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Writing Style Recommendations

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Hello! I've been pondering my writing style a lot recently when it comes to historiographies, seminar papers, and my future dissertation. I realized I write very topically throughout a paper and want to smooth my writing out (if that makes sense). So, to make this more fun, I wanted to ask everyone what articles or books you enjoyed because of the author's writing style. Did you like their use of narrative? Did it open with a weird story? Was it easy to read yet informative? Are there any popular history books you enjoyed because of their writing style? Haha, I know that might be a controversial question, but I'm just interested in reading good examples of writing. (Although, if you have a really bad one, feel free to share that too!)

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I won't name names, but I really dislike books that are super esoteric and use rambling, unclear language. You see it surprisingly often in scholarly literature. Even some of my favorite books drift into this sometimes. One of my favorite books occasionally contains sentences like, "Villagers used their local knowledge of geography and traditions to define the essential unity of the village to their own benefit." ...What? You understand better what the author means when you read the rest of the paragraph, but that topic sentence could have been worded so much clearer.

I'm currently on the second-to-last course of my second Bachelor's degree, and it's a class on Colonial New England. I'm thoroughly enjoying one of the required readings: William Cronon's "Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England." He weaves narrative with analysis so seamlessly, he incorporates a rich tapestry of different primary sources, and his writing is so crystal clear and well organized. The whole book has a clear thesis. Each chapter starts with a clear sub-thesis. Each paragraph starts with a clear topic sentence, all the subsequent sentences in his paragraphs prove the point of the topic sentence, and the last sentence in each paragraph wraps it all up and explains the significance to the broader thesis. Excellent!

Another book we had to read in the first couple weeks of this class was "The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony" by James and Patricia Deetz. It was very fun to read, made a lot of interesting points, and touched on a lot of interesting subjects. I think part of the fun of the book was its sprinkling of irreverence and personal anecdotes from the authors. However, I would say the weak point is that it lacked a real thesis. The closest thing to a thesis that I could find in the book was that there are a lot of modern myths about Plymouth Colony and the authors were determined to correct them. However, the intro of the book explicitly says, "This is not a mythbusting book." Yet it starts off by devoting the whole first chapter to doing just that--busting various myths about the first Thanksgiving. Then there are a few chapters on daily life in Plymouth Colony (surrounding topics like sex, religion, food, etc.). Then they devote a couple chapters to archaeological dig stories. Then the last chapter is a story about how the author James Deetz made the Plimoth Plantations living history museum more historically accurate in the mid-20th century. I didn't appreciate how unfocused and tangential the book was, but it was fun to read.

So, from my experience, there are enjoyable books that are edifying (see Cronon), there are unenjoyable books that are edifying (and they usually don't end up getting much attention outside of a tiny circle of hyper-specialists), there are enjoyable books that don't have much of a salient point (see Deetzes), and there are unenjoyable books that don't have much of a salient point (not naming names!).

Edited by TheHessianHistorian

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1 hour ago, TheHessianHistorian said:

I'm currently on the second-to-last course of my second Bachelor's degree, and it's a class on Colonial New England. I'm thoroughly enjoying one of the required readings: William Cronon's "Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England." He weaves narrative with analysis so seamlessly, he incorporates a rich tapestry of different primary sources, and his writing is so crystal clear and well organized. The whole book has a clear thesis. Each chapter starts with a clear sub-thesis. Each paragraph starts with a clear topic sentence, all the subsequent sentences in his paragraphs prove the point of the topic sentence, and the last sentence in each paragraph wraps it all up and explains the significance to the broader thesis. Excellent!

 

Cronon is absolutely one of the best historical writers around. He is also a MacArther Genius and Pulitzer Prize finalist, so this should be no surprise.

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Yes, Cronon was a great suggestion! I read his classic Nature's Metropolis fairly recently. I'll have to look at the other ones, @TheHessianHistorian. I'm a fan of the colonial stuff. 

Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle is also phenomenally written. It reads almost like a novel more than a history book. I kept having to remind myself to take notes!  

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Hate to burst the bubble here but kindly remember that while you are in graduate school, you are expected to write clearly and concisely and for academic audiences.  You won't quite be able to get away with writing like Cronin or Boyle until you have tenure.  Stick to well-edited academic monographs.  Journal articles do tend to be a bit more jargon-y because of limited audience whereas books need to be accessible to upper-level undergraduate history courses or, at the very least, first year graduate students.

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Good question.

I think this may vary by field. I remember once in a workshop I made some comments to a colleague (Ancient historian) about the sarcasm in their writing. "That's the way we write since everybody is dead", they responded. It puzzled me because my subjects are also dead, but I think it was their way of saying that what ever I was pointing out was irrelevant because it was acceptable in their field. 

