Career Strategies for Librarians
Look Mom, I got my Name in Print!
Lessons Learned by a Publishing Neophyte
by Amanda Etches-Johnson
It feels somewhat disingenuous to be writing a "how I did it good" article on publishing when I haven't
technically published anything yet, but my editors tell me that the book I contributed to is a done deal, so
as of Fall 2004, I should be able to make that call to my mom after all. That said, this article isn't really a
"how I did it good" missive at all; it's more of a self-indulgent exercise in personal catharsis outlining a
few of the things I'm glad I did, but mostly the things I should have done.
Lesson 1: Talk about yourself
I'm happy to report that this first lesson was born out of success rather than failure. When I stepped into
my first professional position, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a lot of very positive and
encouraging librarians who were far more experienced than I in the ways of the library world. In this
environment, I was encouraged to openly discuss my professional goals and I made it abundantly clear
that research and writing were two of them. The direct result of this was that one of my colleagues
passed my name on to two of her former colleagues who were seeking contributions to a book they
were co-editing. Once they contacted me, I jumped in with a few ideas out of which a chapter was born.
The lesson I learned here was that it's never a bad idea to tell anyone who will listen what your research
interests are. These don't have to be thoroughly researched proposals; sometimes simply getting the
word out that part of your career plan is to write for publication could be enough, as it was for me. In
addition, it's a good idea to make use of the resources out there that are designed to support new
librarians in their publishing endeavours. Listservs like NMRTWRITER, sponsored by ALA's New
Members Round Table, are great places to throw research ideas out, elicit ideas and feedback, and
possibly even draw out interested collaborators for co-authorship opportunities.
Lesson 2: If you want to write, you'd better write
Writing for publication will always be one of those activities that is fraught with a certain amount of angst.
For me, it was disquieting to think about the fact that publishing meant that my writing and ideas would
be opened up to all sorts of scrutiny. Let me just come right out and say it: no one wants to be
remembered for that really bad article or poorly-defended point of view. I came to realize that the only
way I could prepare for writing was to write, and keep writing, and get all the practice I possibly could.
For those looking for some practice ground, it's a good idea to start with low-threat publications, of which
there is no dearth: publications such as state/provincial library association newsletters are constantly on
the hunt for contributions, as are any number of ALA's division and roundtable newsletters, like NMRT's
I personally began practicing a few years ago with a weblog, something I started for many reasons, not
the least of which was to become comfortable with my writing voice. The more I posted to the blog, the
more comfortable I became discussing professional issues in a low-threat context. When it came time
to sit down and write the chapter for the book, I found myself doing far less second-guessing than I had
anticipated, and it was really then that the advantages of two-years of blogging were realized. In addition,
I found that the more I wrote about a broad range of issues, the more I came to an understanding of the
issues that were most important to me, which have now become the issues I spend time researching
and writing about. One of the happy side effects of blogging was that, in the spirit of lesson 1, talking
about my research interests opened up other speaking/publishing opportunities. As a result of two blog
entries discussing two different research topics, I was approached to write an article on one of the topics
for an upcoming issue of a journal, and give a presentation to a local library association on the other. Of
course, I gladly accepted both. Which leads me to lesson 3.
Lesson 3: It's easier to write about something you're interested in than to pretend to be interested in
something you're writing about.
During our initial idea toss-around, my editors picked up on a broad subject area that I had expressed a
vague interest in and together we honed in on a feasible topic, ultimately deciding that it would make a
valuable contribution to the book. I started researching in earnest only to discover, three months later,
that my vague interest had completely dissipated and I was left languishing over articles I no longer
wanted to read, forcing myself to find something to say about a topic I no longer cared about. I agonized
over this for a few more weeks until a sage colleague suggested that things would go a lot more
smoothly if I was investing my time in something that interested me personally.
This realization hit like a recurring thunderbolt. Certainly basic psychology has taught us that we're more
successful when we undertake something that holds our interest, but I had assumed that not every
article that I commit to would be on a topic that was meaningful to me. Doesn't there have to be a certain
amount of turmoil with everything you write for publication? Well, no, as I learned the hard way. One of
the greatest things about choosing your writing assignments is that you might never have to write about
something you couldn't care less about! When I initially proposed the topic to my editors, I had done
enough preliminary research to know that there was fodder there for a new article; I just hadn't done
enough self-analysis to know that I shouldn't be the one writing that article. Lesson learned? Know your
interests and limitations before committing to anything, because unless you're one of those gifted
writers who can make any topic sound engaging (which I clearly was not), your lack of interest will make
the research and writing process tedious and your article will suffer for it. If you do find yourself in just
such a predicament however, all is not entirely lost. Enter lesson 4.
