Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle
A year ago, an acquaintance contacted me with an idea for the 2017 annual meeting of the American Historical Association. "I am organizing a few sessions on genre-busting history writing," she wrote, "and as part of that, we would like to hold two sessions where historians workshop short clips of their writing and then read their work at an open mic the next day. Ideally, I would like to see a creative nonfiction writer curate the workshop." She thought I might be interested.
I was. I’ve attended many panels on publishing at academic conferences, have done my time as a panelist, and have also given plenty of talks at campuses around the country on writing and publishing. At this point, I could anticipate what most academic-press editors would say on a panel, so I was eager to try something different.
For a while we batted around the possibility of having some kind of slam, perhaps in a dimly lit and smoky bar, where historians would compete to entertain — and educate — an audience. That fell by the wayside, and we ended up with a more traditional panel.
Still, I was determined to come up with a title to let audience members know this wasn’t going to be the typical how-to-get-published session. While I know that’s what most academics care about, my message has long been that if you want to get published, you need to think about the reader. So our focus would be on writing. And readers.
The title I came up with: "Writing for Readers in the 21st Century — For Love, Money, and Applause." The description of the follow-up session on genre-busting pointed out that most historians continue to use a 19th-century third-person omniscient perspective to write.
I’d never thought about that before and found the insight both obvious and fascinating. In an age where the president of the United States is venting via 140-character tweets, it’s curious that most historians haven’t even started to try out some of the techniques developed by mid-20th-century New Journalists. So maybe historians wouldn’t write in the gonzo first-person style of Hunter S. Thompson or the amped-up "Bam! Pow! You are there!" voice of Tom Wolfe. But I figured some would at least incorporate what Jack Newfield called "the previously unchallenged terrain of the novel: tension, symbol, cadence, irony, prosody, imagination."
Truman Capote said, "I’ve had this theory that a factual piece of work could explore whole new dimensions in writing that would have a double effect fiction does not have — the every fact of its being true, every word of its true, would add a double contribution of strength and impact." It’s a little strange, given our "reality hunger," and that we live in a time when university-press sales of monographs are often smaller than the number of attendees in introductory lecture courses, historians haven’t gotten hip to the possibilities of using the tools and tricks of creative nonfiction when they write.
More books than ever before are being written and published while library budgets have shrunk, and some libraries are even clearing out the physical copies of their books. It’s in the interest of the profession — as well as of individual scholars — to write books that will be read more widely. Or at least written in such a way they could also be assigned to — and enjoyed by — students in upper-level courses.
While university-press editors are fantastic resources and smart, hardworking, and academically-minded people, I wanted to put together a panel of folks who published history for a trade audience. Everything they would have to say about writing would be useful even to those whose books were on narrow topics. So I snagged editors from Norton, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Oxford; an agent who handled high-end scholars; and an editor of The Chronicle Review. It was, needless to say, an all-star lineup.
Here I’ll give a brief report on some of the major tips from the panel. In a follow-up column, I’ll ask one of the members, Tim Bent of Oxford, to talk more nuts and boltsily about writing. He publishes trade history titles, and dwells perhaps deepest in the weeds of getting scholars to write accessibly.
Before we convened I asked each of the panelists to do some homework. I wanted everyone to bring in a passage from a book that had a terrific opening, to read it, and then talk about what made it good. Indeed, the panelists mentioned how so many academics just start in presenting their material as if anyone would care and don’t spend a nanosecond thinking about how to hook the reader.
We talked about how good writers will show in the first paragraph — sometimes in the first sentence — what’s at stake and how that can set up the rest of the book for the reader. They will pose an interesting question. They will know what their authority is to speak about their topic and bring passion to the page. In good essays and articles, they will work against a commonly held stereotype or misconception. They’ll focus on a controversy, and the reader will understand immediately why it matters.
The first sentence is especially important in hooking a reader, and the agent — whose job, let’s remember, is to get busy editors interested quickly — brought in a list of good first sentences:
- From Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves: "Strangely, in a city where it seems on almost every block a famous event or resident is commemorated by a blue or white glazed plaque, none marks this spot." The word "strangely," she said, sets up the reader to want to know more.
- From T.J. Stiles’s The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt: "They came to learn his secrets." What were his secrets? Who can resist being told a secret?
- From David I. Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe: "Ailing, elderly, and having barely survived circulatory failure the previous year, Pope Pius XI begged God to grant him a few more days." What did he need those days for?
Academics don’t have to be great writers, but they do have to realize that it’s their job to create interest in their topics. Many of the opening passages the editors read came alive with robust verbs and a noticeable lack of jargon.
I could see folks in the audience squirming in their seats when someone said, "Don’t problematize anything. Avoid words like historicity, materiality, hegemony, paradigmatic, judicialize, conceptualize, experientialize." The panelists agreed: Words that end in "ize" are bad. Looking through the titles on the program, it’s clear they’re also endemic in academic writing.
The beginning of a book, especially if it starts with a good first sentence, will leave readers with a question they want answered. They will keep reading for many pages to find out. Or, more precisely, they’ll keep reading if there’s a narrative arc.
Each of the panelists made the point that narrative arc is an essential part of a good book. If I’d polled the audience to ask how many of them knew what a "narrative arc" was, my guess is only a few — at most — understood the term. As one editor said, "It’s not just one damn thing after another."
A narrative creates a story with texture, characters, suspense, and plot. It reveals things in the right way at the right time so the reader feels satisfied. You expect this from novels — you know you will start at the beginning, tension will build to a climax, and then there’s a resolution. The same can happen in nonfiction, even in scholarly work. There’s a story, and a story can be told.
And so, another of the questions I’d asked the panelists to discuss had to do with structure. Most of them said the same thing: Chronology is your friend.
Thematic organization may make sense to you, but it can leave the reader lost. Highly skilled nonfiction writers like John McPhee can mess around with structure, chronology, and themes and create a complicated puzzle that feels inevitable and seamless when taken as a whole. But that’s one of those "Don’t try this at home" examples. The panelists also agreed that when the ideas get complicated, the prose should get clear.
One of the most useful things the audience heard was weariness in the voices of busy and always-running-behind editors. Perhaps some of their fatigue came from hard travel getting from New York to Denver during a giant snowstorm, but it’s also the case that most editors are buried in submissions.
One editor spoke of being nagged by an agent who told her a proposal was "perfect for her." The editor resisted and resisted until she finally broke down, read it, and loved it. Remember: This was a hand-picked project sent by someone who knew this editor’s taste and, still, it took her a while to get up the energy to read it. Unlike in your courses, you do not have a captive readership. You have to break through the noise.
And in fact, after we’d spent an hour talking about the prose and the passion that needed to come to the page, the first question from an audience member had to do with how to get an agent and how to get published.
We all sighed inwardly and gave the same answers we’d given many times before: Yes, no, maybe. Depends.
How to get published may be a pressing question for many academics, but it’s been answered a zillion times before. My answer, which is not the one most academics want or expect to hear — given their focus on topic, methodology, and scholarly contribution — is that if you want to get published, you would do well to think about the reader. The general reader. And that means focusing on the writing.