Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Blog CCXII (212): Writing in History

In previous posts--Blog XXII and Blog XXV--this blog has stressed the importance of writing well.  As I have argued, this skill is a factor--more indirect than direct, but significant nonetheless--in professional advancement. Rachel Toor, an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, tends to think the same way. She has a series that she publishes in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Scholars Talk Writing" in which she interviews a number of individuals from different academic disciplines. Only three of the individuals she has interviewed are historians, but I have included all of them because the issues they discuss are often not that different, in my opinion, from what a publishing historian encounters:
  • Carl Elliot: "In academic writing you’re given a lot of latitude to be boring."
  • Jennifer Crusie: "It’s an incredibly arrogant act to publish anything."
  • Steven Pinker: "Good prose requires dedication to the craft of writing, and our profession simply doesn’t reward it."
  • Jay Parini: "You have to write a lot to get better at writing," so "don’t stop."
  • Michael Bérubé: "I still have the standard anxiety of a struggling musician: Regardless of the gig, I want to be invited back."
  • Deirdre McClosky: "You know the standard is not high in economics. Whenever I get the slightest bit vain about my allegedly good writing, I open The New Yorker and weep."
  • James M. McPherson: "I learned how to write mainly by the trial and error of writing."
  • Laura Kipnis: "Writing for wider venues is actually a lot more challenging; at least that’s been my experience."
  • Camille Paglia: "I must stress that all of my important writing, including my books, has been done in longhand, in the old, predigital way. I absolutely must have physical, muscular contact with pen and page. Body rhythm is fundamental to my best work."
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: "You have to think about what you’ve written from the point of view of someone who isn’t you."
  • Sam Wineburg: "The two most important tools a writer has are his ears."
  • Anthony Grafton: "It’s a matter of establishing your voice on the page, in the first sentence, while hoping to win the reader’s attention and not put her off,"
HistoryNet, the on-line presence of a number of popular history magazines (American History, America's Civil War, Aviation History, Civil War Times, Military History, MHQ, Vietnam, Wild West, and World War II) has also been interviewing a number of historians, journalists, and biographers about their work.  These interviews published in the various print magazines that HistoryNet represents, focus on a number of issues, but all of them discuss the importance of writing as part of the interview:
  • T. J. Stiles: "I try to write the kind of book I like to read. I want to be transported to another place, to have the visceral pleasure of following a subject in peril, and to have those “aha” moments, when I come to see the world in a different way."
  • Nancy Plain: "Just try to tell a good story, and tell it, as much as possible, as if they are talking to a friend. Tell it simply and clearly, with colorful details and plenty of primary-source quote."
  • Bill O'Neal: "I realized early that I’m not a gifted writer, so I’ve worked very hard (armed with my trusty thesaurus) to become a good craftsman, a wordsmith who can produce a smooth read."
  • Rick Atkinson: "My ambition is to have a distinctive narrative voice, to bring a literary sensibility to writing about war, and to make that voice compelling enough and vivid enough that even people who are well read about World War II feel that they are coming to the story fresh."

1 comment:

  1. I worked with Rachel Toor at Oxford University Press between graduate school and the start of my independent writing career. Thanks for the link to her CoHE series, which is terrific. I participated in a roundtable in the American Historian that speaks to this post, and I think is worthwhile:
    —T.J. Stiles