The Never-ending Process

Every history book, even when it is dispatched to the printers, is a work in progress, ready to be revised.

‘The Art of Writing’, from the Encyclopédie, by Denis Diderot, 1763 © Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images.

I am currently in the final stages of proofreading my next book and so – in between hunting for wayward commas – I’ve been reflecting on what a strange process it is. It becomes impossible to think about anything but the very smallest details. A project which started off some years ago as a big idea, a vague and nebulous haze of possibilities, has narrowed to the most absolute of specific details: the choice between one word or another; a semicolon weighed against a full stop; lists and lists of numbers to be scrutinised in the index.

It’s not especially interesting or glamorous work, which is perhaps why it’s not something writers and academics seem to talk about much. Most of the decisions I’m making now are invisible to anyone but me, details only one reader in a thousand would notice or care about.

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