I learned to write in a high school journalism class. Even in my academic writing, I still use the skills it inculcated. I also live by the philosophy behind those skills: no one has to pay attention to your writing; your writing has to make that case for itself.
Journalists, essayists, and critics obsess about the first paragraph of an article, because chances are that most people won’t read any further (if indeed they’ve clicked the link in the first place). A classic news lead paragraph includes the who, what, where, why, and how of the story. But leads in other kinds of stories (like features or essays) are more literary. In the unit on feature writing in that high school class, our teacher urged us to make the first paragraph as gripping as possible, giving readers a reason to continue. Then, she said, take the first sentence and make it electric. And then, finally, the first word of that first sentence. Drape each subject and object onto an “action verb,” avoiding forms of “to be” whenever possible and limiting adjective and adverb usage. She drilled us on identifying and rewriting passive-voice sentences: writing that something “was done” not only burdens the flow of the sentence, it also obscures the truth.
This discipline—gauging the power of every sentence, every word, to compel the reader onward—guided my writing at every turn in my career path. I believe, therefore, that academic prose can be vivacious without sacrificing rigor (or tenure-committee suasion).
What’s frustrating is that so many critics and defenders of academic writing alike focus on jargon. True, jargon can stymie a book or article’s general appeal, but even plain language can be convoluted, repetitive, and lifeless. This is a matter of style, and while graduate programs usually can’t offer nonfiction-writing workshops, perhaps occasional collaborations between history and creative writing or journalism departments would bear fruit—say, we offer our engagement with rules of evidence; they offer strategies for developing a voice.
Many academic historians are required to publish academic history, a genre in itself. Like all genres, it relies on a set of conventions, which have evolved. (Take a look at issues of the American Historical Review from 2016, 1966, and 1916, for example.) Without changing generic conventions of argument, analysis, and evidence, it’s possible to steer our stylistic technique purposefully. Our ideas are important, but we do need to make the case for them, with confidence and clarity.
—Allison Miller, editor
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