Which Comes First, Research or Writing?

As I write the reference book, I continually have the conundrum compared to the which came first, the chicken or the egg. In this case, it’s the research or the writing.

Reference and access is a large part of my daily duties, as with many archivists. It comes naturally to me, and I have my routine to provide good reference and customer service. When I agreed to write this book I thought “Great! I get to write about what I do every day.” Because reference is one of my favorite parts of my job, I initially thought it would be easy. Not that writing an entire book is easy, but I already have solid knowledge about reference and access.

What I’ve discovered, not completely unsurprisingly, is that it’s easy to write about what my staff and I do every day, but that doesn’t mean it encompasses all aspects of reference and access. I knew that I’d do extensive research to make sure I address all types of institutions, practices, policies, history, context, etc. The research is crucial also to provide resources to archivists who want to learn more about specific aspects, as well as demonstrate developments and foundations of reference.

On the one hand, I can easily make notes and outlines about what each book section/topic needs, but on the other hand I need to read what is the vast amount of literature out there for citations. So I find myself again in the same place as when I wrote my dissertation – where to stop researching and write, or do I just write and fill in with research.

Truly, it’s best to go back and forth; do some research and write about it, then write about your ideas and find the research to go with it. I love doing research. Searching through databases, reading footnotes to find more literature, exploring the non-archival writing to see how others use/view archives, and reading what I find. I especially love learning – how reference evolved through history, how different institutions provide services, ideas for outreach, and I even enjoy reading policy manuals. Some of this is not just for the book but also how I can improve and evolve services at my own institution.

I really enjoy writing as well, but that of course is much harder. Sometimes the thoughts are there but don’t come out. When I’m on a good writing spree, I just let the thoughts flow. It can be harder to find literature to justify what I wrote, but I also do not need a citation for every single sentence or idea. I know I have something to say, and I will say it so that readers can use, interpret, and reconfigure the content to best serve their needs.

I see this struggle in many people that I talk to and article submissions I read: too much research without enough analysis or interpretation. We are all adept and finding information, so we don’t need just the references, but why that literature matters. In the case of this book, I don’t need to make an argument for reference and access, but instead provide a wide array of concepts, theories, policies, and practices so anyone who reads the book is able to find something that will help with their job or possibly for future scholarship.

So, there is no one solution of which to do first – research or writing. But it is important to not get too caught up in the research so that the writing doesn’t happen. Currently, I’m at a point where I need to step away from the research for a while and just write. I have a lot of notes, quotes, and so far 263 citations in 71 pages. Likely, some of those will be removed, combined, or moved to “works consulted,” and I want to make sure they don’t disrupt the reading. Writing should reflect the author’s thoughts and ideas, and the research is to enhance them and provide further reading. So here goes!

Writing Progress

I recently received feedback on my reference and access book draft. A previous post describes my writing process, and of course several times I’ve mentioned the importance of feedback. The notes I received are extremely helpful, as there are thoughts, questions, and suggestions that never crossed my mind but once I read them, make perfect sense.

Naturally, some are easy fixes and some require more thought and/or research. As a pretty scattered writer, meaning I jump from section to section, I expect that makes it difficult for the reader. I think frequently about the book’s organization. The aspects of reference and access overlap continually, and at times it’s difficult to sort out which points should go where. I also make a lot of notes about ideas and thoughts, and even questions about what should be included, what requires more in-depth discussion versus making a reference and referring to other literature.

Feedback is not a reader stating do-this or do-that and the writer complying. It’s a conversation about how to develop, organize, expand, eliminate, cite, reference, discuss, and write. That conversation leads to the writer achieving a better understanding on how the text is read and interpreted, as well as the reader gaining a better understanding of the writer’s goals and thought processes.

For me, this conversation increases my motivation. Notes and feedback provide clarity in my mind about how to proceed and if I’m on the right track. I’ve spent the past few days reviewing the comments, rewriting, reorganizing, and rethinking. And all this has now led to a milestone – 25,000 words (about 65 pages). While I still have a long way to go, I see what I’ve accomplished so far.

