So, you are convinced that you are ready to take that first step toward writing for publication. As a first-time author, though, you likely have a number of questions and reservations before you are comfortable jumping right into creating your initial article, query, or proposal.
Always keep in mind that you are qualified to write for the profession merely by being part of the profession. Resist the notion that you must be able and willing to construct methodologically strict academic articles, must have universal name recognition, or must put 20 years into your position before being qualified to publish. Since there are so many publishing outlets, and since librarianship encompasses so many specialties and options, the health of our literature depends on the skills of all types of librarians writing at different levels, on different topics, and for different audiences. A diverse literature provides the breadth and uniqueness required for a thriving profession.
Many librarians "start small" by publishing short articles in online newsletters, writing letters to the editor, creating book reviews, or contributing to a local paper. This allows them to gradually build the confidence and the writing experience needed to tackle larger projects. Whether contributing to your library's newsletter, school's newspaper, or writing a grant application, every bit of writing you create helps you build the experience and the professional recognition you need to go on to do more advanced work. Further, the earlier you start writing and publishing, the earlier your activities will have an impact on your library career--and the more time and opportunity you will have to build your writing expertise and contribute to the literature.
The more writing you do, the more you will find that the mere act of putting words down on paper (or on the screen) helps you clarify your own thoughts and provides the opportunity for research into topics of interest--increasing your ability to contribute to the profession, not only through publication but via your everyday, work-related activities. As Kenneth T. Henson advises in Writing for Professional Publication: Keys to Academic and Business Success (Allyn and Bacon, 1999): "The combined activities of writing and publishing cause us to escape our routine ways of thinking. Thinking in new ways is energizing. If we are clever, we can direct this energy so that it helps us achieve many of our professional and personal goals." Since as librarians we are all also practitioners, this bond between publishing and practice is especially strong.
Understanding the integration of writing with professional practice is an important step toward realizing the unique rewards of publication in the library field--which in all honesty is unlikely to be your path to general fame and fortune, although it can be a nice supplement to a librarian's income and a step toward building the name recognition you need for a successful library career.
While rejection is never pleasant, it is an inevitable part of the publication process. Every librarian author has faced rejection at least once; the important thing is that you do not let rejection (or the mere prospect of rejection) keep you from writing or from submitting your work to publishers.
Keep in mind also that your query or proposal may occasionally be turned down for reasons completely unrelated to the quality of your writing. Perhaps a journal has an article already planned on a similar subject, or perhaps your book idea does not fit in with the scope of a particular press. Maybe your topic is too academic, or not academic enough, for the specific outlet. Do realize that editors may be fairly vague about their reasons for rejecting your work; this is largely because they do not wish to get into an argument with potential authors. If they do, however, give reasonable grounds for their rejection, consider incorporating their comments into your work before submitting it to the next publisher on your list. Never write or call an editor to ask him why he rejected your work, and of course never respond in anger. Avoid burning bridges; the library profession is a tightly knit one. Even if you do not intend to submit work to this outlet in the future, you can be certain that news of any unprofessional behavior will spread.
Always have more than one potential outlet in mind for your work. This allows you to move on quickly in case of rejection by the first editor you send it to. It will be useful here to create a list of potential markets for your idea or article, ranked in order of preference. Have the information on each readily available so that if your work is rejected one place, you are ready to submit it to the next entry on your list, which may well have a differing opinion. Gustavus Adolphus College Professor Barbara Fister shares: "The first journal to which I submitted [my piece], one I chose because it reached the audience I thought would be interested, rejected it. I sent it then to RQ for their 'information literacy' column edited by Mary Reichel. She accepted it and it actually went on to be named as one of the '20 best of the year' by LIRT--sweet revenge for the initial rejection letter."
Most editors, however, do prefer that you refrain from simultaneously submitting your manuscript to multiple publishers. If more than one accepts your work, you then find yourself in the uncomfortable position of rejecting an editor, and most likely torpedoing your chances of writing for that publication in the future.
If you are writing for peer-reviewed publications, also realize that reviewers' comments are largely based on their own opinions and convictions. Reviewers can disagree, even at the same journal. Barbara Fister advises: "Don't sweat rejection. I got two blind reviewers' comments once, one very positive, the other outspokenly negative. The negative review was actually helpful in reshaping the piece, which was [then] accepted." Reviewers' or editors' comments can provide the direction you need to rework your writing, make it stronger or more appropriate for a particular outlet, and ultimately get it published.
You have likely heard the old advice to "write what you know." Although you should not feel limited to writing only about your immediate experience, this is the best place to start when brainstorming ideas for your work. Since librarians are both professionals and practitioners, much of library literature is based on practical experience. Through your writing, you can share details of how you planned a successful program, conducted a survey, won a referendum battle, received and expended a grant, created a distance-learning portal--any professional activity is fair game for publication. You can provide advice to others on job hunting, mentoring, or other career-development activities. You can research any area of the profession that you find of interest as a practitioner, in a class, or in your professional reading.
