The Art of Written Communication

There was a time when written communication was confined to letters (and postcards) and memos. Today, text messages, emails, DMs, and posts on social media are an integral part of our lives. And it’s those current modes of written communication which have made the older ones more of a challenge.

Studies show that our spelling has distinctly deteriorated, and auto correct can make things even worse. In addition to the assorted acronyms we use (IMHO, ICYM, FYI, ASAP, etc.), we “shorten” the spelling of common words (U, UR, L8TR, NP).  When we do want to write something more formal, we must fight our new instinctive use of spelling shortcuts.

But there is still a place for a written letter or memo. Indeed, evidence shows a thank you letter means much more today than ever before, both because of its rarity and the recognition that it took extra time. What can you do to make sure you do the best job possible when you decide written communication is necessary?

Paul B. Thornton offers these 8 Ways to Improve Your Written Communication:

  1. Know your objective – What was your purpose for writing this? Keep in mind that by using this format, you are increasing its significance to the receiver. What do you want the receiver to know or do? Think this through before starting.
  2. Organize your message so it’s easy to follow – Thornton says to choose either the conclusion or the problem and state it in the beginning, so the receiver knows the purpose of the communication. Not only do we write in shortcuts, but we also read faster than we used to or we skim. The sooner the reader knows you point the better.
  3. Explain and support your ideas – This works best after you start with your desired outcome. Here is where you give examples of the effects of the problem or situation. Don’t use too many, just say “there are others I can detail,” and keep it brief.
  4. Use bullets or numbers – As you can see in the way this blog is written, this approach helps the reader get the information more easily. The logic or sequence of your thinking can be seen as well as the most important points. Also consider the use of bold and italic to make your focus clearer.
  5. Use short sentences – Most readers skim longer pieces of communication. Technology has significantly increased the practice. To keep the reader engaged, keep sentences short.
  6. Use precise words and phrases – To be certain your message gets through Thornton advises we be specific and avoid vague phrases such as “as soon as possible.” Be clear about the issue, your concerns, and/or your solutions.
  7. Use an active voice – Active voice makes for more powerful and clear sentences. “The problem was created by a lack of resources,” is not as strong as “A lack of resources created the problem.”
  8. Edit your writing – The more important the communication, the more it needs to be reviewed and polished. Thornton recommends having a trusted person read it before you send it out. If you can’t do that, build in some time to step away from what you wrote so that you can come back and review it later. (And yes, I have my blog posts professionally edited.)

Being a good communicator is a vital leadership quality. Work on your written communication as much as you do the other forms.  Because of their rarity, they are looked at more closely. Keep them short and clear, and you’ll make a memorable impression.


Me? An Author

If on seeing the title, your first thought was, “No way!” you should know that it is absolutely possible. And being an author gives you a unique way to be noticed in your school and district. It certainly makes your presence known, and being published in any format makes you seen as a leader. Like all things dealing with leadership, it takes moving out of your comfort zone.

I have been writing since 1977, and, as with my job as a librarian, I fell into it. I took a post-grad course to earn a supervisor’s certificate. For the final paper in the course, two of us created volunteer manuals. Our fellow students said we needed to publish it. I had no idea where to begin, and neither did the other student, Ruth Toor. Fortuitously, one of my library volunteers, a college professor, suggested contacting her publisher.

Figuring we had nothing to lose, I did so. The man who became our first editor suggested we enlarge our idea – by a lot—and model it on a Teacher’s Almanac his company had done. This was far more work than we had considered, but we decided to try it. It was a definite step out of our comfort zone, but we signed the contract.

To write the book, we met on weekends and developed an outline of the chapters from September through June, along with a sample chapter. It came back loaded with corrections. Panicked, I questioned our editor if he still wanted the book. He eased our mind by saying, “we only correct good writing.”

We buckled down, adjusting our different styles and drawing on our individual skills to produce the final manuscript. In 1979, The Elementary School Librarian’s Almanac was published. You can still get a used copy online, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s more than a little dated.

Shortly thereafter, our publisher suggested we do a monthly newsletter to be called The School Librarian’s Workshop, whose title lives on in my Facebook group. Over the years, Ruth and I changed publishers several times but continued writing. The books led to presentations at state and national conferences, and our reputation grew. Ruth passed away a number of years ago, but I continue to write. My newest book, The Art of Communication: A Librarian’s Guide for Successful Leadership, Collaboration, and Advocacy, was recently published by Libraries Unlimited.

