On Writing Your Second History Book

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Benjamin Park, an early American historian who teaches at Sam Houston State University in Texas, has live-tweeted a great session from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) on how to go about writing a second book.

For most academic historians, their first book is a revised version of their dissertation. Much of the research and writing for the first book is accomplished during graduate school. (Although revisions are always necessary for turning a dissertation into a book). Second books, however, are usually written under different circumstances.  Graduate students become faculty members and their lives change.  They have to prepare lectures, attend meetings, and, for some, take on the responsibilities of family life.  Writing that second book become a lot more difficult when one’s attention is pulled in so many different directions.

The members of the panel:

Kathleen DuVal of UNC-Chapel Hill

Paul Erickson of the American Antiquarian Society

Timothy Mennell, University of Chicago Press

Tamara Plakins Thornton, University at Buffalo

Catherine Kelly, University of Oklahoma

As I read Ben’s tweets I once again realized how different my career has been when compared to the traditional career trajectory (or at least the one that is considered normal among people who attend SHEAR) in the profession.

Here are some of Park’s post

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 and Publish an Op-Ed

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History Communicators has posted a piece on writing op-eds by Nicole Hemmer of the University of Virginia. It is worth your time.

Here is a taste:

So you want to write an op-ed. And you should! As a scholar, you have a vast expertise that extends well beyond the subject of the books and articles that you’ve written. Whether you’re pitching a piece to the new history section at the Washington Post or to any newspaper, magazine, or news website, here’s some general advice to help you navigate the unfamiliar terrain of op-ed writing.

The first thing is that the old op-ed genre is being transformed. For print publications, writers are still limited to somewhere between 700-900 words (generally; there are exceptions) but so many established places like the Washington Post, New York Times, the Atlantic, New Republic, and Politico have online spaces that allow for longer, more in-depth pieces.

There’s also more of an appetite for history writing than there used to be. When I was a fellow at the Miller Center in 2008, the person who taught me the art of op-ed writing cautioned against anything more than a dollop of history in any op-ed. Probably good advice for academics, who like to overexplain, but think about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which was essentially an extended historiography essay, or Mason William’s brilliant piece for the Atlantic, “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble.” Loads of history in both.

All of which is to say that there’s more freedom and innovation in the genre of argument-driven, analytical writing than there used to be.

Still, the op-ed genre requires some things we don’t do as much in scholarly writing. First, brevity. If you can’t make your argument in around 800-900 words, you either need to recast the argument or rethink how you’re making it. Editors will often allow you more words if you’re publishing online, but it’s worth mastering the discipline of short-length writing.

Brevity also extends to sentence and paragraph length. That means fewer examples (pick one stellar one rather than three). It also means less hedging. You can certainly qualify statements, but don’t get too in the weeds. It helps to step back and think about it from the perspective of your audience: it’s less about what you know and more about what they need to know in order to follow your argument.

And speaking of arguments: they’re absolutely essential. Op-eds are a persuasive form of writing. Just because something’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s enough to hang an op-ed on. Sometimes you can write your way to an argument; I usually talk or text my way to them, to the annoyance of my friends. But once you have that — that one line that explains why conventional wisdom is wrong or why history is essential for understanding some contemporary development — then you’re good to go.

Structurally, that sentence will appear in what is called the “nut graf.” Most op-eds will have a short paragraph, occasionally two, that set up the piece, and then the nut graf: the paragraph that lays out your argument. Then the rest of the piece is about developing that argument — again, as briefly and as tightly as you can get away with.

Read the rest here.

The Oxford Comma Has An Online Dating Profile

CommaI always use the Oxford comma, so I appreciated Molly Collins‘s piece at McSweeney’s. Here’s a taste:

Full Name: Oxford Stanford Comma
Nickname (s): Real, slim, and shady
Age: Debated
Height: 12 pt.
Body Type: Curvy
Occupation: Point of Clarification
Seeking: Adjectives, verbs, and participles within a 0.1-centimeter radius.