And writing is about accomplishments: the first page, first chapter, first draft, first feedback, etc. So as you write, don’t just think about where you need to go, think about what you already achieved.

SAA: Archives Short Fiction Contest

While I started this blog to focus on scholarly publishing, I’m deviating to encourage people to write fiction. Now in Year 2, the fiction contest is a fun and different way to write about archives. This was formulated when I was still on the Publications Board, and I was glad to see so many entries last year. Read the details and have fun writing!

How I Write

I have several posts that address writing. The most important point is to write, write, write. So how to write? There is, of course, no one answer. Everyone has different methods, discipline, style, etc. Each person must decide what works best for him/her.

Writing is a process. One needs to figure out what process works best for him/her. MIT has a good outline of the process, as does the Purdue OWL, and here’s a fun little video. The process is difficult, time-consuming, and challenging. But it’s also rewarding, confidence-building, and achievable.

My process, if it can be called that, is to write in a scattered way. Meaning, I’ll spend some time writing about reference interviews, the next day perhaps I’ll write about ethics, then the next day I’ll write about research methods. There isn’t necessarily a rhyme or reason, but that works for me. Some authors succeed at writing in a linear fashion, but I learned a long time ago that does not work for me and only causes stress and angst. I succeed more at jumping around to different topics.

Part of why this happens is that I’ll be reading a book about all aspects of reference and I want to make notes in different sections and chapters of my book. I’ll jump around so I don’t lose or forget those thoughts. It’s more important for me to get ideas and thoughts down, even if they are a bit jumbled, so that I can go back and revise it into coherence.

One hurdle I overcame while writing my dissertation was to not attempt perfect writing (see above resources). At first, I got stuck on trying to make a sentence perfect and I spent too much time on that sentence/paragraph that I lost thoughts and ideas. Most of the writing process is actually editing and revising, so struggling at the beginning to be perfect causes frustration and stress. The more one writes, the better it will become over time. There are many variations of the quote “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” Plus, an editor will always change, edit, suggest, and revise.

To someone else reading it, my writing appears very jumbled. Sometimes I write full sentences, but I also write thoughts, ideas, questions, notes, and quotes. When reading, I’ll find a good quote, copy and cite it. Later, I’ll decide which quotes are appropriate in full, which can be combined, which can be deleted, which should be a footnote mention only, and which I’ll revise into my own words (keeping proper citations, of course).

Much of my early drafts are notes: include this idea, don’t forget to talk about that, brief outlines, asking myself questions, and lists of topics. It’s more important to me to get those thoughts down than to flush out every idea. I find it much easier to write through revision than try to achieve complete and coherent writing at the beginning.

Other times, I’ll just write. One tip I learned while writing my dissertation was to cover my monitor so I couldn’t see my spelling and grammatical mistakes. I did this in 15 minute chunks over many days. This was a great help to get me started and to just get the ideas written. Over time, I no longer cover my monitor but I still use that tactic. It’s gratifying to do this because I see the page numbers continue to increase, which makes me more motivated to continue.

I can’t emphasize enough to dispel the idea of writing perfectly. Just Google “there’s no such thing as perfect writing” and you will see that every author abides by it. Overcoming that obstacle takes time, but is most liberating. So go forth and write!

Identity Crisis: Archivist vs. Historian

When I started library school I knew I wanted to be an archivist. I went on to get a PhD because it would complement my library degree. Also, I scoured job postings while in school and saw that often the head/director level required or preferred a second advanced degree or a PhD. My PhD is in Modern History and Literature, with an emphasis on history. I didn’t plan to be a historian, I only wanted to be an archivist, but I ended up being both.

My writing as an archivist consists of one peer-reviewed article, several in Archival Outlook, book reviews, finding aids, blog posts, and news updates for my campus. My writing as a historian consists of one peer-review article and a dissertation. I find that while writing a book, it’s the historian in me that currently leads my writing. Yet, I am not writing a history book.

