by Paul Thomas
One of the best and most significant changes for me when I moved from high school English teaching to being a college professor was a blossoming of my life as a writer.
In the spring of my first year of college — almost 40 years ago — I had an epiphany: I realized that I was a writer. Much of my life in my twenties while I struggled to develop my professional credibility as a high school teacher, I was also writing poetry, short stories, and even a novel — all of which I religiously cast into the submission pond for publication.
For more than two decades, I dutifully mailed through the postal system 9 x 11 manilla envelopes including my hand-typed manuscripts and another envelope with return postage. Most of that work was returned with terse and impersonal rejections; a few had hand-scribbled notes of encouragement, and a smattering of work was accepted and published in so-called small or literary journals.
I had a couple professional education articles published before I entered my doctoral program in 1995 (Oregon English and English Journal), but I did not begin to recognize my writer life as less than a writer of fiction and more as a scholar and public intellectual until the late 1990s and especially once I left high school teaching and became a professor in 2002.
Since I was mostly a self-taught writer of fiction and poetry (not a part of an MFA program or the “in” circle of writers) and “only” a public school teacher, my efforts at publishing were almost all very discouraging and fruitless.
So here is my first caveat about publishing as an educator: Create a network and make contacts so that your work has a better chance of being considered and thus published.
Since I became a professor, I have published self-authored and edited/co-edited volumes (20+ volumes), about 30 chapters in volumes, and many dozens of scholarly journal articles and public articles and commentaries; as well, I have co-edited state education journals, edited/co-edited columns for 10 years in English Journal, and edited series for education publishers Peter Lang USA and Brill/Sense.
How did this transformation happen?
As I noted above, once in higher education, I gained access to publishing that I had not enjoyed previously. My affiliation with a university opened doors to public commentaries in local, state, and national newspapers and publications, and quite significantly, I made a connection through a colleague with a series editor (Joe Kincheloe) who believed in my work and started my career as a scholar.
Here, I want to emphasize that I was prepared for these opportunities by the years of mostly unproductive work prior; I had spent decades honing my skills as a writer — despite my lack of publications — and I had almost two decades under my belt as a classroom teacher (practitioner expertise) as well as a doctorate (scholarly expertise), including, of course, the powerful experience of completing a dissertation (which I later published).
As a series editor for two education publishers and as an editor/co-editor for columns in English Journal, I have learned a great deal about how to start and develop a career as a published educator; below, then, are some suggestions:
- Determine the type of writer you are (or want to be). Essentially educators (K-12 or professors) who want to publish are either writers who want to publish scholarship or practitioners/scholars who need to write in order to publish. This recognition is not about being the rightkind of writer (there isn’t a right one), but your attitude about the writing and your path to publishing are quite different between the two types.
- Commit time to the craft of writing. If you want to publish, you must practice writing — including drafting a significant amount of text that will never be submitted or published. Read books on being a writer and writing well; read authors and scholars writing about being writers. But most of all, create writing time and build a reserve of writing that helps you hone your skill, explore the type of writer you want to be (voice, style, and genre/form), and accumulate texts that may serve you once you begin writing pieces targeted for submission and publication.
- Begin to read professional published work as a writer. My time editing has included a great deal of energy gently responding to submissions that should have never been submitted; the format is unacceptable, or the piece simply does not match the publication or column. Want to publish scholarly articles? Seek out the journals where you would like to publish and read meticulously. What to publish a book? Explore publishers and read the books like the ones you want to write.
- Do the due diligence of understanding and then conforming to submission guidelines. Well before actually submitting work, study calls for submissions and calls for proposals. Know the expectations for queries, proposals, and submissions. While some standard guidelines exist, almost all publications and publishers have unique requirements that demand you are meticulous and are willingly to honor the time and professionalism of the editors receiving your work; meet format, citation, and word-length requirements.
- Join professional organizations and attend professional conferences.The most effective “in” to publishing as an educator is the professional organization, and then the professional conference. Professional organizations at the local, state, and national levels allow you to begin and grow a network, but they also often have publishing opportunities that far too few educators explore. Presenting at conferences is also an outstanding first step to having an article to submit — especially if you present with other educators and then co-author the article. Collaboration, in fact, is an excellent initial route to publishing, especially if you can collaborate with a published educator.
- Create a social media presence (Twitter, etc.) that is mostly professional. Similar to professional organizations, social media can be a great community for entering the conversations you will want to explore as a writer. The key is to focus your social media time (who you follow, and what you share) on a professional community.
- Identify your are(s) of expertise and then research to see what has been published, what is being published. As an editor and a peer-reviewer, I have very often had to reject work that simply walks well-worn ground or enters a conversation with no clear awareness of the status of that conversation. Being an educator at all levels can be very isolating, but to publish, you must be aware of what the conversation includes, what the research base has already offered (many call this standing on the shoulders of giants). First-time publishing is daunting, but those initial efforts have a much better chance if you commit yourself to knowing your publication, knowing your expertise, knowing your audience, and knowing the historical and current status of the conversation you wish to influence.
- Recognize that academic/scholarly publishing is not the same as other types of publishing. Publishing as an educator is a subset of publishing in general. In my own career, the submission game for fiction and poetry is quite different than academic publishing. The “I want to publish” comment or urge must be qualified, and once you recognize you want to publish for practitioners and scholars, you need to understand the process for education-oriented journals and publishers. This is mostly the world of other educators and scholars; many journals, for example, are edited by practicing educators and professors (not full-time editors). And even book series are also edited the same way. Publishing as an educator is mostly entering a very distinct community, a community you are already a part of as an educator.
- Consider blogging as a pathway to more traditional publishing. Nearly as important as the connections and access that moving to higher education afforded me was my deciding to blog, first at open sites and then on my own WordPress blog. Blogging provides for me a way to think through topics and issues, but it also creates a huge reserve of writing that I can cull from for formal submissions. Blogging also motivates me to write nearly daily (in a way that journaling never worked for me). As well, blogging helps you practice entering a conversation in ways that will benefit your formal submissions. Blogging has gained a much better status in recent years, and as I have done, a blog can be established as a place for your professional voice, and an outlet for establishing and developing that voice.
- Submit your work. Ultimately, you must draft and finalize a manuscript, and then send it out. As I have detailed above, if you make the right efforts before you do this, you have very good odds of that work finding a home — probably in a smaller venue at first, but eventually in places that you have identified as your larger goals. Due diligence, and baby steps.
And this brings me to a final thought that isn’t so much about how to get published as an educator, but something to expect once you do get published: A sudden sense of terror often follows the thrill of acceptance and publication.
For me, publishing has been a powerful, important, and even necessary aspect of being an educator; I simply can’t see doing one without the other. Once you make the same decision, I think you will find a new level of satisfaction that enhances your life and profession.