Liz Covart on "Writing History for the Public"

Liz Covart, who is serving as a correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend at the AHA, shared her thoughts on Writing History for the Public,” (Friday, January 3, 8:30-10:00am).  Enjoy!  –JF
On Friday January 3, 2014, I sat in on “Writing History for the Public,” a roundtable panel sponsored by the Goldberg Center at The Ohio State University.  The panelists included Brian Balogh (University of Virginia), Steve Conn (Ohio State University), Allen Mikaelian, Editor of Perspectives and Ph.D. Candidate at American University,  Professor of Journalism David Paul Nord (Indiana University), Jonathan L. Zimmerman (New York University), Literary Agent Wendy Strothman of the Strothman Agency, LLC, and panel chair Nicholas Breyfogle (Ohio State University). Each panelist offered their thoughts on the role historians play, or should play, in writing works of history for a public audiences.
 Biggest Takeaways: Historians have a duty to write for a public audience. To write for a public audience, historians need to be concise, know their audience, and contextualize their work with “obvious-to-them” facts that they often overlook.
Steve Conn believes that as a guild, historians do not yet understand the role of public historians or where they fit into the profession. He also sees a “problem of mismatch.” Graduate students spend most of their training learning how to be research- and monograph-driven scholars, skills that they spend the least time using after they graduate and find jobs. Conn noted that even tenured professors spend more time teaching and working on search committees than they do working as researchers and writers.
Conn believes the profession needs to think about the mismatch between historical training and history-job reality and how the guild wants to define public history so graduate programs can continue to produce highly-trained graduates that actually meet the demands of the jobs that are available for them. Conn would also like to see graduate departments add training programs that teach graduate students how to be more publicly engaged historians, which would have the benefit of the graduates promoting the profession to the public.
David Paul Nord enjoys the challenge of trying to figure out how to link journalism and history in writing. A trained historian, Nord became a journalist after graduation. Nord pointed out that not all popular history writing shares a connection to journalism; many biographers are not journalists. To illustrate the connections between history and journalism, Nord handed out two short essays, “The Radicalism of Lincoln’s 10 percent Plan” by Richard Striner and “The Great War’s Ominous Echoes” by Margaret Macmillan.
According to Nord, the Striner essay represents an example of “Journalistic History,” an essay that explains a historical problem to readers, in this case whether Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan was too lenient towards southerners. Journalistic History essays have no journalistic function, but are pieces of history written in short form. Nord drew the audience’s attention to the first two paragraphs: the first contains the opening or “lead” (also spelled “lede”), which establishes the main idea of the story for the reader. The second paragraph presented the “nut graph,” which explains the news value of the story. In this example the nut graph starts with the “But what the radicals failed to prove…”
In contrast to the Striner essay, Macmillan’s article stands as an example of “Historical Journalism,” an essay that uses the past to explain a contemporary news story. Macmillan used the lessons of World War I to discuss present-day politics and policies. Like the Striner piece, the Macmillan article also has a lead and a nut graph. The first two paragraphs of Macmillan’s article establish the lede. The third paragraph contains the nut graph, which like Striner’s piece begins with “But.”
Nord concluded his remarks by discussing audience. Audience is key. Whenever you write, you should write for readers who like history. Readers who like history want you to teach them something new; readers who don’t like history either won’t buy your book or they will flip to the next page of their newspapers. It is Nord’s opinion that saying something new and important about history is more crucial than writing accessibly.
Allen Mikaelian discussed the job market. The AHA surveyed 2,500 people with history Ph.D.s and found that only 8 of those Ph.D. holders considered themselves to be writers or journalists.  Mikaelian found this result surprising as he sees writing and journalism as a natural job market for graduates of traditional history programs.
Mikaelian questioned why so few history program graduates sought careers in writing and journalism. He wondered whether graduates were self-selecting or whether graduates found careers in journalism hard to come by without formal journalistic training. (During the Q & A, a freelance journalist and historian pointed out that like historians, journalists are in the midst of drastic change to their profession.)
Mikaelian concluded by offering the idea that some history graduates could turn to ghost writing. Ghost writing is perfect work for historians because ghost writers need to be part writer, part oral historian, part analytical thinker, and part historian to get at, present, and contextualize another person’s story. Mikaelian emphasized that while most ghost written stories do not become best sellers, they are important because they could be used as primary source documents by historians in the future.
Jonathan L. Zimmerman considered what scholars at earlier AHA events would have thought about public history and his panel. He believes the question of historian engagement with public history would have confounded them. Twenty to twenty-five years ago there was no “public history,” because every historian believed that they had a duty to the public. To make his point, Zimmerman read from Carl Becker’s 1931 address to the American Historical Association, “Everyman His Own Historian.”
