Free your inner writer: Strategies for writing engaging journal articles

Dr Hilary Hughes, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, QUT, offers advice for librarians seeking to write impactful and engaging articles for a professional journal.

Introduction

Most of us have an inner writer that we promise to let free ‘one day’ – why not today? As you plan your school library program, a key goal could be: write at least one article for a journal like Connections or the SCIS Blog.

This article considers the problem of how to write an impactful and engaging article for a professional journal? It offers library staff encouragement and practical strategies for setting out on the writing track. After highlighting the personal and professional benefits of writing for publication, it explains how to write articles that provide insight and enjoyment for readers. It also provides a simple model for a clearly structured article.

Benefits of writing for a journal

Writing for a journal brings many benefits, both personal and professional. As a creative outlet, writing can boost your own wellbeing and the greater good of school libraries. You can make a lasting impact by authoring an article that opens a window on contemporary school libraries. Through your article you can report and explain current professional practices, highlight positive outcomes, debate challenges, and perhaps influence further innovation (Buzzeo, 2011; Hibner & Kelly, 2017). You can demonstrate how librarians are energetic, forward-looking, thoughtful, socially-minded professionals (and help banish the tired stereotypes!)

The catchphrase ‘publish or perish’ indicates the importance of writing for the sustainability of the profession and your own career, whether in schools or higher education (Schaberg, 2016). Library staff are often abuzz with creative ideas and make significant contributions to student learning and wellbeing, yet so often these seem to go unnoticed. By writing about your innovative library programs and services, and their positive outcomes, you raise general awareness of the value of the librarian role and offer models for other librarians to follow.

Good journal articles get people thinking and talking. They can be a powerful form of advocacy that showcases school library activities and their benefits for students and the whole school community.

From a personal perspective: “Publishing is proof that you take your profession seriously, that you give it time and thought, and that you are an active and engaged participant in your profession” (Buzzeo, 2011, p. 13). Through journal articles, you can reach a wide audience beyond your immediate school. They allow you to value–add work you’ve already done, for example by reworking a university assignment, report or workshop presentation. Through your writing, you may become known as an expert on a particular topic(s). Building a professional profile in this way may broaden your employment options and lead to invitations to speak at conferences or present workshops (Rankin, 2018).

The process of writing articles supports your professional development. It can provide a focus for reflection on your librarian practice and improve your ability and confidence to argue a convincing proposal. Writing is also a great basis for collaboration. Depending on the topic, you might write with other library staff, teaching colleagues, parents, academics or even students. The sharing of different information and viewpoints through collaborative writing could expand awareness of school libraries with co-authors beyond the library community.

Laptop and notepad

Write for insight and delight

Having set your writing resolution, what will you write about? Like a novelist, you can explore your experience and what is happening around you. No two librarians or libraries are the same, so you have plenty of material to draw upon which could include:

  • The design, implementation and evaluation of an innovative school library program
  • Evidence-based library practice – findings and implications
  • Selection and implementation of a new library management system
  • (Re)design of the library – process and outcomes

Aim to provide your readers with insight and delight, so that they gain new information or understanding, as well as enjoyment, from your article. The trick is to make the content interesting and relevant. An effective article goes beyond describing what you did and how to why you did it and ways it could be applied in other school contexts. The inclusion of real-life examples, vivid small stories or pithy quotes capture readers’ attention, while practical tips or a practice framework help them see the applicability of your findings. Well-presented photos and diagrams can further enliven a written piece.

A catchy title is great for grabbing readers’ interest, especially if it teases a little while still conveying the essence of the content. That is why Trent Dalton’s ‘Boy swallows universe’ (2018) is such a clever title. Closer to librarian territory, these two Connections article titles exemplify reader-enticing titles: ‘Even better than the real thing? Virtual and augmented reality in the school library’ and ‘Ten easy tips to be a library rockstar’. You can also be creative with section headings, as long as they are also indicative of the section content.

A well-signposted structure for the whole piece and clearly expressed line of argument is important for holding readers’ attention beyond the title and introduction. Like an inquiry learning project, it is generally effective to build the argument around an explicit question or problem statement. Developing an article outline before the writing begins helps maintain focus on the problem. Take care also to bookend the discussion with an interesting and informative introduction that sets the scene and indicates the purpose of the article, and a strong conclusion that explicitly summarises the main points and resolves the argument. Where possible, end the article on a high note to inspire readers. For example, this article concludes by proposing that: “As highlighted, writing journal articles can be an enjoyable creative activity that is personally and professionally rewarding”, rather than saying something similarly accurate but more negative like “Writing journal articles is challenging and producing publishable articles requires a great deal of hard work”.

Help readers navigate the article by presenting a brief overview of the content in the introduction that indicates the main sections or points covered. Meaningful section headings are also useful guides to the unfolding argument. Let each paragraph address one (only) main idea introduced with a topic sentence, i.e. a sentence that clearly signals what the paragraph is about. (For sample topic sentences, see the first sentence of this paragraph and the following one).

