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

Community working together

Reflecting on Lyndall Ley’s call to do more for Indigenous communities across Australia, Paula Morrison reports on the achievements of her community in helping to rejuvenate the language of the local Gumbaynggirr people.

In 1986, five Gumbaynggirr elders who had been relocated off country, joined forces to begin the task of language revival for their children and grandchildren. In 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages this group, which has developed into the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language & Culture Co-operative, has much to celebrate.

Portrait of Gary Williams
Gary Williams, CEO of Muurrbay (younger man in photo is also portrait of Gary)

Recordings of fluent language speakers had been made in the 1960s and 70s. Along with manuscripts of anthropology student, Gerhardt Laves, who collected phonetic transcriptions in the late 1920s and early 1930s, much material required painstaking analysis by the group, in consultation with community, and the expertise of linguists. Gradually, from these early word lists and little bits of recorded language, structures began to emerge, pronunciations refined, and dictionaries and grammars could be produced. Borrowing from traditional forms, words have had to be created to address new concepts.  Now my school library greets students at the door with a sign: Darruyay yilaaming Janda-bibaa Baamgala which, literally translated, welcomes them to the ‘paper gather room’. Gary Williams, CEO of Muurrbay, says that although traditional stories had been told to him since his childhood, English language could only contain ’the bones’ of the story. In their original Gumbaynggirr language, details appeared that had previously been lost. For example, the word for ‘dawn’, bambuuda, literally means ‘in the soft’ part of the day, which adds to the atmosphere of the rising sun.

In 1997 Muurrbay became a Registered Training Organisation, focused on learning, research, and teaching. Adult classes commenced, and Gumbaynggirr also began to be taught in two Bowraville schools: St Mary’s Primary, and Bowraville Central. Over time, adults who studied through Muurrbay took the language program into more schools.  This year over 28 schools, both government and private, offer Gumbaynggirr language classes to all students, and hundreds of adults have completed language courses. Several students have studied Gumbaynggirr for their Higher School Certificate. Gumbaynggirr is now being spoken as part of daily life, and is routinely used for texting. As the language use has grown, so has a sense of belonging and identity within the community. School language teachers report that students take the language home to teach their families.

Now my school library greets students at the door with a sign: Darruyay yilaaming Janda-bibaa Baamgala which, literally translated, welcomes them to the ‘paper gather room’.

Muurrbay has been so successful in revitalizing language that in 2004 their role expanded to become a Regional Language Centre. Their experience has enabled them to lead other language groups through the ‘Many Rivers’ Project, which offers strategic, project planning, linguistic, and IT support, as well as teaching expertise to six other language groups along the New South Wales coast who are engaged in their own language revitalisation projects. To date, Muurrbay has published over 20 titles to support teaching and language, and is currently working on a joint project with Sydney University for students to access Muurrbay’s language programs in an online setting.

Awareness of the revitalisation has spread throughout the wider community. Gary Williams presents a regular language segment on local ABC radio, and is often approached by locals who’ve learned a word or two. A Business Advisory Committee approached the Nambucca Council with the recommendation that all road signage be dual language, and this proposal was unanimously passed as policy in March, 2019. All new road signs, and those being replaced will now be in English and Gumbaynggirr. Library spaces are utilised for community language classes and story time sessions with elders.

At Nambucca Heads High School, a ‘Junior Lands Council’ was formed in 2011. Students, both indigenous and non, began with projects such as creating metal letterboxes and park benches, and then restored a vacant area of land into a park with a level playing field, orchard, children’s playground, and gazebo. The park was recently dedicated to the memory of a student with a sculpture garden designed and created by students, whose enterprise was rewarded with funding from other agencies as a joint project.

As the revitalisation of the Gumbaynggirr language continues, opportunities for employment increase, and further entrepreneurial ideas emerge as possibilities. Gary Williams reports a profound effect upon the community, with an increased sense of pride and personal identity.

