What’s Your Process? Getting Stuff Written

I love writing. It means everything to me. It’s excruciating. It kills me. I couldn’t do without it.

Not just big, epic, heartfelt things make me feel this way. It happens every time I try to string a sentence together.

Reports, articles, academic essays.

Emails to business contacts (How much warmth to offer without wasting their time? How short to make paragraphs so the points are kept clear? How to sign off?).

I’m still thinking too hard about a twelve-word message I once wrote on LinkedIn in response to a moderately enticing offer of work. Too casual? Too brusque? 

The other week I got a piece published in The Conversation, a website which helps academics and researchers get their work out to a wider audience. The article was about using public libraries to help communities think about the future, using a method called scenario planning.

The article has been well received and widely shared among library professionals. It only got a minor tweak from the editor before it was published, but the final draft took a fair bit of work and I needed help to get there. So I thought I’d share the process with you here on the blog.

Why write this thing anyway?

My friend and colleague Dr. Kate Davis, a brilliant information researcher at Australia’s University of Southern Queensland, worked with me on a project to develop a new vision for public libraries in that state. We travelled far and wide, pored over strategy documents, conducted surveys and workshops, and wrote thousands of words together. This all formed the basis for a poster which the State Library of Queensland presented as a kind of road map for the next five years of public libraries.

I liked the poster, but wished that the complete research could have found a wider readership. I pitched a few places, and even once tried to set up an interview for Kate by negotiating it as part-payment for some consulting I did. We didn’t have any luck, however, and the story of what we’d learned just couldn’t seem to find a home.

About a year later, I got invited to write for another academic journal, Public Library Quarterly. I used the opportunity to co-write a piece with Professor Rafael Ramírez, a scenario planning expert at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Our discussion briefly touched on the idea that public libraries could offer scenario planning to their local communities. Librarians, as information professionals in charge of a trusted public space, could put foresight tools in the hands of even the smallest and most remote neighbourhoods.

This tied in well with Kate and I finding that public libraries in Queensland were, above all, “deeply local”:

Public library services are built on relationships, not just transactions; they are entwined with the specific and deeply local context of everyday life in the communities they serve.

I wanted to hook these insights together and put them somewhere they’d be read more widely. So I pitched a piece to The Conversation.

The pitch

“Public libraries could become grassroots strategic intelligence agencies, helping their local communities to plan for the future using cutting edge foresight tools.” That’s what I put on the web form at the Conversation site.

I’d looked up other Conversation pieces about public libraries, and highlighted my point of difference:

Previous Conversation articles have focussed on the library as a place of technology, human connection, and state surveillance: here we explore the institution as a localised community-led tool for better decision making about the long term future.

I pointed to the research this was all based on, crossed my fingers, and clicked the button to submit.

The section editor was interested, but wanted specifics: what exactly libraries would be doing as “strategic intelligence agencies”? What did that mean – hosting political debates, serving as a place to gather for protest?

“Are you essentially saying that libraries should be more political?”, asked the editor.
I reframed the pitch and wrote a reply:

[…P]ublic librarians are deeply entwined with their immediate local community. That means there’s an opportunity for public librarians, on behalf of their community, to do the kind of long range strategic and foresight work we see happening at higher levels of government or in major corporations and institutions. Big corporations, government ministries, and major institutions all think at least a generation ahead, but local public debate rarely gets to take up that kind of methodical, informed long-term thinking.

Our piece for Public Library Quarterly suggests that public librarians could be tasked with looking at local issues and researching the future scenarios associated with those issues ten, twenty, or even thirty years out. This would put “big picture” strategic tools, currently only in the hands of the wealthy or politically powerful, at the service of communities across Australia.

The editor accepted this, restating her take on the core argument – “librarians and public libraries are underused, and could be doing more for councils and communities” – and asking for lots of specific examples of scenario work in the text.

When the official brief came through on the Conversation‘s system, the bullet points included:

Use examples to describe exactly how a library might function in the future. What would librarians be doing?

Are any libraries already doing this?

It was time to write: 800 words. Go.

First draft

I got a bit hung up on that first bullet point, asking for examples of the future library in action. It prompted this attempt at an opening:

It’s a Wednesday night in the summer of 2025. The doors of the public library are open and members of the community are coming inside. Tonight is the last in a series of four public consultations to help the community explore the future faced by their town. The event convenor and facilitator is the public librarian: after the participants have chatted and poured themselves a coffee, they settle down and she sets them to work.

The gathered community hear testimony about future trends and projections from experts in person or via videolink; the local council’s senior executives speak to the pressing issues of the day; one-page executive summaries compiled by the public library are passed around, condensing key facts relating to concise bullets. The participants are not a passive audience, however: with flipcharts and Post-Its and digital tools they engage in breakout groups, debating and discussing the future challenges which their community may face a quarter century hence, in the year 2050.