Since I started, I have seen many librarians make the same journey into authorship, and you can too. And unlike Ruth and me, you have formats other than print books to get started. For example, you can submit a blog for Knowledge Quest, the journal of AASL. Your administration will be impressed that you have published on the national level.

As with everything, the hardest part is getting started. In How to Grow a Reputation as a Thought Leader, Becky Robinson recommends five ways for people to get started writing:

  1. Identify the content you want to share – You have knowledge, skills and experience. Don’t assume everyone has the same. Start with what has been a big success and what you like to do. Have you had great bulletin boards or other displays?  Have you been able to reach formerly reluctant teachers and now collaborate with them?  You have probably been more successful than you give yourself credit for and there are inexperienced librarians who would benefit from your results.
  2. Figure out what content you have and create a content catalog – Robinson suggests checking out slide decks from presentation you have given. If you have a website, you may have posted content that can be used. Did or do you write articles for the school newsletter? All this is content you have ready to put together.
  3. Create a content calendar – This usually refers to when and what you want to post on social media platforms and your webpage, but it can also help you to look forward towards what a publication might need. Look at your content and see if there are topics where you are particularly strong. In September, they are looking for New Year ideas. In March or April, they may be interested in information on how to wrap the school year up so the fall starts strong. Identify themes and any times of the year when they are most appropriate. Some themes are good all year such as leadership, advocacy, and collaboration. Robinson suggests that you, “think about the stories you tell again and again. What are the questions you always get asked? What are the frameworks you share?” That will help you build content.
  4. Flex to repurpose your content – A presentation for teachers can become an article with the presentation used as graphics. Several short pieces on the same topic can be merged into a longer one. A long one can be broken into shorter ones.
  5. Bundle it up – When you look at the work you’ve done, you may discover you have a book almost ready to go. As a librarian, you are familiar with the non-fiction publishers in our field. Contact their acquisition editor and see if they are interested. If they aren’t, try another publisher. Ask around your PLN to see who may have recommendations.

Your years as a reader have likely made you a very strong writer. Your experience as a librarian likely means you have something to share. Look for what you’d like to give back to our community, where you’ve learned and grown, and you may discover some exciting publishing possibilities.

ON WRITING: Getting Started

the scariest momentThe title of this blog on the fiction writing portion of my life refers both it being my first post on the subject and to the subject itself – How my career as an author came into being and what I learned along the way.

You may know I have been writing for school librarians since 1979, and some of you know Woven through Time, my YA fantasy, came out in 2013 and then was re-released by my new publisher Mundania earlier this year. What you don’t know is that since I was in grade school I have wanted to write a novel. I know many of you have nursed the same desire, and I want to let you know your dream can become a reality if you really want to make it happen.Woven_Through_Time - cover

For so many years, life got in the way of my sitting down to tell a story, at least that’s what I told myself.  The truth is, I let it slip into the dim recesses of my brain.  I convinced myself it was an unrealistic childhood fantasy. I didn’t have the talent or skill set to write creatively.  My writing was about process, things I knew and wanted to share with colleagues.  Fortunately, my daughter didn’t buy those stories I told myself, and when I retired and could go to a week-long program of writing workshops put on by the International Women’s Writing Guild, she encouraged me to join her.  I did and Woven through Time was the result.

It began easily enough.  I chose a five-day workshop on novel writing and we got started on it immediately.  Surrounded by a class-full of women all ready to write, I found I did have an idea I wanted to develop.  I was going to write a fantasy about three generations of women beginning when the first was in her teens and going through her life until her granddaughter reached her teens.  I would be looking at three stages of a woman’s life –maiden, mother, crone ­– and so Sava, Aimah, and Nara were born.

I didn’t know that my passions and strong beliefs would emerge without my focusing on them.  All I wanted to do was tell a good story.  The “woven” in the title referred to the abilities all three women had in weaving beautiful cloth that predicted the future.

easy noIt took a while before I realized “woven” also refers to the threads that give meaning to the life. One of the strongest threads in my life is the passion I have for family. For me it has been an unconditional bond that remains true throughout the years. A second thread is the vital role honorable men play in protecting and supporting those they love. Another is the power women have when they are joined in a common purpose.  A related one is the importance of female friends in a woman’s life.  I came to this last one late in my own life, and Sava is amazed when she discovers it for herself.

There are more clues to my life buried within the story. Some I probably haven’t found yet. The book certainly isn’t a memoir, yet I discovered that once I started writing, what came to the page told the important parts of my journey through life.