About Me

I recently moved to this paragraph, so I don’t know any punctuation here. I’ve got a sequence of esteemed, beloved, and admirable attributes. In my previous clause, I was heralded as staunch, stout, and necessary. I’m one with which to have a good, great, and grand time, and I’m in touch with my wants, needs, and emotions, and I’m not afraid to get declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory for a pretty, prim, and proper part of speech. I need a babe, baby, or bae that likes to tour, travel, and trip to exotic locales, locations, and luxurious destinations and even fancies the quainter quests, like hanging out On the Banks of Plum Creek, cuddling on the side of a Cold Mountain, and forgiving me for getting her Lost in Tokyo.

Read the entire thing here.

Do Universities “Police the Imagination?”

RisingMadison Smartt Bell, an English professor at Goucher College, a writer, and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins his Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Policing the Imagination” with this story:

In the latest issue of Write, a publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, its then-editor, Hal Niedzviecki, argued that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and to write about them. There was an immediate outcry from other contributors and union members. The union apologized for what Niedzviecki had published. Niedzviecki resigned as editor. Newscoverage made it clear that he had effectively been convicted of disbelief in the concept of “cultural appropriation,” which in the view of his accusers amounts to a form of heresy.

The identity politics informing this scandal and other recent and similar episodes (such as the novelist Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year) date back to the 1990s. Since then, an unwritten rule prohibiting a member of a particular identity group from speaking as if from within the experience of another identity group has gained power, and nowadays it is often very loudly and stringently enforced. A kind of silencing ensues from the enforcement.

He then describes, as a white male, how he has spent his entire career writing fiction from the point of view of African Americans and Haitians.

He concludes with his thoughts on liberal arts education:

…an essential goal of liberal-arts education is to broaden the views of students and improve their capacity for empathy by exposing them to kinds of people different from their kind. A great deal of that work used to be accomplished by reading imaginative literature under the umbrella of the now-rapidly dwindling English major. Now that so many students would rather write than read, it’s incumbent upon us as teaching writers to get the same job done.

Writing isn’t only about self-expression, I argue. It’s about imagining the lives of others and representing them in a convincing way. So you, students, are encouraged to think and write outside your identity group’s comfort zone. If you bring us Tonto, you can expect to be reproached for that. But if you research and learn in good faith, if you imagine in good faith, if you compose with enough artistry and conviction, you might bring us back something that enlarges our view of the world and the people in it, even as it expands your own.

To make that happen, I tell the students, requires a community of trust — but we don’t automatically have that now, when we have just convened our group for the first time. Now is when we have to start building it — right now, without delay.

So far I’ve been able to get that approach to work in my classroom … but maybe it’s not such an accomplishment to create the necessary community spirit in a group of 15 young people who already share a number of good intentions. Outside the academy, the stakes are much higher. If there was ever such a community of trust in the American national discourse, it is a shame that we have lost it, and we need to get it back. We need to abandon the fortified positions into which identity politics has forced us, and find a way to make ourselves not only heard, but understood, across the chasms that divide us.

So I wonder how this works in the history classroom?  I think it is fair to say that even though I am not a scholar of American slavery, I know more about slavery than nearly all of my students.  Does this mean I am not in a position to teach about the subject?  I don’t think any historian would say this, but it does seem to be the logical end of the kind of identity politics Bell is talking about here.

I want my students–all of them–to be able to see the world from the perspective of someone who is different.  As Bell puts it, I want to “broaden their capacity for empathy.” Sometimes this requires an act of the imagination.  I want my white students to engage deeply with the story of slavery in seventeenth-century Virginia, the life of Frederick Douglass, the plight of 19th-century African American Philadelphia businessman James Forten, and the sorrow of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

I want my male students to encounter the boldness of Anne Hutchinson.  I want to expose them to the late 18th-century female community on the Maine frontier that was cultivated by the midwife Martha Ballard.  I want them to understand colonial America from the perspective of “Good Wives” and see the American Revolution through the eyes of Judith Sargent Murray or Phillis Wheatley.

I want my African American students to understand Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson on their own terms, not through some kind of twenty-first century grid that makes them one-dimensional characters that lack complexity.  The same could be said about Western Civilization more broadly.

I do all of this not primarily because I think the ideas of these men and women are right or wrong, but because the encounter with their voices and their stories forces students to think in a more nuanced way about these historical figures–a way that recognizes their humanity and their brokenness.  This kind of reflection might even help my students to reflect more deeply on the social and cultural issues that they believe to be important in their everyday lives as they seek to live justly in this world.

