Somewhere in the universe, there’s a photo of me at a young professionals event, wearing a huge, confident smile, holding a giant Polaroid frame with “Be Published” scrawled across the bottom. We were supposed to create a picture of our professional goals to put into the universe, and that was mine. To be published was my most secret wish, boldly thrust into realness through an icebreaker at a random event. At that moment, I was 100% sure it was going to happen. That surety started to steadily reduce the second I put down the giant picture frame. I knew I had things to say, but I wasn’t convinced yet that anyone might want to read them.
Fast forward a few years, and I was sitting in a NACADA conference session entitled “All Advisors Can Write.” Pretty soon it was clear that they were serious. There was no asterisk-it wasn’t “All Advisors except you.” Not “All Advisors *who are better/smarter/more experienced than the other advisors.” It was All Advisors, full stop. One of the presenters told about their work with a fairly niche topic that didn’t apply to me directly… and I *still wanted to read it. I challenged myself to believe them and to accept that ALL advisors can write, including me. Now, just a few weeks ago, I was notified that my first journal article submission was accepted. If everything goes according to schedule, by the end of 2018 I will “Be Published.”
The idea of writing for publication is daunting.
To write means you fancy yourself an expert in something, and that feels almost…presumptuous. The thing is, working in higher ed has a way of making you an expert fast. Learning is a tangible commodity in our world. As a student affairs professional, you have the privilege of working in an environment that encourages you to ask questions and find the answers. If you’ve ever wanted to write, you’re in the right field. The thing that seems to scare us away from writing doesn’t seem to be lack of interest or support as much as the rampant imposter syndrome that has infiltrated student affairs over time. Someone, somewhere, told us that faculty do the writing and we fill out the forms.
Oh. Come. On.
We are up to our eyeballs in an environment focused on learning and improvement. Of course we have things to write about! We have theories and projects and victories and failures, and we love talking about them. So what’s to stop us from writing about them? Scholarship is an increasingly hot topic in student affairs and higher ed professional communities. One of the things the spurred me to write now was the establishment of the NACADA Research Center. Someone thought these ideas-my ideas- were so important that they deserved their own building.
Advising isn’t the only area of student affairs that has stories to tell, and just because your profession doesn’t have a research center doesn’t mean your scholarship isn’t important. Every student affairs professional that interacts with a student has a completely different relationship with that student than everyone else that has worked with them. Each one of us holds a different piece of the puzzle. Scholarship allows us to put those pieces together institutionally, as a profession, and within the wider sphere of higher ed. If no one is telling student stories from your point of view, then your piece gets left out of the big picture. Writing is one way to fill in the gaps.
Finding the right space for your writing may be one of the toughest parts of the process. In academic advising we love to write, and our professional organization is packed with blogs, newsletters, and journals to match all types of topics and writing styles. Seek out your professional organization and find out what writing opportunities they have. Some options may be highly competitive, but there will also be others that are more than happy to take a look at an informal piece. Then you have broader audience student affairs publications and blogs (like this one) that may be open to publishing your content. Consider a publication’s audience and how their pressing interests align with those of your profession, and write to solve a problem or fill a knowledge gap for their audience. Or you could just start your own blog. Yes, your own blog, where you can write about whatever you want. Join one of the numerous free blogging sites out there, choose an angle, and start writing.
Now for the caveats. And before you say “ah ha, I knew it-not everyone can write,” I’m going to make it clear that none of these are reasons why you can’t write. If you have the desire to write about your profession, you can. These are just points to consider to give you the best chance of a) getting your writing out there and b) not getting in trouble for it.
First, know your supports. I’m extremely fortunate to have the support of my campus, from my supervisor all the way up to the chancellor, to engage in scholarship. There are people on my campus who I know would share data with me, give honest feedback, or help me navigate the IRB. (Side note: If you don’t know what that is, look into it before you do anything related to research. IRB rules fall squarely into the “better to know it and not need it” camp for writers and researchers.) Most colleges and universities are supportive of scholarship in general, but may not have past experience with student affairs staff writing or doing research. Talk to your supervisor about your interest in writing. Find out about any potential holes in the support for you as a writer, and discuss ways to fill those holes. Be prepared to describe what kind of writing you want to do and why, and to address concerns about student privacy, institutional image, and personal views. You may need to include the “my views are my own” disclaimer. Ultimately, you want to be flowing with your institution, not against them.
Next tip: read all of those suggestions on the submission page of the publication you’re hoping to write for before you start writing. When I was working on my article, I had a cheat sheet on hand with requirements for word count, formatting rules, and stylistic preferences for the journal where I was planning to submit. They had pages of guides and suggestions, and I read every one. Going back after the fact to make 1000 tiny adjustments would have been a nightmare if I hadn’t been controlling for them from the beginning. Knowing the guidelines of my target publication allowed me to save myself time and frustration in the writing process. I still ended up needing revisions, but those revisions were relatively painless, largely because I already knew how to write within the rules and could add the requested information with minimal headache.
Finally, don’t lose heart. It’s easy to say you’re ok with rejection before you get rejected. When it actually happens, you feel like the kid who nobody wants on the kickball team.
Rejection doesn’t mean you’re not qualified to write.
You might have picked a forum that’s not a good match for your topic or style. They may have received a deluge of submissions on your topic this round. Or, yes, your submission may not have been up to par this time. Take feedback graciously and earnestly. Very few publications reject without giving you something to work with. Likewise, don’t submit before asking someone else for honest feedback. As you get started, talk to other writers and experts on your topics of interest. Ask them if they’d be willing to take a look at your piece, or even collaborate with you. I sent my article to several people whose work I admire, and waiting to hear back from them was at least as nerve-wracking as the actual submission. Seeing their heavily marked copies was a little overwhelming, but it was such an incredible gift. There’s no way my submission would have been accepted without that insight. If you keep writing and take any feedback you can get in the spirit of getting closer to your goal of sharing what you’ve written, you will most likely get there eventually. Don’t know any writers/experts? Try Twitter. Heck, tweet me. As you can see, I love to talk about writing.
Not every student affairs professional wants to contribute to the scholarship of the field, which makes it so important that you not hold yourself back if you’re one of the ones that do. If you want to write, I challenge you to do it, regardless of job title, institutional type, years of experience, or perceived ability. Just write. If you’re in student affairs, there’s a space for what you have to say. Find a topic that you want to know more about, locate a forum that fits your writing style, topic, and goals, and write. Share your ideas, your research, your theories. Leave your mark on your profession by telling your students’ stories, and your own. You don’t have to be “the expert” to write-writing is how you become the expert.