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.

 

 

Call: SAA Research Forum

I have yet to attend SAA’s Research Forum, though I’m always intrigued by it. If you’ve presented or attended, please share your experience in the comments.

Here is the information: http://www2.archivists.org/proceedings/research-forum/2016/call.

They also share everything from past Forums, including posters, research reports, and peer-review research papers: http://archivists.org/proceedings/research-forum.

Learn Everything Pt. 2: Review a Journal or Article!

I’ve been thinking more about the challenges we all face in keeping up with scholarly literature. This came up on the SNAP Twitter chat and I wrote more about it a couple weeks ago. Eira Tansey has a great calendar she uses (which she graciously allowed me to add here).

We all know it’s overwhelming to know where to start. Do you start with the latest issue of American Archivist? Read that Archival Issues that’s been sitting on your desk for four years? Look at the plethora of online journals? Or find articles about a certain topic of interest?

As I thought about this, it emphasized a gap: there are few reviews of journals or articles, the focus is more on books, exhibits, software, or other tools. The American Archivist reviews portal has a review of the Provenance Advocacy issue, and I did a profile of VIEW. After I wrote that post, I intended to continue to feature journals (besides CFP or new issues/articles). But it’s a lot for one person to do.

So here’s my proposal: I’d like anyone interested to contribute to this blog by reviewing articles and/or journals. You can write as many as you want, as often as you want. You choose what you want to write about and I’ll post it. All along, I’ve wanted this blog to have multiple contributors and I’ve had a few guest posts (for which I’m grateful for). Think about it: it encourages you to read the literature AND gives you an opportunity to write!

I created a sign-up sheet to avoid overlap. Feel free to add anything. Know that it won’t be my intention to moderate what you write (though I’ll gladly offer feedback if you want it). For all the guest posts so far, I haven’t changed a word. I believe it’s important to have multiple voices and perspectives, so I see my role as only posting what you write.

I hope you like this idea and I especially hope to hear from you!

Guest Post: Developing a Research Agenda

thank you Eira Tansey for your contribution!

When I was on the academic archivist job market a few years ago, I interviewed at one institution where I was warned during lunch to have a very narrowly focused answer to the dean’s inevitable question about my research agenda. I was strongly advised to make it clear that I had a tightly-defined research agenda, that my research interests weren’t all over the place, and that I was aiming for high-profile titles in which to publish my work. The only problem was that at the time I was searching for my first professional position, and as a paraprofessional I had only just started dipping my toe into publishing — all I had in print with a chapter in Kate Theimer’s book on description. Furthermore, my graduate program did not heavily emphasize or acculturate students into pursuing publishing opportunities. I don’t recall how I answered the question during my meeting with the dean (however I do remember his bone-crushing handshake!), but the broader question of “What is my research agenda?” is a question where my answers are rapidly evolving.

I lucked out and ended up at an institution that is a far better fit than the previously-mentioned one for a multitude of reasons. At my institution, librarians have faculty status and we have multiple paths to tenure (see our criteria: http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/libraryfaculty/docs/criteria2005.pdf). Some library faculty choose to build their tenure case (and preceding reappointment and promotion applications) around publications, others choose different routes. Since I started two years ago, I have prioritized building up my record around “publishing or creative works.” Unlike some institutions that clearly articulate how many articles are required for a successful tenure bid, or specifications on journal rankings, our criteria is very open-ended. There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, it allows generous flexibility in choosing experimental publishing outlets (new interdisciplinary open-access title with funky journal design layouts? sure, why not!). On the other hand, because we don’t have clear guidelines, there are fewer objective benchmarks to be evaluated against.

I should pause here to describe what I mean when I say a “research agenda.” I don’t believe you have to have faculty status, professional status, or even a full-time job working in archives to have a research agenda. You don’t have to know statistical methods or have grant funding (although obviously the more you have of both, the more you can do!). But you do have to have an idea worth exploring, more than some superficial things to say about it, and the ability to eventually sit down, tune out distractions, and write. As far as I can discern, a “research agenda” is a broad scope of work in various stages across one’s career that has interconnecting intellectual tissue underneath what might look like many unrelated interests. When I think of well-known archivists and imagine their research agendas, I think of how certain archivists are associated with certain areas of archival theory and practice (e.g., Rand Jimerson on archives and social justice, Terry Cook and Helen Samuels with appraisal, Mark Greene with processing and collection development, etc).

When I first started getting serious about committing to professional writing, I chafed against the idea of a research agenda. It seemed so restrictive, and I have so many boundless interests, why not move from topic to topic, even if they’re completely unrelated? But as I’ve accrued some publications on my CV, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of targeting my focus towards a certain direction for the foreseeable future. To contribute something worth publishing, one should be familiar with the literature written on that subject. Depending on the topic, this could mean a lot of writing — and then you have to figure out where your contribution fits into that landscape. It is a lot of work to review literature on an existing subject (https://archivespublishing.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/how-do-i-learn-everything/), and I’m beginning to see one of the greatest arguments for having a focused research agenda: you don’t have to reacquaint yourself with a whole new body of knowledge every time you begin a new project.

