Category Archives: Writing

Books About Writing: Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing

Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, Robert Boice, 1990

Though this book is nearly 30 years old, much of the content is very relevant to anyone needing guidance about the writing process. Boice describes the components of how to start and continue writing.

The book is truly a self-help guide in that there are questions to help one assess personal challenges to writing, and exercises to establish productive strategies. He describes various types, such as spontaneous and generative writing. He also delves into why writers struggle: anxiety, lack of confidence, procrastination, inability to start or finish, and other psychological issues.

Boice’s manual is prescriptive, as it promotes a specific agenda to become a productive writer. Many authors, especially new or those who are required to write (e.g. for tenure) will find it helpful if they are continually challenged to make time for writing. Though mostly prescriptive, any writer can read it and glean tips that can be adapted to various writing processes.

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Books About Writing: Air & Light & Time & Space

There are seemingly countless books about writing. When I was writing my dissertation, my adviser shared that when he was in grad school and starting his dissertation, he participated in writing workshops and read much about writing. He also said that one can use these resources to help with writing, but it is also possible that spending too much time on them can hinder the process. Meaning, too much effort to learn about writing does not replace writing itself.

However, many of us need something to jump start writing, overcome writer’s block, or to gain some helpful tips to continue. I’ve been looking through books about writing, not just for myself but to have ideas to recommend to others who are interested. I’m not reading them in their entirety, but skimming them to see if they are helpful for those writing in our profession.

I’m going to start posting some brief reviews about books that I hope you will find helpful.

Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write by Helen Sword
I came across this book when reading a blog that recommends books about academic writing (sorry, can’t remember where). It is an easy read, and I read the first few chapters fairly quickly.

This isn’t a book to keep on hand all the time, but instead one to look at as you start writing, whether a new or seasoned writer. Sword introduces a framework that any writer can customize to his or her own style. She specifically states this book provides no “ready-made blueprint,” but a flexible approach to planning and understanding one’s individual process. She describes the framework as four habits: behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional. All writers have these, it’s a matter of discovering them within themselves.

Much of Sword’s book is a compilation of writers’ descriptions of their practices based on interviews she conducted. These vignettes offer ideas as well as comfort; many writers share their struggles and how they overcome them (or try to).

Because I struggle with writing (as most of us do), I appreciate the concepts to help me identify how I can think about writing through assessing my habits and how to make them work for me. I especially like that it is not a strict prescription for writing, that it has something different for everyone.

Guest Post, Part 1: Are Archives Graduate Programs Adequately Preparing Students for Publishing, Researching, and Writing in the Profession?

Thank you to Joshua Zimmerman, lecturer at San Jose State University’s iSchool, for this fantastic post. His in-depth perspective is in 2 posts and I encourage everyone to read it thoroughly. Josh has great strategies to help emerging professionals prepare for and contribute to the intellectual discourse of archival scholarship. (Read Part 2)

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Are archives graduate program adequately preparing students for the profession? As an adjunct lecturer in the Masters of Archives and Records Administration (MARA) online master’s degree program in San José State University’s iSchool, this is a question that I’m constantly asking myself as I hear from students and other professionals. For readers of this blog, perhaps a more relevant but related question would be: are archives graduate programs adequately preparing students for publishing, researching, and writing in the profession? As the one responsible for teaching MARA 285 Research Methods in Records Management and Archival Science, I’m extremely concerned with this question. I thought that readers might be interested in how our research and publishing culture is being taught in one small corner of the profession.

As you read this, I want you to think back to how you were introduced to the norms of researching and publishing in our profession? Were these skills taught in your graduate program, did you already have them, or did you have to pick them up later? Finally, what do you wish you would have learned about writing, researching, and publishing in the archives profession as a graduate student? Keep the answers to these questions in mind as you read below. I’d love to know how MARA 285 stacks up to your experiences, good or bad.

Assignments and Assignment Format

The overall structure and framework of MARA 285 is one that I inherited from a colleague, Jason Kaltenbacher who is also an adjunct professor in the MARA program. While my lectures significantly differ from his, I’ve kept the assignments and overall structure basically the same. Other research courses in the iSchool (and in other MLIS programs), I have found, employ a similar assignment format. I ask students to complete an annotated bibliography, topic proposal, literature review, and final proposal. These assignments build on each other and help students complete the steps in putting together both a formal proposal and the framework of a major research project. Since the internet survey has become the preferred data gathering tool of the profession, I also ask them to complete a group survey project where they develop a short internet survey, cover letter, and rationale statement for each question. 

Social Science Focus

When I first took this course on and looked at the assignments and overall structure, I felt that I wanted to radically change the end project to a publishable article. This would be immediately usable to students as they could submit it to journals and present it elsewhere at conferences or on professional or personal blogs. Within the last couple years, my alma mater (Western Washington University) changed their MA thesis requirement to a much smaller publishable article which, I think, seeks to address this aim. Yet, after using the old proposal assignment structure that I inherited for two years, I’ve completely changed my tune.

