Lessons from Academia: What Lay Historians Can Learn
When I read Tim Stanley’s stellar piece on academics seeking stardom in this month’s issue of History Today, it got me thinking about the relationship between “academic” and “non-academic” historical writing. And then, a day later I came across a review of Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power in The Spectator, in which writer John MacArthur noted that Caro is a former journalist who does not possess a PhD in history, and as such, has received some skepticism from academia.
The same is true of David McCullough, Max Hastings and many other historical writers whose work I enjoy reading – their research is academic in nature, despite their lack of a doctoral thesis. So I got to thinking: What lessons can history-focused writers who aren’t employed by a university learn from their tenured cousins? The following is a brief list based on my own experience as such a writer:
Embrace archival research
The internet offers a breadth and depth of resources that the tech-savvy writer can use to great advantage. Yet he or she should not forgo the treasure trove that awaits at archive centres and libraries, if such venues are accessed properly. The first step is to come up with a targeted focus area, and then to look at the archive’s website to see if there is an online finding aid. Whether or not such a thing exists, the writer should next contact an archivist with a succinct yet detailed overview of the project. Once a dialogue is established, the first visit can be scheduled. To make the most of it, the writer should know what tools can come into the reading room, such as a digital camera (no flash, or they’ll cut off your hand!), flatbed scanner and laptop. A list of the boxes and folder that the archivist recommends should also be on hand to help maintain focus.
Submit to the discipline of peer review
Before books are published by an academic press, they’re submitted for peer review to establish validity. While the writer of trade fiction need not follow this exact process, it is beneficial to imitate it, finding experts in the field who are willing to review the manuscript or individual chapters before final submission to an editor. Another set of eyes will catch mistakes and provide new perspective, and can also correct any major flaws in interpretation or focus. This process involves sticking a sword in the ego, but after the immediate pain the long term result – a better book – is well worth it.
Cite your sources!
There are certain historical tomes that go way over the top with citation, but it’s better to be meticulous in giving credit to sources where it’s due than to craft an entire book without the reader knowing where you got your ideas. This may seem like a given, but it’s remarkable how many history books bypass endnotes, footnotes etc. Even if you’re not writing for an academic press, which would never allow such an omission, you should do your diligence in citing sources. This gives validity to your work and provides readers with valuable guidance for further reading.
Philip White is the author of Churchill’s Cold War: The 'Iron Curtain' Speech That Shaped the Postwar World and contributor to the publications of Boston University’s Historical Society.
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