How Does Annette Gordon-Reed Write?

86d77-hemingsesShe is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and she was a guest on episode of eight of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

And have I mentioned that she gave the 2012 American Democracy Lecture at Messiah College?

Over at “Writing Routines,” Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University tells us how she writes.

Here is a taste of her interview:

Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?

I am a morning person, so I prefer to work in the morning. I am at my best writing between 6AM and noon. Things begin to deteriorate after that. The afternoon hours are not so great. I can start back up again around 7PM or so.

What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?

I start off all serious writing with pen or pencil and paper. I also say out loud what I am writing. I sometimes dictate. It is very difficult for me to start out writing on a computer. Once I have the flow going very well, I transfer what I have written onto the computer. Then I can keep writing and editing.

Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?

I prefer silence because, as I said, I am talking as I’m writing. I only want to hear what I am saying.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?

I listen to music and I straighten things up around where I’m going to be writing.

How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?

Oh, there is no set amount. It depends on where I am in the writing process. I would say most of it sees the light of day. I don’t move onto the next thing until I’m satisfied with the pages I have written. It is very unlikely that I will have written, say, a chapter, and then throw it out and start all over. I do not proceed until I’m satisfied with what I have done.

Read the entire interview 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.

What Are You Working On?

Troubled RefugeAcademic historians often ask this question of other academic historians.  Sometimes when a person asks this question at a social gathering they are sincerely curious about the other person’s work.  Other times this question is something akin to “nice weather we have been having….” The later folks really do not care what the heck you are “working on,” but they need to keep the conversation going until they can figure out a legitimate reason to slip away to another awkward conversation.

Every historian must have an answer to this question.  If you do not have an answer, you will send a message that you are lazy, not a good historian, or have no interest in contributing to your field.

Chandra Manning rightly rejects everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph.

Manning teaches history at Georgetown University.  Some of you may remember that she visited The Author’s Corner last September to talk about her book Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War.

Here is a taste of her Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “On Not Writing a Book Right Now.”

I am in an asterisk moment right now — which would hardly be worth wasting ink on, except that I suspect I am not alone. I certainly thought I was aberrational in that regard, until three or four people asked what I was working and I jokingly replied, “I think I’ll write an essay about not working on anything right now.” Their vigorous agreement suggested that such an essay might serve a worthwhile purpose.

First things first: The premise of “not working on anything” contains the assumption that the only type of project that really counts is a book project. I am “working on” plenty of things. It is just that none of them are destined for two hard covers with my name on the title page and a Library of Congress E-Four-Fifty-Something call number on the spine.

For the past two years, I have been on faculty leave and employed in a staff position, where I write every day on all sorts of topics, in various formats — none of which go out under my own name, but all of which help keep the writing muscle memory reasonably fit.

Meanwhile, a lot of what I “work on” every day has nothing to do with writing at all, but instead has to do with life — that is, with caring for my two sons on the autism spectrum. Other scholars might not spend the same amount of time teaching their children basic life skills, hanging out at various kid events in case of meltdowns, restoring calm when things go disastrously wrong, or navigating school and insurance bureaucracies as I do, but everyone’s life presents challenges that can be hard to reconcile with scholarly life as we envisioned it back in graduate school.

That gulf — between our expectation of uninterrupted erudite productivity and our various lived realities — can feel a lot like failure. But is it? Now, I firmly believe that bona fide failure serves a necessary purpose in life, but that is a subject for another day. Being without a book project isn’t necessarily a failure.

I propose a different explanation: The problem isn’t that we’re failing to meet our writing expectations; the problem is the expectations themselves. Yes, scholars should write books. I am all for good books and high standards. But the idea that a scholar should always be writing a book is flawed.

Read the entire piece here.

Manning is consistent.  Here is a taste of her Author’s Corner interview:

JF: What is your next project?

CM: I am not sure. Troubled Refuge was a very difficult book to write on many levels, and it drained me dry. It will take awhile for the well to refill, especially because there are some either things that need my presence and attention right now. What comes next could be completely different.

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 Robert Caro Writes

CaroMost historians spend their careers jumping from topic to topic.  They finish a book on one subject and then move on to something different.  Perhaps they stay within their general area of expertise, but they seldom spend their entire life working on the same project.

