How do historians write?
Thomas is an MPhil student in Early Modern History. He is currently researching sixteenth-century Italian heretics and their use of the printing press.
I spent the morning putting in a comma; I spent the afternoon taking it out – Oscar Wilde
Writing history remains something of a dark art. From the beginning of your degree in history, there is a great deal of focus on how to do research: that is, how one should approach sources and analyse historical arguments, covering a wide range of different methods and theoretical approaches. However, when it comes to the next stage, which consists of transforming research into essays, dissertations, articles, and books, budding historians are generally left to work it out for themselves. Their knowledge of working methods other than their own is, correspondingly, often limited.
Why is this the case?
Keith Thomas, the eminent historian of witchcraft, once suggested that ‘just as the conjuror’s magic disappears if the audience knows how the trick is done, so the credibility of scholars can be sharply diminished if readers learn everything about how exactly their books came to be written.’ In the same essay, Thomas outlines his highly idiosyncratic approach, which involves laboriously cutting the handwritten notes from his research into pieces – one ‘fact’ per piece – and then stuffing them into envelopes devoted to a particular theme (such as ‘Muggletonians and animals’). Writing then involves a long process of shifting through envelopes, often re-visiting sources to check for mistranscriptions and passages taken out of context, and then ‘[trying] to create some coherence out of these hundreds of pieces of paper.’ Not all historians take such a labour-intensive approach. Nowadays most make use of a word-processor, at the very least, for making notes and writing; digital documents have the great advantage over paper notes of being keyword-searchable. Some directly annotate PDFs of their sources, such as manuscripts. And others are even organised enough (how I envy them) to be able to employ colour-coded spreadsheets.
However, how do historians turn notes, in whatever form they may be, into prose? It would appear, from the above, that many historians envisage research and writing as separate stages, something perhaps encouraged by the convention of presenting the results of one’s research as a finished product, with details of the research process correspondingly muted: ‘one doesn’t need to bring the cooking to the table’, as the nineteenth-century historian Lord Acton is memorably supposed to have said.
By contrast, I personally struggle to separate the processes of research and writing. That is to say, I can’t do research for very long without sketching out a few paragraphs, and I can’t write for very long without getting stuck: the writing process guides the research and vice versa. This has several implications. Most importantly, I have little sense, beyond the vaguest outline, of the structure of my argument before I begin to write. It tends to shift a great deal throughout the writing process, often even reversing completely when I come across a new piece of evidence or when I reach a dead-end when I find that a line of inquiry that I was following falls down because of a lack of sources. It is only near the very end that the pieces of my argument finally begin to fall into place in my head, and then the long process of clarifying it on the page can begin (another implication of my method is that I write extremely slowly: generally I fail to reach even one thousand words in a day).
It might be argued that writing in such a way could unduly influence the research process, by allowing one’s preconceptions about as-of-yet unread sources to prejudice how they are read. In other words, that it undermines the objective mindset that historians are supposed to achieve when confronted with their sources. But then the pursuit of objectivity and the avoidance of presuppositions, an ideal rather than necessarily an achievable goal, is a problem for all historians, regardless of their approach.
Should historians be given explicit training in how to write? Are all approaches to writing equally valid? And how much of the research process should be evident in the finished product?
- Richard Blakemore, ‘To Note or Not to Note? historywomble https://historywomble.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/to-note-or-not-to-note/
- Keith Thomas, ‘Diary: Working Methods’, London Review of Books (June 2010), http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary [Accessed 31 January 2015]
- Matt Houlbrook ‘The Biography of a Book Chapter: A Short Photo-Essay’, The Trickster Prince Blog, https://tricksterprince.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/the-biography-of-a-book-chapter-a-short-photo-essay/ [Accessed 31 January 2015]
- Laura Sangha, ‘The Many Stages of Writing: A Personal Take’ The Many-Headed Monster Blog, https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/the-many-stages-of-writing-a-personal-take/ [Accessed 31 January 2015]
 Richard Blakemore, ‘To Note or Not to Note?’ historywomble https://historywomble.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/to-note-or-not-to-note/ [Accessed 31 January 2015]
 Laura Sangha, ‘The Many Stages of Writing: A Personal Take’ The Many-Headed Monster Blog, https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/the-many-stages-of-writing-a-personal-take/ [Accessed 31 January 2015]
 Lord Action, quoted in Carlo Ginzburg & Adriano Prosperi, Giochi di pazienza: Un seminario sul “Beneficio di Cristo” (Turin, 1975), p. 3. I have been unable to find this quote’s original source