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LibParlor Contributor Series

“I wish I had known that!” Advice from the field, A Librarian Parlor Series

Part one of our three-part series written by LibParlor guest contributor, Alison Hicks.

This week LibParlor is proud to publish the first post in a three-part series, written by Alison Hicks. A week after being promoted to Associate Professor in the United States, Alison (@alisonhicks0) accepted a faculty position in the Department of Information Studies at University College, London. Having last lived in the UK 13 years ago, she is slowly readjusting to the soggy isle…  

Reluctant Writers, Unite!

In one of my first few days in the United States, enrolled as a student in the iSchool at the University of Texas, Austin, I learnt about the concept of a tenure-track librarian, an academic position where librarians were expected to publish as part of and to maintain their job. What a horrible idea, I thought to myself, secure in the knowledge that I would soon be returning to the United Kingdom where no such thing existed. Two years and a few unexpected turns of my life later, I found myself looking for a job in Colorado. I secured a temporary position that had no publishing requirements (a brief reprieve!), but a year or so later, I found myself about to sign a contract that would officially start the countdown of my tenure clock. I have to say that I wavered. However,seven years later, having received promotion to associate professor as well as wrapping up the final stages of my PhD, I am pretty happy that I took the plunge. Going from never having written a single word outside of college, here are a few things that I wish I had known back when I was deciding whether to put my name to that employment document.

1. Start small

One of the biggest problems that I encountered when I first started out as a tenure track librarian was that I didn’t see myself as a writer. I had no experience writing anything outside of class essays and, coming from a humanities field, the IMRAD structure of most librarian articles felt as foreign to me as the 110°F heat that I encountered during my first few months in Austin, TX. Entering the specialised field of area studies, I too, like Chelsea and Kevin, felt that I had little to say when faced with professionals who had been doing their job since before I was born. As a languages major, however, I did have a whole tonne of experience reading books, so I decided to start small and volunteer to write reviews of Spanish fiction for a now-defunct magazine. And, thanks to the editor, I kept publishing my tentative little 250 word posts. This regular writing practice meant that I began to grow more confident as a writer and to feel like I could branch out from reviews to presentations, and subsequently to journal articles and book chapters. The free books didn’t hurt either… So, if it has been a while since you wrote anything, consider volunteering to write reviews for the ACRL Choice magazine. Offer to write up your experiences of a professional development event that you attended for your professional association. Write about movies or knitting or whatever you’re into for your local community- anything that helps you to get words on the page and items on your CV will make those five articles that you need for tenure seem far more achievable.

2. Seek help

While I didn’t really see myself as a writer, it never even occurred to me to ask for help- perhaps because I thought that my writing skills were merely rusty rather than still centred on the techniques and strategies that had worked for me as an undergraduate. Until, that is, a couple of years into being a tenure-track librarian when, for the first time, I found myself unable to get started on a specific article that I wanted to write. Frustrated at my sudden lack of progress, I decided to enroll in a three-week programme where a small group of faculty supported each other in their writing goals. This course was very low key, but it was probably the most helpful thing that I did in my entire pre-tenure period. Not only did the group leader point out several specific writing tics that had started to obscure the arguments that I was trying to make, but having to explain my ideas to non-libraries related faculty helped me to take a new look at the way that I present my work and express my ideas. The article on which I was working was subsequently accepted with minor revisions. It’s important to remain open to advice;some of the most valuable writing tips that I have ever received have been from non-native English speakers who have pointed out more grammatical errors in my writing than I ever knew existed. Another piece of advice came when I was starting to wonder whether I would ever finish a particular chapter in my PhD. Recognising that a lot of my issues with this section were due to a lack of self-confidence, I was advised to just start “monkey-typing” or getting my meaning on the page, whether it made linguistic sense to anyone but myself or not. Bingo. As soon as I stopped worrying about writing the polished final draft that I wanted, I found it much easier to get the right words on the page. All 20,000 words of that chapter ended up being re-written four times (!), but I think it now forms one of the clearest and most convincing sections of my doctoral work.

3. Listen to your body.

My new faculty orientation convinced me that I would be At Risk of Colossal Failure if I didn’t set aside 30 minutes each day to write. With a long bus ride commute, as well as frequent international travel, I soon found that this strategy would not work for me; I felt like I was just getting stuck in when I had to stop and the interruptions made me grumpy. Instead, and while recognising my privilege in receiving the support to do this, I found that blocking out 2-3 hour writing chunks once a week suited me much better because I could really become immersed in my writing. Similarly, in understanding that I am a morning and evening writer, I used to make sure that I took a good break after lunch when I took an entire research day instead of spending my afternoon smothering yawns and growing increasingly frustrated at my inability to string two words together. This strategy worked well for a few years but about 60,000 words into my PhD, I found myself really struggling to stay motivated. Faced with flagging energy, I decided to join my fellow PhD students in a Shut Up and Write session where four or five of us wrote in blocks of 45 minutes with 15 minute breaks. Just knowing that they were on the other end of a Skype session helped me to feel accountable and to stay focused on my writing. On the really tough days when I was wrestling with my data, I would even reduce this to sessions of 25 minutes to help get me through. The other strategy that I have found useful is to write the part of the paper that I am most excited about first. Along these lines, I almost always start any writing project by focusing on the literature review as I find that getting an overview of the field helps me to position my work and make my argument much clearer. However, if you feel an urge to write the limitations first, go for it! You may have to polish and revise later, but I’ve found that starting by writing the part that I am most interested is far more productive than slogging through sequentially.

It’s always a bit risky pontificating about writing when there are so many good writers in our field, but if like me, you start out on the tenure track as a reluctant writer, I encourage you to take your time and to establish the ways of working that will not only help to get you through but may also enable you to (re)discover the immense thrill and enjoyment that can come from playing with words on a blank page.

Wanting more?

Don’t miss Alison’s second post, coming February 2018 on methodical methods!

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4 comments on ““I wish I had known that!” Advice from the field, A Librarian Parlor Series

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