That is why I am so fascinated by the career of writer Robert Caro.  After he won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for The Power Brokera biography of New York developer Robert Moses, he spent the rest of his career writing about Lyndon B. Johnson.  He won a second Pulitzer in 2002 for Master of the Senatethe third book in his projected five-volume biography of Johnson.  He is currently at work on volume five.

Over at the Paris Review, Caro talks about his career, Lyndon Johnson, and how he writes.  Here is a taste:

INTERVIEWER:

How do you research a subject?

CARO:

First you read the books on the subject, then you go to the big news­papers, and all the magazines—Newsweek, Life, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, then you go to the newspapers from the little towns. If something appeared there, you want to see how it’s ­covered in the weekly newspaper.

Then the next thing you do is the documents. There’s the Lyndon Johnson papers, but also the papers of everyone else—Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—whom he dealt with. Or for The Power Broker, Al Smith’s papers, the Herbert Lehman papers, the Harriman papers, the La Guardia papers. But to stick with Johnson, the LBJ Presidential Library is just massive. The last time I was there, they had forty-four million pieces of paper. These shelves go back, like, a hundred feet. And there are four floors of these red buckram boxes. His congressional papers run 144 linear feet. Which is 349 boxes. A  box can hold eight hundred pages. I was able to go through all of those, though it took a long, long time. This was when we were living in Texas for three years. Ina and I were spending five and a half days a week, typically, at the library. 

The presidency is different. There’s no hope of reading it all. You’d need several lifetimes. But you want to try to do as much as possible, because you never know what you will find. You have to rely on all of the cross-­referencing that the archivists have done. If it’s something really important, like a civil rights file, from 1964, 1965, or voting rights, you want to see everything. So I called for everything. But other­wise, you know you’re not seeing even a substantial percentage. You hope you’re seeing everything that really matters, but you always have this feeling, What’s in the rest?

So that’s the first three steps—the books, the newspapers and magazines, the documents. Then come the interviews. You try and find everybody who is alive who dealt with Johnson in any way in this period. Some people you interview over and over. There was this Johnson speechwriter, Horace Busby. I interviewed him twenty-two times. These were the formal interviews. We also had a lot of informal telephone chats. Once, he had a stroke. After he got better, he wrote Ina—he had a crush on Ina—“All I could think of when I went into the hospital was, ‘This will be hard on Robert, nobody else can tell him about the vice presidency.’ ” I came to love Buzz. But none of this is enough. You have to ask yourself, Are you making the reader see the scene? And that means, Can you see the scene? You look at so many books, and it seems like all the writer cares about is getting the facts in. But the facts alone aren’t enough.

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.

“And then the murders began”

I recently ran across this great tweet from writer Marc Laidlaw:

So I thought I would have some fun with it.

“John Erickson sits at a table in his home in Crawford, Nebraska, on a chilly March 2015 morning.  And then the murders began.”  The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

“Every fall I walk into a large lecture hall filled with students for the first day of History 141: United States History Survey to 1865.  And then the murders began.”  –Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

“During the week of June 11, 2007, four thousand Christians converged on Williamsburg, Virginia, to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown–the first successful English colony in North America.  And then the murders began.”–Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction

“On the morning of Friday, July 16, 1773, Philip Vickers Fithian awoke early and traveled from his Greenwich, New Jersey, house across the Cohansey to Fairfield.  And then the murders began.”  –The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America.

HT: Jonathan Wilson

The Intellectual Life–Part 9

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.199: You must write throughout the whole of your intellectual life

p.201: I have said that the art of writing requires lone and early application and that this gradually becomes a mental habit and constitutes what is called style.

p.208: Strive to write in the form that is inevitable, given the precise thought or the exact feeling that you have to express.  Aim at being understood by all…

p.209: …all creative work requires detachment. Our obsessing personality must be put aside, the world must be forgotten.  When one is thinking of truth, can one allow one’s attention to be turned from it by self.

p.213: We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by fear of what people will say; we must beware of yielding to the pressure of a spirit of cowardly conformity which proclaims itself everybody’s friend in the hope that everybody will obligingly return the compliment.

p.214-15: Seated at your writing table and in the solitude in which God speaks to the heart, you should listen as a child listens and write as a child speaks.

p.219: Sometimes it is good to stop for a while, when  one does not see the right succession of ideals and is exposed to the grave danger of making artificial transitions.

p. 220: But you most normal stimulant is courage.  Courage is sustained, not only be prayer, but by calling up anew a vision of the goal….Keep you eyes on its completion and that vision will give you fresh courage.

p.220: You must not yield to the first sense of fatigue; you must push on; you must force the inner energy to reveal itself.

p.228: You who have a sacred call, make up your mind to be faithful.  There is a law within you, let it be obeyed.  You have said: “I will do this.”