Paula Morrison
Teacher-Librarian
Nambucca Heads High School

This article was originally published in Volume 40, Issue 5/6 of INCITE, which can be found at https://www.alia.org.au/sites/default/files/documents/INCITE%20May-June%202019.pdf. INCITE is the Member magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association.

Let’s not think of libraries as gifts, but as wise investments

Fleur Morrison writes about the importance of libraries, whether in our cities or schools, for the future of our communities.

There are plenty of things that young people feel aggrieved about being saddled with. Climate change and a long-running war in the Middle East are two that leap immediately to mind.

But there are other things handed down by previous generations that seem to suggest extraordinary generosity and vision. One is libraries.

Continue reading Let’s not think of libraries as gifts, but as wise investments

In conversation with ASLA’s Teacher Librarian of the Year

For Library Lovers’ Day, we celebrate the work of Jane Viner, who was awarded Teacher Librarian of the Year in 2017. SCIS recently spoke to Jane about what makes her library unique and what she finds most rewarding about her role and working in school libraries.

‘I loved this book, Mrs Viner. Now I know why I like reading. Are there any more like it?’

Continue reading In conversation with ASLA’s Teacher Librarian of the Year

What can a library be?

Stony Evans
Library media specialist
Hot Springs, Arkansas, USA

Do you ever stop and think about what the school library can be for your learning community? It is easy to get caught up in the daily activities and forget about the endless possibilities that exist for our learners. As I prepare to begin my 10th year as a school librarian, I’ve been thinking about how the library spaces and resources can transform our students’ lives. I would like to share some recent happenings that have illustrated this to me.

Continue reading What can a library be?

How the school library saved my life

Megan McDonald
Children’s book author

I grew up reading—at the school library, on the bookmobile, at the comic book store, at home next to the heater under the piano. As a girl, I found pieces of myself in the characters of Ramona, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, Jo March, Harriet the Spy, Jane Eyre.

Continue reading How the school library saved my life

You think you know what librarians do?

Corey Thornblad
Teacher
Kilmer Middle School, Virginia, USA

I recently had the pleasure of participating in the annual Virginia Association of School Librarians conference in Norfolk, Virginia. I’ll admit that I was a fish out of water – the only teacher in a sea of school librarians. Even though I don’t know much about the Dewey Decimal System or online catalogues, they made me feel right at home.

As I sat at dinner, listening to their conversation about teaching and learning, I realised that unless you have had the privilege of working in a school over the past decade you may not understand what school librarians actually do. Librarians are not a braggy bunch, so I feel inclined to set the record straight on their behalf. You probably think they spend their entire day shelving and checking out books, while shushing students. It’s time to set aside these stereotypes and give librarians their long overdue kudos.

Continue reading You think you know what librarians do?

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

Self-advocacy through evidence-based practice

Cathy Costello
Teacher librarian
Campbelltown Performing Arts High School
http://www.virtuallibrary.info

As teacher librarians, we can become frustrated and feel we are victims of occupational invisibility – that our contribution to whole-school programs and student outcomes is unseen and undervalued. This feeling may be due to the nature of our work in empowering colleagues. As a result, our contribution is often swallowed up in the successes of others (Oberg 2006). Our invisibility is also because, while we can see the impact we make on a daily basis, we can usually only offer anecdotal evidence regarding our contributions (Hay & Todd 2010; Lamb & Johnson 2004–2007).

To remedy this, we need to throw off the victim mentality and advocate for ourselves. We must become proactive. We must self-promote and make visible our contribution. To this end, we need to gather hard evidence to unequivocally prove that we make a difference (Bonnano & Moore 2009; Hay & Todd 2010). According to the Australian Library and Information Association (2004), excellent teacher librarians ‘undertake research which informs evidence-based innovation in school library programs’. Likewise, Hay & Foley (2009) advocate that, to build capacity for student learning in the 21st century, teacher librarians need to employ evidence-based practice to support a ‘continuous improvement cycle’. Similarly, The NSW Department of Education and Training (2010) has posited evidence-based practice as one of its foremost recommendations in creating sustainable futures for school libraries.

Continue reading Self-advocacy through evidence-based practice