There are many benefits to this, much of it technical: using passive voice as an exception rather than a rule, citing (overciting?) everything, mostly clear and concise writing. That’s not to say that I won’t need editing help or that I write perfectly, but I learned much when I went through the writing wringer with my dissertation committee.

One of the challenges I keep facing while writing the reference and access book is the desire to prove everything. I don’t need to “prove” that reference and access are needed – we all know it, believe it, and live it. While of course I cite my sources, the purpose of this book is to provide both broad and in-depth theories and practices about reference and access. I want to include a wide range of resources, both for evidence and further reading.

What I frequently catch myself doing, however, is the I-need-to-find-as-many-sources-as-possible-to-prove-this-thought/idea/theory/practice/history. I finished my dissertation five years ago and I’m a bit surprised how this impulse lingers. As anyone who wrote a dissertation or thesis can attest to, there is a compulsion fueled by committee expectations to be overly thorough so they believe you know what you’re writing about. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be very time-consuming and often unnecessary.

I am learning much as I write this book: about my writing style, time management, and what historian habits I need to break. What I find most interesting is deciding what archivists need to know about reference and access. It’s impossible to write about everything, though I’ll do my best to come close. There are times where the in-depth analysis is necessary, and others where it’s a mention with suggestions with further reading. The latter contributes to my I-need-to-find-as-many-sources-as-possible-to-prove-this-thought/idea/theory/practice/history. But really, it is not my responsibility to point out every single resource available on the topic. Instead, I raise the topic and point to a few key resources and, if appropriate, even mention that there is much written about a topic.

I do have to pare down some of what I already wrote, but it’s easier to have too much then reduce instead of the other way around. Plus, I really enjoy reading the voluminous amounts of literature that I never read before. It will be hard to not include every single book or article I look at, but I hope what I do include entices interest to delve further.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

When I started this blog my goal was to post at least once a week (other than CFPs and news about publications). The last few weeks have been quiet, as I’ve had writer’s block with my book, which affected this blog. Thankfully, I’m in better writing and researching habits again.

I have no evidence, but I expect that all writers are blocked at times. For me, there are different levels of writer’s block. While writing my dissertation, sometimes I’d turn on my laptop, sit down, and suddenly several minutes would go by before I realized that I could not even focus on the screen. That type of block was more fatigue than anything, and I’d shut down my laptop and not write that day. The next day I’d try again and it would be fine.

Another type is just needing short breaks to process and think. At those times, I’ll write a little bit, take a short break, then write more, take a break, etc. Often, not writing but thinking about what to write helped sort my ideas into something more coherent, therefore easier to write about.

Then there’s the major writer’s block, which is what I just went through. It encompasses frustration, insecurity, lack of focus, wondering if I’m going in the right direction, and a whole host of mostly emotional obstructions that inhibit writing. I ask myself numerous questions: is this I topic I should address? will the details be helpful or too much? how do I make a dry topic interesting? will this information be outdated sooner rather than later?

What helped me move past this is talking out some very specific questions with the series editor. I can’t emphasize enough how immensely helpful it was to have a conversation where I voiced my concerns and talked through the depth and direction of specific topics and sections. As I wrote in an earlier post, it’s very easy to go down the research rabbit hole. I truly enjoy learning and reading about archives, but not everything I read about reference and access needs to go in the reference and access book. I’m getting better at deciding what needs to be addressed in-depth, and what can be mentioned and then suggest further resources.

I expect that in the next year while I write the book, I will continue to have bouts of writer’s block. Hopefully, it will happen less and less or not last long. Just know, that you are not alone when you struggle with writing and while there are many ways to handle it, one of the best is to talk it through with a friend, colleague, family, or whomever. It truly helps.

Forced Writing: On the Tenure-track

Most of us became archivists because we love history, organizing, libraries, and “old stuff.” Though we had to write during library school, many of us did not plan on writing more than finding aids. However, many academic librarians and archivists are expected to publish as one aspect of receiving tenure. It is stressful when your job is contingent on fulfilling this obligation.

