Advice from a First-Time Author

Succeeding as a “Lone” Writer: Advice from a First-Time Author

by Christina Zamon, Head of Archives and Special Collections, Emerson College


After a long yet rewarding experience of writing my first book — The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository, which the Society of American Archivists published in February 2012 — I now find myself being asked questions about the process. I can’t tell you how often I hear, “How did you do it?” The answer, of course, is complicated. Like you, I obviously don’t have time to write at work, where I am the “lone arranger” at a small college. Or home — I had a baby, who quickly turned into a three-year-old while I was in the process of writing the book. Not to mention, I’m committed to the profession: I’ve chaired SAA’s Lone Arrangers Roundtable for the past two years and was involved in local professional activities with the New England Archivists.

So how did I do it? The answer to that question is similar to the answer to, “How do you find time to go to the gym?” I used my time wisely. I wrote the entire initial draft in my netbook on the commuter rail. I have a one-hour commute to and from work, so I used those two hours to my advantage.  Sure, it would’ve been more fun to read, knit, play games on my phone, or even sleep, but the commute provided a daily chunk of time without distractions in the “quiet car” — something I didn’t have at home! Once the initial draft was set, I took the occasional vacation or personal day to rewrite, talk to my editors at SAA, or email case study contributors — whatever needed to be done next.

The other question that I get asked a lot is, “What made you decide to write this book?” The idea for The Lone Arranger had been bouncing around in my head for some time. I knew a book like this was needed even before I officially became an archivist. I started thinking about the book after a Lone Arrangers Roundtable meeting in New Orleans in 2005. I had about a year of work experience under my belt.  At the meeting, so many people voiced the need for a manual, but I wasn’t professionally ready to write such a book and figured someone else would take the initiative.

Three years later at the SAA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, there was still no manual. I encouraged others to write the book. Their responses were surprising: “Why don’t YOU write it?” they asked. And that got me thinking: Why not? By then I had several years of experience, fresh ideas for accomplishing the work, and a network of advice readily available from other lone arrangers via the roundtable. So I started the draft proposal about a month before my daughter was born and picked it up again about six months later.

What was it like to publish with SAA?  Well, I always meant to attend the Write Away! Breakfast Forum held during SAA’s Annual Meeting, but I figured it must be for “heavy hitters” — you know, the people who are educators or who eventually become distinguished Fellows and presidents. (Of course, I was wrong about that; the forum actually is for newbies, the simply curious, and seasoned authors with new ideas — and even they become Fellows and presidents!) Even so, why would SAA want some no-name lone arranger like me to write, of all things, a book?  Sure, maybe I could write an article for Archival Outlook or maybe even a case study for The American Archivist, but a book?

My proposal argued for a practice-based manual. I live in the practical world of archives and don’t always think in terms of theory. That doesn’t mean I don’t use the ideas and theories that archivists so eloquently write about. I just take what I need and leave the rest on the table. SAA’s Publications Board liked my proposal and I signed a publishing contract in March 2010. What was it like to work with SAA on the book?  It was a positive experience because of the good support provided throughout the writing process.

If you have an idea for a publication, don’t hesitate to put together a proposal to submit to the SAA Publications Board. They are as interested in publishing practice-based books as they are in forwarding theoretical discourse. If I can do it, you can do it! So get going! You will be the better for it — and so will our profession.


                                                               This article first appeared in Archival Outlook, May/June 2012, p. 19.