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: Her blog can be found @