The Journey towards Fresh Perspectives: A Personal Reflection on Historical Writing-Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie
Why I Write and How I Write Jodie Collins
Writing About Writing-Dr Alun Withey
In her post for this site, Penelope Corfield has already given an excellent set of insights into writing practices, and tips for constructing work. I thought I would take a slightly different line and reflect on my own writing journey. I’ve been writing as an academic historian for over 10 years and have so far published three books and more than 10 journal articles. More recently I’ve also begun to write for a variety of different outputs, ranging from magazines, newspapers and websites, to my own blog. Writing is at the absolute heart of what I do, and I generally write every day – even if it only a few lines. I’m currently finishing off what I hope will be the fourth book – a study of the history of facial hair.
Whatever I’m writing, I feel it’s important to think about the audience for the work. This has to do with developing, and modifying, your authorial ‘voice’. For example, writing a newspaper article of 1000 words is completely different to an academic journal article of 10,000…or a radio script of 300 words. Each has its own requirements and constraints, and each speaks to different people, and in different ways. Whilst academic history journal articles need solid grounding in existing literature, and often the ‘scaffold’ of referencing and stylistic conventions, pieces for popular publications are often much shorter, punchier, and in a ‘looser’ style.
Some academics find it hard to cross from one to the other, since writing something without referencing it goes against the grain! A colleague also once mentioned to me that they were afraid of mixing styles, and writing for a popular audience, in case it ‘polluted’ their academic writing. I actually think that the opposite is true, and that writing different things in different ways makes for a more rounded author.
I’m sometimes asked how and where to start with writing. The obvious answer is at the beginning, but in fact even that’s not always necessarily true. Whatever I’m writing, I always need a spark of inspiration – usually something I’ve come across in a primary source, or whilst reading a book or article. Often, I find that a single source can be enough to get the creative juices flowing, and it’s important to get that down on paper as soon as possible. Where it might end up in a chapter can be decided later.
When I think about how I write, though, there are certain things that I always try to do. Whatever I’m writing, for example, whether a full article or book chapter, or even a blog post, I always start by making a short list of bullet points, outlining what I think the main arguments of the piece will be. This obviously helps to map out the structure of the work. But I also find, by writing the points as prose, I can actually use them as the launch points for paragraphs or sections. Sometimes even just outlining what you want to argue can be a very good way of getting the writing to flow.
Secondly, I think it’s important to set aside specific time for writing, and to give yourself the space, and environment to do it in. For me, this means turning off social media, email and other distractions. Some people can write in noisy libraries, or with music on, but I need peace and quiet to focus on the task.
Thirdly, I am a strong believer in having a writing target for a day. I am very lucky in generally being able to write quickly, so my own target is usually 1000 words per day. It sounds a lot but is only roughly 2 sides of A4. Once that target is reached, unless it’s really flowing, I often leave it and move on to other things. This is about as close as I get to discipline in my own writing! Indeed, in several other ways my approach is perhaps unorthodox!
For example, I never write drafts. When I begin writing a chapter, I consider it the final version. Although it will naturally be shaped along the way (things are always cut and pasted!), I rarely, if ever, start over again or have different versions of the same. Some people also like to amass all their source materials before starting to write.
The benefits of that approach are manifold. But I have always preferred to write as I research, finding inspiration from the sources that I’ve just worked on and, to a large extent, letting them dictate the shape of the argument. In that sense, although I have a broad idea or theory to begin with, it develops along the way. I’m also a great believer in ‘just’ writing, to see where it can lead. Like so many things, writing needs regular practice in order to maintain the momentum. Sometimes when I’m stuck with my academic work, I make a point of writing a blog post instead, even on a completely different subject, just to keep things ticking over. In fact, one recent blog post actually led directly to an academic article on the same subject.
In the last analysis, writing is a personal preference, and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another. That is why I’m sometimes slightly dubious about the whole ‘writing about writing’ literature, and also loathe to try and give students a prescriptive list of what they should do, beyond general tips. But writing this piece has actually been very enlightening since it’s forced me to reflect on what I do and analyze how I do it…something I’ve never really done. Sometimes the best thing to do, is just…write.
After a rather unsatisfying ten-year career with a major high street bank, I decided to take the plunge and return to study. Having begun studying for my history degree part-time with the Open University, I enrolled at the University of Glamorgan and completed my BA (Hons) there in 2005, writing my undergraduate dissertation on the medical information within a seventeenth-century commonplace book.
