Thursday, 15 March 2018
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)
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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’.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Know how to end: Draw threads together and end with a snappy dictum.
Penelope J. Corfield is Historian, lecturer and education consultant: email@example.com Her blog can be found @https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/