Column

Thoughts on Why I Write (And Why You Might Want to Too)

I have been thinking about writing lately. There are so many reasons why people write and so much it can give them and the community, so I thought I would share a bit here about why I write and give some suggestions on why you might want to write too.

When I started writing for publication in about 2010, I wrote about issues that mattered to me professionally (You can read some of these early pieces here). This started because I found that I had things I wanted to say and talked about it when I went out with friends, but my ideas didn’t reach a wider audience. I started writing as a way to share my thoughts more productively. As I wrote more, it forced me to consider what I was thinking about and decide what I really wanted to say.

Over time, I found that I wanted to have a more regular platform for my writing, and I approached Simon Fodden about the possibility of becoming a columnist on Slaw. Happily he agreed. I have had ups and downs with writing my column in the years since I started writing it. I will spare us all the awkwardness of pointing out what I think were the high and low points in my Slaw writing career, but I will say that there have certainly been times when I was happier writing them than others. Overall I have enjoyed doing this and with the reach it has given me.

Before I started the column I thought about the possibility of starting my own blog, but I didn’t, and still don’t, think I have the stamina to do it well and maintain it by myself. It takes so much time and work to build a blog audience and all that good content from the beginning when you are building your audience doesn’t really ever get seen as much as it deserves, as people spend so much more time on current blog content than the archives.

I plan to continue to write my Slaw column, but after spending some time considering what really matters to me at the end of last year and deciding that writing made the list, I have decided to pursue other avenues as well. So in January I wrote a book proposal and started pursuing the possibility of working with a third party publisher to publish a book, and I am happy to say that I signed a book contract over the summer. You may be able to discern where my mind was going with regard to this project by reading my Slaw column from December of last year. The book will be on legal data, and now I just have to write it. I will be sure to give updates on the writing process and publication dates as they become available.

Whether you think my writing path is something to aspire to so far is entirely up to you, but Scott Young gave some career advice that I thought was helpful in this: look for someone who is two to three steps ahead of you in the career you want and ask them for advice. If you think I might be in that position for you (or just care about what I have to say on the subject, in which case bless you), here are the issues that I would recommend thinking about when approaching writing as something to pursue.

The first thing to think about is strategy: what do you want to get out of your writing? Writing for publication is not the only or the easiest way to build a professional reputation, but you may want to write to communicate your perspective or as a form of self expression. If you primarily enjoy expressing yourself about topics that are of personal interest to you and think that writing about what you do professionally is dull, don’t spend time on it. It will save you a lot of pressure if you make these decisions at the beginning and don’t try to carry on when it makes you unhappy. I actually really like thinking and writing on these topics. It makes me feel happier about my job and profession, and I enjoy the writing process (sometimes more than others), but it took me a long time to get there. Learning to write is a long process.

Once you have decided that you want to write you can think about what you want to write about and where (and if) you’d like to publish it. One of the best things about starting to write now is that writing and making your words available has become much more accessible than it used to be. Starting blogs (either individual or organizational), writing substantive Twitter threads, posting on LinkedIn or Medium, submitting pieces to professional publications, and, my personal favourite for those of you who want to write about law, writing on CanLII Connects, for the CanLII Authors Program, or submitting a proposal for a more substantial piece to be published on CanLII are all possibilities with advantages and disadvantages.

Starting a blog requires a long period of development unless you already have a strong reputation, and they generally require regular content to be compelling. Before starting a blog think seriously about whether you actually want to manage the site, write content, respond to comments, etc. Think of it like getting a wordy puppy: there are real rewards, but it’s a lot of work. Social media platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium, have the advantage of being less of a commitment. You can contribute when you feel like, but old content quickly becomes almost invisible, and they work best if you think about it as a conversation. I have a horse in the race, but I think that publishing legal content on one of CanLII’s platforms is an excellent place to publish writing about the law, because it all gets interlinked with the other content on CanLII, which makes it visible to people interested in a subject long after it’s published.

Keep in mind that you can do more than one of these things; content can be published on your blog and republished on LinkedIn and CanLII Connects. If you have a substantial body of content, you could look at publishing a compiled book of articles on CanLII or elsewhere.

If we go back to the beginning of this article, you can see that when I started writing I went with publishing pieces in other people’s publications. This included book reviews, association newsletters, group blogs, and professional journals. I liked the ability to get input from other people on my writing, and I believe that learning to work with an editor was a valuable skill to develop and I think the feedback they gave me allowed me to improve my writing. If I had started my own blog I might have a wider reach now, but I didn’t want to commit to regular posts. Something like writing on Slaw is a nice way to get access to an existing audience, but generally I would say that you should have some writing experience before approaching a venue like that for a regular spot.

If you want to pursue the idea of publishing a book, I suggest writing a substantial amount before you get started. If you have a topic in mind start an outline. If you can’t come up with a rough table of contents off the top of your head examine whether you know enough about the topic, or if it’s substantial enough to support a book. This is much more useful than thinking about it indefinitely without working out what it would look like. If you still want to proceed, there are many books about how to write a book proposal and advice online. The biggest mistake I advise you to avoid is not thinking about the audience enough. Think about why people would want to read about a topic and why they would want you to tell them about it. My assessment is that it is best to start with the book that is most specific to your expertise that you know you can write, and which people will have the most confidence in your ability to write.

The path after the first book is not clear to me yet. I believe that the most difficult book to get someone to publish is your first one, but you need to make sure that first one is as good and as successful as you can make it. I have thought a lot about how to proceed after that, and I think that the thing to do is decide if you liked writing the first book. If you did, then consider how to proceed.

When I started writing I had no particular writing or professional credentials that would say it was time to do it. I just decided that I wanted to say something. You don’t need to be a superstar to get started.

Comments

  1. Really insightful post, Sarah; thank you for sharing your advice.

    And I’m glad you decided to write the book you describe. A book on legal data will be helpful to many people–
    librarians, lawyers, students, me–and I look forward to reading it.

  2. Thanks Kim. I appreciate it!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)