Having secured funding from the AHRC, I completed my MA in History at Cardiff University in 2006, and was then funded by a Wellcome Trust prize studentship to study my PhD at Swansea University, which I completed in 2009. My thesis was adapted into my first book “Physick and the Family: Health, medicine and care in Wales, c. 1600-1750”, published in 2011 by Manchester University Press.
After completing my doctorate I returned to the University of Glamorgan in 2010, as a research fellow on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project “Steel in Britain in the Age of Enlightenment”, working with Professor Chris Evans. At the completion of this project, I became a lecturer in History at Swansea University, teaching a range of modules in early modern European history. His blog can be found @https://dralun.wordpress.com/
How I Write as a Historian- By: Penelope J. Corfield
Penelope J Corfield has kindly consented to give me an article on How I Write as a Historian. Her article is divided into nine headings.If quoting please cite Copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)
- Learn to enjoy writing: writing is a craft skill, which can be improved with regular practice. Learn to enjoy it. Bored authors write bored prose. Think carefully about your intended readership, redrafting as you go. Then ask a trusted and stringent critic for a frank assessment. Adjust in the light of critical review – or, if not accepting the critique, clarify/strengthen your original case.
- Have something to say: essential to have a basic message, conferring a vital spark of originality for every assignment. Otherwise, don’t bother. But the full interlocking details of the message will emerge only in course of writing. So it’s ok to begin with working titles for books/chapters/essays/sections and then to finalise them about three-quarters of way through writing process.
- Start with mind-mapping: cudgel brains and think laterally to provide visual overview of all possible aspects of the topic, including themes, debates and sources. This is a good moment for surprise, new thoughts. From that,generate a linear plan, whilst keeping mind-map to hand as reference point. And it’s fine, often essential, to adapt linear plan as writing evolves. As part of starting process, define key terms, to be defined at relevant point in the text.
- Blend discussion of secondary literature seamlessly into analysis: beginners are rightly trained to start with a discrete historiographical survey but,with experience, it’s good to blend exposition into the analysis as it unfolds.Keep readers aware throughout that historians don’t operate in vacuum but debate constantly with fellow historians in their own and previous generations. It’s a process not just of ‘dialogue’ but of complex ‘plurilogue’.
- Interpret primary sources with respect and accuracy: evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of primary sources from the past; be prepared to interpret them but only while treating them with the utmost respect and accuracy. Falsifying data, misquoting sources, or hiding unfavourable evidence are supreme academic sins. Historians are accustomed to write within the constraints of the evidence. That’s their essential discipline. Hence the claim by postmodernist theorists that historians can invent (or uninvent) the past just as they please is not justified. Indeed, if history (the past) was simply ‘what historians write’, there’d be no way of evaluating whether one historian’s arguments are historically more convincing than another’s. And there’d be no means of rebutting (say) Holocaust denial. The challenging task of evaluating, interpreting and knitting together many different forms of evidence from the past, in the light of evolving debates, is the essence of the historian’s practice.
- Expound your case with light and shade: Counteract the risk of monotony by incorporating variety. Can take the form of illustrations; anecdotes; even jokes. Vary choice of words and phrases. Vary sentence lengths. Don’t provide typical academic prose, full of lengthy sentences, stuffed with meandering sub- clauses, all written in densely Latinate terminology. But don’t go to other extreme of all rat-a-tat sub-Hemingway terse Anglo-Saxon texts either. Variety keeps readers interested and gives momentum to an unfolding analysis.
- Know the arguments against your own: advocacy works best not by caricaturing opposite views but by understanding them, in order to refute them successfully. All courtroom lawyers and politicians are well advised to follow this rule too. But no need to focus exclusively on all-out attack against rival views. That way risks making your work become dated, as the debates change.
- Relate the big arguments to your general philosophy of history: Don’t know what that is? Time to decide. If not your lifetime verdict, then at least an interim assessment. Clarify as the analysis unfolds. But again ensure that the general philosophy is shown as informing the unfolding arguments/evidence.It’s not an excuse for suddenly inserting a pre-conceived view.
- Know how to end: Draw threads together and end with a snappy dictum.
