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It’s Academic: Writing For Encyclopedias and Reference Texts
by Erika Dreifus

You’ve probably heard stories about some determined soul who vowed to read the entire encyclopedia. Maybe you wondered a little bit about that person. Or maybe you are that person—frankly, for the purposes of this article, that’s probably preferable!

But have you ever heard about the equally determined souls who write for encyclopedias? (And how do they find those jobs, anyway?)

Writing for reference books can be an intellectually exciting way to expand your writing income and career. And you don’t always need a doctorate to get the assignments, although you’ll often be asked to document some expertise in a given field. (My own first encyclopedia articles were written when I was a beginning graduate student.)

But if you can prove that you have solid research and writing skills—to write a profile for a biographical dictionary, say—encyclopedia writing may offer you publication credits, money, and more than a little extra knowledge, too. (After my first set of assignments I was convinced I had become something of an expert on, among other personages, Fructuoso Rivera (1784[?]-1854), an Uruguayan revolutionary and statesman whom I profiled for the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography.)

The system generally works this way. When you find an appropriate announcement you contact the editor (usually by e-mail) to request a list of available entries and details about what’s required (entry lengths, deadlines, terms of payment, etc.). Sometimes the announcements specify that you should send along a curriculum vitaeor resume with your request, or, at the very least, describe your qualifications for working on the particular project. If you and the editor agree on a number of articles/entries that you’ll be writing, you’re off (quite often, in my experience, to the library!).

So where can you find these crucial announcements? Academic websites offer an excellent starting point. One that frequently posts calls for reference work contributors is H(umanities)-Net, http://www.h-net.org/announce/group.cgi?type=Publications  . Recent paying opportunities listed there have included calls for writers to contribute to a Handbook of Business Ethics (to be published by Golson Books in 2006); the African American National Biography project, a joint endeavor of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press; and a three-volume Encyclopedia of the Home Front: World Wars I and II, produced by East River Books and published by ABC-CLIO.

Another site, maintained at the University of Pennsylvania (http://www.english.upenn.edu/CFP/), often lists projects of a more distinctly literary bent, but you’ll need to sift carefully though the more typical calls for conference and journal papers. For those with additional expertise this site also includes advertisements for editors. One recent notice, for example, sought an editor for a Facts on File Companion to Twentieth Century British Poetry.

Another strategy worth trying is to check the websites for individual academic/professional associations. You’ll find a comprehensive list of these at the American Council of Learned Societies’ website (http://www.acls.org/ls-cao.htm. Many of these organizations maintain newsletters or other online announcement sections where a searcher can locate calls for contributors to projects in specific fields. Surfing on over to the American Historical Association’s Calendar section, for example, you’ll find an area for "Research" postings at http://www.theaha.org/calendar/research.cfm . Scanning these listings over the past year yielded potential assignments writing for a range of encyclopedias and historical dictionaries, including, recently, the Encyclopedia of Sex, Love and Culture in the Middle Ages, to be published by Greenwood Publishing. 

So, why just sit back and read an encyclopedia, when you might write for one, too? 

© Copyright 2005, Erika Dreifus

Erika Dreifus lives and writes in New York City. Visit her website at www.practicing-writer.com and check her "Practicing Writing" blog posts at practicing-writing.blogspot.com.

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