I should note here that I think this process of writing about a bunch of different topics, and then finding one’s calling towards a specific area is fairly common. Certainly, it echoes the many college students who have undeclared majors for a long time, or how many young professionals switch career fields. For fun, I looked at the CVs of some well-known archivists, and you can certainly see how over time, their output begins to coalesce around a few main topics (for example, Mark Greene http://www.uwyo.edu/ahc/_files/vitas/m-greene-vita.pdf).

Right now I’m feeling the call to explore the intersection of archives, the environment, and climate change. I feel compelled to build a research agenda around this in a way I haven’t felt about other topics. This is occurring while my other “scattered focus” writing projects are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have a whole range of issues I still care about (privacy! erasure and marginalization of archival labor! everything ever to do with appraisal! public records laws!), and every day I think things like “What we really need is a comparative study of unionization among archivists! WHY ISN’T ANYONE WRITING ABOUT THIS? I WANT TO READ ABOUT IT! Should I work on this?!?!?!” so I’m at a juncture where I feel a little twinge of sadness at the idea of not trying to write about everything unexplored. It doesn’t help that I have a “future ideas to pursue” list of dozens of half-baked ideas I add to on a semi-regular basis. Mostly I just try to be vocal about the topics I think are unexplored within archives-land and trust that someone, at some point, will feel inspired to write all the articles I know I could never manage on my own, but that I so desperately want to read.

How have you decided what to write about? Do you “write what you want to read”? Do you enter the conversation like a game of double dutch (credit for this to Jarrett Drake: https://snaproundtable.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/on-the-job-training-publishing/)? Has your research focus shifted as you grow as a writer?

How Do I Learn Everything?

As I noted in a previous post, a challenge potential authors face when writing is “others know more than I do” or “I don’t know enough about a topic.” We read tons in grad school, but who remembers everything? How do the “experts” become experts? There’s so much out there, it’s impossible to read it all.

Of course, graduate school is the first introduction to scholarship. However, it’s easier to focus on getting through the semester and forgetting what you when starting classes the next semester. Students have to read so much that it’s overwhelming to try to think of the resources post-grad school. I know I remember very little about what I read in library school. After graduation, who wants to spend their free time reading archives books and journals? It’s good to take a break. But it’s hard to get back into reading a full issue of a journal, pick up a book, etc.

So how does one start? It depends on what your ultimate goals are. One way is to read material that relates directly to your job. When I had my first processing position, I read about hidden collections and other articles about processing. Reading about what you do helps the knowledge stick because you can apply it. You could also read about what you aspire to do. Building a core knowledge may help in an interview.

Writing and reading book reviews are also a good way. Some journals put out a call, but if you’re interested directly contact reviews editors to let them know of your interest. You may not always get your first choice, but reading anything is helpful. Alexandra Orchard wrote a post here recently explaining the American Archivist reviews portal. Remember, reviews need not be solely for books. The SNAP issue of Provenance has great reviews about conferences and other resources. If you come across any resource, ask a reviews editor if you can review it.

One way I learned about various resources was through teaching graduate classes. It prompted me to look at a wide variety of books and journals to find appropriate and informative reading for the students. Not everyone has an opportunity to create a syllabus, but you could use that idea. For example, if you weren’t able to take a class on digital forensics, start searching and skimming articles to build your own reading list. Or, look for syllabi online. Use Google to search for syllabi and limit to site:.edu. I frequently used that strategy to find sources for classes I taught.

It’s daunting to think about reading books and articles to keep up. One could spend hours every day reading and still not keep up. However, reading reviews, scanning tables of contents, reading abstracts, or just skimming the first few pages can be a good introduction. Then, you might remember the source and read it in full later if you need/want to. It can give you a breadth of knowledge, or at least an awareness of what is out there.

This is also a good strategy when embarking on a research and writing project. Trying to read every word written on a topic would be either impossible or take too long. Start with a few sources and use the footnotes to read a few other related items. Look at a book index or TOC to read about specific topics of interest. Then write about it. Even if your goal isn’t publication, writing out your thoughts can help. Don’t try to remember everything. Instead, focus on synthesizing ideas, practices, and theories.

Also, don’t limit yourself to scholarly sources. There are so many blogs, presentations, and other online writing that possibly synthesized the information for you. SAA provides access to some past conference recordings. More Podcast, Less Process provides interviews where archivists share their experiences. Read reports and other publications from organizations such as OCLC and CLIR.

There is so much out there and it’s hard to know where to start. Becoming an “expert” takes time. And, truly, few people know everything about all aspects of archives. So start slow, pick one or two topics you want to learn about, and dig in. Over time, through reading, attending conferences, work experience, and talking with colleagues, you will build great knowledge.

And if you have other tips please share in the comments!