Penelope J. Corfield is Historian, lecturer and education consultant: firstname.lastname@example.org Her blog can be found @https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/
Why Do Writers Write ? With Alison Stuart
I know it is hard to imagine, but I was born in a time and a place where there were no computers and very little television. Every Sunday afternoon, my father, would read to me from his favourite books (some of which I have to say were probably not really suitable for young children). Dad loved English history so many of the stories he read us were historical novels and the one that stayed with me and fired my imagination for all time was THE KING’S GENERAL by Daphne Du Maurier. If you don’t know this story it is set in the English Civil War and involves the very real life Sir Richard Grenville.
I was in love… not just with history but in particular with the English Civil War. The romance and tragedy of that terrible war between the King and his Parliament, cavaliers and roundheads, captured my imagination. I kept a scrapbook of articles cut from magazines, I devoured any book or movie I could find set in that period and when I ran out of stories to read, I started writing my own. My best friend at school also loved writing and we would spend our lunch hours perched in the willow tree in our school yard, writing away in shorthand notebooks.
Of course I grew up and life and career and family got in the way of writing but I never lost that urge to write. Over the years I continued to accumulate a library of books about the English Civil War and in my spare time I kept writing the story of my heart (which is now a published novel called BY THE SWORD). Then along came computers and the internet and instant access to resources I could only have dreamed about. I have now published eight novels, six of which are set in the English Civil War.
I studied history (and law) at university so I am, technically, a historian by training, but unfortunately living in Australia, my choice of subjects was limited and thus my qualification is in ancient history! That doesn’t matter… I think if I had pursued my love of the English Civil War in an academic sense, I would have lost my passion to write stories! That doesn’t prevent me writing the occasional ‘academic’ type article and for many years I posted regularly to a blog called Hoydens and Firebrands (it is now archived but you can still find my posts, eg this article on War Crimes during the English Civil War, are still being read regularly).
The books I write are often classified as ‘romance’ because I like my characters to have a happy ever after’ but for me historical accuracy is paramount and it is gratifying when readers comment on the colour and accuracy I bring to the story. I have had a lifetime of absorbing every detail of the period of the English Civil War and I find I don’t need to do much research, but I do go to my favourite books which often have little details I can’t find on line that bring a story to life. For example my book THE KING’S MAN came from a single line in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Cromwell which notes that a ‘Miss Granville’ threw a brick bat at the coach bearing Oliver Cromwell to dine with the Lord Mayor of London. Who was Miss Granville and why was she hurling brick bats at the Lord Protector? I still don’t know the true story (don’t tell me!) but I had fun with a fictional explanation!
I am, however, currently writing a series of historical novels set in Australia in the 1870s and that involves a huge amount of research from techniques of gold mining to what sort of lighting they used. The trick I find is not to get bogged in the research while you are writing. My priority is the story and if I get stuck on a piece of research I don’t know, I write a note to myself to go back and fix it when I come to revise the book.
Now for the practicalities… how do I write? I write all my books using a project management system for writers called Scrivener which enables me to store the research (documents, images and websites) so it is easily accessible to the story I am writing. I don’t really plot my stories – they grow organically from an idea, a character or a situation. There is no right or wrong way and trust me I have tried plotting but it killed the story for me before I even began. Every writer is different and whatever works for the individual is the right way for them.
Award-winning Australian author, Alison Stuart learned her passion from history from her father. She has been writing stories since her teenage years but it was not until 2007 that her first full length novel was published. A past president of the Romance Writers of Australia, Alison has now published seven full length historical romances and a collection of her short stories. Many of her stories have been shortlisted for international awards and BY THE SWORD won the 2008 EPIC Award for Best Historical Romance. If you would like to more about her books her website is http://www.alisonstuart.com
Why I Write, How I Write by Claire Canary
Why I write, How I write by Marcus Rediker
The Poetics of History from Below-Marcus Rediker, September 2010
In memory of Dennis Brutus (1924–2009)
(Marcus Rediker has kindly allowed me to include this article in my series of Why I write ,How I write. It was first published in the American Historical Association website September 10th 2010) The original article can be found @https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/September-2010/the-poetics-of-history-from-below
My grandfather, the late Fred Robertson, influenced how I think about and write history. He died years before I decided to become a historian and he was not an academic, but he was a historian and an intellectual in his own way. He was a master storyteller.
