opens you up to criticism and comments. When your columns express your unique worldview and personality, those with different views and opinions on the issues will take exception. Some will write to you; some will write letters to the editor; most will not mince words. This goes with the territory – anything worth writing a regular column about is likely to stir up controversy. If you tend to be thin-skinned or shy away from conflict, think twice before signing on as a columnist. Otherwise, use people's comments and criticisms to refine your own views and make you a stronger writer.

Writing a column can be an invaluable experience, allowing you to grow personally and professionally. Take some time to think about whether becoming a columnist might be in your library publishing future.