There's a saying, attributed to that wise sage commonly known as Unknown, that goes "A blank page is God's way of showing you how hard it is to be God." I think Unknown described the situation very well. Beginning any project can be difficult, but sitting in front of a blank piece of paper (or these days, a blank computer screen) and hoping against hope that your creative juices get flowing can be an intimidating and often discouraging experience.
It is my hope that this paper will, in some small way, help anyone reading it to begin the writing process with more confidence and determination. Some general concepts will be discussed; some specific recommendations on the do's-and-don'ts of writing will be offered; and possible publishers of your finished work will be given.
This paper is based on a presentation I gave at the 2002 Annual Conference of the Virginia Library Association Paraprofessional Forum at the University of Richmond. As with the VLAPF presentation, this paper is intended primarily for paraprofessionals, but I believe that the concepts and recommendations are just as applicable to librarians preparing papers for publication. I also believe that many of the suggestions presented here can be applied to any writing on any topic, although my primary focus is writing that is library-related.
No matter what kind of writing you do and no matter who your audience may be, the essence of all writing is storytelling. We can be telling the story of a technical process (cataloging microforms, clearing paper jams in a photocopier, etc.), a human relations process (continuing education for library staff, compensation issues, etc.), a library community process (advocating for library funding, library trustees, etc.), and so on. At all times, we are telling a story. Sometimes the story is chock full of facts and figures and results from surveys; other times, it may be more personal thoughts, conjecture, and opinion.
The final product, no matter what the topic, should do the following: It should engage the reader quickly to pull the reader into the story; it should develop the theme or direction to inform the reader. It should present facts and figures, as well as opinions and beliefs to enlighten the reader; and, as appropriate, it should include examples, arguments, and elements of persuasion to convince the reader.
Most writing starts with the very basic decision to write something about a particular topic. Beyond that, there are other considerations. Who is the audience? Where might this be published, and when? Also, why am I writing this, and what do I hope to achieve by writing this?
There are many, many reasons for writing: strong internal motivation and the need to write, a job requirement, a spur-of-the-moment decision in response to something, the desire to share knowledge and experience, the hope of inspiring others, and so on. In fact, there are so many different reasons to write that in many cases the question is not why write, but rather, why not?
There are two very basic steps to being a better writer. First, read. Read often. Read different materials by different authors and with different styles. See what works for you and what doesn't. And write. Write often - every day if you can, if only a little. Try different methods and explore different topics. See what works for you and what doesn't.
The Writing Process
The writing process takes us from the very first thought about writing something through to the final stages of proofreading one more time and then submitting the work for publication. There are many different methods, but no matter what method you use, it should accomplish three goals: (1) organizing your thoughts and materials, (2) avoiding frustration by keeping you "on task," and (3) using your time and resources more efficiently.
Here are the steps in a writing process I've found to be very helpful:
Thinking - This involves brainstorming as well as being open and aware of possible sources of information and inspiration: your thoughts, things you see, or things you hear. If it's possible that it might apply to what you are going to be writing, it's something worth keeping. And write it down! In a notebook, in a word processor - capture the thought. You can always discard it later, but you may not be able to remember it later.
Gathering - Once you've thought about your topic(s), start bringing together your material. There are many sources of material - TV and radio, books, newspapers and periodicals, friends and coworkers, etc. Conduct some interviews. Do some research.
Organizing - The best way to organize your material is to construct an outline. There are three main elements: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Sort your material according to the outline. You'll likely make adjustments to the outline based on the material you've gathered, the things you know you want to say, the subtopics you know you want to cover, and so on.
Writing - Start with a rough draft, giving yourself enough time and space. Don't try to rush. Do try to minimize distractions. Find out what your optimal writing conditions are: time of day, place, paper vs. computer, etc. You'll do your best writing when you're alert but comfortable.
Revising - Never think of your first draft as a finished product. It's always a good idea to go back over your writing several times and not revise your work the same day you wrote it. Look first at the content. Have you said what you wanted to say? Did you start off strong with an interesting opening? Did you finish with a strong ending? Check the sentence structure, paragraph structure, and flow. Does one idea follow the next in a logical manner?
Proofreading - Check the spelling, punctuation, and grammar … and then check them all again. You may have some wonderful things to say but if your work is full of mistakes in spelling and grammar, people are going to have a hard time reading and absorbing what you have to say. Slowly read it out loud - often, if it doesn't sound quite right, it's not going to be quite right to the reader. Ask a friend to read it over and then give you honest feedback. And finally, to catch typos, read it backwards. I know that sounds strange, but it's a trick often used by professional proofreaders.
