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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 4

Where do you get your ideas?

The question of where successful writers get their ideas is nearly as old as the first written texts. We all wish we had a glimpse into some magic crystal ball that could tell us which topics will be winners and which might fall flat. Truth be told, though, no one has a crystal ball – not me, not you, not Stephen King; not Will Manley nor Marylaine Block nor any other prolific librarian author.

Fed up with this unanswerable query, speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison even started telling aspiring writers that he subscribes to an idea store in Schenectady, which for a low fee sends him a new packet each month. Unfortunately, that doesn't always put an end to the question – he notes that some people then ask him for the address of the service!

If only life were that simple. Those of us who are newer to writing or newer to the profession may be used to having had all of our topics handed to us, from grad school papers to grant applications. In real life, though, we generally have the responsibility for coming up with our own ideas, just as we are responsible for our own career paths. Barring the occasional lucky accident or actively-solicited paper, we need to pull together our own ideas from our reading, our professional conversations, our work experiences, and our cogitations about the profession.

There are, however, several ways in which you can help ideas flow more naturally and spur your own inspiration. First, and I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating:

Stay circumscribed

Beginning librarian authors can start by writing resource reviews and conference reports, which offer a more circumscribed way to begin. Even these, though, benefit from your ability to draw on your experience and your other reading: a good book review draws on your knowledge of the topic and previous reading on the subject; a good conference report builds on your ability to compare the workshops you attend with previous meetings and on your knowledge of the subjects discussed.

If just finding an initial topic, though, is what has you stumped, these defined assignments can help you build your confidence as a writer so you can later move on to articles of your own. You can also stay circumscribed in other ways. Think about starting your writing career by making contacts within your own circle of colleagues or coworkers. Think about your fellow librarians as potential co-authors; take the time to bounce ideas off one another.

As you go on, articles and longer projects grow most easily when you take the time to:

Stay professionally active

In order to make original contributions to the library literature, we need first to become full participants in the profession. Our ideas evolve best in conversation with others, and our efforts to keep current can spur our own thoughts. The old adage to "write what you know," while unnecessarily restrictive when taken to extremes, does have a grain of truth. What we know – what we learn from our professional activities – informs both our writing and our thoughts about the profession in general.

Where we often fall short is in the assumption that there is one right, and costly, way to remain professionally engaged, when in fact information professionals today have multiple ways to remain professionally involved. These can be as simple as joining e-mail lists or taking workshops in your area of interest, forming a book discussion group with colleagues, creating a blog or other online resource, or volunteering for a local or state committee. Especially if you are in a smaller or less well-funded institution, be creative with your professional activities. Each of these offers new fodder for your professional writing. You can mine all of your professional interactions for ideas, from conversations with colleagues, to projects you carry out in your own institution, to workshops you attend.

Trust in the power of serendipity, and remain open to ideas everywhere. In my own professional life, I often find ideas that turn into successful projects while engaged in other endeavors. The idea for my first book, for example, grew out of my own experiences as a newer reference librarian trying to put together public Internet classes in the late 1990s. At the time, there were few materials available on the subject. I thought: "Someone should write a book!" and screwed up the courage to send in a proposal. A year and a half later, ALA Editions published Teaching the Internet In Libraries.

A couple of years later, I had moved up from beginning reference librarian to computer services department head. I found myself managing a network, maintaining a website, providing tech support, and doing computer repair – all without formal technical training. I happened to be thinking about my position as a lucky accident and wondering how many others were in the same boat while reading Computers in Libraries one day, saw a call for contributors, and sent in a proposal. This turned into the 2001 article "A Course in Accidental Systems Librarianship" – which later expanded into the 2003 Information Today book The Accidental Systems Librarian.

In 2003, I was weeding one day and slogging through cases of general books aimed at beginning writers. This made me wonder if there were any books aimed at beginning author-librarians. I took a look, and found nothing recent – a niche just begging to be filled. In 2004, Scarecrow published The Librarian's Guide to Writing for Publication.

As I continue on my professional path as a librarian and continue to write about professional issues, the more I see the need to:

Stay the course

The more time you spend reading, thinking about the issues, and interacting within the library profession, the more you will find that ideas begin to naturally flow. The more time you spend writing about library-related topics, the more often you will find that your own writing and reading and experiences spark new ideas.

As in all other aspects of our careers as information professionals, our confidence and knowledge base as writers build on all of our previous experiences. If you remain open to the possibilities, you will find that you start facing the opposite problem of too many ideas, too little time.

See you in Schenectady!