Judicious use of the literature adds weight to the article’s argument. A few well-chosen references, integrated into the discussion to support key points, generally have more impact than a string of ‘possibly relevant’ citations that tend to interrupt the flow. It is more meaningful to lead sentences with a concept rather than a citation. For example: “A library as incubator is a great opportunity for the space to facilitate learning by students and teachers that reflect their passions and interests” (South, 2017) is more compelling than would be: According to South (2017), “A library as incubator is …”. For professional and academic writing, accurate and consistent referencing is a hallmark of authoritative writing.   

For a journal like Connections, aim for a professional-scholarly tone. As a rule of thumb, avoid highfaluting academic jargon, especially if you are uncertain what particular terms mean. A clear and lively style, with short(-ish) logically linked sentences, is generally more effective for conveying new or complex ideas. For clarity and immediacy, active voice, first or third person, is generally preferable to passive voice, e.g.: The teacher-librarian (or I) conducted a survey, rather than A survey was conducted; The leadership team decided to fund the project, rather than It was decided to fund the project.

Some of the resources referenced below provide more extensive guidance of relevance to librarians about the writing process, including choosing and communicating with a journal, deciding the topic and crafting the title (de Castro,  2009; Hibner & Kelly, 2017; Murray, 2013; Rankin, 2018).

Free your inner writer

Now it is time to get creative! Rest assured that writing comes more easily to some people than others and always improves with practice. Try to think of it as a fun activity, as an opportunity to share and communicate with others, not as a daunting or dreary solitary task. You might find it helpful to set up a reciprocal arrangement with a critical friend or trusted colleague to read and provide constructive feedback on each other’s work, as suggestions rather than corrections (Dawson, 2017).

There is no right or wrong way to do the writing. Some people find it helpful to get into the habit of writing for half an hour each day at the same time, whereas others prefer longer periods when the mood takes them. If you find it hard to get going at the start of a writing session, try a few minutes of ‘free writing’, jotting down whatever comes into your head, to get the creative juices flowing (University of Richmond Writing Centre, n.d.). If you are still feeling ‘blocked’, allow yourself some time-out and try again later. Forcing yourself to write is generally counter-productive and unnecessarily frustrating.

Conclusion

This article has offered library staff well-proven strategies for writing impactful and reader-enticing journal articles. The key suggestion is to present intended readers with a clearly expressed and logically structured response to a well-defined question or problem statement. As highlighted, writing journal articles can be an enjoyable creative activity that is personally and professionally rewarding.

Learn more about how to write for SCIS at scis.edublogs.org/write-for-scis

A version of this article was first published in Scan, an online journal for educators: https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/professional-learning/scan/past-issues/vol-38,-2019/free-your-inner-writer-strategies-for-writing-engaging-journal-articles
References

The full history of Connections is now online

2017 has been an exciting year for SCIS.

Our new website SCIS Data was launched in August, complete with a fresh rebrand and exciting new features to support school libraries. We also celebrated the 100th issue of our quarterly magazine, Connections, and to commemorate the milestone, announced that we would digitise and make available the full history of Connections.

We are proud to announce that — for the first time in our history — the entire collection is now available to view and download online.

Continue reading The full history of Connections is now online

Highlights of Connections 103

Here are the highlights from Connections issue 103, which is now available online. You can also download a copy of the full-text PDF.

Reimagining the library landscape: an approach to school library design
Carey Baptist Grammar School recently rebuilt their middle and senior library. Anne Whisken outlines their library’s approach to designing learning spaces, ensuring all students’ needs are catered for.

Continue reading Highlights of Connections 103

Highlights of Connections 102

Here are the highlights from Connections issue 102, which is now available online. To download a PDF of the latest issue, please select this link.

Tinkering, making and building in the school library
With the increasing popularity of makerspaces in schools, school libraries are frequently seen as the leaders in hands-on technologies such as coding and robotics. Jackie Child shares ideas for engaging students with computational thinking — and resources to make it as easy as possible for library staff.

Continue reading Highlights of Connections 102

Highlights of Connections 101

Here are the highlights from Connections issue 101, which is now available online. To download a PDF of the latest issue, please select this link.

Leadership is not optional – it’s a job requirement
In order to promote libraries as indispensable to the education community, the school library industry needs more leaders. Hilda Weisburg looks at how to step out of your comfort zone and into the leadership role.

Librarians in the digital age: experts in e-health
Susan Marshall explains how the school librarian’s role is central in developing students’ digital literacy and e-health, and introduces a free website to support online safety.

What do our students really want?
Megan Stuart, teacher librarian at Canterbury College, surveyed her students to discover what drew them into their resource centre — and what it could do to draw them in more.

Ebooks: to subscribe, or not to subscribe?
Teacher librarian at Singleton High School, Martin Gray, weighs the arguments for and against ebooks in schools.

Navigating the information landscape through collaboration
Elizabeth Hutchinson, Head of Schools’ Library Service in Guernsey, writes that information literacy is at the centre of student learning, making the role of library staff as important as ever.

Library catalogues and the World Wide Web: it takes two to tango
Nicole Richardson explores the way library catalogues engage with the World Wide Web to create a rich, interactive search experience.