This Kentucky coal miner was a larger-than-life figure in my youth. I fondly remember sitting with him at the kitchen table. In one hard hand he held a Lucky Strike. In the other hand he held a saucer of his beloved Maxwell House coffee, which he sipped that way even when it was no longer hot. In this posture he told endless stories to a boy who sat enthralled amid the pathos, humor, and quiet heroism of working-class life. His mood changed with the story. He laughed with his whole body, like the then-popular comedian Red Skelton, at his own funny parts.
His visage grew dark and scary at moments of danger or injustice. His eyes danced with the drama of his words. I knew something big was coming when he paused, put the cigarette in the ashtray, and set aside the saucer, freeing his hands for emphasis. His stories were vivid, complex, passionate, and somehow always practical. They featured apocalyptic Biblical language (a lot of hell-fire), long silences (with fateful stares), and curse words that were normally forbidden in our house (son-of-a-bitchin’ this and that). He always managed to tell a big story within a little story.
One of the stories I remember best concerned a vigilante hanging of a man in a coal village where he had once worked, Beech Creek, Kentucky.I don’t remember why the man was hanged. Nor do I remember whether he was white or black; I don’t think he told me. I do remember my mother walking into the kitchen, expressing her doubt without saying a word about whether I should be hearing this particular story.
What I remember most of all was how his telling of the story made clear how wrong the hanging was, and how a real-life lynching looked nothing like what we had all seen on television. He described a frantic, terrifying struggle, with legs flailing, ugly cheers from the crowd, and in the end a limp body with dangling eyeballs and wet pants. The storyteller’s sympathy was firmly with the victim, whose deadly ordeal he had made terribly, hauntingly real.
My grandfather, the poetic storyteller, was perhaps the oldest and deepest influence on my life’s choice to write “history from below,” the variety of social history that emerged in the New Left to explore the experiences and history-making power of working people who had long been left out of elite, “top-down” historical narratives. He educated me about the ways of the world and at the same time about the fundamentals of storytelling. He helped me to see and appreciate the poetics of struggle. And he also helped to shape my sense of the art and craft of history. Like all good storytellers from Shakespeare to Brecht, my grandfather was a good listener. He had a canny ear for how people talked; he was attuned to voices, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, adult and child. Even animals sometimes talked in his stories; a touch of Uncle Remus! He spoke metaphorically: a crowd of people might be “as big as Coxey’s army”; something moving fast “took off like Moody’s goose.” I listened and learned about Coxey, but I never could figure out who Moody was or why his goose was in such a hurry.
I remember hearing while I was in graduate school an admonition about archival and primary sources: “Go on reading until you hear voices.” It seemed an exhortation to schizophrenia at the time, but memories of my grandfather helped me to grasp the point: humanize the sources, humanize the story. Learn to listen. And, of course, the recovery of voices has been a central purpose of history from below from the very beginning, but storytellers were way ahead of us.
The people I study did not often speak through documents of their own making, so it is not easy to hear them. This is the classic challenge of history from below, and many good books have addressed it. I listen by paying close attention to the meaning of words. I spend a lot of time looking up chronologically specific meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. As an 18th-century specialist, I am especially fond of the words and meanings to be found in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, compiled by Francis Grose and first published in 1785. In writing Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a study of deep-sea sailors in the first half of the 18th century, I always had those wondrous things called maritime dictionaries close at hand to help me grasp the material conditions, cooperative work, communications, and consciousness of seagoing proletarians. I also paid close attention to sailors’ speech wherever I could find it, and to their own tradition of storytelling, or yarn-spinning. In his brilliant essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explained that historically there have been two main types: the peasant storyteller who had a deep knowledge of locality and its lore, and the sailor storyteller who brought exotic tales from afar. My grandfather was, I suppose, a variant of the former; he helped me to understand the people I studied, the very embodiment of the latter.1
My grandfather chose his words carefully, showing me how a word, a phrase, or a quotation can bring a historical moment to life, even sear it into memory. And what could be more poetic than a note sent by a would-be arsonist to a gentleman in 1830: “My writing is bad but my firing is good my Lord.” One can almost hear the defiant laughter behind the writing. Such words were often speech committed to paper and preserved in the archive of “crime”—always an important place for those who would reconstruct the lives of the expropriated.2
Having heard the power of poetry in stories, I make it a point to use verse as historical evidence wherever possible. For example, poetry is central to The Many-Headed Hydra, a book Peter Linebaugh and I wrote about the motley proletariat of the Atlantic from 1600 to the 1830s. It appears in almost every chapter, some 50 times throughout a book that begins with William Shakespeare (The Tempest) and ends with William Blake (“Tyger, Tyger”). Famous, canonical poets (Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Shelley) rub elbows with largely unknown proletarian poets (Thomas Spence, Joseph Mather, and the ever-scribbling “anonymous,” a preferred female writer’s name for centuries). Contemporary poets such as the Martinican Aimé Césaire appear to summarize themes and ideas, for example, about the serpentine continuities of resistance.
