It seems to be the month for librarians to write about writing. Within the past week I’ve read three different articles or blog posts about librarians writing: Emily Ford’s Becoming a Writer-Librarian in In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Trudi Bellardo Hahn’s and Paul T. Jaeger’s From Practice to Publication: a Path for Academic Library Professionals in College & Research Libraries News, and Joanna June’s Learn to Write (Well) at the Hack Library School blog. They’re all worth reading for potential writing librarians, and they made me reflect a bit on my own life as a writer. As an experienced writing teacher who has managed to publish some professional writing in a variety of formats, I thought I’d toss out my thoughts on writing as well.
Hahn and Jaeger write for academic librarians wanting to publish research, and their advice is more specific than the other articles. They have a helpful chart of different ways to proceed toward publication, with four categories: A) Highly Competitive Publications, B) Less Competitive Publications, C) Unpublished Presentations, and D) Support/ Service/ Recognition. I’ve done a bit of A, C, and D, and a whole lot of B. Since I don’t care whether my publications are “highly competitive” or not, I can work comfortably in the “less competitive” domain. This is also what they suggest for new librarian writers. “Academic librarians who are just starting out should consider all the options available in column B.” Column B includes articles in non-refereed journals, magazines, or newsletters; columns in a journal or magazine (permanent); guest columns; and blogs among others. That seems like good advice. Looking back at my CV, two of my first three publications were in C&RL News itself, and the next few were guest columns or editorials or entries for a column I edited. I was a librarian for years before I published anything peer-reviewed and I avoided tenure-track jobs so I wouldn’t have to write before I had something to say. They also give the good rhetorical advice that “a highly competitive outlet is not necessarily always the best fit for a project, and the desire to have materials published in a certain type of outlet should not be prioritized at the expense of the determining the most appropriate outlet and audience.” That’s hard advice for someone needing to publish peer-reviewed articles for tenure, but still sound. Some topics need a book and some a blog post.
Ford also gives some good advice. The “Writing is Social” section reports about her participation in Academic Writing Month and Digital Writing Month, which provide social incentives and support for writers. I’ve never been a social writer myself, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that writers use all kinds of different tactics to be productive. I usually don’t show my writing to anyone before sending it off for publication, but I’m a good self-editor with a lot of experience. Most people would benefit from a “community of practice,” I suspect. “Reflecting on Writing” suggests reading about writing, which might be something librarians don’t think about doing. I haven’t read her suggestions before, but with 17 years off and on teaching writing, I’ve read a lot of books on writing. Ford’s choices seem concerned with making writers more productive or overcoming blocks. I’ve never had writer’s block or difficulty organizing a writing project, so those aren’t issues for me, but I know they are for a lot of people.
However, I also think it’s a good idea for potential librarian writers to read nuts and bolts type books they might otherwise skip. Examples I’ve profited from in the past include: Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct: a Rhetoric for Writers, Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose, and Diane Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference. Hacker is the most basic, and I probably wouldn’t have read anything like it had I never taught writing. However, it’s still worth the time. I’ve encountered lots of writing from students and other unpublished writers that still have basic problems with subject-verb agreement or pronoun-antecedent agreement or who don’t know whether use which and that with restrictive clauses, or for that matter don’t know what a restrictive clause is. Williams’ book is an advanced guide to prose style and Barzun’s is full of solid rhetorical advice. Lanham’s short book is a good guide to revision, which is something lots of writers dread.
June’s short blog post contains useful tidbits for writers: read critically, write a lot, step away from your writing for a while before revising, and proofread by reading your writing aloud. All are sound suggestions.
Ford admits that she always wanted to be a writer. I’m sort of like that. I remember in the 5th grade wanting to be a fiction writer, but as I grew up that goal changed as I studied new subjects. At various times from age 13 on I’ve wanted to be a journalist, a photojournalist, an architect, a musician, a fiction writer (again), and an English professor. But mostly it’s been writer. I still write fiction sometimes, and have a couple of finished novels and lots of drafts, but I don’t bother trying to publish any of it because it takes too much effort and I don’t really care if it’s published because I write for my own satisfaction. Librarianship was what I ended up with after I’d abandoned other ideas., and it’s turned out that librarianship has offered me plenty of opportunity to write anyway.
When you’ve done something for so long, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate how you do it, but I decided to try. Below are the activities that I think have had the most positive influence on my writing.
Teaching writing has probably done more to improve my writing than anything else. My writing was already strong in college, and I got through many a class with an A merely by my ability to crank out thousand-word essays at a rapid pace. However, that ability was mostly because of reading (see below). Teaching writing improved that ability significantly because I did two things I’d never done before: I read a lot of writing by inexperience writers, and I studied the nuts and bolts of writing. People who read a lot learn about what good prose reads like, but they don’t necessarily think analytically about how writing works. As a teacher, my job wasn’t just to grade essays, but to give specific advice for improvement, and to do that I needed to figure out what was wrong. Why didn’t that sentence work? What’s wrong with the organization of this essay? And what specifically can that writer do to improve? Doing that is a lot harder than you might think. Teaching writing gave me a vocabulary for discussing writing that helps with my own writing, but that I might not have gotten otherwise.
