To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?

Picture the scene: I am eight years old. I have a mullet (I have a German mother, and it was the early 90s, so I refuse to be ashamed of this). I am on the playground during recess with my best friend, whose parents made better hair choices for her. Another kid approaches the teal-colored plastic picnic table and asks if he can sit with us.  My friend pushes colored pencils and construction paper at him while I tell him sure- as long as he will help us write an encyclopedia. He wants to write about GI Joes, but that day we were doing geology, so we put him on igneous rock duty instead. Two minutes later, he’s playing red-rover with the other kids. We shrug and page through the National Geographic my friend swiped from her pediatrician’s waiting room.  We debate whether the next day’s topic should be shipwrecks (me) or cloning (her).

It would be a few more years before I learned that this was a bizarre way for a child to be. But even my 8 year old self knew that anything worth learning about was *really* worth learning about. And she learned through writing.

Little has changed since then in that regard. Sure, reading is great for learning, but to really get something at the visceral level, I have to write about it. Writing is the best way for me to figure out how I think and feel about something, and if there is a disagreement between my heart and my head. It’s not until I write something that all the connections between my subject and the rest of what I know are forged.

Now why am I telling this story, besides outing myself as a bemulleted child? It’s because the semester is almost over, and summer approaches. Summer is the season in which grad student and junior faculty get approached by educational tools companies and specialized encyclopedia publishers seeking to find qualified content creators.

I’ve written several of these pieces in the past, and here’s why:

  1. If there is ever some weird time-travel situation and I get to meet my hyper-critical perpetually squinting 8 year old self, this is totally going to break the ice.
  2. Getting back to the basics of the subjects that pretty much make up the cornerstone of my research can be really helpful. Writing an encyclopedia article or study guide designed for undergraduates first learning about a subject is a lot like teaching. It helps to pull me away from the narrow periscope-view I can sometimes develop when writing a book and help me remember the different aspects that are there and that I have to keep in mind while writing. For example, when I am writing about the deals between the Swedish and Fetu on the 17th century Gold Coast, it’s helpful to have in mind the latest big picture of the Atlantic slave trade, of early Swedish imperialism, and of precolonial West African history, because that shapes how I pull the narrative out of the sources. Writing these encyclopedia articles was a good exercise for me in reminding myself of the most recent scholarship (and reminding myself to always be reading the most recent scholarship), and in critically evaluating which sources and viewpoints provide students with the most fair yet nuanced understanding of the subject.
  3. Speaking of students and a fair yet nuanced understanding, creating high-quality materials like this is an important service to them and to the field. The way I write one of these introductory overviews of the field shapes the way students think about it, and the sources I suggest will color their view also. It becomes an exercise in thinking through the political and socio-cultural implications of privileging points of view. For example, when writing about Timbuktu, I thought about how residents of city experienced the many changes it underwent.  Which people and events shaped the city in ways that are still felt now? A big theme in the history of Timbuktu is the position of the Tuareg peoples in relation to that city, and there is a cyclical sense of history repeating itself each time they staked their claims upon it. I think about this in my writing always, but am hyper aware when creating something that requires as much objectivity as is possible in order to fairly represent the past in a way that is still easy to understand.  It feels good to do a good job with these, because of how important a solid foundation in a historic subject really is.
  4. The pay- I’m building my personal library, and academic books don’t come cheap. If you have a solid background in the subject, writing these articles doesn’t take much time, and your hourly rate is pretty good- far better than most freelance writing work.

So with that said, if you’re also interested in writing something like this, here are a few things I learned that may be helpful to keep in mind:

  1. Choose subjects that are all adjacent in some way to your own projects and knowledge base. All the topics I chose to write about are topics that pop up in my writing projects, and my familiarity helped me to write much more quickly. I didn’t have to spend as much time verifying details because I had researched these in the past few years on my own.
  2. That said, always double-check sources, numbers, and place names. Look through Googlebooks if you don’t have time to go to the library. Oxford Bibliographies are great for finding out about the latest books and debates/trends in the field, as well as how those differ from past debates/trends. Most academic libraries have access to these, and will let you look at them from their computers even if you aren’t a member.
  3. If using Wikipedia, be so incredibly careful. I know this is obvious, but it’s worth repeating. I do use Wikipedia when writing these, but not until I’m finished. Once I’m done writing my article, I read Wikipedia to compare: is my article’s tone right? Did I cover most aspects of the topic? If Wikipedia has a sub-heading I don’t have or vice-versa, is there a good reason for that? And I also check the listed sources in case there is something good that I missed.
  4. Use WorldCat. Look at everything that’s been published, in the order of publication. Often that alone will tell you the trends of scholarship from when the topic first was written about, to the way it is written about now. Understanding how scholarship of a subject changes over time can be very helpful for undergraduates who don’t have a good sense of how historiography works.
  5. Stick with chronology. Often it’s tempting to group things by topic or by nation, theme, etc. and that can make for a really great journal article or book, but chronology helps beginners in a subject get a better idea of change over time, which is something I’ve found undergraduates can struggle with, especially in histories or locations with which they are less familiar.
  6. Think about how you end the article. Check the guidelines as each publication will have different ones, but if they aren’t specific, it can be useful to end your article with the ramifications of the event/time/place you are writing about. Think about how your subject affected the region or the participants, and how any of those reverberations can be felt today. This helps students to connect it with something they are more familiar with, and helps the topic stick. For example, in my article about the French and Indian War, I ended by explaining how the costs incurred by Britain defending their subjects in the North American colonies were the impetus for the heavy taxation which would spark the resistance that led to the American Revolution. This way, the French and Indian War doesn’t become just another colonial war, but the colonial war which shaped America’s trajectory- one that I hope all American students are familiar with.
  7. Don’t be tempted to do as many articles as you can take. Writing these can be pretty addictive, because they are straightforward, not particularly difficult, and can be finished in a relatively short time- all rewards that don’t come easily when writing a non-fiction book. Doing a few here and there has a lot of benefits, but doing too many can easily become procrastination. Keep your eyes on your main writing goals, and if you are in the financial position to do so, only take on the articles that are useful for you and will help you meet your goals.
  8. You don’t have to wait until you are approached. If you have the training/background and want a bit of extra cash, there will always be someplace that is in need of writers and it doesn’t hurt to be proactive and seek them out.
  9. Professionalism first! A lot of the companies that seek out writers for these types of materials like to create longer relationships with fewer writers rather than hiring someone new for each assignment. It saves them time and money to be able to rely on you over and over again. Some freelancers can be unreliable, so once you’ve proven yourself as a clear writer who is deadline-oriented and professional in their communication, you will most likely be offered more work in the future. I went from writing these pieces, to occasionally being asked to update the bibliographies of others, or edit the pieces of newer writers. Once I was paid double for a quick turnover because someone else had not completed their article by the deadline and the publication was in a bind. It pays to be flexible and professional.

For those of you who have also written these, what other tips can you offer?

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