Continue reading Highlights of Connections 101

Highlights of Connections 100

Connections

Here are the highlights from the 100th issue of Connections, which is now available online. To download a PDF of the latest issue, please select this link.

Looking back: school library catalogues and the online revolution
Ex-SCIS manager Lance Deveson looks back on teacher librarianship over the past 40 years, including the introduction of automated cataloguing and the early days of SCIS and Connections.

Leigh Hobbs on school libraries and storytelling
SCIS speaks to Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs about his experiences in school libraries, children’s literature, storytelling, and creating characters.

Collector, curator or collaborator?
Jennie Bales, adjunct lecturer at Charles Sturt University, celebrates the collaborative ethos inherent in school library professionals.

Guerilla book fair: getting staff involved in your school library
UK-based school librarian Lucas Maxwell recommends ways to encourage teachers to make use of school libraries.

The future role of the teacher librarian
As the scope of information and technology continues to expand, Dr James Herring considers what impact this will have on the role of teacher librarians.

Let’s talk seriously about series
SCIS cataloguer Julie Styles explains the challenges of cataloguing items within series.

We welcome any feedback you have about this issue, or any ideas you have for future Connections articles. Please email connections@esa.edu.au.

Happy reading!

Highlights of Connections 99

Connections

Here are the highlights from the latest issue of Connections, which is now available online. To download a PDF of the latest issue, please select this link.

It’s time: let’s improve schools’ perceptions of teacher librarians
Bev Novak recommends ways to encourage staff and students to make the most of teacher librarian skill sets.

Stopping the slide: improving reading rates in the middle school
After noticing a drop in borrowing rates as students entered the middle school, Narelle Keen gathered data and conducted student interviews to understand why. Narelle proposes recommendations to improve borrowing rates.

School libraries supporting literacy
Steph Ellis, librarian at Napier Boys’ High School, shares a range of library programs to promote a reading culture and increase literacy skills in schools.

Continue reading Highlights of Connections 99

Highlights of Connections 98

Here are the highlights from the latest issue of Connections, which is now available online.

The importance of school libraries in the Google Age

We continue to hear about the lack of trained library staff in schools, despite ongoing research indicating that the presence of teacher librarians lead to improved learning outcomes. Kay Oddone highlights the many benefits teacher librarians can bring to the wider school, and why their role is integral to the learning of both student and staff.

Celebrating Children’s Book Week with the CBCA

Jane O’Connell, an independent director at the Children’s Book Council of Australia, looks at how school library and teaching staff can get involved in Children’s Book Week, which will be running from 20–26 August in 2016.

Using social media to support school library services

Helen Stower and Margaret Donaghue, from Mt Alvernia College’s iCentre, write about their experiences using social media as a communication platform for their school’s library. They highlight the importance of libraries sharing their stories, and discuss the need to develop social media guidelines in order to minimise potential risks.

Continue reading Highlights of Connections 98

What’s happening in your school library?

Connections

We recently mailed out Connections 97 to schools in Australia. In this issue, we included an article by Chris Harte about St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School which has received great feedback. The article showcases the wonderful things librarians Jackie and Megan are doing in their makerspace, and provides tips for people eager to follow in their footsteps.

Following the interest in this article, we’re reaching out to all of you to see if you are doing exciting and innovative things in your library that you would be willing to share with our readers. This will be a great way to share what’s happening in Australian and New Zealand school libraries and inspire others.

If you have a story to share that may be of benefit to the wider school library community – whether it’s organising your library’s collections in an exciting way, doing innovative things to engage students with their learning, or doing interesting things to promote literacy, STEM subjects, or your library itself – we’d love to hear about it.

Please don’t hesitate to send us an email at connections@esa.edu.au if you’re interested in writing an article for Connections.

Highlights of Connections 94

Here are the highlights from the latest issue of Connections, which is now available online.

Story Dogs
© 2015 Story Dogs

Lending an ear for literacy
Leah Sheldon and Janine Sigley share how their not-for-profit organisation, Story Dogs, uses Dog Teams to engage students struggling with literacy in Australian schools.

Addressing reconciliation in a school setting
Teacher librarian Jan Poona examines reconciliation and how she has been able to address this in the library. She also includes an excerpt from a chapter she wrote for Reconciliation and Australian Social Work (Magpie Goose Publishing, 2015) titled ‘Teacher librarians, SCIS, and reconciliation’.

Promoting literature to students
Based in New Zealand as a literacy consultant, Bob Docherty offers his knowledge and passion for children’s literature to promote reading and literacy in schools.

Technology
Image credit: Chelsea Wright

Engaging students with new and emerging technologies
Chelsea Wright, Library and Learning Resources Leader at Salesian College Rupertswood VIC, discusses how a library-run Tech and Gaming Club can benefit students and schools, as well as achieve top-level library objectives. She also outlines a number of suggested activities.

From the desk of a cataloguer
SCIS cataloguer Julie Styles reviews some cataloguing decisions made by SCIS, and presents some of the issues librarians face when downloading records from other catalogues and using them to supplement SCIS records.