Pultizer Prize-Winning Historian T.J. Stiles Talks Writing

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Stiles, who has won Pulitzers for his biographies of Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Custer, talks with Rachel Toor about writing.  Here is a taste of their conversation at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Can you talk about writing history as an independent scholar?

Stiles: Academic books earn not royalties but respect from one’s peers, leading to career advancement. That incentivizes the kind of work that wouldn’t be supported by the commercial book market — and a kind of writing that is aimed at colleagues.

Nonacademic readers should appreciate that, and academics should also understand why their professional, academic work — excellent though it may be — often is not absorbed by the world outside the university. You have to write for the audience you’re trying to reach. Many academic historians would like to find a larger readership, and I think there should be more training in narrative writing in graduate programs.

Working outside the academy, I can write narrative and strive for a literary style, unhampered by the demands of academic discourse. And I can pursue subjects that aren’t of current interest to the profession. (When I was working on Jesse James and Custer, I met a lot of skepticism from academic historians.) The commercial market can limit your topics; but if you can convince a publisher there’s an audience, you can write about whatever interests you.

Why narrative history?

Stiles: Narrative begins with the intent to make the reader want to keep reading. That requires plot. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge defines plot as raising questions in the mind of the reader and delaying the answers.

Academic writing usually lays out the questions and the answers at the outset, then proceeds to demonstrate. Again, that’s fine for its purpose. But it strands a reader alone, without the happy company of mystery and suspense, the crew who sail every plot forward.

Narrative generally centers on characters. Scholarship is concerned with the conditions of humans; literature is concerned with the human condition. Serious nonfiction narrative can be concerned with both, but it’s hard to pull off without individuals who have intentions, carry out actions, and face consequences.

There are other aspects of writing narrative, and of incorporating argument and interpretation, but we always begin with plot and character.

As to why, it’s that narrative is inherently part of the historical enterprise, thanks to the element of time. It’s one reason why many academic historians turn out to be very good writers. By centering on human beings, narrative adds a quality of understanding — a glimpse of the human condition, that central concern of literature. And history has always been considered a branch of literature. There’s no Pulitzer Prize for sociology, after all.

Read the entire interview here.

Stanley Hauerwas on Writing

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Time once named him “America’s Best Theologian.”  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanley Hauerwas talks writing with Rachel Toor.  Here is a taste of the interview:

What does it mean to write “interestingly”?

Hauerwas: Well, trying to help us recover what extraordinary and odd things we believe as Christians — things such as God is to be found in a Palestinian Jew. That is a conviction that calls into question the sentimentalities that are confused with Christianity in the world as we know it. When you take seriously what we believe as Christians, it puts a pressure on how you say what needs to be said. I think that is why some of the greatest theologians — people like John Henry Newman — were also some of the greatest writers of their time.

I still have occasion from time to time to have to read something I wrote in the past that is clear evidence that I did not know how to write. I’ve learned that I think by writing. There is just no substitute for writing over and over again.

I am still not happy with everything I write, but every once in a while I write a sentence I take pleasure in. I tell my graduate students that they must learn to write well, and the way that you learn is by doing. I want them to copy me. I often say I do not want students to make up their own minds. I want them to think like me as well as write like me — only differently. By that I mean they should care about what I care about, but what I care about should force them to find their own voice.

How did you develop as a writer?

Hauerwas: I am a reader. Perhaps undisciplined, but reading makes writing possible. Reading will not necessarily make you a good writer, but it cannot hurt. I’ve learn to write through imitation.

Genre also matters. In particular, I have the opportunity to preach occasionally, and sermons allow me to engage in a rhetoric that I like to think is eloquent. I publish sermons along with more-academic essays because I want to show how they are interrelated. Namely, I try to show how, if you believe that out of all the peoples of the world God chose Israel to be the promised people, you cannot help but write with a difference. That difference, I hope, reflects the glory that is God.

You are known for doing “narrative ethics.” Can you talk about that?

Hauerwas: I was in graduate school at Yale, training to be a Christian ethicist. Both philosophical and theological ethics was focused on decisions allegedly determined and justified by deontological or teleological systems. I was reading Aristotle, for whom the virtues were central. I was also influenced by Iris Murdoch’s claim that decisions are what you do when everything else has been lost. So I focused on character, which, as most novelists will tell you, is captured through a narrative. It is only through stories that we can make sense of the seemingly unrelated events that we call our lives.