If writing isn’t a passion, forced publishing is definitely a challenge. At my institution, obtaining tenure has requirements related to librarianship, publishing/creative works, and service. When I started, I was one year out of finishing my PhD. Obtaining that degree made me much better prepared for the publishing requirement and for that I am grateful. Library schools may emphasize writing, but it’s more of a requirement for that degree than to pursue publishing.

It is stressful for many tenure-track archivists to publish. As noted previously, I’ve had many discussions with people who wonder if they have anything to say (see here and here). There is a time requirement to go up for tenure, therefore a time requirement to publish articles or book chapters. On the one hand, it forces you to be proactive in deciding what to write about, as Eira Tansey wrote. On the other hand, it can be an incredible amount of pressure.

I’m not well-versed in tenure requirements across all academic institutions, but I will generalize that many require publishing peer-review articles. Having one or more articles evaluated by professional peers is much more rigorous, therefore has more weight, than publishing newsletter articles, blog posts, or other informal writings. Writing a book has merit as well, but as we have fewer book publishing options than other academic disciplines, that is harder to accomplish (plus it takes a lot longer).

Having gone through the tenure process and as a supervisor to library faculty, here’s what I can offer:

  • Pick a journal first. Find one that aligns with your interests and passions. Read a few of the recent articles, browse past issues to see topics, etc. Contact the editor to ask if your idea would be of interest. And read the information for authors. While we all may aspire to write for The American Archivist, it’s highly competitive and you might be better off starting with another journal.
  • Don’t want to write about archives practices? Depending on your institution’s requirements, consider publishing in non-archives journals. Try library or other academic disciplinary journals. Do archival research on a topic of interest. (Blatant self-promotion, I used the archival research I did for my dissertation to publish in Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History)
  • Start with an idea. You don’t have to have an exact argument to start writing. Once you research and write out your thoughts, it will evolve and become focused. Interested in digital forensics? privacy and confidentiality? outreach? Have you read an article or book that you strongly disagree with or you think could be improved or reacted to? Read a few books and articles to see what’s been said, what you agree/disagree with, then write.
  • Find colleagues with similar interests to see about co-authorship.
  • Start with a library school paper or presentation and expand it.
  • Write about something that interests you. It’s hard to be disciplined about writing when you have little or no interest in the subject.
  • Write about a project you completed, an initiative you started, or your experience with any aspect of archives. While theory is important, many archivists are interested in others’ practices that they can implement or adapt.
  • Write, write, write.
  • Start earlier rather than later. It can take 1-2 years to publish an article, taking into account the writing, peer-review, editing, and final publication. There’s no guarantee of acceptance, and you may have to submit, resubmit, or rewrite more than one article or for more than one journal. (Yes, an article I wrote with colleagues was rejected)
  • Create goals, timelines, outlines, number of pages to write a day/week, place to write, music to listen to, number of diet cokes to drink, and so forth. When you accomplish your set goals (say, weekly), reward yourself.
  • Make writing a priority and be disciplined. Carve out time daily/weekly (whatever works for you) to keep momentum and progress.
  • Write, write, write.
  • Take it a little at a time. Thinking about the entire article can be overwhelming, so focus on a section. Before you know it, you’ll have the whole article written.
  • Find support, whether at your institution, other colleagues, a writing group, or friends. Talking to people about your ideas or having others read your writing can go a long way to stay motivated.
  • Write, write, write.
  • Allow yourself to gripe and complain. Then let it go and keep writing.
  • Don’t try to make an article perfect. Be coherent, concise, grammatically correct (or at least mostly), and cite your sources. But remember that editors and reviewers will always have feedback, suggestions, and grammatical corrections.
  • Write one article at a time.
  • Don’t be overambitious. For example, if you are interested in doing a survey but don’t have experience in qualitative/quantitative analysis, it could be difficult to take on such a project.
  • Write, write, write.