A few weeks ago, I ran into a senior colleague who mentioned she was off to Yaddo for seven weeks to finish her book. I was delighted to hear that she’d successfully made the case to Yaddo that historians belong at a writer’s colony, traditionally the dominion of poets, playwrights, and fiction writers. Writing history is both an intensely intellectual and profoundly creative endeavor, but this claim often draws quizzical looks from playwrights and other “traditional” creative writers. Since so many of us turn our attention to our neglected writing projects over the summer, we thought we’d pull together some advice, encouragement, and admonishments to prime the pump.
There is no one-size-fits-all top 10 list that would be useful to every kind of historian writing for every kind of audience. Instead, we brought together some of the more interesting ways of thinking about writing as a process or craft, from overcoming procrastination to the daily routines of successful writers to the way not to write, from the mundane rules of style to the way writing connects to thinking. We hope this gets the writers among you energized to take up that essential task of the historian, good writing, or at least provides a few productive hours of procrastination.
Writing and Thinking
Lynne Hunt’s essay, “How Writing Leads to Thinking (and Not the Other Way Around),” is a good place for all writers to start and to remember that writing doesn’t arrive fully formed any more than our ideas do.
John McPhee’s recent piece in the New Yorker on first drafts acknowledges the critical importance and the pain inherent in dreadful first draft.
Inside Higher Ed and theChronicle of Higher Education both periodically publish essays and advice on writing tailored for the academic writer. Randall Stevens’ advice on “Turning it Into a Book” could be applied to book reviews, articles, and other kinds of argument-based writing.
Rules and Regulations
The New York Times has a number of writing columns, including the excellent Draft series, but we also like this mix of technical and motivational advice collected here in “Writing Rules!”
Anxiety, perfectionism, and writer’s block seem to have a disproportionate role in the writing process and almost every piece of advice on writing we looked at addresses this in some form.
The series in Inside Higher Ed on Overcoming Academic Perfectionism should be read in total, but the post on writing, perfectionism, and procrastination is particularly useful.
“Conquering Writing Anxiety,” also in IHE, talks about obstacles for student writing, but much of the advice can apply to any writer.
A favorite way to indulge in procrastination while ostensibly “curing” it is to read about other writers’ anxieties about writing and how they deal with them.
“13 Tips for Actually Getting Some Writing Done” has many of the familiar rules (write every day, read good writers), but they bear repeating because they work.
How Other People Write
We seem to have an insatiable appetite for insight into how other writers work. The How I Write column in the Daily Beast is devoted to profiles of writers and their working process from fiction, biography, law, and history.
Interviews with writers about their routines are particularly fascinating, perhaps because we hope that we’ll learn some secret that will unlock our own voice. Maria Popova has a written a great rumination on writers and their habits, and her blog, Brain Pickings, is a rabbit hole of thoughtfully curated posts on writing and creativity across the historical and cultural spectrum.
Lastly, as a caution lest we spend too much time looking over the shoulder of other writers, Ben Dolnick warns us to stop reading articles about how other writers work if we want to get anything done.
How Not To Write
There have been many inches (and pixels) of column space devoted to bad academic writing, so we won’t dwell on them. If you’re interested, Stephen Walt’s recent essay in Foreign Policy, “Why is Academic Writing So Bad?” and the many responses are one place to start.
A few years back, the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature held a Bad Writing Contest that included some of the most overheated sentences in academia. The contest, which aimed to “locate the ugliest, most stylistically awful passage found in a scholarly book or article,” only ran for four years but it’s still legendary in some quarters.
Planning to do some writing this summer? Share your tips with us in the comments or on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.