I also began to think that practical reason is fundamentally about how we can narrate our lives. Such a narration draws on the contingent facts that make us who we are — I am a Texan. I am a Yalie. I am a Christian.

I was playing around with these ideas when Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue was published — and the rest is history. He made the intuitions with which I was working respectable. Alasdair is a great philosopher who claims me as a friend. I have learned much from him.

There is, of course, a theological side to all this. I believe Christianity is one hell of a story about the way things are, not least being that our very existence is a gift. That is the contingency rightly called “creation.” I was fortunate to have Hans Frei as a teacher. It was from Frei I learned to read Karl Barth, whose work can be read as one long story — long because the story has many subplots.

Your publishing output is astronomical. How do you get so much done?

Hauerwas: I was raised a bricklayer. All I have ever known is work. In my memoir, Hannah’s Child, I tried to describe what it means to come from working-class people and end up in the academy. We lack the manners and gestures of the classes — and it is a class matter — that dominate life in the university. I have been a teacher for over 45 years, which means, given my family background, I have never had to work for a living.

I have tried to do what I have been asked to do. I have written books, but most of my books are collections of essays written because someone asked me to write or lecture about this or that. I bring the essays together to give the impression that they constitute a book. I do not want to be too self-deprecating, because I think I do make some interesting and coherent arguments.

Read the entire interview and Toor’s introduction here.

A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Writing as Thinking

writers+practice+coverJohn Warner is the writer of two recent books on writing: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.  Over at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, Benjamin Murphy, a PhD candidate in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, interviewed Warner.  Here is a taste:

BJM: I want to hear more about the writer’s practice. Could you elaborate on a phrase that comes up in the books a lot. What does the phrase, “Writing as thinking” mean?

JW: To me, the base unit of writing is the idea. And actually, sometimes it’s not even an idea, maybe that’s too strong. It’s a notion—an idea in your brain and you think, this seems true, or this seems interesting. You start there. And the process of writing may reveal other ideas that link to that, or it may enhance that idea; or it may prove that the idea is faulty as far as you can tell. But when we start with an idea, we think through the implications. We follow the chain of thoughts, sometimes bound by logic, but sometimes bound by imagination or surprise. I may be writing on a topic and something from left field comes in and suddenly I see a relationship. I have this idea and I see what confirms or challenges it and head off in a new direction, arriving at the end with an altered idea. When students can do that, they develop a practice. Unfortunately, too much of schooling (as opposed to learning) involves students thinking they have to figure out everything they want to say before they start. In reality, writing is a process of discovery. Saying that “writing is thinking” honors discovery and that each of us has our own view of the world, that we are unique intelligences with unique things to say.

BJM: And I think that connects to another phrase that appears a lot. What do you mean by “reading like a writer”?

JW: Reading like a writer is, for me, the opposite of how many students have been trained to read. They’re accustomed to doing a narrow close reading. Not close reading in the analytical sense, but more like scanning to extract a nugget of information for an exam. That’s what reading often means: finding the pre-determined answer to perform understanding. It’s not a matter of what the text means for a student in particular or about what it might mean in a broad context; just about what information is in a passage according to some abstract state of mind. But reading like a writer considers not raw meaning so much as the creation of meaning—not only what a text means but how and why it means. My graduate degree is an MFA in creative writing, and this approach is built into my origins as a fiction writer. When I read something that blows me away, my first reaction is appreciation; my second reaction is to ask, “OK, how did the book do that?” And my third reaction is usually, “How can I steal that?”

Read the entire interview here.

Early American Historians on the Opinion Page

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Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Yesterday I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in a session at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic devoted to historical writing for popular venues.  The session was titled “Early America on the Opinion Page: Writing Historically-Minded Pieces for Contemporary Audiences.”  (Thanks to Caitlin Fitz of Northwestern University for organizing the event).