The writing process should be viewed as a long-term plan. It's important not to rush things or think of your first draft as a finished product. Always keep in mind what you're trying to say and to whom you're trying to say it. Also, it's not a bad idea to read about the art of writing, or maybe enroll in a writing course or workshop. Some Common Mistakes There are a great number of mistakes that can be made in writing, but a few of the more common ones include:
- Poor organization
- Too many technical terms and acronyms
- Poorly defined topic
- Too short
- Stopping after the first draft
- Dull, redundant, and wordy phrasing
Make sure you're using the right word in the right situation. If need be, work with a dictionary at your elbow or minimized on your desktop. Don't use "affect" (to influence) when you mean "effect" (result), don't use "between" (when only two are concerned) when you mean "among" (when referring to more than two), don't use "feel" (to sense) when you mean "think" (conviction or belief), and so on.
Writers sometimes have trouble with modifiers - mangled, misplaced, and dangling. A great example is a classic quote from Groucho Marx: "The other day I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know." It makes for a great joke, but it also serves to illustrate the importance of sentence structure and the meaning that readers will take from that sentence.
A misplaced modifier is a word or phrase that causes confusion because it's located far away from the word(s) to which it refers. Because of this placement, the sentence can take on a meaning very different from the meaning you intended. For example, "Jane rushed to the store loaded with cash to buy the birthday gift." It's doubtful that the writer meant that the store was loaded with cash - more likely, the intended meaning was that Jane was loaded with cash, but that's not clear from the way the sentence is constructed.
A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies another word or phrase that has not been stated clearly within the sentence. Often this happens at the beginning or end of sentences. For example, "Having finished dinner, the TV was turned on by Paul." Was it the TV that just finished dinner or Paul? The meaning isn't clear. "Having finished dinner, Paul turned on the TV" is a much better sentence.
Another problem you'll see from time to time is the run-on sentence. Basically, the problem with run-on sentences is that, although you're including a lot of good stuff, you keep going on and on in the same sentence and it's easy for people to lose track of what it is you're trying to say, even if they have a keen interest in the topic and would no doubt benefit greatly from hearing directly from a person with …. Well, you get the picture.
My advice on run-on sentences is: Don't use them. If you read a sentence out loud and you find at the end you're out of breath, the sentence is too long. Break it up into two or more shorter sentences, and your readers will be grateful.
The last common mistake I'll talk about is the use of quotations. It's a good practice to use quotations sparingly in these two situations:
- When the original wording is so good you don't want to paraphrase.
- When the person you're quoting is important enough that the quotation serves as a form of authoritative documentation.
However, if you use too many quotations in your work, it may appear that you don't have any thoughts or original ideas to contribute, that you're being lazy, or that you're just trying to fill up some space. Using quotations can be an effective tool as long as you are careful to pick the right time and place.
Some Good Suggestions
In writing, often less is more. The best writing is simple and direct. Don't say in 400 words what you can say in 40. This type of writing is more easily understood, more forceful, and more memorable.
Be yourself. Use your ideas and your words. There is no need to impress people with your vocabulary or to send them to the dictionary with every sentence you write. Other suggestions include:
- Don't never use no double negatives
- Avoid commas, that are not necessary and; use semicolons properly
- Always chek you're spelling
- Verbs and nouns has to agree
- Careful not to overuse exclamation marks!!! Really!!!!!!
Use the active rather than passive voice. "John read the report" is shorter and clearer than "The report was read by John." The active voice tends to be clearer, simpler, and more direct, and that's good writing.
There are many possibilities when you look for a publisher of your work. Certainly, what you write will have an impact on who you submit the work to. You could try submitting a highly technical work on the acquisitions of electronic journals to Reader's Digest , but chances are they won't publish it.
However, if your work is library related, I have three suggestions to make.
This is a traditional print publication. It's published bimonthly and features articles by and about library support staff. The publisher and staff are very enthusiastic about paraprofessionals and this publication is an excellent option to explore in getting your library-related writing published. For more information, see their Web site at: http://www.librarymosaics.com/
This is an electronic journal published three times a year, usually in March, July, and November. It is a very support-staff friendly publication. It's relatively easy to get an article published here, and therefore it's a great place to start. The URL for more information is: http://associates.ucr.edu/
This is a traditional print publication although back issues are also available on the Web. It's a quarterly publication, which "is used as a vehicle for members to exchange information, ideas, and solutions to mutual problems in professional articles on current topics in the library and information field." More information can be found on the VLA home page: http://www.vla.org/
Good writing generally doesn't happen without a fair amount of work. Writing isn't easy, but it can get easier the more you do. The first step to being a better writer is to read; the second step is to write often; the third step is to revise.
Whether you're just starting on your first article or you're a seasoned pro, I hope you've found this article of some help.
So? What are you waiting for? Go write something.
Gene Kinnaly is a cataloger at the Library of Congress. He is also a former member of the VLA Paraprofessional Forum Executive Board. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org .