The event is the culmination of a year-long effort which saw the library partner with local and state government, regional media, non-profit organisations and local businesses. This dialogue has helped people to focus on the long term, challenging the assumptions of the present, avoiding the pitfalls of short-term thinking, and helping them to secure the best possible future for the place they call home.
And in the Australia of 2025, this isn’t unusual or radical. It’s business as usual – because Australians have come to recognise that the public library is the best tool any community has for democratising its future.

That was 260-odd words gone before we even got into the meat of the argument. I didn’t even know if it was really my vision of how this scenario-planning-in-public-libraries thing would work, I was just trying to be clever.

I spent way too many drafts trying to make this opening work, clinging to it, trying it different ways, believing that this future vision would be compelling and intriguing for the average reader.

In doing this, I was reaching back for tricks that had worked in the past, too. The first time I ever wrote an academic article, it was about the ways in which Austria (mis)remembers its own history. That piece opened with a spoof of Viennese travel guides, which tended to lay their descriptions of nineteenth century glamour on a bit thick. When the article came out, I got offered work for a travel guide publisher on the basis of the mocking intro.

I was reaching for a way to make this library piece work, and perhaps thinking too hard about the editor’s prompt asking what the future would look like. I tried to repeat something like that Viennese spoof, except all I achieved was burning up my word count.

I decided it was a mistake to copy yourself, or to show off too much. I wondered if anyone I knew had written anything for The Conversation. Maybe I could learn from someone who’d already been published there.

Stealing from the best

I worked with Dr. Pani Farvid on the 2013 Dark Night season at Auckland Libraries in New Zealand / Aotearoa. She was the model of a critically engaged academic, who wanted to bring the public into serious conversations about even the most challenging topics. If I was looking for someone to teach me about writing for The Conversation, I reckoned she was a good start.

Pani had written one Conversation piece this year, “Beyond the binary: how teaching children about gender could help reduce sexism“.

Pani’s article was clear, succinct, and covered the history of gender from the Enlightenment through to the present day, while also offering specific actionable recommendations for the policymakers and educators she wanted to reach. Even the Asia Pacific branch of UN Women, the UN entity for gender equality & women’s empowerment, had shared it on social media.

I took Pani’s writing as a model and started again from scratch.

This new draft began with an overview of what libraries do and how they’ve changed over the generations. I wanted this to match Pani’s opening paragraphs, which give context to the relationship between inequality and the belief in only two genders.

Where Pani then dug deeper into the relationship between sex and gender, explaining the findings of psychological research, I gave an explanation and history of scenario planning.

Pani asserted her argument at the half-way point – “Gender equality education should begin when children enter the education system and continue throughout” – so that’s when I set out the case for libraries offering scenario planning to their community.

Her article concluded with a call to action, and a vision of the difference her recommendations would make to life in New Zealand / Aotearoa:

To address the ongoing manifestations of gender inequality in New Zealand, we need innovative thinking focused on prevention. Such an intervention would be research-based, aimed at curbing sexism and gender inequality before it occurs.

We know all violence is preventable. But preventing gender-based violence requires changing enduring norms and beliefs about the nature of gender and men’s and women’s roles within relationships and society. Gender equality education and teaching of ethical citizenship is a fresh direction that can redress entrenched patterns of sexism and gender inequality.

I learned from Pani and ended my piece with a “what if”:

If public libraries were supported to deliver strategic foresight to their communities, politics could transform. The electorate would be better informed, thinking deeper and further ahead about political issues. Councils could take decisions with confidence that the community had been consulted about the long-term consequences.

Scenarios would offer a playbook of potential futures, already imagined and rehearsed. Every Australian could have access to the kind of foresight tools that have been informing the decisions of government and big business for the past half century.

Imagine the conversations we, as a country, would be having about our future if we democratised those tools via the local library.

Funnily enough, this also captured the vision of what a future library would be doing, far better than the 260-word fantasy I’d tried in the first draft.

Getting it out there

Reshuffles at The Conversation meant my editor had changed as I wrestled with the words.

Just before my deadline, I fed them into the Conversation website, which monitors the “readability” of your text according to an algorithm. You aim to get the little readability indicator into the green before you submit your draft.

I managed that with a bit of minor self-correction. When the piece got to the new editor, he was pretty happy. He made a few tweaks and got my readability score up from 89 to 92. (It was already reasonably good, because one of my old jobs was writing plain English for local government websites).

The piece went live, and attracted a few comments, and has been doing the rounds on social media quite happily since.

It’s just a little thing, 800 words, a brief argument simply phrased. But I had to get there the long way round, and maybe that’s of reassurance to you, too: seeing the process behind it all, and the false starts, and the routes that didn’t work.

So what about you? What’s the work we don’t see when we marvel at your finished product, whatever it is that you do? What’s your process?

 

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