Teaching also exposed me to a lot of bad writing. People who read a lot of published prose might not realize how very bad most writing is. Especially in the pre-blog days, truly awful writing was unlikely to be published anywhere with much of a readership. But wade through a stack of 40 student essays and you realize that writing is a far from natural experience. Reading bad writing makes it easier to figure out what good writing is, though. Reading great novels or polished essays critically can teach you a lot (see below), but reading bad writing gives you a new perspective. If you can figure out why it’s bad, you’re on your way to looking at your own writing more critically.
Writers read. This shouldn’t even have to be mentioned, but I can almost guarantee you that if you never read, you’ll never be much of a writer. By reading, I don’t just mean novels or great literature. In fact, unless you want to write fiction, there’s not any need to read a lot of fiction. But it helps to read everything: novels, short stories, poems, essays, new articles, encyclopedia entries, cereal boxes, blogs, tweets, comic books, textbooks, book blurbs, and even scholarly articles in library science. I’ve been an avid and indiscriminate reader ever since I can remember, and every little bit has contributed to my development as a writer.
On the other hand, being an indiscriminate reader all the time isn’t a good idea. You need to learn to read critically. Good writing as well as bad writing can be read critically. Understanding how bad writing works can help you avoid it in your own work, but understanding how good writing works is more important and more difficult. My writing efforts are mostly novels and essays. I’m curious about how both work. My time as an English major and grad student has given me a large vocabulary to understand and describe writing in a critical way, which is sometimes different than how I might think about writing as a writing teacher. Thinking about writing as a critic and thinking critically as a practioner are both helpful.
Writing Every Day
Writers write. This was the advice I once gave someone who was pestering me over drinks about writing. She thought the drunken escapades of her life would make great blog fodder. Maybe. But although writers often like to drink, the most important thing is writing. Writers write, usually every day. It’s a bad sign when people keep talking about what they would write if only they could get around to it. It doesn’t even matter that much what you write. Sure, if you’re working on an article under a deadline, you might focus on that, but writing about anything helps. You can even write about how you want to write and have nothing to write about. It’s still good practice. And if you can just write a page a day on a writing project, that still adds up pretty quickly. Writing has been a daily part of my life for 25 years, and that constant practice is part of what makes it so easy for me.
Writing in my Head
Writers write and read about writing, but a lot of writing looks suspiciously like staring into space, or walking, or (in my case) lying in bed early in the morning with your eyes closed. William Wordsworth used to go for long walks composing poetry in his head. I’m frequently thinking about things I might write, conjuring up thesis and motive in my head, pondering possible organization. The actual typing part is often the last and fastest part of the writing process, at least for me. So while you should write every day, you could also spend time every day thinking about whatever you might want to write.
Accepting Constructive Criticism and Editing
Inexperienced writers are often insecure writers as well. They don’t like criticism. It offends them that someone would think their writing needs improvement. The writers most resistant to criticism are also usually the worst writers. Experienced writers learn that writing is just words on a page,and they learn to appreciate constructive criticism. This is different from merely negative feedback, which can be dismissed. Someone recently in public called a piece I wrote “pure bilge,” but that’s the sort of emotional and derisive comment that makes me question the reader’s judgment, not my writing.
Writers should also learn to accept editing. I write pretty well, but I’ve had numerous editorial suggestions over the years. With very few exceptions, I’ve taken the suggestions and revised accordingly, because good editors aren’t trying to change your message but improve its communication. Sometimes writers resist editing out of pride or insecurity, and sometimes it’s out of exhaustion. Years ago a librarian asked me to read an article he’d written before submission to a journal editor. I agreed. It was an incoherent 50-page article. That was the bad news. The good news was that with a bit of work it could be turned into two very good 25-page articles, and I suggested how to do that. He was exhausted and said he’d just trust the editor. I replied that if the editor was any good he’d say the same thing I did. Despite considering my comment arrogant at the time, he later sheepishly admitted that the editor was pretty good, plus he got two good articles published instead of one.
Some writers can produce polished prose on the first sitting without any revision at all. I can occasionally do that with short blog posts, but for most writing I revise, sometimes a little and sometimes significantly. Even with writing as informal as blog posts, I often reread the piece several times, making major or minor corrections as I go through. This is where knowing the nuts and bolts of writing helps the most. Writing a draft is sometimes mindless, because the goal should be to get some words down, but revising should be thoughtfully done. For blog posts my goal is clarity and coherence, but when writing for publication I spend more time thinking about everything from sentence structure to organization.
So that’s my story. Every writer’s story is a little different, but those are the activities that I think have helped my writing the most.