Historians and Money

History podcaster extraordinaire Liz Covart‘s recent tweet caught my attention:

She links to Joseph Frankel’s interview with writer Manjula Martin published in The Atlantic under the title Why More Writers Should Talk About Money.”  Martin is the editor of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.  The book, as Frankel describes it, offers a “more personal picture of what it’s like to make a living from-or while–writing.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Frankel: Essays in the collection call attention to the creative value of day jobs and, in the case of Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), their impact on writers’ output. Others, particularly the piece by Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night, Edinburgh), think that the discussion of day jobs helps to romanticize unfair pay for writers. How do you think about the relationship between other kinds of work and writing?

Martin: I think that some of the stuff Chee says in his essay is particularly valuable for younger writers who maybe haven’t been around in an era where folks were ever really compensated well. I’ve certainly written for free. I’d bet Chee has done it too, and I think he talks about that in his essay. But if you’re hiring me to do work, you need to pay me, is sort of his stance. And I agree with that 100 percent.  You mentioned romanticizing that relationship between work and craft. I think it’s very tricky because there is a lot of dangerous romanticization, and that can set writers up, particularly in the beginnings of their careers, to blunder in a business they know nothing about.

Chee has a great quote in his essay where he talks about how any education in writing should include an education in how to make a living as a writer. There is a place for the romantic in the writer’s life, but there’s a difference between romance and being ignorant. Gay says that really nicely in her interview where she’s just like, “I don’t want to kill the dream of my students by being like, ‘it’s really hard to make a living!’” But it’s also the responsibility of older generations of writers to let folks know really what it’s like.

It drives me equally crazy to read advice to writers on the internet that’s like, “Here’s how to write a bestseller in 7 steps” or “You are guaranteed to get a book deal.” I think that’s the flipside of the same coin.

Writers, it seems to me, have an important role to play in society.  So do historians. A knowledge of American history and the learning of historical thinking skills are essential in any age, but they are particularly essential in times of political change.  I hope that what we do here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home makes some small contribution to the cause.

Very soon we will be recording episodes for Season 3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast and we could really use your help.  We have a young staff who is passionate about history and podcasting and are willing to work for peanuts.  But they also have families to raise and school bills to pay. I realize that I will never be able to pay them what they are worth, but I would at least like to show them that I am making a good faith effort to reward their hard work.  This is where you can help.

If you would like to hear more quality history podcasting at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, including shows with great guests, commentary, and conversation, I hope you will consider becoming a patron of the show.

Learn more here and here.

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The Intellectual Habits of Barack Obama

book-obamaMichiko Kaktutani of The New York Times has published an amazing article about Barack Obama’s habits of reading and writing during his days in the White House.  Obama is, at heart, a humanist–a man of ideas and a student of the human condition.  I am struck by Obama’s commitment to this kind of thinking, reading and writing amidst the daily rigors of running the United States.  He is a President who refused to be intellectual stagnant. He was constantly replenishing his mind with new ways of thinking about the world. He regularly used books to cultivate empathy in his life–to “get in somebody else’s shoes.”

I love what Obama says about history:

The writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Mr. Obama found, were “particularly helpful” when “what you wanted was a sense of solidarity,” adding “during very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating.” “So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful.” There is a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom, and sometimes, in the evening, Mr. Obama says, he would wander over from his home office to read it.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  If Obama could sustain this kind of intellectual life in the White House then we have no excuse when it comes to sustaining it in our own busy lives.

Joyce Appleby: RIP

joyce-applebyJoyce Oldham Appleby, a giant in the field of early American intellectual and political history, died earlier this week at the age of 87.  If you are unfamiliar with Appleby or her work I encourage you to head over to The Junto and read Michael Hattem’s excellent obituary.

