Tag Archives: writing

Breaking Through the Block

One of the reasons I like to blog is that it keeps me writing regularly. Like lots of academic librarians my job comes with expectations for research and scholarship, so I need to be able to write up the work that I do and get it published. Writing is hard — I think writing comes truly easily for only very few people. I’ve found that the more I write, the easier it is to write. Many books on writing suggest setting aside time for it every day, and while I can’t always preserve that time I do tend to write at least a little something more days than not.

But everyone has a bout of writer’s block at least occasionally, which is precisely the place I’m in right now. I think I know why: I’m in the midst of analyzing and writing up a big research project so it’s likely that most of my creative focus is occupied with that. Even so, I’ll be working on this big project for a while yet, and I need to figure out a way to move past the block and keep writing, especially as I work through the data analysis.

Thinking about writer’s block has me thinking about strategies for overcoming writer’s block. Here are some that have worked for me. If you’ve got a great tactic for breaking through the block, please share in the comments!

Schedule your writing (and thinking) time
In the past Steven’s written about finding a good time to write and creating a writing routine, and as I mentioned above I try and find the time to write at least a couple hundred words every day. The key for me is that this doesn’t have to be academic writing or even related to libraries: writing in my personal journal counts, as does writing quick blog posts for work or for some of my other interests. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my daily word count, which gives me a nice motivational boost.

I also find that it’s helpful for me to occasionally schedule thinking time. Usually this is on my way to work in the morning, which is most productive on the days that I walk, though I imagine it would also work well if I drove to work. This intentional time to think about what I could write about doesn’t always result in an executable idea, but it definitely helps get the mental gears moving. I think it also puts me into a more receptive frame of mind, so that when I do come across something of interest I’m more likely to be able to write about it.

Keep track of your ideas in a file, and revisit that file often
I’ve mentioned before that I keep a text file of sources of inspiration for scholarly research, which of course can be just as readily used to gather ideas for blogging. During a period of writer’s block it’s easy for me to forget about that file, and as I went back into it recently I realized I hadn’t gone through it in a few months. I’m going to make the effort to check the file more often, clearing out ideas that have been turned into full-fledged pieces of writing and adding in new thoughts.

Read, read, read (or watch, attend, talk, etc.)
This is probably a no-brainer, but reading news and blogs about librarianship and academia can provide great fodder for both informal and formal writing. I’ve gravitated away from listservs in recent years in favor of RSS feeds, but if you’re a die-hard listserv reader those can be good sources. Ditto for conferences and other professional development opportunities, both live and on the internet. Even a chat with your colleagues around the proverbial water cooler can inspire writing thoughts. When I’m writer’s blocked it’s easy to feel stuck my own head, unable to move past what seem like the same old boring ideas. Exposing myself to information from a wide variety of outside influences can help me think (and write) about new topics.

Ask questions
Finally, here’s where I’ll practice what I preach: ACRLog readers, what would you like us to blog about? Are there any topics you’d like to see us cover? Let us know in the comments!

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

A Beloit Mindset Moment

As part of our Library event for incoming freshmen we organized a scavenger hunt. They are pretty popular right now, and putting one together takes some thought and effort. But we got the participants to get around the entire library, visit a few service areas, try our text-a-librarian and cell phone tour services, and overall it went pretty well. The students seemed to enjoy it, and we offered a few nice gifts. But clearly we aren’t able to completely put ourselves into the mindset of the college freshman, and as a result one student thought we had an unfair question. Seems we asked the students to record the name of a movie for which we have a poster hanging in our media services area. To find the right poster the students were told to look for Humphrey Bogart. According to this student, she had never heard of him – so how could she know who to look for (this is overlooking his name is on the poster in 12″ letters). My colleagues and I were a bit taken back by that – could you be 18 and not know Bogie? Then again, when the class of 2014 was born in 1992, he was already dead for 35 years. Next time, we’ll just go with the poster for the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Every college student knows that guy, right?

Here’s An Idea for an Experiment – No Academic Library for Two Years

I read an anecdote shared by a librarian from brand name, elite 4-year college, about a faculty member who said something along the lines of “Our students graduate and become incredibly successful. They haven’t had much research instruction, and they aren’t particularly good at conducting research, but they are successful. So if that’s the end outcome, why bother with the research instruction?” How do you respond to a comment like that? I’m not sure, but what concerns me is that the librarians will buy into that line of thinking, and just give up on instruction all together. Why bother if the students end up at Wall Street brokerage firms with six-figure incomes? Is that how we measure success? [quite possible the faculty member simply means "success" at whatever the students aspire to]

The next logical step from that line of thinking is why bother having a library at all? Just close the library and cancel all the subscriptions. Allow faculty to use the library budget to get personal subscriptions to the journals they want. Use library funds to buy every student an e-book reader with a quota of a few thousand dollars to buy whatever books and paywall content they want. If after two years of no library or librarians the results show that students still graduate and still become incredibly successful, that tells us that the library never made a difference in the first place – other then for faculty and administrators to gush about the library as the “heart of the institution” – and as a good stop on the campus tour. I wonder if it makes a difference that a faculty observation like this one comes from an elite, brand name institution where the students arrive with many lifestyle advantages that will contribute to their post-college success. What about the institutions, like Chicago State University, where student failure is the norm? I wonder what faculty there have to say about the need for research instruction? Do they have time to think about it at all?

