Well Written History

The majority of the research is done. The sources have been found. The books and documents have been photographed or photocopied. Some of them have even been read.

I’ve got ideas. I’ve got outlines. I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes.

I have years of training in the destruction and dismissal of other people’s arguments. They call it grad school.

Now the time has come when I too must write – and not one of those research papers churned out in the day or two before the deadline arrives. I must write the dissertation. I am to write chapters that connect to each other in some logical fashion. Chapters. Even the word itself sounds like so many heavy links of metal to be hung around the necks of PhD students back from those green pastures they call “the field.”

I have seen them. They wander the campus with a pale look; the clank and rattle of their invisible burden almost audible as they walk. Nearby a third year history grad student might be seen skipping away, “I’m off to the archives!”

I forge my first link this fall. Getting a summer head start on my procrastination, this week I sat down to read a few books on the craft of writing, including a simple but handy book of “writing tools” aimed mostly at journalists and fiction writers. Reading through the short examples of good writing, I realized that I didn’t really know what good writing looked like in history.

Don’t get me wrong. In historiography classes, I have read plenty of “classic” works, from a full range of “schools” of historical inquiry and their most radical theoretical rivals. A year spent mostly reading in preparation for oral examinations brought me in close contact – “reading” wasn’t always the best description of what that contact consisted of – with hundreds of history books, but in all cases my eyes were trained on the content, not the form. The only times I really paid much attention to form was when some theoretically ambitious works were so frustratingly obtuse that one wondered how these historians who claim sensitivity to the subtleties of discourse could have nurtured such talent for linguistic slaughter.

I can think of plenty of works of history that took an approach I liked, had an argument that persuaded me, or simply benefited me in my own research. However, I am embarrassed to admit, I can’t name any history books that I thought were well written. That is to say, I have apparently paid so little attention to the writing of history at the level of phrase, sentence, and paragraph, and so much to the arguments and their support instead, that I now feel particularly naked as I go forward in my own writing.

Of course, I suspect good writing in history resembles good writing everywhere else. Surely many of the lessons of good writing taught in a journalism class, at a college writing center, or in Mrs. Gould’s seventh grade English class back in Aberdeen, Scotland are applicable to the writing of one’s history dissertation. I am also doubtlessly influenced by the rhetorical strategies and sentence structures of at least some of the hundreds of works that I have read in the past few years. Hopefully that influence is partly born of an intuitive recognition of quality. Even if that assumption is flawed, it is too late for me to revisit those blissful days of wide secondary source reading now. But if I get a chance to speak to incoming grad students in my last two years in the program, perhaps in the form of a wailing spirit in the night, I think I will advise them to pay closer attention to the language of historical works; to occasionally wield the eyeglass, and not merely the sword when they confront the works both in their own fields and the broader historiography.

6 thoughts on “Well Written History”

  1. Three words: Mary Elizabeth Berry.

    That said, you’re already producing sentences like “The only times I really paid much attention to form was when some theoretically ambitious works were so frustratingly obtuse that one wondered how these historians who claim sensitivity to the subtleties of discourse could have nurtured such talent for linguistic slaughter.” So maybe a little Arthur Clarke instead. (not a historian, but still)

  2. Wow that is a very gruesome outlook. But I agree with Jonathan; your formulation of sentences describing your intense terror at climbing this mountain of a task; your disgust at the unimaginative accounts of historical events that require a poet to describe only means that this is your chance to better the past works of your peers and your idols. You speak seven languages at my count and have been chased by small town U.S police. You have the academic and grassroots experience to complete this task. You will excel at your dissertation and due justice to painstaking field work you enjoyed so much. Ha green fields.

    Cheers Buddy.

  3. Thanks for the tip Jonathan. If I can find the time, I’ll revisit her writing.

    Thanks for the words of support Nathan – but I’m not yet to seven!

  4. Want to know what M.E. Berry said when I asked her how I could become a better writer of history? “Go read dance magazines and film reviews.” Her point was that we should read promiscuously, as my current adviser would say, and find models in lots of different forms of writing. So I now turn to magazines about design, works of fiction, and even Williams-Sonoma catalogs in search of crisp sentences and memorable turns-of-phrase. (But if we must stick with historians, I think Drew Gilpin Faust is another worthy model, along with Sarah Thal and James H. Johnson).

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