Thursday, September 17, 2009

Blog XXV (25): Writing Well

One thing that gets little attention in graduate schools is the importance of writing well. Graduate school programs are good at helping you develop research skills, an understanding of the historiography, and analytical skills, but they make little effort to help turn you into a talented wordsmith.

Poor writing as been a long term problem for historians. In writing my article on Theodore Roosevelt that I mentioned back in Blog XV, I learned that the quality of writing in the profession has been a weakness of academic historians for…ah…well…the entire twentieth century, which is to basically say since historians became professionals. There was no golden age when scholarly historians wrote well. I found complaints on this topic from the editor of the American Historical Review as far back as the 1910s.

This issue is no minor thing. Wordsmithing will help you advance your career. Obviously the most important thing is having something to say that is meaningful and important. Graduate schools are quite good at developing those skills. Turning fledgling historians into good writers is another matter altogether. Basically, being a good writer when doing history is tough. Not only do you have to know how to put words together well, but historical accuracy requires precision in your language. If that is not difficult enough, the historian also has to marshal evidence and use quotes to support their position. Setting up someone else’s words in your text is often quite difficult. Although the phrase “reads like a novel” indicates the status that fiction has in the writing world, I believe writing history well is actually more difficult than doing fiction well. History requires threading the needle carefully, while fiction allows you to color outside the lines if you want.

How specifically can writing well help you professionally? Well, academic presses are just like commercial publishing houses these days—they are in the business of turning a profit. I have talked to enough editors to know that they cannot knowingly publish a book, regardless of its intellectual merit, knowing they will lose money upon its release. One of the things that makes a book marketable, is the quality of the prose on its pages. So, writing well helps you get published, which is something that almost all historians must do to some degree or another. Another way in which writing skill comes into play is determining where you get published. It is easier to get published at bigger presses or even commercial publishing houses if you write well. Having a big press publish you has a whole series of second and third order effects that are usually quite positive for professional advancement.

What can you do to make yourself into a talented writer. I can offer two pieces of advice. The first is read an author that you think is good and pay attention to their style. Forget trying to understand their thesis and where it fits into the literature–just look at how they structure their words. I would also advise you to read the same basic type of genre in which you plan to write. So, reading Stephen King might not be as rewarding for a budding historian as paying attention to the work of Civil War historian James McPherson, even if you plan to write intellectual history Bourbon France.

My next piece of advice is to write something every day. Writing is a lot like exercise. The more you do it, the better you get. If you take time off and come back to it later, it hurts and some ability has been lost and needs to be mastered a second time. I have seen this happen often with undergraduates, but it also occurs a lot in grad school. Most history programs require that graduate students take one, or maybe two, research seminars. That just is not enough writing work. An original research paper is the ultimate test of writing, it is when you take the research and try to create something new. Through a series of unplanned events, I ended up writing four research papers in grad school. Several of them got published, and one won me the first of my five writing awards. I would like to think that there was some type of relationship between the extra work and the results. I also know that my writing has helped me get a job.

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