I never met Appleby, but I read and admired her work. I read Capitalism and a New Social OrderLiberalism and Republicanism in Historical Imagination,and Telling the Truth About History in graduate school.  Appleby’s published disagreements with Gordon Wood and others from the “republicanism” school of the American Revolution were staples on the reading lists of all early American graduate students in the 1990s.  Her book Inheriting the Revolution made me aware of the role memoirs could play in understanding the American Revolution and the early republic.

In 1996 Appleby and James Banner Jr. founded History News Service (HNS) in an attempt to get more academic historians to write for a public audience.  As a newly-minted history Ph.D who was trying to imagine a slightly different kind of career than the one I was encouraged to follow in graduate school, my interests intersected with the mission of HNS and I began sending op-eds to Appleby and Banner.  Anyone who wrote for HNS remembers the editorial good-cop (Appleby)/bad cop (Banner) routine they used when editing the work of those of us who were new to this genre of writing.  Banner would cover the piece with the proverbial red ink.  In my case he pushed me to write more succinct sentences and dispense of academic jargon.  Appleby was no less of a critic, but she had a softer, more encouraging, touch.  Both of them made me a better writer. Banner made me realize that it would take hard work to master the craft of public writing. (And I am certainly not there yet).  Appleby made me feel like there was actually a chance I could contribute to this genre.

After I learned that she had passed away I went back and re-read some of the e-mails she wrote to me in her role at HNS.  Here is one from 2004 that I will always remember:

“Excellent rewrite, John.  I am ready to turn this  over to Jim for fine-tuning.  I have made one suggestion in caps for your conclusion.  I hope that you will consider it.  Many thanks.  I wish you’d write more for HNS.  You are a natural writer.  Joyce

Joyce Appleby probably never thought again about the last two sentences of this e-mail, but this small kindness meant the world to me and kept me going.  Thanks, Joyce.  RIP.

10 Rules of Writing

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As readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am always on the lookout for material that will help me, and inspire me, to be a better writer.  Today I ran across Amitava Kumar’s piece at The Indian Quarterly website: “10 Rules for Writing.”

The entire piece is worth your time.

First, here are Kumar’s suggestions for beginning writers:

  1. Do not write long sentences (10-12 words max)
  2. Each sentence should make a clear statement
  3. Do not use big words
  4. Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of
  5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size, and number
  6. Avoid the abstract.  (Always go for the concrete)
  7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way

And now for Kumar’s “10 Rules”:

  1. Write every day
  2. Have a modest goal
  3. Try to write at the same time each day
  4. Turn off the internet
  5. Walk for ten minutes
  6. Pick a book to help you with style
  7. “Get rid of it if it sounds like grant talk”
  8. Learn to say no
  9. Finish one thing before taking up another
  10. The above rule needs to be repeated

See how Kumar develops these points here.

How to Write Academic History for a Public Audience

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Do you want to write good history for a general audience?  Alane Salerno Mason, the Executive Editor at W.W. Norton, offers some advice.

  1. Keep your introduction brief, and introductory
  2. People the story
  3. Let the people move
  4. Honor chronology
  5. Don’t bury your favorite details
  6. Avoid subtitles
  7. Don’t talk down to your audience
  8. Accept that some subjects are inherently of minor interest and others fall into genres that have become overcrowded
  9. A book should not be one’s first and only attempt to address the public.
  10. Break any rule when to do so serves a higher purpose

Check out Mason’s post at W.W. Norton to see how she unpacks these points.

Wendell Berry Talks to *The New York Times*

BerryThe agrarian novelist Wendell Berry is featured in the most recent “By the Book” series at The New York Times.  Here is a taste of his interview:

What books are currently on your night stand?

My father’s much-marked Bible (King James Version), which I keep there for companionship and to read; Volume 1 of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” which I enjoy partly for the luxury of reading in no hurry, for I probably will never finish it; also “Venerable Trees,” by Tom Kimmerer, about the surviving trees of the original savannas or woodland pastures of Kentucky and Tennessee.

What was the last great book you read?

“Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen, no doubt a “great book,” also a good book. The book I recently read that I most needed to read was “Art and Scholasticism,” by Jacques Maritain.

Read the whole interview here.  Berry didn’t give The Times much to work with.   Classic.