Poetry can get the historian close to the experience and consciousness of working people and can evoke people, places, and events in multidimensional, dynamic ways. Sailor-poet James Field Stanfield crafted memorable, graphic images in his epic poem “The Guinea Voyage” and in his grimly poetic letters about life aboard a slave ship. He described, for example, the second mate of his vessel, lying sick, near death, on the medicine chest, his long hair clotted with filth as it brushed the deck of the ship. He depicted the nightmarish enslavement, flogging, and eventual death of an African woman named Abyeda. Such images can arrest the reader as surely as a surrealist object, disclosing in poetic fashion important connections, relations, parallels, and unities. Christopher Hill once wrote, “Good—imaginative—history is akin to retrospective poetry. It is about life as lived—as much of it as we can recapture.3
Poetry written by workers may be rare, but poetry to be found in action, in resistance by workers, is plentiful; it can be found most everywhere. My grandfather taught me to look for it. To give an example: I discovered a profound one-word poem in a memoir written by Silas Told, a sailor turned Methodist minister who described a drama aboard the slave ship Loyal George in 1727. An enslaved man had decided to die by hunger strike. Captain Timothy Tucker tried to force him to eat. He horse-whipped him to a raw and bloody pulp. He threatened to kill him. The nameless man uttered one word: adomma, so be it. Captain Tucker placed a loaded pistol to his forehead and repeated the demand to eat. Again: adomma. The captain fired and the blood gushed but the man stared him directly in the face and refused to fall. The captain cursed, called for another pistol, and shot the man in the head a second time. Again he would not drop, to the astonishment of all who looked on. A third shot killed the man but by this time an insurrection had exploded among the enslaved, who were inspired by the man’s resistance and outraged by his treatment.
It is impossible to know how many of the hundreds of people who witnessed this incident decided, like Silas Told, to tell the story, punctuated by the word adomma. I suspect many told it, and retold it, in several languages, on plantations, in urban workshops, on docks, and in ships, over many years. The nameless African man gives precise expression to a definition of poetry offered by Ann Lauterbach: “Poetry is the aversion to the assertion of power. Poetry is that which resists dominance.” This is crucial to history from below.4
All good storytellers tell a big story within a little story, and so do all good historians. It can be done in many ways. In my work, the big story has always been the violent, terror-filled rise of capitalism and the many-sided resistance to it from below, whether from the point-of-view of an enslaved African woman trapped in the bowels of a fetid slave ship; a common sailor who mutinied and raised the black flag of piracy aboard a brig on the wide Atlantic; or a runaway former slave who escaped the plantation for a Maroon community in a swamp. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once remarked that the small fact of sheep-stealing speaks to the big issue of revolution because the storyteller (in his case, the ethnographer) finds connections between the two.5
Finally, I remember my grandfather and remind myself that the historian, like the storyteller, is not above the fray. One of the big questions in the Kentucky coal fields in the 1930s was, which side are you on? In that spirit, I try to develop an ethical relationship with the oppressed and exploited people I study. The relationship is imaginary but no less important for that. In writing The Slave Ship, I asked myself repeatedly, from the beginning of the project to the end, how can I do justice to the people aboard the floating dungeons and what they experienced? The answer is to show retrospective solidarity and “accompany” them through their history, to use a term proposed by Staughton Lynd to describe an egalitarian relationship between historians/intellectuals and movements of working people from below.6
Walt Whitman made the same point in Leaves of Grass. He wrote of:
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat;
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck—the murderous buckshot and the bullets;
All these I feel, or am.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen;
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin;
I fall on the weeds and stones;
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close, Taunt my dizzy ears, and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels—I myself become the wounded person;
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
Whitman exaggerates to make a point: he cannot “become” the fugitive, but he can demonstrate sympathetic understanding of the historical subject. As a poet he can join the struggle and convey it to readers. In the end I strive to write history that is vivid, complex, passionate, and practical. I try to make it real and pose questions of justice as I lean on a cane of social and temporal distance and observe. My grandfather would have expected nothing less, dadgummit.
Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. His books have won numerous awards and been translated into fifteen languages. They include (with Peter Linebaugh) The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000); The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007); and most recently The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017). He is also the producer of the prize-winning documentary film Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the 1839 Amistad rebellion in contemporary Sierra Leone. He is currently working as Guest Curator in the JMW Turner gallery at Tate Britain.
- Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in his Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 83–109.
- Quoted in E. P. Thompson, “The Crime of Anonymity,” in Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, and E. P. Thompson, eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 297.
- Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Allen Lane, 1993), 438, 437.
- Ann Lauterbach, “Links Without Links: The Voice of the Turtle,” American Poetry Review 21 (1992), 37–38.
- Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 23.
- Staughton Lynd, “Oral History from Below,” Oral History Review 21 (1993), 1–8.
How I write, Why I write by John Rees
I approach writing pretty much as I approach any public activity. For the longest time, I seem to have woken up in the morning with the thought that there is obviously a lot wrong with the world and that you can either lie on the sofa and ignore it or choose to do something about it. Writing is just one important way of doing something about it.
In terms of how I write I’ve been lucky to have two seemingly contradictory influences. While I was still a teenager, I learnt about Hegelian philosophy, and its formative role in the development of Marx and Engels thought from a convinced Hegelian tutor on my degree course. I went on to research this more deeply and Marx’s early writings, and the works of George Lukacs, Franz Jakubowski, Raya Dunayevskya, and Antonio Labriola, gave me a powerful methodological framework which has been present in everything I’ve ever written, long or short, with or without explicit philosophical content.
Method won’t do all the work for you of course. There is no substitute for intense empirical research. But method will give you a hypothesis, it will help highlight essential facts and clear away inessential material, and it will help you to see important connections and patterns, even when, perhaps especially when, they contradict your initial hypothesis.
The second influence is tabloid journalism. I’ve done a fair amount of writing and copy subbing for left-wing tabloids in my time, and I was lucky to be friends with the late, great journalist Paul Foot including at the time he had a weekly column in the Daily Mirror. From this, I learnt the virtue of brevity, simplicity, and clarity in written work. Any idiot can write long, but it takes real skill to write short. Any over-educated simpleton can use long words, the skill lies in writing transparently. George Orwell’s unsurpassed Politics and the English Language codifies this approach brilliantly. Blaise Pascal encapsulated it in a phrase when he wrote to a friend, ‘I’m sorry to have written you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write you a short one’.
In terms of immediate technique its fairly standard procedure. I read extensively in both primary and secondary sources, where I can reading the secondary sources first. Although in one part of my mind I’m against marking books in operational practice I underline and make marginal notes in books I’m reading. I actually find this very important, and I’m gratified to see from some of Christopher Hill’s books that I own that he did the same, although he was tidier and made page notes in the end flyleaf of the book. This means I end up buying many more books than I can get on the shelves in my study (or afford)! For The Leveller Revolution, I also printed off reams of original pamphlets from Early English Books Online so that I could make notes on them. This also means that I have extensive files broken down into sub files on my PC for any book project.
I also always use a notebook for ideas, formulations, and transcriptions from original documents and books read in libraries. I used to use A4 notebooks but I now always use the steel-edged A5 notebooks from Manufactum. Although I prefer to write book-length projects on my PC, the iPad has revolutionised note taking so now I move between notebook and iPad, which is especially useful for photographing original documents.
By the time I come to write I’ve usually got the argument both as a whole and in its individual chapters clear in my mind. I write a structure for the book as a whole and for the subsections of each chapter as I move through the book. So when I sit down to write, the section headings in each chapter are laid out like bullet points. I then write the sections in sequence, almost like filling in a form. I’m surrounded by books, articles, documents, and open tabs on the computer as this happens. Then I tidy them all away at the end and move on to the next chapter.