Becker believed that historians had to help everyone find the truth because historians would alienate themselves if they did not help. Zimmerman also reminded the audience of Becker’s point that “The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.” Zimmerman called on historians to remember Becker’s pleas and re-enter public life.
Zimmerman believes that the New Social History stands responsible for turning historians away from the public. The New Social History is a people’s history that the people don’t read even though historians of that school have produced a great amount of scholarship. So what history do people read? “Barnes & Noble” history. Many of these books do not pass muster with historians, but even when they do, as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom did, many historians look down upon their colleague for having written a work that appeals to the masses.
Zimmerman concluded by reminding the audience that writing for the public is an imperative of our job. He stated that this is especially true for most historians as most of us will find jobs outside of the academy. As for those who do find jobs within the academy, Zimmerman urged them to teach their students that they should write for and reach out to a public audience.
Wendy Strothman spent ten years at the University of Chicago Press and seven years at Houghton Mifflin. In 2002, she left Houghton Mifflin to start a literary agency that works with scholars who would like to engage with a public audience. Strothman noted that many scholars find it challenging to write for a broad audience. When she sees scholars struggling with how to present good ideas, she tells them to read the introduction to Adam Hothschild’s books because he does a good job of addressing the “so what?” question.
Strothman emphasized the curiosity of the public. Academic historians need to think differently in order to write for the public and satisfy their curiosity. Historians need to clearly explain what is exciting about their research in order to hook non-academic readers. Strothman also explained that trade readers (readers who buy “Barnes & Noble” history books) want historians to write about characters or questions. If you do not have characters that your readers can follow throughout your book, you had better have a central question. Additionally, trade readers want suspense. Strothman finds Dan Brown to be a lousy writer, but he sells books because he is a master of suspense. Brown leaves his readers hanging and wanting more at the end of every chapter. (I recently attended a writing class with Steve Almond who said the same about Brown.) Finally, trade readers want to be transported back in time. They want to know what historical places looked like, smelled like, and tasted like. Strothman urged historians to bring some of these details into their books and reminded them that doing so adds to rather than compromises the historical context of the scene.
In addition to being a history professor at the University of Virginia, Brian Balogh is the co-host of a radio program called “Back Story with the American History Guys.” Working the airwaves has shown Balogh how important it is for historians to be concise. Just like radio listeners, readers consume history and books in small doses.
Balogh shared a clip from his radio program to emphasize the necessity of being concise. After presenting his program segment, Balogh analyzed it and shared his secret for how historians can be concise. Historians should begin their writing projects with a central question. This central question will drive their writing and keep it focused because you will concentrate on how to answer that one question.
Balogh’s radio work has also shown him the importance of collaboration. Historians who work together will be able to help each other figure out how to write and present information to the public. Balogh also noted that historians should work with non-historians. He and his co-hosts Ed Ayers and Peter Onuf work closely with their producers who do not have history degrees. He values the producers’ input as it provides valuable insight on how the three historians can better present complicated history to the masses.
Amazingly, the six panelists presented all of that fantastic information in just about one hour. This left time for a Question and Answer period that brought out a few more useful ideas that historians should note when they write for the public. Here are some highlights:
Historians need to think about their readers. Authors need to know who their audience is. When historians understand their audience they will find it easier to write works that discuss complicated historical phenomena and provoke their readers to think. The process of writing will be easier too because the historian will understand how their audience wants to read about their historical findings, which often differs from the way a historian would like to tell the world about their research.
Mary Jo Binker, Editor with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project offered a practical tip for historians who need to better understand their audience: Write with one reader in mind. She writes for her son. Whenever she wonders whether a fact or event should go into her writing, or when her explanation goes too long, she wonders whether her son would find her information interesting and read it. This also helps her stay concise.
Finally, historians need to realize that the “obvious” is not always obvious to their readers. Historians need to take the time to provide context for the people, places, and events they mention. Doing so will help their readers better understand and appreciate the history that they read.

3 thoughts on “Liz Covart on "Writing History for the Public"

  1. Per a discussion that is threatening to break out at the USIH blog, a “public” intellectual isn't content to write for his pals who mostly agree with him/her.

    A public intellectual puts herself out there. In public.

    I don't quite know what a “public” historian is, though. Howard Zinn, perhaps, although Zinnism is more a religion or a polemic or a cause than genuine scholarship.

    This Fea fellow is pretty good, as long as he allows his public to nag him back from his lefty pals now & again.


Comments are closed.