I was honored to sit on a roundtable with the following historians:

Jill Lepore (Harvard University and The New Yorker)

Yoni Appelbaum (Senior Editor at The Atlantic)

Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers University and National Book Award finalist)

Gautham Rao (American University)

Lepore, who chaired the session, asked each participant to send her the first few paragraphs of a recent op-ed piece.  She pasted these excerpts into a document and distributed it to the standing-room only crowd.   I chose a piece I wrote last year for The Atlantic. Each member of the roundtable took fifteen minutes to talk about the history behind the piece and offer insights into their own experiences with op-ed and other forms of public writing.

Many of the participants talked about the risks involved in writing for the public in a social media age.  Several of the panelists have received death threats for their public writing. I talked about the difficulty in bringing complexity and nuance to opinion pieces.  My favorite response came from Appelbaum, who encouraged the audience to find a community of friends and family who love and affirm their work in the midst of the inevitable criticism that comes when we write for the public. It was the first time I have ever heard the word “love” invoked in this way at a secular academic history conference.

Lepore and Rao had a really interesting exchange about book reviewing in popular venues.  Rao (a fellow Mets fan by the way!) lamented the fact that magazines and newspapers often choose non-academics or non-historians to review important history books.  Lepore disagreed.  She thought it was a very good idea that non-academics and non-historians reviewed these books because such reviewers are free from the politics of the academy and the historical profession.

Rao responded to the exchange on Twitter:

Lepore ended the session with some advice of her own:

1. “Drive Responsibly”:  Bring your best work and your deep commitment to civic responsibility to the public sphere.  If you don’t write well or make weak arguments you weaken all of our reputations as historians.

2. “Be brave, but don’t be shi..y”

3. “Delight your reader”

And then there was moment.

Inside the Mind of the Literary Editor

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If you write books, Lauren Toor’s interview with literary agent Susan Rabiner is a must read.  They cover the art of making an argument, the practice of narrative history, and the topics that are “hot” right now in trade publishing.

Here is a taste:

Can you define what you mean by narrative?

Rabiner: Sure. You don’t create narrative by simply inserting lots of anecdotes, character portraits, or description. Those features are terrific but are not meant to stand on their own. They are part of a story that creates a kind of tension in the reader — a need to find out where the book is going and how it will add up.

And remember, the story doesn’t have to be a story about people. It can be the story of an idea — how and why we once believed something and now do not. It can be the story of an event that we have been interpreting one way but should be re-examining in a different light.

Read the entire interview here.

Inside the Mind of the Book Editor

What Editors DoIf you have written an academic book or hope to write one soon, you need to read Rachel Toor‘s interview at The Chronicle of Higher Education with Mary Laur and Peter Ginna, the editors of What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing.

Here is a taste:

What are some of the main commonalities that emerged between the different types of publishing that might be of use to academic authors?

Peter: I make the argument in the book that editing has fundamental similarities across categories of publishing. There are real differences between, say, trade and scholarly presses, but for editors at both, the single most important question is: Should I acquire this book? And related to that: Who is the audience for it? And do I know how I can get that audience excited about it? We often need to think about an audience bigger than the one that’s on the author’s mind. That is, the author may be more worried about a tenure committee than about the New York Review of Books.

Editors also ask themselves, What is working with this author going to be like? Do I want to spend a year (or several) bringing this person’s work into print? At one place I worked, some authors were known as “LITS” — “Life is too short.” Most authors are a pleasure to deal with, but either way it’s an intimate relationship. You want the author to be a partner in the publishing process, so how you get along with them is important. Finally, whatever kind of book you’re publishing, editing the text comes down to reading it with loving care and trying to make it the best version of itself it can be.

I have worked with some great editors over the years, including Bob Lockhart, Jana Riess, Cynthia Read, Charles Van Hof, Lisa Ann Cockrel, and David Bratt.  They have all been great. When my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction was picked as one of the three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize, Jana came with us to Mount Vernon for the big awards ceremony!

Read Toor’s entire interview here.

Writing Accessible History

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Maybe if one of my books sold 350,000 copies I would not need to do this

Last summer a group of K-8 history teachers urged me to write a popular biography of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Here is what I wrote back then:

I am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical.  It is published by a university press.  Most bookstores do not carry it.  When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family.  Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.

But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end.  This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.

Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.

Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market.  I am taking their advice seriously.  I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more.  After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.

Stay tuned.  And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.

