Discussion topic: professional writing

For our next discussion topic we’re going to look at professional writing: what it is, how it’s changed, and what opportunities there are for our participants.

What is professional writing?

There is no one answer to this question. Different people and organisations have different ideas  of where the boundaries are between professional and non-professional writing.

Writing seems to be a commonly agreed-upon element of a profession. Professions have a body of knowledge that develops over time, which is often expressed in the form of journals, conferences, and other publications like books. As professionals we are expected to maintain some awareness of this body of knowledge, but we’re also expected to contribute to it. Many libraries have performance measures around staff publications.

If you undertake a project or activity at work, supplement it with research, and then write about it for a professional journal, most people would agree that this counts as professional writing. But what if one of those elements was missing?

What if you wrote about something that you did outside of your work – but still related to libraries? For the program coordinators this is a pertinent question, as we have jobs that don’t include running the ILN. If we write about the ILN for a professional journal, is this professional writing?

What if you wrote an opinion piece? It might involve some research, but it might not be scholarly research. Does this count as professional writing?

What if you wrote for something other than a professional journal? There are a lot of trade publications in libraries, such as the magazines that come from our professional associations. The articles they publish rarely follow the structure of a formal journal article. Does this count as professional writing?

Does your workplace encourage or reward professional writing, and if so, how is it defined? In Australia it’s common for a library to encourage their staff to engage in professional writing but it’s often defined quite narrowly as publication in a peer-reviewed journal or presentation at a conference.

Has professional writing changed?

Our ideas about professional writing can sometimes be quite conservative, and based on a print publishing model. This states that a publisher publishes a journal, which is then distributed. But what if you self publish? Library blogs abound, and display varying levels of formality in their writing style. Some are mostly personal and anecdotal, such as Screwy Decimal. Some are more in depth, such as In the Library with the Lead Pipe. In some cases, professional journals and trade magazines have moved to online formats, blurring the lines between what we might think of as publication categories. Is managing your own blog professional writing?

Does writing have to be long form to be professional? There are many librarians that have gained a professional reputation through their Twitter accounts, which they use to express their professional opinions and share their experiences. Tweeting the occasional photo of your cat probably doesn’t count as professional writing, but what if you were an active library tweeter? At  the ILN we put a lot of effort into our Twitter presence, and see it as an essential part  of our professional identity.

What could you write?

Writing for publication can be a rewarding but daunting experience. The first problem most people have is finding something to write about.

By talking to your ILN partner about your library, you may have gotten a sense of what you do that is different to other libraries. Have you considered writing about it? Starting with a trade magazine, blog, or other less formal publication can be a good way to develop your writing voice. At the ILN, we welcome contributions to our website about any aspect of libraries that may interest someone in another country. Would you consider writing for us? If you have something you’d like to write about, contact us. Remember that, by emailing your partner regularly, you’ve already done half the writing!

We mentioned above that most professional associations have publications, whether they are websites, magazines or professional journals. In many cases the editors of these publications are eager for new content. Consider contacting your country’s professional association and asking how you can write for them. If you are ready to make the leap into formal, peer reviewed writing, consider writing for the IFLA Journal.  A couple of (non-exhaustive) listings of library journals can be found here, here and here.

Writing does not have to be a solitary activity, and many articles and presentations are done collaboratively. If you are nervous about writing for publication, approach someone that you know that has done so before, and ask to collaborate with them. If you are an experienced writer, it may be worth asking a new professional to work with you on your next piece, to share your knowledge. You could even ask your ILN partner if they would like to write something with you – perhaps about your experience in the ILN and what you are learning from each other?

A note about copyright

When you write for publication you need to consider how you would like your writing to be used. A global move towards open access publications, whether through customised or Creative Commons licences, allows authors to share their work widely, but may not suit your personal needs. If you are self-publishing, such as through a blog, consider whether you can place a Creative Commons licence on your work (we are in the process of doing this for the ILN website). If you are submitting for publication in a magazine or journal, make sure you read and understand their copyright terms, and query any terms that you don’t agree with. Copyright automatically sits with you as the author; if you sign it away, make sure you do so knowingly.

Discussion questions

Consider asking your partner the following:

  • What do you think professional writing is, and is not? Is writing your own blog professional writing? Is managing a Twitter feed professional writing?
  • Does your workplace encourage or reward professional writing? If so, how is it defined?
  • Have you ever been published? How did you go about it? Did you receive any feedback on what you wrote?
  • Do you have professional writing goals – would you like to write a book one day? Or be published in a particular journal? Or manage your own blog?
  • Do you have any suggestions on what to write about?
  • Could you write something for the ILN website? (we snuck that one in there!)

Remember that you can share the conversation with the wider ILN community on Twitter and Facebook – so why not start with a quick tweet or comment? Every book starts with a single sentence!

4 comments

  1. Good topic indeed. Writing and publishing is one thing which puts librarians on the map of professionals globally. Best wishes

    1. I agree Rajashekhar. Writing about what we do allows us to share our experiences around the world – I love reading about how challenges are approached in other countries, it can be a real eye-opener.

      1. Yes you are right Alysondalby, it is so nice that ILN is giving us a platform for interactions amongst librarians globally. Yes we must write and publish. Publish or perish applies now more than any other times in human history.

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