Writing for education publications is a thrill. It’s synergistic, too. Writing about teaching makes us better teachers, and teaching students makes us better writers. And though we may not realize it at first, many educators are looking for that one a-ha wisdom moment we discovered while teaching the Bill of Rights on Monday.
Writing a personal blog and participating in Twitter chats are powerful ways to analyze practice and make connections, but writing for an education association magazine or book publisher is a bit different.
Writing for publication is much more than checking for spelling errors and making sure nouns agree with verbs. It doesn’t spring from some magic elixir only others have, either. All teachers and principals have something to share, and all can learn to share it through published writing.
Really, you can do this.
Writing Articles for Publication
1. Read and Read Some More. Read articles, magazines, journals, and books from publishers to whom you want to submit your writing. Note the tone and style: Is it more journalistic or more research-like? How long are the articles? Do they focus on only new, original ideas, or do they allow for personal application of someone else’s ideas? What topics do they promote? Who is the publisher and are you comfortable having your work associated with that company?
The more we read professionally, the more our sentences finish themselves. Words, sentence structures, and cadence flow as readily as a musical composition.
2. Make the implicit explicit, the invisible visible. Assume nothing about your readers’ knowledge about what you are saying. Be overt; explain all abbreviations, programs, and concepts. If you recommend that teachers spend time letting students process topics in small groups, for example, provide suggestions on how to do that. With every generalization, provide specific “What would it look like in a classroom?” examples.
3. Follow the publisher or editor’s submission guidelines. It shows respect for the publisher and for professional writing. Ignoring the guidelines suggests you don’t care about the editor’s opinions. In fact, editors are a writer’s best friend: They save us from ourselves. Those guidelines are provided for good reasons, and you must adhere to them if you want to get published.
4. Provide specific examples from the classroom or school. This boosts your credibility as a writer, but more important, it helps teachers and principals visualize what you’re describing and they see themselves doing it. Including teacher and student voices and work makes teaching ideas come alive.
5. Write in the active voice. “The passing score was achieved by the student” is weak; it doesn’t pull us in. “The student passed the test,” or “The student achieved the passing score” does. Be direct, not half-hearted, convoluted, or wordy. The reader starts rolling her eyes when a sentence begins, “It has often been a practice of ours to….”
6. Connect the dots between a teacher’s instructional decisions and its effect on students’ learning. Teachers want to know the bottom line, the impact on students. You draw clear lines with phrases like, “As a result, students were able to….” and “With this step, students….” Be useful.
7. Be aware of your audience. When writing for teachers, don’t bad-mouth others or create a divisive attitude with them. Be sensitive. Remember how many educators are in survival mode but trying to be conscientious. Honor their daily realities and speak
to them on the page.
8. Cite/Reference sources for ideas not your own. Sometimes ideas get so much exposure that they blur into the collective lexicon and we’re not sure whom to reference. If something you declare in writing is specific or unique in any way, provide attribution. If you can’t find it, you may be able to get around it by saying something like, “We often hear people wishing they had more time for constructivist approaches in the classroom, but test preparation workbooks get in the way.”
9. Add something new to the field or at least a different take on a familiar idea. If you’re just repeating what others have said, why should anyone publish it? It’s okay to talk about differentiated instruction or blended learning, but what unique insights do you bring to the reader? Share them!
10. Learn to write by writing. After writing for 15 to 20 minutes, compare the material you wrote at the beginning with what you wrote toward the end of this time. Because the latter material is usually a lot better than the earlier material, consider moving it to become the lead. Spend considerable time sorting out your thinking on a topic via writing, such as writing/thinking in journals, logs, blogs, and online chats. We don’t climb a mountain by marveling at if from a distance. We start climbing, and we climb a lot.
11. Write, then let it sit for a day and week. Read and revise your draft after a day or so, then let it sit for a few days. Finally, with a fresh look, read and revise it. You’ll be amazed at all the mistakes you find, but also at how well the manuscript improves with this second revision.
12. Find and use your own voice. As you write, stop frequently and ask, “Does this sound like me?” I’ve written the drafts of many articles only to read them later and realize I wasn’t in them anywhere. This could be a good thing, of course, because we don’t want to come across as all about ourselves, but remember that we are most engaging when our individual writing voice is strong. As you write, consider whether someone reading the text would identify it as something you would write. If so, you’re on the right track.
13. Read your entire manuscript aloud. Write an article that begs to be read aloud. Your ear will hear portions that don’t flow well or could be misinterpreted. You’ll find yourself correcting repetitive phrases and passive voice you never noticed when reading silently.
14. Be efficient and economical; every word should matter. Don’t write something with wasted words and phrases. Write your article as best you can, then try to cut the number of words by one third or one half. Weigh every word’s use: Does it advance your cause? If not, toss it or replace it with one that does.
15. Have at least two other people read your manuscript. Both of these people should be people whom you can trust to be honest, but at least one of whom disagrees with you. The one who disagrees with you will find all the holes in your thinking, which will help you shore them up. The one who agrees with you will affirm you, stroke your ego, but will also critique your piece gently. It’s okay to want that, too.
16. Provide action steps for readers to take. This keeps the piece vivid. Suggest actions that help the information stick with the reader. Writing that inspires and informs action is usually strong.
17. At the end, return to something in the beginning, thereby “framing” the article. Something in the last paragraph or so connects with something in the first paragraph. It can be brief—sometimes a single word—but it makes an impact. For example, if you refer to Aristotle in the opening hook, refer to Aristotle or his period of history in the closing.
18. Get Nike about it: “Just Do It.” Get sentences on paper. Sometimes we get hyped up in our talking and reading about professional writing, but we don’t have the courage or discipline to actually sit down and put sentences on paper or keystrokes into the keyboard. It’s a lot easier to go back and chew on material we’ve written than to stare at a blank page. Getting something down—anything—gives us confidence that we can do this task and have something to say, even if it’s completely different from what we’ll actually submit down the road. (A message I took from Writer magazine.)
Come On In, The Water’s Fine.
I started writing articles and eventually hit enough critical mass to warrant a first book. Whether you’re blogging or have never written anything professionally, there’s no time like the present to start something you don’t have time to do!
Seriously, none of us has time to write, so we do it anyway, wherever we are, on whatever surface we’re carrying. Go ahead: Open your world to others and welcome their questions and critique. Students you’ll never meet are waiting for you to share your discoveries with their teachers so they can achieve great things. The whole education world is waiting for you to take your shot.
Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His latest book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. He was a featured presenter at AMLE2014. firstname.lastname@example.org @rickwormeli www.rickwormeli.net
Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2015.