I thought about this possible project again after I read Elizabeth Elliott’s AHA Today post: “Experiments in Writing History.”  Here is a taste:

Laura Kamoie still receives periodic royalty statements for a book she published over a decade ago—an economic history of the early American Tayloe family, based on her PhD dissertation from the College of William and Mary. She knows that, to date, it has sold 773 copies, an ordinary showing for a first book that might be assigned in a university class once in a while. As for the next work she lists under the publications section of her CV? That one has sold over 350,000 copies. 

The wildly successful America’s First Daughter (2016) is not an academic history but a work of historical fiction. Using “the exact same research process as I did for my dissertation,” Kamoie, along with co-author Stephanie Dray, wrote a novel from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter Patsy. Headlining the jam-packed AHA18 session “Historians Writing Historical Fiction,” Kamoie talked about the ways she finds writing academic history and writing historical fiction similar, arguing that “both attempt to link known facts and try to shape them into some kind of a narrative. Both make historical contributions, and both are meant to generate curiosity about the past.”

Read the entire piece here.

Can You Write “On the Side?”

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Scot McKnight does not think so.  I think I agree with him.

Here is a taste of his recent post at Jesus Creed:

I don’t write “on the side.” Many take up careers, most often as professors or sometimes editors or pastors, with the plan to write “on the side.” Most editors I know struggle, once they become editors, to write on the side. Not enough time, and the best hours of the day already consumed. And most pastors don’t have time, nor the practice, to write on the side. What might surprise many of you is that the vast majority of professors also don’t write “on the side.” Why?

My explanation is simple: writing can’t be done on the side because, as James Vanoosting says it, “Writing is not pedagogy but an epistemology” (160).

In other words, writing is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of being, a modus operandi, a way of breathing and eating and drinking. Better yet, writing is a way of learning, a way of coming to know what someone wants to know, a way of discovering.

Read the entire post here.

Another Piece on Bad Academic Writing

c504f-snoopy-good-writing-is-hard-workOver at The Atlantic, Victoria Clayton wonders why academic writing is so complex.  Here is a taste:

A nonacademic might think the campaign against opaque writing is a no-brainer; of course, researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work. Cynics charge, however, that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example. The main reason, though, may not be as sinister or calculated. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.

Read the entire piece here.

The Writing Grind

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Writing is hard work.  How do writers deal with the grind?

Here is some advice from Helen Sword at Literary Hub:

A PhD student approached me after a writing workshop to recount his tale of woe. “I write these messy, incoherent first drafts,” he lamented. “They’re absolutely awful! Then I have to work on them for hours and hours to bash them into shape. It’s such a frustrating process, and so discouraging. My PhD adviser is a really good writer; she makes it all look so easy. I wish I were more like her.” I didn’t get a chance to interview the student’s supervisor; but if I had, I can guess what she might have told me. Probably something like this: “I write these messy, incoherent first drafts—they’re absolutely awful! Then I have to work on them for hours and hours to bash them into shape. Writing can be a hard and frustrating process, but for the most part, I really enjoy the challenge of honing and polishing my sentences until I get them just right.” Same story, different spin.

Sword has talked to a lot of writers.  These are some of the things that they think about: elegance, concision, structure, voice, identity, clarity, accessibility, vocabulary, syntax, agency, audience, story, “the big picture,” layout, and the “technologies of writing.”

Read the entire piece here.

How Scot McKnight Writes

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Our evangelical readers will know Scot McKnight.  He is a New Testament scholar, a prolific author, the proprietor at the incredibly successful blog Jesus Creed, and the guy who once tried to teach me biblical Greek.

In this post he discusses how he pursues “The Writing Life.”

Here is a taste:

Here’s a good (and typical) day, and it would be every day if my school somehow got the idea that funding a professor to write without teaching would be a good idea, and if they’d point my finger at me when they called forward the one they wanted to assign to The Writing Life.

Until that day, and I’m not waiting on it, I do this when the day permits.

I get up somewhere between 5 and 5:30am, spend some time pottering around the house doing all the things that folks like me do to rev up the engines for the day, like eating breakfast (Greek yogurt), making a cafe latte, saying my prayers and reading the news online, checking on the blog and making sure the tweets are ready for the day. Between 7 and 8am I descend into the bowels of my house (the basement) and get to my desk and work there — with normal breaks and interruptions — until I’m done, usually by 2pm and occasionally not until 3pm. I used to be able to work later, and I spend the rest of my day reading or pottering around.