When it’s done, I always pay attention to what manuscript readers and subs say about the text, even if I don’t always follow their advice. Everyone is a better writer after they have been subbed. Leo Hollis was a great editor at Verso for The Leveller Revolution. He read it chapter by chapter and kept saying ‘When’s the next sword fight?’. I couldn’t always provide one, but it was a good influence making the text as exciting as it could be whilst also being as scholarly as necessary (I hope).
John Rees is the author of The Leveller Revolution (Verso, 2016) which has just been published in paperback. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London and his previous books include A People’s History of London (Verso, 2012, co-authored with Lindsey German), Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2008), and The Algebra of.Marxism.
How I Write, Why I Write by Susan Margaret Cooper.
How I Write, Why I Write by Simone Hanebaum
This is the second blog article in the series How I Write. I have now included a subtitle which is Why I Write? Simone’s response has already validated that new Question. Not only should these articles give students valuable insight into how to write they will hopefully inspire future generations of students to take up the study of history.
I have wanted to be a historian since my high school history teacher led me to fall in love with history. I profoundly believe that history matters, not only intellectually, or socially, but on a personal level as well. I love the archival work and the detective sleuthing it involves, and eventually, the storytelling, and the sharing of that story, that writing enables. The ways in which I have written have evolved and changed as the requirements of my apprenticeship in the discipline and craft of history has changed over the course of my education.
As an undergraduate with a full course load in Canada, I would often have four large term papers due at the end of the twelve-week semester, which often meant one essay was written with 48 hours of mad reading, frantic writing, and very little sleep before I submitted it bleary-eyed, surrounded by several half-empty coffee cups, and an embarrassing amount of junk food wrappers just in time for the deadline set by my professor. I do not recommend this as a writing system at all, nor do I endorse procrastination as a helpful, sexy habit to develop. What I take away from my youthful mistakes though, is that sometimes you will be faced with deadlines, and whether you have years to write a book or thesis, or a day to hammer out a statement requested of you by the local newspaper on an issue pertinent to your research, you will need to sit down, and Get. It. Done. The Germans call it sitzfleisch, literally ‘sitflesh’ or the buttocks and it denotes the ability to sit down and persevere through the task at hand. It will inevitably be a part of your writing.
It goes without saying that to write anything historical you should have prepared by examining primary sources after archival work and reading a lot of secondary literature – you are not writing ‘fake news’ or Donald Trump’s speeches, so you need facts, you need evidence, and you need to listen to what other historians, are writing. It also prevents the embarrassing situation of thinking you are absolutely brilliant with your discovery of something extraordinary and groundbreaking and realizing that a historian said the same thing a decade before. But similarly, it also illuminates where you have found something brilliant and extraordinary, which should hopefully form the basis of whatever piece you are writing.
So you have your brilliant idea, now what? Write it down. Somewhere, wherever works best for you. I keep a research journal full of my ideas, my notes, my archival trips so that I have this information at hand. I also colour code entries based on what they are, paginate the pages and then create a table of contents elsewhere so I can find these thoughts later. I also write the dates of when I was using a journal since I have accrued multiple journals over the years. I keep my research journal on me most places I go because I do inevitably have an idea when I am trying to fall asleep when I’m in the shower, or when I am mid-conversation with someone (yes, I have stopped talking to jot things down).
You do not have to write your essay in the journal but note your thoughts about a particular source, the questions you have, the outline of the paper, and other ideas you might have. This notebook is also space where I do free writing where I tackle the questions I am still hazy on, or on themes I have not quite wrapped by head around as well. I have not been paid to endorse them, but I love Moleskine’s classical black ruled notebooks to use as my research journals. I am an unashamed stationary nerd, so I love the heavy weight of the paper, and the durability of the spines and covers. The associations with Ernest Hemingway are nice too as I hope in vain that his writing genius will somehow be transported across time to me. I also use a fountain pen to write in my journal. Whether it is Moleskine or a journal with unicorns on it, having good stationary, you love and makes you feel good will always help encourage you to use your notebook.
Once I have my ideas, I create an essay outline that plots what I will discuss and when – it should always have a statement of what my argument is and I try to articulate the larger ‘so what’ questions – why does this matter, why is it important – on it as well. This argument and the particularly questions one may be answering over the course of a larger work, such as an honours thesis or master’s thesis, will act as anchors for your work.