Remember that when you contribute to the library literature, you are writing for an audience of your peers. Other librarians have an inherent interest in practical articles on issues that arise in everyday library work because many of them will be facing similar problems in their own institutions. Information on how others have struggled, planned, and succeeded is incredibly useful in that context.
Be sure when writing these "how we did it" articles, however, that you provide suggestions for how other institutions can duplicate your success. Broaden your scope beyond merely describing how you did it to share ideas on "how you can do it," or expand on the implications of your experiences. Try to give your work universal application and appeal.
Another option is to write on something you would like to know more about or that you have worked on and found of interest in the past. Your background in librarianship means that you can research nearly anything you would like to write about, so do not feel limited to writing strictly from your personal experience if your ideas and interests take you further. If you created a master's thesis or wrote major papers in library school, these can serve as inspiration for future publishable articles. If you have discussed a complex topic in class or among your colleagues that piques your interest, read up on that topic to see if you can identify an article waiting to be written.
Focusing your research around a potential article or book topic can also be one of the most effective ways of learning or of broadening your own horizons. Carol Ebbinghouse writes in the July/August 2002 Searcher: "If you really want to learn about something new, commit to write an article on the subject, research the heck out of it, and submit it." Sharing what you learn is a natural librarian impulse; give in to it.
Sue Thompson, library systems coordinator at California State University in San Marcos, shares: "I read extensively in the literature, both inside and outside the library world. My reading gives me a feel for what ideas are 'hot,' what has been covered and not covered in the literature, and how the process of research and writing is done." Providence College Acquisitions Librarian Norman Desmarais concurs, recommending that potential authors "attend conferences and read the professional literature to keep current with the trends and get ideas for hot topics in the profession. When something strikes your interest, research it and write something about it. Often, it helps to keep abreast of literature in different fields as interdisciplinary studies are becoming more important and can contribute substantially to other areas of knowledge."
This means both reading the formal professional literature and keeping up with more informal resources such as weblogs, newsletters, and online discussion lists. Such informal communication lets you know what your peers are thinking and what topics they are passionate about. You never know when something you read will strike your interest or will percolate in the back of your mind until you need to refer to it in a future article.
Also, be sure to watch for publication calendars and announcements of thematic issues in the journals you read; these can show you particular publications' upcoming needs and help trigger article ideas.
The most publishable ideas are, therefore, those that stem from your reading, your research, and your everyday experience. These will be more natural, easier to write about, and more useful than those you sit and literally force yourself to think up for possible publication. Learn to look on all of your professional activities as potential fodder for articles or books. Further, do not feel limited to writing only on one subject or in one general area. Although many librarians certainly build a writing career from specializing in one broad topic, many others are comfortable writing in a number of subject areas. This only makes sense because, as librarians, we are comfortable researching in a number of subject areas--librarianship is the last refuge of the Renaissance person.
If you do, however, intend to build a career from your writing, you may look more closely at the idea of specialization or of finding and filling your own niche in the professional literature. Focusing your energies on one subject area about which you are passionately informed allows everything you write to reinforce everything else you have written. Someone who peruses your latest article or hears you speak at a professional conference may very well go back to see what else you have had to say on the subject and may buy a previous book or books you have written. Editors and conference organizers will come to view you as an expert on a particular topic, leading to writing and speaking invitations to contribute your thoughts on your subject or on related issues. Professional publication goes a long way toward establishing you as an authority on your subject.
Those who intend to make a habit of writing professionally may also wish to begin keeping a file of potential article or book ideas. Jot these down on index cards or in a text file on your PC, making a note whenever inspiration strikes. You may discard a number of these ideas after further research or when revisiting them later, but they can provide fodder when choosing a new direction to focus your work. Writing ideas down will also help you remember them; there is little more frustrating than remembering you had a great topic in mind but finding yourself unable to remember the details.
Above all, try not to force yourself to write on topics or in genres that do not interest you. You may have a publishable idea, but if you lack a personal interest in it, it will be extremely difficult to write on. Your lack of enthusiasm will likely also be apparent to your audience. Try to pick topics that intrigue you, which will help both you and your readers. Your passion for your topic will translate into the energy you need to produce your manuscript and to keep your writing interesting.
Overall, writing for professional publication provides an avenue by which you can become more involved in the profession and help advance your own library career. Writing is also one activity that is equally open to all librarians, no matter the size or type of their library or the amount of professional support they receive from their institutions. It is one of the best ways to remain connected to other librarians and to clarify your own ideas about professional issues, helping you, both formally and informally, to move forward in the library profession.
RACHEL SINGER GORDON is a librarian for the Franklin Park (Ill.) Public Library and author of the Librarian's Guide to Writing for Publication (Scarecrow Press, 2004), to be released this month.…