The Writing Life is about routine, day after day, month after month, year after year, and it takes a decade or more for The Writing Life to make sense and to be natural. If I miss a few days it gets hard to get back into the rhythm, and a week or two away and it takes at least two days to feel comfortable again.

On my off days and in the summer and over breaks I do this every day. The days don’t vary much unless I have coffee with a friend or a luncheon. I’d like to play more golf but I manage that rarely these days. I wonder if my golf game will desert me while my neighbors must wonder what I do in this house all day because nothing seems to be going on from the outside.

Read the entire post here.

How NOT To Write Your Second Book

how-not-to-write-your-second-book-logoThe Junto blog is running a series of posts on this topic featuring some excellent historians. The posts stem from a roundtable presented at the 2017 meeting of the Society for the History of the Early Republic.  It was organized by Emily Controy-Krutz and Jessica Lepler.

Here is a taste of the Conroy-Krutz and Lepler’s introduction to the series:

How do you start a new book that’s on a wildly different topic from your last book? Or written in a different style? And how do you write a book while teaching new preps and serving on committees? What if you’re also raising kids and caring for aging family members? If a book could be articles, shouldit be articles? In a packed conference room on a hot Saturday in July, five incredibly generous, funny, and thoughtful scholars shared their tips and tricks for “How Not to Write Your Second Book,” and the laughter and nods around the room suggested that the comments, questions, and conversation spoke to concerns that are widely shared among mid-career scholars and that had sparked the creation of the SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop (2BWW).

Read the entire roundtable here.

Writing Advice From Alan Jacobs

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From his blog:

1. Find the time of day when you do your best thinking — when your intellectual energy is at its highest — and set that time aside for writing. (If that’s impossible because of work or other responsibilities, then find the best time that’s available to you.) Then preserve that time. Be flexible and generous all the other hours of the day, but be rigid and ruthless about your writing time.

2. Write to think. Don’t try to know where you’re going before you start writing, but write to find out what you think, or find the story you need to tell. Never expect that a particular time-unit of writing will produce a given number of publishable words. You must learn to think of your writing time as a period of discovery, in which you find out what you think, or what images and rhythms tend to emerge from your mind, or where a story seems to want to go. If you focus on discovery, then something worth sharing with others will emerge, in its own way and on its own schedule. But that’s not the kind of thing that can be forced. Allow yourself the freedom to explore.

Writing and Editing Are Two Different Things

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Check out Natalie Houston‘s piece at ProfHacker.  She offers some good writing advice, with the help of Anne Lamott.

A taste:

As Lamott describes it, letting yourself write “a self-indulgent and boring beginning” or a paragaph that is way too long for the total length of the essay frees you from the critical voices sitting on your shoulder:

I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. . . . But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself trust the process — sort of, more or less.

Once you have something — anything — down on the page, it’s easier to return to it for a second draft. But the pressure of deadlines and the ease of revision on the computer means that many writers, particularly students, are not fully comfortable with writing essays in multiple, distinct drafts.

Read the entire post here.

The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

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Check out Danny Funt‘s piece at Columbia Journalism Review titled “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader? In the course of the essay he discusses the reading habits of Adam Gopnik, David Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Traister, E.J. Dionne, among others.

Here is a taste:

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

Read the entire piece here.

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalDan Berger, a history professor at the University of Washington Bothell and the author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Erahas a helpful post up at Black Perspectives with some tips on how to write a book proposal.

Here is a taste:

A good proposal should be sent to multiple presses. While you should not submit the manuscript to multiple publishers simultaneously, it is not a betrayal of confidence to submit proposals to multiple publishers; in fact, it’s in your benefit to do so. The neoliberal university affects publishers as much as any other part of the academy. Editors are overworked and expected to do more with less while navigating legions of anxious junior (and senior) scholars eager to find a home for their work. Interest from one press is perhaps the only surefire thing that can get another press to get back to you if they have not already. In sending your proposal to multiple presses, you may want to make some superficial adjustments to the proposal. For instance, if you are interested in a particular series that a publisher has, you might work the themes and concepts of the series into your proposal in a deliberate fashion. However, since the proposal is introducing the book, it should be able to stand alone across multiple submissions without much tailored revision.

