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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 teachers and teacher librarians seeking to write impactful and engaging articles for a professional journal. After highlighting the benefits of writing for publication, Dr Hughes suggests practical strategies for composing articles that provide insight and enjoyment for readers.

It’s not too late to add ‘writing for publication’ to your list of new year’s resolutions. You may well find it an easier goal to achieve than giving up chocolate or exercising every day. Most of us have an inner writer that we promise to let free ‘one day’ – why not this year? As you plan professionally for 2019, a key goal could be to write at least one article for a journal like Scan.

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. 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 report or workshop presentation. Through your writing, you may become known as an expert on 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).

For teacher librarians, 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 teacher librarians are energetic, forward looking, thoughtful and socially minded professionals. (And help banish the tired stereotypes!)

The catch phrase ‘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). Teachers and teacher librarians are often abuzz with creative ideas and have a significant impact on student learning and wellbeing, yet sometimes these contributions seem to go unnoticed. By writing about your innovative programs and initiatives, and their positive outcomes, you raise general awareness of the value of your role and offer models for others 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. You can use articles to both provide evidence of your own excellent practice and also to demonstrate more broadly how teacher librarian practice meets the Australian professional standards for teachers (AITSL, 2017).

The process of writing articles supports your professional development. It can provide a focus for reflection on your teaching 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 teachers or teacher librarians, colleagues, parents, academics or even students. The sharing of different information and viewpoints through collaborative writing could expand awareness of key areas of professional practice with co-authors beyond your immediate teaching area.

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. For teacher librarians, this might include:

  • the design, implementation and evaluation of an innovative school library program
  • evidence based teacher librarian 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, practical 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. Real life examples; small, vivid stories; and pithy quotes capture readers’ attention, while practical tips or a practice framework help them see the applicability of your findings. If allowed by the journal, 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. Similarly, these two Scan article titles exemplify reader-enticing titles: School libraries as incubators – where good ideas hatch! (South, 2017) and Curiouser and curiouser … a reading wonderland (Sly, 2012). 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 a clearly expressed line of argument – are 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. Take care also to book-end 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’. This is preferable to saying something similarly accurate but more negative like: ‘Writing journal articles is challenging and producing publishable articles requires a great deal of hard work’.

Meaningful section headings are also useful guides to the unfolding argument. Let each paragraph address (only) one main idea, introduced with a topic sentence – a sentence that clearly signals what the paragraph is about.

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, in the following sentences, the first is more compelling:

  • ‘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).
  • According to South (2017), ‘A library as incubator is …’.

For professional and academic writing, accurate and consistent referencing is a hallmark of authoritative writing.

In general, for a quality journal, aim for an accessible but professional-scholarly tone. (Teachers interested in writing for Scan could also consult the NSW Department of Education content style guide, Content guidelines, and Tone of voice guidelines.) As a rule of thumb, avoid highfaluting academic jargon. A clear and lively style, with short(ish), logically linked sentences, is usually more effective for conveying new or complex ideas. For clarity and immediacy, active voice is generally preferable to passive voice. For example, ‘The leadership team decided to fund the project’ is preferable to ‘It was decided to fund the project’.

Some of the resources referenced below provide more extensive guidance 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).

Editor’s note: Considering writing for Scan? Email your ideas and a brief article outline to us at Editor.Scan@det.nsw.edu.au before you start writing. We can supply our writer guidelines, offer support, and provide up-front feedback to help shape the writing process.

Free your inner writer

Now it’s 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 writing. Some people find it helpful to get into the habit of writing for half an hour each day at the same time, wheareas others prefer longer periods when the mood takes them. If you find it hard to get started, 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 counterproductive and unnecessarily frustrating.

Conclusion

This article has offered teachers well proven strategies for writing impactful and 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.

References and further reading

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). (2017). Australian professional standards for teachers.

Buzzeo, T. (2011). An open invitation: Write for your profession. School Librarian's Workshop, 31(4), 13.

Dalton, T. (2018). Boy swallows universe. Sydney: Harper Collins.

Dawson, C. M. (2017).The teacher-writer: Creating writing groups for personal and professional growth. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

de Castro, P. (2009).Librarians of Babel: A toolkit for effective communication.Cambridge, MA: Elsevier.

Hibner, H. & Kelly, M. (2017).Taking your library career to the next level: Participating, publishing, and presenting. Cambridge, MA: Chandos.

Murray, R. (2013, September 7). Writing for an academic journal: 10 tips. The Guardian.

NSW Department of Education. (2017). Content guidelines(only accessible by teachers employed by the NSW Department of Education).

NSW Department of Education. (2019). NSW Department of Education content style guide (only accessible by teachers employed by the NSW Department of Education).

NSW Department of Education. (2019). Tone of voice guidelines (only accessible by teachers employed by the NSW Department of Education).

Rankin, J. G. (2018).Sharing your education expertise with the world: Make research resonate and widen your impact. Boca Raton, CA: Routledge.

Schaberg, C. (2016, February 15). Publish or perish? Yes. Embrace it. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sly, C. (2012). Curiouser and curiouser … a reading wonderland. Scan, 31(1).

South, S. (2017). School libraries as incubators – where good ideas hatch! Scan, 36(1).

University of Richmond Writing Centre (n.d.). Freewriting: A way around writer's block.

How to cite this article – Hughes, H. (2019). Free your inner writer – strategies for writing engaging journal articles. Scan, 38(3).

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