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How do historians write?

By Tom Goodwin, @tgooders

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.’[1] 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’).[2] 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.’[3] 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.[4] And others are even organised enough (how I envy them) to be able to employ colour-coded spreadsheets.[5]

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.[6]

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?

 

Further Reading

 

[1] 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]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 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]

[5] Laura Sangha, ‘The Many Stages of Writing: A Personal Take’ The Many-Headed Monster Bloghttps://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/the-many-stages-of-writing-a-personal-take/ [Accessed 31 January 2015]

[6] 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

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for a thought provoking post. It was really interesting to read about your process of writing – the idea of beginning to write without a sense of argument is something that I have never attempted, and which I fear would probably end in disaster!

    Partly this is because, for me, the process of gathering data has already started to impose form on the data… and that brings me to my my colour coded spreadsheets. This was a technique that developed over many years, and which is mainly in response to ‘information overload’. My main challenge in my two most recent research projects has been how to synthesize and impose order on a very large amount of primary data – trying to categorise and group information as themes emerge when I am collecting that data seemed to be a logical thing to attempt. After the themes have emerged, I then try to organise them. Thus by the time I get to the stage of writing, it’s a case of ‘joining the dots’ – fleshing out the themes in a coherent way.

    This is a strong contrast to your description, but it seems that the amorphous, organic process of writing might be more similar that it appears for both of us. My themes are not the same as argument, and I certainly make new discoveries in my source material as I write, and my writing leads me to conclusions in a way that reflecting on or categorising data does not. The actual conversion from notes into prose thus remains as obscure – as you suggest.

    That’s rather a long comment, but that’s because I think you have really put your finger on an intriguing aspect of history. If it is part science and part art, then writing is surely the most artistic, and least theorised and understood aspect of the discipline.

    February 19, 2015
    • Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I am delighted that you liked my post, since it was partly inspired by your similarly themed post on the writing process: I was also struck by how you approach it very differently to me.

      Perhaps in part this is due to differences in our source materials: so far I have not encountered the problem of ‘information overload’ very much since I have tended to use a fairly small body of primary sources very intensively instead. This developed quite naturally while I was doing my undergraduate dissertation, since it was on Italian history and my Italian skills were rudimentary, to say the least! I was (and still am to an extent) restricted to using a couple of key sources in Italian and what was available in translation. But I suspect I will have to change my approach a bit in the future since I’d like to make use of some quantitative stuff as well, which obviously can’t be approached in the same way.

      Nevertheless writing is also a sort of therapy for me, I suppose, in that it helps impose some order on my thoughts and reveals where my reasoning is flawed or isn’t quite as supported by the evidence as I supposed it was. Thus it becomes a cycle of reading some sources, writing about them, which helps me decide what I should read next, which then compels me to rewrite what I had already written, and so on until I have to hand it in because there is a deadline.

      I completely agree with your last point. It seems to me that historians would be well served by thinking more about the form and style in which they choose to write. It seems to get overlooked in an overwhelming concentration on content much of the time. I read a great post today by Ian Mortimer, a historian and writer of historical fiction, about this: https://ihrconference.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/why-historians-should-write-fiction/

      Lastly I’d like to say how much I enjoy the many-headed monster! It’s exemplary of how historians should approach academic blog-writing, in my opinion.

      February 20, 2015
      • That’s enlightening about your source base – it certainly suggests the differences are about research, not about actually writing. I’m not sure I agree with everything that Ian Mortimer says (because academics are not just seeking to recreate the past, but to understand and explain it, which, alas, involves technical language and theory), but I certainly endorse the notion that historical writing should be good, and interesting.

        Many thanks for your kind words about the monster – I’m very pleased to have come across yours too, looking forward to reading more!

        February 22, 2015
  2. Natalia #

    A very interesting piece! I like the style)

    February 19, 2015

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