Friday, January 20, 2017

My Top Tips for Writing - Guest post by John Cox, University Librarian, NUI Galway

Guest post by John Cox, University Librarian, NUI Galway

John Cox, University Librarian, NUI Galway

I have recently rediscovered my writing habit and it's made me realise that I was missing out on a real pleasure. I'm glad to have the opportunity to pass on a few tips, while recognising that writing is always more open to personal preferences than prescriptions.

Research with intent. For me the writing starts as soon as I begin to research the topic. My recent writings, particularly a review on libraries and digital scholarship, have involved a lot of background reading which I have used not only to understand the topics better but to shape what I will write. I take extensive notes to engage in more depth with the subject matter and this helps me to see connections which influence the structure of the publication. When I spot something valuable I make sure to highlight it in a different font or to write a note to myself in an easily identifiable format such as square brackets with my initials. This process means that I am mentally engaged with the end product, the final publication, at all times and it makes it much easier to move on to the writing itself.

Let it flow. I like to set everything up for a strong first draft. This means reviewing all the notes I've taken and documenting both a logical overall outline and a detailed plan for each section, including the distribution of the word count across the whole publication. Word count is important and needs early consideration to ensure balanced coverage and to avoid cutting content later on. A clear sense of direction and a deep recent engagement with the content helps me to approach the writing with appetite and enthusiasm. I try to write early in the day when I'm fresh. Knowing that this will be the first thing I do next day, I like to leave everything ready for a fast start, for example having all the files I will need open on my laptop already, and any papers I need easily to hand. I write for a minimum of an hour, or preferably up to three hours when I can really get into the flow of the writing.

Let it settle. This tip puts me in mind of the way a pint of Guinness is poured and left on the counter before being handed over for consumption! While I aim for a strong first draft, there are always significant differences between it and the final publication. The act of writing itself throws up some new ideas or points to be checked further as does frequent re-reading of the drafts. I like to have about three weeks for what might be termed tinkering - those incremental changes which can make a difference to the flow of the text from the reader's perspective. There is also an amount of topping and tailing, such as writing an abstract and adding the references. Rushing any of these stages will negatively impact the reading experience and I am always conscious that ultimately writing should serve the reader more than the author.

Enjoy! Writing is a great education. It is a challenge certainly, but it's hard to beat the satisfaction that a good writing session brings - that sense of having captured something complex or developed a new insight. Seeing the final publication always produces a warm glow but the journey is as rewarding as the destination. It is enjoyable to write about something of interest as a matter of choice rather than obligation. Diversity is good too and I recently found myself co-writing a chapter with my sister about two family members who had strong but very different connections with the 1916 Rising. That writing experience was fun rather than work! The distinguished French writer, Michel Deon, also a generous donor of many books to the Library at NUI Galway, had the perfect attitude to writing, captured in an obituary: "Asked if he ever suffered from writer’s block, he said
that au contraire, if he postponed the moment when he sat down at his desk in the Old Rectory, it was because he wanted to prolong the anticipation of the pleasure of writing.”

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