Historical writing should follow the principles of style and structure common to most forms of expository writing. Below are some tips and resources for historical writers seeking to improve their writing technique and research methodology. Beginning writers should read the essay, "Basic Expository Writing."
The principles of good prose style are clearly explained in E.B. White’s classic,
The Elements of Style. A more detailed description of technical and typographical standards in the humanities may be found in the Chicago Manual of Style. The Repository of Arcane Knowledge contains a guide to Basic Expository Writing.
Additionally, the following tips are especially appropriate to historical writing:
- Introductions to Essays: For essays (as opposed to books), keep the introduction direct and declarative, instead of opening with an extended anecdote. The reader should be able to determine from your first few sentences exactly what your paper is about, and by the end of the introduction you should clearly state your thesis and explain how you intend to approach the subject.
- Choice of Diction: Your diction should be formal, yet it should not be foreign to your genuine thought and speech patterns, as this may come out stilted. In a word, you should sound natural reading your paper aloud.
- Choice of Words: Choose words that most precisely describe your intended meaning, not those that sound the most impressive. Do not be satisfied with the first word that comes to mind. Use a thesaurus to find other possibilities, and then check a dictionary to make sure the word you choose has the intended nuance. Be accurate and consistent in your use of qualifiers (“most,” “many,” “probably,” “possibly,” “unlikely”), so the reader understands how each of your assertions is limited in scope and certitude.
- Paragraph Structure: Each paragraph should be governed by a single idea, stated clearly at the beginning or the end of the paragraph. Each paragraph should have a sentence linking it to the adjacent paragraph, so a coherent train of thought can be followed.
- Subsection Structure: When you have finished a particular line of thought, it is usually a good idea to start a new section preceded by a subtitle. This makes it easier for the reader to navigate through your essay, and revisit topics discussed earlier.
- Presenting Evidence: The main assertion, or idea, of each paragraph, should be supported by evidence presented in that same paragraph, so the reader can readily ascertain the relative strength of each assertion.
- Conclusions to Essays: The conclusion should recaptiulate the general line of argument, and then discuss the broader implications of your thesis. In other words, explain why your paper matters.
- Be Unafraid to Break Rules of Style: There are no rigid rules of writing, so don’t be afraid to break guidelines when doing so improves the fluidity of the argument. It is sometimes better to use passive voice, or to stick the central idea in the middle of the paragraph. You may even indulge in the occasional colloquialism or end a sentence with a preposition.
- Write from Beginning to End; Avoid Cut-and-Paste: Write the paper from beginning to end, one sentence after the next. Writing one sentence at a time and checking that each sentence is just right before continuing ensures that the paper will not be rambling or choppy. Rearranging entire sections with cut-and-paste can destroy the flow of the narrative and its argument. First drafts are best written by hand or typewriter to avoid this temptation.
The techniques of research and written argumentation in the humanities are expounded in The Craft of Research, an update of K. Turabian’s classic A Manual for Writers. The eminent French historian Marc Bloch has left us his excellent essay, The Historian's Craft, which explores historical techniques and methods.
My approach to history generally follows the principles of conventional scholarship, but I have also adopted some principles of my own:
- Analyze the past primarily on its own terms. Let the voices from the past speak for themselves, without immediately subjecting them to the judgement of current social, political, philosophical, or moral values.
- Explain historical actions without judging them morally. The historian’s main task is to relate actions (what people did), motivations (why they did it), and historical circumstances or context. If he has done his work well, readers will have enough information to apply their own moral principles to the facts and circumstances and make judgments accordingly. This approach does not reduce the historian to merely “telling what happened,” for he must also explain the immediate causes or motivations of events, as well as the cultural circumstances which defined the parameters of discourse.
- Respect your sources. In determining questions of fact, the historian should be favorably disposed toward the testimony of primary sources, and should not adopt a stance of extreme skepticism. Witnesses get the benefit of the doubt unless there is a substantial reason to question their veracity. The reason for this is twofold: first, the entire discipline of history depends on a tacit assumption that most records are basically truthful (unless there is a motive for falsification), and second, history does not seek metaphysical certainty, but only a probabilistic veracity similar to that sought by courts of law.
- Not all facts are equally certain. Due to the imperfect nature of historical knowledge, you should make every effort to accurately qualify or quantify the reliability or probability of each factual assertion.
- Historical testimonies are subjective. Although we assume historical records are usually honest accounts, this does not mean that they are objectively accurate. Historical records should be treated as subjective testimonies, not as objective facts.
- The aim of history is objective knowledge. Despite the subjectivity of our sources, we should not despair of obtaining objective knowledge in history. All human knowledge is learned through human testimony, even in the physical sciences. The reliable consistency of testimonies gives us confidence that they correspond to an objective reality, even if that reality is imperfectly interpreted.
- Every worldview made sense to the people who held it. It is not the historian’s primary task to find “inconsistencies” or “contradictions” in the belief systems of the past, but instead to grasp and explain the key by which adherents were able to integrate and harmonize apparently conflicting theses. To truly understand your subject, you must sympathize with the subject to some extent, suspending moral and philosophical judgment, and seeing the world as your subject sees it. Only then can you accurately address the question of the subject’s motivation, which is essential to any exposition of historical causes.
- Historical figures usually declare their motives openly. Once we have achieved a sympathetic understanding of our historical subjects, the need to find hidden motives often evaporates. We seek ulterior motives for actions only when we disregard the possibility that the declared motivations could be sincerely held. Naturally, some people are deliberately dishonest, and we may sometimes identify them when their actions blatantly contradict their words.
- Even sincere people may be self-deceived. Although declared motivations are usually sincere, and most people claim to have noble intentions, we should not thereby declare everyone guileless. Humans have a remarkable knack for self-deception, and we should be careful to distinguish a person's ideological principles from those which he applies in practice. Nonetheless, the existence of hypocrisy and unconscious motivations does not abolish the reality of consciously held opinions.
- We should not despair of identifying historical causes. The historical record gives us the means of constructing historical circumstances and identifying human motivations. Although historical causality resembles non-linear fluid dynamics more than billiard ball collisions, things do not happen without reasons. While we usually can not make the tidy proposition, “A caused B,” we can often identify a set of historical circumstances which made a critical event possible.
- Human history is a synthesis of cultural choices that are neither inevitable nor irreversible. Supposed laws of human behavior are actually defined by changing cultural circumstances. Thus historical analysis cannot be reduced to the logic governing inanimate objects, and attempts to give a purely stochastic or “evolutionary” description of history are pseudo-historical at best.
Independent researchers without university affiliations may find it difficult to get historical research published by conventional means in major journals or publishing houses. However, in this computer age there exists a wide variety of less conventional publishing options, electronic and print, many of which are discussed at Fearless Books.
The independent researcher is advised to resort to web publishing only for short essays. Longer works, especially those with extensive footnotes, are still best read as books, either in print or on Kindle.
© 2005-2010 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.