I discovered just how important it was to snap students out of what I call the “term paper mentality,” an assignment format that most students are particularly used to and, as I’ve discovered, often revert to if given the chance. This course structure offers students the chance to approach a topic systematically, more like a project than a paper. Instead of writing a term paper and trying to wrap up all the loose ends up by the end of the semester, the objective is only to build the structure in order to execute it after the course concludes. This means, that they design the research, but they stop short of sending out the survey, conducting the field work, or digging into records in an archives. I feel that this format ties in better with the assigned textbook chapters that break down different aspects or approaches to research. It also forces students to step back and formalize what they are doing and more importantly, how they plan on doing it. They are asked to put together a research schedule and justify why they are qualified to conduct this research as part of the final proposal.

Challenges, Problems, and Issues

One problem that I encountered during the first year concerned appropriate topic choices. Other courses in the MARA program such as Enterprise Content Management and Digital Preservation or Management of Records and Archival Institutions have clearly defined topic limits. These are built into the course. For instance, you probably can’t write a term paper on medieval recordkeeping for the Enterprise Content Management and Digital Preservation class.

MARA 285, however, is wide almost wide open as far as potential research topics go. That medieval recordkeeping topic is fair game in MARA 285. While there are endless opportunities for topics, there are nevertheless some limitations. I ask that students choose a topic related to the archives, RIM, or library science fields. I encourage students to bring in their interests and give it a records twist. For instance, last year, one military historian in the class designed a project around military recordkeeping. Though the course is taught from a social science perspective, I want students to specifically engage the professional literature of archives and RIM. This year, in addition to some clarifying language and a preemptory blog post on the MARA program website, I’ve added the typology of archives research topics by Couture and Ducharme (1). This typology spells out all the flavors of research conducted in the archives profession (and by extension, RIM). This seemed to have helped students frame their research within the profession.

Another problem that occurred this year was students’ lack of confidence in their professional experience. Unfortunately, due to scheduling, some students take this class as a first year student and in their first semester. To those working in the profession, this might not be a big issue, but for someone who is brand new to the profession, this course might be a bit daunting because it asks students to choose a topic in the profession and develop it over the course of the semester. As mentioned above, I provide guidance on choosing topics in the lecture, but especially for the literature review which asks students to isolate the major literature on their particular topic, this has been stressful or at least it has been related to me as such. This is sometimes daunting for seasoned archivists, let alone first year students. 

Incorporating Perspectives

In addition to the assignments and readings mentioned above, I’ve added a video series called Research in the Wild. In it, the class gets to hear about the research and writing process from other archivists and records managers. I launched it late in the course in 2015 with a few videos, mostly 5-10 minutes. This year, I have a video for nearly each module and hopefully a lot more for next year. Video submissions have addressed specific project-related research challenges as well as more broadly, research agendas, theses, the editing process, differences in publishing in and out of school, and Fulbright Scholarship research among others. In my own archival program, I enjoyed hearing from guest lecturers and talking with archivists and RMs on field trips and it’s these experiences that I’ve tried to recreate. I felt a bit uncomfortable asking archivists and records managers to do free work for me, so I decided to donate to SAA’s Mosaic Scholarship on behalf of those who submit videos. If you’d like to submit a video for next year or know someone who might, please let me know (zimmerj6@gmail.com). From some early feedback from students this year, I’ve learned that the writing process might be more important than I initially thought. So as a result, I’ll be seeking archivists and RIMs who want to talk about this aspect of the profession.

When is a Chapter Done?

I officially submitted my first chapter (yay!). I have chunks written for all the chapters, but am now focusing on finishing individual chapters rather than writing bits and pieces throughout.

Finishing a chapter is a challenge, because how do I know when it’s actually done? It’s easy to keep tweaking, to check “just one” more article or book, and to wordsmith every sentence. There are definitely parts that I don’t consider quite done, but at this point I need feedback before I finalize. My rationale is that I don’t want to spend extensive time on a certain section if it will be removed or I need to take it in another direction.

This is a different process from writing an article, which needs to be very solid before submission (though editing and feedback will occur). The AFS series editor provides feedback throughout the whole book process, which is extremely helpful. I included notes and questions about my thought process, as well as specific parts I want advice. As I wrote previously, writing and feedback is a conversation. An editor’s review raises points I didn’t consider, and answers the questions I have.

There’s no particular way to know when a chapter is done. Truly, no chapter will be officially done until the book goes to press. Right now, it’s when what I’m doing is more tweaking and refining, instead of writing. While I want the language to be professional and clear, at some point a copyeditor will refine the text for consistency and to meet SAA’s standards. I strive to achieve those standards, but I also recognize that a fresh review will fix what I overlook. Plus, setting it aside for a while will give me a new perspective when I receive feedback and go to revise it.

It is a good feeling to officially have one chapter done, though I have several to go. It’s progress, and motivation to move on to the next chapter. Writing a book is a slow and long process, but it’s definitely moving along.

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!