This feels a bit dangerous. As I have said before, writing usually happens in private and writing for publication includes the very real potential for rejection. I want this blog to be about modelling good practice, and sharing expert advice. It’s not an online journal about my thoughts and feelings; it’s a repository of good stuff. But still, the first time I wrote an article, I had no idea what I was doing. This, the first in a series, means at least you might have a sense of what other people are doing.
On Wednesday I posted off the contract for an article for British Writers. I signed on the dotted line and said, yes, by September 6, 2013, I would submit 10,000 original words covering the life and works of Kenneth Slessor (1901-71), poet and journalist, best known for the poem ‘Five Bells’.
That gives me about 3 months.
My plan is to spend 3 very productive hours a week (one of them at #shutupandwrite actually producing text) over the next 10 weeks, with a bigger push in the last 3 to finish it off.
I’m going to post each week to say how much research I’ve done, whether I met my goals, what level of writing I achieved… I’ll be using the Cornell Method, and Generative Writing to be as efficient as possible, and there will be a lot of speed reading.
So, today, step 1. General Google Search.
Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography and remind myself about Slessor’s life in a quick overview. The Select Bibliography is also very useful.
Go and look at Wikipedia, to see if there is more information. Sometimes Wikipedia is better than ADB, and sometimes (this time) it is much worse.
Have a quick look around the rest of Google web to see if there is anything I should know about. (For example, there was almost nothing on Henry Reed in academic publications, but a passionate amateur had assembled the most wonderful website, www.solearabiantree.net, which helped me track down obscure newspaper reviews and the like.)
Here, on the second page of Google search, I can see that the National Library of Australia has a great facsimile of Slessor’s notebook and the drafts of ‘Five Bells’. I will certainly be using that. I can also see there is a radio program, the odd blogger talking about their favourite poem.
Looking at the bottom of the page, I can see that ‘Searches Related to ‘Kenneth Slessor” include:
kenneth slessor essay
kenneth slessor poems
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kenneth slessor biography
kenneth slessor five bells
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This is all giving me the lay of the land. I can see that Slessor is significant, but not that famous. That he ranks in lists of the top 5 20th-century Australian poets, but he’s no ‘Banjo’ Patterson.
Step 2. Google Scholar.
Just typing in ‘Kenneth Slessor’ gives me a lot of pretty old hits. Lots of resources from the 1970s. This is not necessarily a bad thing in literary studies, it shows these are the seminal works.
I then narrowed my search by ‘since 2009’. Not a lot of stuff–mostly Slessor being mentioned in lists of significant Australian poets. But, an unexpected flurry of articles from Cartographic Perspectives by Adele J Haft (2011, 2012).
Expanding the search to cover publications since 2000 showed that this was actually the tail end of a whole raft of articles about Slessor and geographies that were happening more than 3 years earlier. It also brings up some good places to start: The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (always definitive); Jeffrey Poacher’s The Drowned World of Kenneth Slessor (2001) looks important, and is not on the ADB Select Bibliography (which stops in the late 1990s).
Also, 3 interruptions from colleagues, a conversation with my boss; 8 emails incoming and read, 5 emails sent; 2 SMS sent, 1 SMS in; a Yammer conversation.
Some caveats–basically your mileage may vary, and some of the safety nets around this article (the reason I’m happy to blog about it) are often not there for other publications. I know this article will reach the press. I already have a contract, I’ve published with British Writers before (on ‘Henry Reed’, ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson’, ‘Kathleen Raine’ and have ‘Judith Wright’ due out in September). I know how they work, and what they want me to produce. Also, Gale-Cengage have good copy editors, who meticulously go through my prose. They also apply for permissions (though I have to provide photocopies of all pages I have quoted from, with full bibliographic and citational information). This takes a lot of the weight off. Finally, the article is an overview, extended reference work entry, not requiring a complex argument or a difficult theoretical lens. I’ll be doing straight biography, a bit of historicist reading and some close textual analysis.