Lesson 4: Know thy editors and talk to them
As a freshly minted librarian, a few scant months out of library school, it took a while to break out of
library school mode and think about my new writing opportunity as a professional endeavour rather than
a class assignment, and about my editors as colleagues rather than a couple of authoritarian types who
would be deciding my future. After a couple of months of torturing myself over an article I clearly didn't
want to write, I took a bold step and talked to them. I told them about my waning interest in the topic and
proposed a new topic, something that was tangentially related to my initial proposal (after doing
extensive research and soul-searching, of course). They understood, agreed with me, and went for it.
I was in the fortunate position of having enough time to reorient my research, which won't always be the
case, but the experience taught me a valuable lesson: that editors aren't there to scold or be punitive.
They are there to encourage you, to talk through ideas, give direction, and remind you that you're not
working in a vacuum. And while I regretted waiting as long as I did to approach them, doing so made
me realize some of the other important roles editors play, which is where lesson 5 comes in.
Lesson 5: Don't sweat the grammar
Before all the editors out there start sending me hate-mail, allow me to explain. I don't mean to suggest
that editors can (or should) take a grammatically mangled piece of work and turn it into a coherent
article. What I am suggesting is that once you've done your best with the grammar, don't sweat the
details, because that's what editors are good for. Curiously, about the same time I realized that my
chapter would go through several iterations before it was finished and publishable, I also realized that
"finished" and "publishable" are two states that occur at different times in the lifecycle of an article. Once
I had my "final draft" in front of me, I poked and prodded it looking for split infinitives and dangling
modifiers until I was blue in the face. Drawing on my recently forged relationship with my editors (see
lesson 4), I found out that split infinitives and dangling modifiers were the domain of the publisher's copy
editors, who made their living hunting down just those types of grammatical foibles and combing
through each citation for format consistency (something else I wasted too much time over). So
remember that your editors will greatly appreciate you being attentive to grammar and careful with your
citation format, but don't lose sleep over it because yours aren't the only eyes that will be scrutinizing
Lesson 6: Two heads are better than one and three heads are better than two
Part of the anguish that new writers face is very much a result of feelings of uncertainty in tackling an
established body of literature or a well-defended canon. One of the reasons why new voices are so
important is because they tend to challenge assumptions that might have been held for too long, but this
usually doesn't stop those new voices from feeling particularly precarious in doing so. In my chapter, I
was dealing with a topic that was new enough to have no discernible canon of literature to draw upon,
but this made me no less nervous over my contribution to the topic. For those who are fortunate enough
to work with an editor who is an expert on their topic, much of this concern can be alleviated by
discussing ideas with the editor. For most of us, though, this is not the case.
Luckily for us, librarianship is a profession that operates within a context of collegiality, so why not
contact a few of the "experts" in your field of research to read your work and offer feedback? Talk to your
library school professors, people who have written on the topic, anyone who you think would have
something valuable to say about the subject. And unless your article is targeted to an advanced
researcher, it's a good idea to have someone who knows nothing about the topic read it as well. This
perspective can uncover any incorrect assumptions that you might have made about your audience's
foreknowledge. This sort of input is particularly valuable if your article could be read by someone new to
the topic. Why didn't I do all this myself? Because I didn't do enough planning to have the time to elicit
this sort of valuable feedback from the experts. Don't let this happen to you too!
Go forth and write
These are just a few of the important lessons I learned as a first-timer in the world of publishing. If I had
an unlimited word count for this article, I would expound the value of keeping good records and notes,
planning out your work with strict timelines, and always keeping a few versions of your author bio on tap
for when you need them. So was my overall first-time experience a good one? Yes. Would I do it again?
Definitely. Do I wish I had known some of these things going in? Without a doubt. But if any of these
lessons can inform other publishing neophytes out there, my mistakes will not have been made in vain.
About the Author:
Amanda Etches-Johnson is a Reference Librarian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She has
a keen interest in the production and delivery of information and gets excited about everything from
language to the Internet, and everything in between. Her research interests include the library as a
public good, the role of libraries in a social justice context, the use of content management systems in
online information delivery, and educational Web design. She is active in the American and Canadian
Library Associations and currently chairs the ALA-NMRT New Writers Support Ad Hoc Committee, the
group that maintains NMRTWRITER (and she is only mildly apologetic of the shameful plug of the list in
her article). You can track Amanda online at etches-johnson.com.
Article published March 2004
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.