Cronon –I think– might be more of an exception than a rule, but good eye. What I do is to keep a folder of my "favorite" articles or articles that have won a prize and try to use them as samples. 

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On 2/17/2018 at 9:13 AM, emhafe said:

Hello! I've been pondering my writing style a lot recently when it comes to historiographies, seminar papers, and my future dissertation. I realized I write very topically throughout a paper and want to smooth my writing out (if that makes sense). So, to make this more fun, I wanted to ask everyone what articles or books you enjoyed because of the author's writing style. Did you like their use of narrative? Did it open with a weird story? Was it easy to read yet informative? Are there any popular history books you enjoyed because of their writing style? Haha, I know that might be a controversial question, but I'm just interested in reading good examples of writing. (Although, if you have a really bad one, feel free to share that too!)

I try to find books I love that came from dissertations because I want to aim high but also aim where I have a (slim) chance of reaching. Here are a few I recommend:

Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939

Joshua Reid, The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs

Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery and Survival in Early Baltimore

Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956

I don't care who this insults, but Howard Zinn is still my fave popular historian. His books are accessible, well written and turn countless people on to history.

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Great question! I also am curious as to how improve/find one's writing style. Any recommendations?

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45 minutes ago, pinoysoc said:

Great question! I also am curious as to how improve/find one's writing style. Any recommendations?

Hands down Turabian's "Manual for Writers."

I've also found Storey's "Writing History: A Guide for Students" and Rampolla's "Pocket Guide to Writing in History" to be helpful.

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@TMP, I totally understand your concerns and I have no plans of writing in crazy, off-the-wall ways. (Although maybe if I want to use my PhD like Philippa Gregory did, I should start... :lol:). There's nothing wrong with exploring writing styles. Yes, our dissertations must follow a standard format, but part of learning is growing. Thankfully I'm in a program that provides a little more leeway to try new things. Of course, the program is specifically for people who aren't remaining in academia, so we're a little different to begin with.

@TheHessianHistorian and @pinoysoc, if you haven't read The Craft of Research, I also find it to be a good source to add to the collection. I've had two grad professors assign it at this point.  It did make me reconsider my argument and evidence more. 

Also, @ashiepoo72, I read Scraping By in the fall and it was so good!

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1 hour ago, TheHessianHistorian said:

I've also found Storey's "Writing History: A Guide for Students" and Rampolla's "Pocket Guide to Writing in History" to be helpful.

I've found Rampolla good for mechanics but weak as a research guide.  

 

22 minutes ago, emhafe said:

 

@TheHessianHistorian and @pinoysoc, if you haven't read The Craft of Research, I also find it to be a good source to add to the collection. I've had two grad professors assign it at this point.  It did make me reconsider my argument and evidence more.

I'm currently using The Craft of Research to structure my MA thesis.  It's loaded with good suggestions that I hadn't even pondered with long research papers.  

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8 hours ago, pinoysoc said:

Great question! I also am curious as to how improve/find one's writing style. Any recommendations?

Perhaps this is an unsatisfying response, but one of the best ways is exposing yourself to good quality writing. John Heilbron, although a controversial figure, is a very good writer.

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19 hours ago, emhafe said:

(Although maybe if I want to use my PhD like Philippa Gregory did, I should start... :lol:). 

 

It’s absolutely my plan to use my PhD like Philippa Gregory haha ?

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On 18.02.2018 г. at 7:03 PM, TMP said:

Hate to burst the bubble here but kindly remember that while you are in graduate school, you are expected to write clearly and concisely and for academic audiences.  You won't quite be able to get away with writing like Cronin or Boyle until you have tenure.  Stick to well-edited academic monographs.  Journal articles do tend to be a bit more jargon-y because of limited audience whereas books need to be accessible to upper-level undergraduate history courses or, at the very least, first year graduate students.

I mean, there are well written articles and poorly written articles. "You have to learn to write articles" isn't the same as "style is not a concern for you."

It's not actually an article, but Caroline Bynum's presidential address to the AHA on wonder, published in AHR 102:1, is quite readable in my opinion and a good stylistic model for a historical argument pitched to a specialist audience.

(As an aside, academic articles comprised most of my assigned reading in undergrad, while so far in grad school I've mostly been told to read books. I far preferred my previous reading diet of articles and primary sources to the endless slog through converted dissertations and disingenuously framed trivia dumps that I've been condemned to as a grad student. I mean, okay, I'm being overdramatic and way too harsh on some good books, but the point is that I prefer the genre of the scholarly article as a reader.)

Edited by L13

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