Saturday, 21 October 2017

How I write

Gaby Mahlberg is an independent scholar from Berlin. I wrote to her and other leading historians asking them to provide a blog article with the title “ How they write?. Gaby’s was the first reply and has the honour of the first blog post. Hopefully, this stimulates further posts. The purpose of these articles is to provide students with better understanding of the writing process.

The way I write has not changed much since my undergraduate days, although I hope that my arguments have become slightly more sophisticated over the years. Ignoring the advice of most of my lecturers to leave the introduction to the end, I usually begin at the beginning. I need to write the introduction first to get my thoughts straight. Once the introduction is out of the way, the rest usually flows naturally – if I have done the research that is.

When I start on a new project, be it a book, a chapter, a journal article or even a blog post, I usually do all my reading and primary research first. I take extensive notes from primary and secondary sources storing them in my project folder on my computer. If the project is a book I might have a number of subfolders for different chapters and topics to make it easier to locate the notes later. I am currently writing a book on three English republican exiles in Europe: Edmund Ludlow, Henry Neville and Algernon Sidney. So I have a folder for the book as a whole and separate subfolders for each Ludlow, Neville and Sidney. Within the Ludlow, Neville and Sidney subfolders, I have yet more subfolders for primary and secondary sources. The notes on primary sources are grouped together by archive, the notes on secondary sources are listed alphabetically by author surname. In the olden days, I even used a card catalogue to reference the photocopied chapters and articles gathered in my lever arch files. But even I have gone (almost fully) digital now.

Students always want to know how much they should read. Will two books and three articles do for a 1,500-word essay? It depends, I would say, it all depends. The more you read, the better.

Some people think that reading too much will only confuse them, and they are keen to keep things manageable. But the opposite is the case. The more you read, the clearer things get. You will come to see that there are lines of argument that keep repeating themselves. They often follow particular schools of thought and you will be able to group authors and arguments together (Whig, revisionist etc). You will also find that you tend to agree more with one side than with the other, or that both lines of argument have their flaws and a middle way might be the answer (e.g. post-revisionist). Reading more will thus help you to look at the arguments from all angles and give you reassurance that you know what the contested points are.

When I have read enough to have a good sense of what arguments and debates there are on the subject and what the open questions might be, I begin to structure my own argument in my head. Once I know where I want to go with the subject, I put this rough structure of my argument down on paper writing out all my thoughts with brief notes which sources I might want to quote to back it up. (Naturally, for a book I apply this system chapter by chapter. I could never remember the rough outline of an entire book, although even there you need a general idea of what the finished work should look like before you start.)

When I have got this draft outline done, I start to fill in the gaps: I look up the primary and secondary sources I meant to quote, get the quotes and put in the references. Then I usually notice that something does not quite add up or that something is missing and do another round of reading and research until the argument sounds coherent and logical – at least to me. When I am happy with what I have written or, more likely, the submission deadline approaches, I start polishing the piece. This involves supplying missing references, editing and fine-tuning the argument by tweaking little things here and there. Then I go back to the introduction and see if it still fits with the piece I have written, or if, after a number of revisions, I need to rewrite it to make the argument sound.

Once I am happy with the piece, or too exhausted to care, I find a friendly colleague or two to read my first draft, while using the break to detach myself from the text for long enough to go back to it with a fresh look when I get the manuscript back. If there is not enough time until the deadline, or the text I am writing is very short, I might skip the personal peer review, but I will still try to get some distance between me and my writing before I have another final look at it. When I get the comments back and/ or have slept on it I make the final revisions and submit the piece.