From Notes to Narrative: The Art of Crafting a Dissertation or Monograph

From Notes to Narrative: Introduction

Elise Lipkowitz, January 2009

One of the most daunting moments in the writing of a dissertation or monograph is the transition from research mode to writing mode. In an effort to promote broader discussion of the process of moving from “notes to narrative,” the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee sponsored a session at the 2008 annual meeting titled From Notes to Narrative: The Art of Crafting a Dissertation or Monograph. During this session, four talented scholars—Judith Walkowitz (Johns Hopkins Univ.), Brad Gregory (Univ. of Notre Dame), Walter Johnson (Harvard Univ.), and Deborah Harkness (Univ. of Southern California)—addressed the process of proceeding from the dizzying array of transcriptions, printouts, digital photographs, and other assorted notes gathered during the research phase to the creation of a sustained, coherent narrative.

This Perspectives on History forum brings together three essays based on presentations made at the session. Judith Walkowitz’s essay discusses her notational practices and her system for indexing her research materials in preparation for writing. Brad Gregory’s piece offers a nine-step process for turning “notes into narrative.” Deborah Harkness’s entry provides hints on finding the story you wish to tell. Although both the Graduate and Early Career Committee and the essayists recognize that there are as many approaches to the task of moving from notes to narrative as there are scholars, these essays together mark an important step in addressing one of the most important, but least discussed aspects of the historian’s craft.

Two of the articles published here are intended to complement—and add to—the collection of essays on the dissertation process that has just been published as a pamphlet by the AHA. The third article—by Deborah Harkness—also appears in the pamphlet. The pamphlet, From Concept to Completion: A Dissertation-Writing Guide for History Students, which can be ordered from the AHA’s publication sales department (AHA members receive a discount), contains 13 essays that cover almost every aspect of the process of producing a PhD dissertation, from project conceptualization to writing.

The Graduate and Early Career Committee thanks all of the panelists for their presentations in Washington, D.C., and for contributing essays on this topic to Perspectives on History. It is our hope that these essays (as well as those in the pamphlet) will interest both students and established scholars and will promote further discussion of the process of writing history.

—Elise Lipkowitz is chair of the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee, and is a doctoral candidate in history at Northwestern University.