When I was finishing the proposal for Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, I devised a three-tiered list. Each tier had four or five presses in it. My plan was to send out the proposal to all of the presses in the group and see what happened; if no one in tier one was interested, then I would send it to tier two, and so on. I developed my list with equal parts reason and emotion: I talked with friends and mentors about it, and I scoured my bookshelves to see who had published books I was excited by or which bore significant tie in to some of the themes of my own book. I was fortunate to have interest from three of my tier-one list, so I didn’t need to keep sending it out. But having that list made me feel confident that I would publish the book somewhere, that I had other options if my top choices did not pan out. And the process of creating the tiers also helped me decide which press to go with when I had interest from multiple places. The other factor that helped me decide was gauging excitement for the project from different presses; when decision time came, I went with the press that seemed to best understand what I was doing with my book and shared my vision of what it could be.

Read the entire post here.

Yet Another Jill Lepore Interview

2116c-leporestoryYou may recall this post from yesterday.

Today we offer a new Jill Lepore interview post.

B.R. Cohen of Public Books interviews Lepore about “the challenge of explaining things.”

Here is a taste:

BRC: As we talk about the historical trajectory of such things, of how things change and develop, I have a corollary question. How can we write about history in ways that don’t come off sounding like what I think of as a tired mode: the academic translating obscure scholarship in smaller words and shorter sentences and calling that “writing for a broader audience.” You don’t take that approach. Did you evolve away from it early in your career? Or did you always know you would produce public (not just academic) commentary?

JL: I only ever wanted to be a writer. I love history, and I especially love teaching history, but I never intended to become an academic, and I’m baffled by the idea that reaching a wider audience involves using smaller words, as if there’s some inverse correlation between the size of your audience and of your vocabulary. You don’t talk about, say, technological determinism to a freshman the same way you talk about it to a colleague, right? Is it easier to talk to a freshman? No, it’s harder. Is it more important to give that student a clear explanation of the concept than it is to chat with your colleague about it? I think so, though I suppose that’s debatable. I love the challenge of explaining things to other people, in the same way that I love other people explaining things to me. I love being a student. Nothing is so thrilling as diving into scholarship I’ve never encountered before and trying to get my bearings, learning what so many scholars have been piecing together over a very long period of time, and trying to figure out how to bring that learning to bear on a problem that I, like a lot of people both inside and outside the academy, happen to be struggling with. The hitch is getting the scholarship right. I always worry I’ve missed something, or distorted something, or failed to understand the big picture. That’s the downside: missing something crucial. Nothing is more concerning, or more discouraging, than getting something wrong; there’s no real way to right it. It’s horrible; it kills me.

Read the entire interview here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalOver at Black Perspectives, Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa interviews Dawn Durante of the University of Illinois Press about how to write a book proposal for a university press.

Durante acquires books in Asian-American history, Latino History in the Midwest, Black Studies, Digital Humanities, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Keisha N. Blain: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the process of writing the book proposal?

Dawn Durante: In my opinion, the major misconception about the purpose of the book proposal is that it is solely for the benefit of an editor or a publisher to gauge interest in the book project. Proposals can be a much more valuable tool that serve authors better when drafted well before the point of contacting an editor. I often get asked about when the right time is to be thinking about a book proposal. An author should begin crafting a proposal as soon as they are beginning to develop the book. When a scholar is preparing a proposal for a press, they must articulate key arguments, audiences, and lay out the framework and arc of the book. Many of these issues are aspects authors are thinking through (or should be thinking through) from the very conception of the project. For instance, if someone has not thought deliberately about the key stakeholders and most likely audience for the project prior to the proposal, then how has the book’s organization and writing style been appropriately designed and implemented? A proposal constructed at an early juncture can serve as a guide for the writing process and should be refined up until the point it is submitted to an editor. I have encountered authors who are hesitant to invest time in a proposal early on given all the competing commitments scholars have to deal with, and I certainly understand that. However, having a well-thought-out proposal on hand can be useful for a variety of job, grant, or fellowship applications, and more importantly, a fully conceived proposal can be a beneficial roadmap for an author from the very beginning of their project’s development.

Read the entire interview here.