What’s the Biggest Mistake You’ve Made As a Leader?

It’s a long road and hard work becoming an effective leader, whether you are responsible for the vision and direction of a library, a single unit or program within the library that needs leadership for it to survive, or leading your colleagues in an association effort. Along the way you’ll likely make some mistakes. Hopefully one of them one won’t be the “big mistake” that shatters your leadership potential. Best of all, if you are new on the leadership path – or if you’ve been traveling that path a long time – you can avoid the big mistake by studying the lessons learned by other leaders.

A good opportunity for that type of learning can be discovered from Harvard Business Review’s video piece on “the biggest mistake a leader can make” which features a mix of academics and executives sharing what he or she thinks is that biggest mistake. Here’s a quick list of what I gleaned from each expert – but watch the video – it’s just over 7 minutes – there’s more good advice to be had there:

* Putting self-interest before the interests of the organization – leadership is about responsibility for the staff and stakeholders and putting yourself ahead of them is a fatal error.

* Betraying trust – if you fail here nothing else matters.

* Being certain – once you think you know how it all works there is reluctance to change; great leaders understand the power of uncertainty.

* Not living up to values – if you espouse values and fail to live up up to them you will rapidly be found out by followers.

* Overly enamored with vision – becoming single minded and obsessed with a vision makes a leader blind to other opportunities and possibilities.

* Personal arrogance or hubris – confuses the success of the organization with his or her individual persona; leads to the making of huge mistakes.

* Acting too fast – leaders need to step back and think before they act, and seek out advice from subordinates; re-think the vision/plan and then act.

* Failure to be consistent – followers need to know their leaders are authentic and predictable; if you are pleasant one day and a monster the next it destroys trust.

* Lack of self-reflection – leaders need to constantly review their own behavior and honestly contemplate what affect they have on others; good leaders are self-aware, learn from their mistakes and improve.

In my leadership positions I’ve made any number of these mistakes at one time or another; you can only hope to learn from a bad experience. But I’ve worked very hard never to betray trust, and I think that would be the ultimate leadership mistake. What about you? What is the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, what big mistake have you seen a leader make or which one on this list is the worst sin for you?

Some Writing Advice Worth Your Attention

I hope your regular reading regimen includes the Chronicle. If I had to guess I’d say it’s the most read non-library publication for the typical academic librarian. I’m also guessing many academic librarians will only go and read a Chronicle article or essay if someone else tells them they should go read it. As an academic librarian blogger I try to avoid leaning too heavily on the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed as a source. It would be all to easy to do that – and then I’d just end up writing about whatever other librarians are already reading and discussing anyway – not too challenging or exciting.

But this essay on improving your writing gave some good advice, and as an academic librarian blogger one thing in particular resonated with me. Number nine on the list of ten reads: Your most profound thoughts are often wrong. That’s a profound thought right there. I often find myself second guessing many of my blog posts because I question if I’m making sense or effectively communicating my message. Then again I’ll go ahead and post them anyway thinking I’ve come up with something profound only to realize it wasn’t something all that great and that it didn’t make anyone think twice anyway. There’s been talk of the death of blogging for years now. But blogs persist even though many librarians show a preference for sharing their thoughts – as much as that is possible – with a facebook or twitter update. Perhaps in those mediums, since what’s written quickly passes on and fades, there’s not much need to think about whether what’s being written is profound or possibly wrong. With 140 characters, it may not matter much. An exception – when a simple tweet sets off a strong reaction with a blogger. So even though there’s a good chance my profound thoughts are wrong I’ll likely continue to share some of them with you. One of the best things about blogging at ACRLog is receiving comments that help me to re-think what I thought was profound and become more clear about my thinking and writing. Not an easy task.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Best Time to Write