Now the tricky part – the writing. Nothing is harder than getting started. You will clean your room or flat. You will try a new recipe. You will organize your entire wardrobe by colour or alphabetize your wardrobe or discover that it is really time that you worked on your Italian. Productive procrastination has often preceded my writing. Do these things if it will create a space conducive to writing, but it is procrastination. You will need to write. Trying to get started can be crippling, even with a plan.
So I start small. I give myself daily writing goals of 500 words, because it is a small, manageable task and I know it will not take much time to write either. If writing those 500 words is as painful as visiting the dentist, I do not write more and I step away satisfied that I met a goal. But more often than not the ideas and prose start flowing and I write more, and I fall into a rhythm and before you know it I have 700-1000 words and an hour and a half has passed. I often start writing with the contextual information or biographical information because it is incredibly easy to write and helps situate myself, even more than it will eventually situate my reader. Making writing manageable makes it feel far less daunting an endeavour.
Where and when you write can have a huge impact on the writing process. That post-lunch sleepy slump in the afternoon? Forget about it. I tend to write better in the mornings and after that slump has passed. Some people are very nocturnal and prefer writing in the wee hours of the morning – I prefer to be sound asleep by then but knowing your best rhythm that suits your lifestyle will help. Where you feel most productive really helps as well. My success working from home is unreliable at best because I get distracted by Netflix and food so I write, when I have had access to them, in offices, or in libraries. Some people love cafes but the coffees do add up and my inquisitorial nature (okay nosiness – an important trait in the historian) means that I will invariably eavesdrop rather than work on my writing. Some people love the chatter and white noise though and are not as cheap as I am. I throw on motivational music that is instrumental or in foreign languages (mostly so I don’t sing and dance along).
Some instrumental EDM beats can really get my writing going, or I like listening incredible film or television soundtracks like those from Westworld or The Borgias. When I do write from home, I like to write in a good ergonomic chair, and I have invested in a laptop tray that converts to a standing desk when I put it on my desk, or a floor desk when I sit on the floor; I suffer from a great deal of lower back pain so I have to vary the positions in which I write (be careful, this is a career hazard for many of us in sedentary work!). Knowing what sort of environment works best for you will always help. And when I work in libraries, I like having a buddy, usually a colleague, who is also in the process of writing. You can hold each other accountable when Facebook or Reddit are seductive distractions, and writing can be a rather lonely experience.
Having a cohort of friends you can alongside with means you have someone to take a break with, or when they study or work on what you do, you have someone to bounce ideas off of. I also find a cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of red wine or scotch, when appropriate and in excessive amounts for the former two and more modest amounts for the latter two, can help make the writing process much more enjoyable.
Once I have finished writing, I (ideally) step away from it and forget about it for a couple of days. Writing can be an incredibly personal experience. It is hard to make the necessary edits and changes – like making sure you actually have answered your question, that the prose flows properly, or cutting unnecessary material – when you are too close to your text. I often do this by printing out a hard copy of my essay so I can read it better and annotate it, or I read it aloud and listen to how the prose sounds. As a postgraduate student I have also always set deadlines with my supervisors to get writing done. They did not require deadlines, but I did; it is a habitual hangover from my undergraduate days.
Once I have written and revised my writing then it is sent off to my supervisor for comments, or to a peer for feedback, or to a journal’s editorial board, and then promptly celebrated with a reward such as dinner with friends. And then you repeat the process all over again for the next paper, the chapter, the next article, or the next book, or the eventual revisions to come.
Being honest with myself and my writing process ensures that I can write as effectively as possible. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and playing to them can help get words on the page, and allow your creativity and ideas to flourish.
Writing is the easiest when you have passion for what you are writing and when you are driven by the indescribable excitement you feel when you know the argument, where it is going and everything else falls into place. When this happens, usually in an ideal writing location and time, the words just flow and it is incredible how you feel when you know that what you are writing is not only intellectually excellent but also written well. There is no feeling like it, and that is real joy of writing, that marriage between your conceptual ideas and your prose. But it has never been constant in my writing experience; sometimes your main goal is just getting words on the page that bear some semblance to English. And that’s okay too.
Simone Hanebaum, B.A., M.A. (SFU) is a third-year research student at the University of Cambridge working on memory, identity, and monumentality in early modern England, 1550-1650, under the supervision of Dr Alexandra Walsham.
How I write- Gaby Mahlberg