Monday, December 5, 2016

Blog CCIV (214): Writing in History Some More

What does it take to be a good writer in the profession of history?  That is an issue that does not get discussed much in graduate programs—at least not at the schools I attended.  Despite that fact it is an important skill set, and I am not the only that thinks so.  "The Junto" is a group blog on early American history.  The contributors tend to be ABD grad students and junior scholars.  The site addresses many issues, not all of them limited to the period before 1815.  There are a couple of interesting interviews with historians about a number of topics.  The ones that focus on the writing process are listed below:
  • Edward E. Andrews: "As a teacher, I find that my students understand course material best when it is communicated through stories, anecdotes, and little vignettes, and I think that holds true for our scholarly endeavors, as well."
  • Ann Little: "I’m not so much a planner as a noodler. I just noodle along in a pile of sources—or with a few sources and get interested in one detail, which leads me to another detail, which might lead eventually to a story."
  • Zachary Hutchins: "For those interested in editing a collection of essays, I have three pieces of advice. First, before circulating a [call for papers], have a preliminary discussion with editors at one or more press... Second, try to select and shape proposals in a way that emphasizes the unity of your collection and the continuities between individual essays... Third, pay more attention to the proposals of your contributors than their CVs."
The New York Times also has a series called "By the Book."  It is a series of Questions and Answers with authors of new books, both fiction and non-fiction about their literary lifestyles.  As a result, many of these entries discuss things other than the craft of writing; what writers would you invite to dinner party, and so on.  Some of the "authors" are not even writers, but the celebrities who have "written" a book with a co-author.  As a result, this series is less useful than the one that The Chronicle of Higher Education published.  Nonetheless, there are several useful comments and the historians, journalists writing history, and even a historian turned novelist featured in this series are listed below:
  • H.W. Brands: "To a writer...tone and voice conquer all. Dickens knew it. Tom Wolfe has dined out on it forever."
  • Jeffrey Toobin: "I love mastery and confidence in a writer — the feeling that she knows exactly where she’s taking you and why."
  • Joseph J. Ellis: He likes writers that "know how to tell a story with a style as distinctive as their fingerprint." 
  • David McCullough: "The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I read it first nearly 50 years ago and still turn to it as an ever reliable aid-to-navigation, and particularly White’s last chapter, with its reminders to 'Revise and Rewrite' and 'Be Clear.'"
  • James M. McPherson: "Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a novel about the battle of Gettysburg that, to my mind, provides the most incisive insights into the various meanings of the war for the men who fought it."
  • Erik Larson: "Hemingway may not have been the nicest person in the world, but his work gave me a new way of thinking about writing — the value of weeding out adjectives and adverbs. He was, above all, a master at the art of not saying."
  • Sara Paretsky: "Believable characters first, a good story, an understanding of how to pace dramatic action. I like commitment by a writer, to the form, to the story."
  • Rick Perlstein: "I look to historians for their power to illuminate not just the invisible lineaments of the present, but also that which is not present. What are the roads that were not taken that most shape our own time?"
  • Lynne Cheney: "Some of the best history today is being written by people who aren’t professional historians. Several have journalistic backgrounds — David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Jon Meacham — and they know how to create a gripping narrative, which is pretty important when you are telling a story the ending of which is known."

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