Occasionally someone will ask me about my writing routine. How do I manage to write regularly? The most immediate thing that comes to mind is having something that really inspires you or gets you thinking, and that you feel compelled to write about it so you can share your ideas with colleagues. Having a steady stream of material to read is also important – and not just library literature, blogs and tweets – but resources from beyond this profession that will expose you to new ideas, stimulate your curiosity and inspire you to apply new ideas to your current situation. The one other thing I’ll usually mention is creating a writing routine and sticking to it as best you can. That usually means identifying both a time slot and a place for your writing. I used to be able to write reasonably well both morning and evening. In the past few years I find myself getting mentally tired by 10 pm, and at that point trying to write is nearly pointless. It may take me 15 minutes to write two sentences, and often I end up changing them in the light of the morning. That’s a huge time waste. So I’ve been shifting more writing to the morning when I have far better productivity. But I didn’t know that research suggests that the morning is the best time for regular writing. Peg Boyle Single, writing for Inside Higher Ed about dissertation writing shared the following:

Experts more often engage in deliberate practice during the morning; research has supported that we have the greatest capacity for sustained, engaged and demanding cognitive activity during the morning.

I agree that it can help to look at writing as a form of deliberate practice where the more frequently we engage in it at a regular time and for a regular duration of time, the more we increase our skill and output over time. It’s always a delight when the research says “you were right all along” (but it’s all right to conveniently ignore when it says you were wrong). I’ve been getting some good ideas from Single’s series of advice columns for dissertation writers. No matter what you are trying to write, you can find some ideas to help you do it better.

We Need One of These For Library Writing

In case you missed it the University of Chicago Writing Program created the academic-sentence generator for those of us too lazy to write our own incomprehensible, pompous academic gibberish. I only wish someone would come up with one of these for library stuff. Here’s an example a random academic sentence I generated:

The emergence of pop culture carries with it the invention of power/knowledge.

Not too shabby. Then again I seem pretty capable of constructing library jargon gibberish quite fine on my own.

Final Word on Neem Essay

Academic librarians have had quite enough to say about this essay, with the majority offering a negative critique or condemning it and a minority suggesting that we are somehow responsible when faculty disrespect us and don’t understand what we actually do. Just two thoughts on this. First, if you or I wrote an essay in the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed that communicated a completely contemptible view of the faculty, do you think they would be suggesting on their blogs and discussion lists that faculty needed to do a better job of helping librarians to understand them. Pretty laughable. More likely, you or I could write off ever having any chance of being hired at a college or university in this country ever again. Second, the next time a member of the faculty publishes an essay like the one by Neem I think the best thing we can do as a community is just to ignore it. No comments. No discussion. Just a huge deafening silence. I think that would be the best comment of all.

Finding Topics & Time for Scholarship

Laura’s recent post about faculty book projects has me thinking about writing. Even though I’ve been at my job for over a year, I still feel lucky to have landed a tenure track position at an academic library that I truly enjoy. During my hiatus from the academic world between my time as an archaeologist and when I started library school, I hadn’t realized how much I missed research, and even writing. So I’m pleased to have a job in which research and writing are required.

Of course, it’s one thing to be happy that scholarship is expected of me, and another to actually do the research and writing. When I first started at my job my biggest stumbling block was about the What. What topics could I write about? What could be a subject for a research project, big or small? What ideas were better suited to more informal writing?

Many librarians write about aspects of their jobs: projects and programming they’ve worked on, issues or problems they’ve addressed. So looking to my job responsibilities seemed like a good place to start. At various points over the past year I’ve made a list of everything I’ve worked on at my job and used the list to pick out possible writing topics. As an extra bonus, the lists came in handy when it was time for me to fill out my annual self-assessment a few months ago.

I also keep another list, one I call “research thoughts.” This one’s for ideas that come up as a result of something I’ve read, heard, or seen in the blogosphere, journal articles, conference presentations, email lists, podcasts, and casual conversation. Sometimes they’re directly related to my job, and sometimes they’re not — these ideas are usually not much more than half- (or even quarter-) baked. I check in with this list every so often, and it can provide a much-needed jolt of inspiration during a dry spell. In fact, my current research project started out as an entry on this list after attending a particularly interesting presentation at a conference two years ago.

The other big factor affecting my scholarly goals has to do with the When. When do I research and write? How can I make the time? As a junior faculty member I’m very lucky to have reassigned time during the early years of my tenure track, as do junior faculty in other departments at my college. So I do have some time specifically set aside for scholarship, which has been an enormous help in getting research and writing done this year.

Over this year I’ve found that, for me, frequency counts: I need to write often to be able to write often. This is certainly not unique — many librarians, academics, and writers offer this advice. But it’s a realization I’ve come to slowly as I’m unsure where to fit near-daily writing into the rest of my life. Some days I can grab time in the mornings (I am definitely a morning person), but some days I can’t. Figuring out how to make space for frequent writing is a major goal of mine for the near future.

If you’re a librarian-researcher and -writer, what are some of your best sources of inspiration? And how do you find time for scholarship?