"Beyond Tense": Encouraging Historians to Think Hard about Writing and Reading

Laura J. Mitchell | Apr 1, 2007

Few people would challenge Jerry Z. Muller's contention that "Style is Not a Luxury Option" in historical writing.1 Although many beautifully written histories appear each year, there are also books in which the form does not do justice to the content. This disjuncture warrants ongoing conversation about style and composition—in short, the literary aspects of history.

Just because writing is too rarely a topic of professional development does not mean the majority of historians want to write and read unwieldy books or stifling papers. We all aspire to write good books with clearly written prose that advances a coherent argument supported by well-documented, transparent use of evidence.

As historians we undoubtedly appreciate other bonus features of a really good book: imaginative deployment of sources not often used by others, the clear articulation of new research problems, and most exciting, genuinely original argumentation.

As teachers we are grateful for authors whose skillful prose can sustain student interest, providing narrative structure, new information, and argumentation in a way that makes reading seem effortless. It is a genuine pleasure when I find I've just read five or ten pages without often stopping to mark up the text. Without much highlighting or marginalia on my part, this passage gave me new information or helped me understand an argument. It is a beautiful thing to see an author as magician, moving readers from one hand to another without making us aware of the hard work that sustains the journey.

As readers we want to do necessary but not extraneous work. Hang on, did I say "readers?" Not critics, peer-reviewers, teachers, researchers, curators, or historians, but readers. This profession asks us to wear many hats, sometimes complementary and occasionally in conflict, but we are rarely asked and even more seldom trained to be "just readers." We learn to approach texts from several utilitarian perspectives. What information is here, where are the facts? How are these details being used to construct an argument? What are the primary sources? What's the sustaining secondary literature? Who is this author arguing with or against? But we learn to engage these important habits of mind without being explicit about the single skill that nourishes them all: reading.

Of course we read, but as historians we engage the substance of the words without enough consideration of form. We appreciate a well-written book, but are not conditioned to look for the hallmarks of good writing. Instead we take for granted, though usually with gratitude, a graceful piece of prose. It is precisely where we do not need to stop and mine for content that we ought to slow down and pay attention to the details of craft. What was the sleight of hand that let the author move us from A to B without plodding?

Well-crafted text is the product of a series of conscious decisions. Subject matter, tone, pacing, authorial presence, rhetorical device, lexicon, and narrative structure all have conventions that each piece of writing can follow or disrupt, depending on the author's intention. In good prose, these elements are often difficult to disaggregate. They work in harmony to create a seamless impression. To see them individually, we need to read attentively and ask questions of the text, from a writers' perspective, not just the historicist and theoretical ones that dominate conventional training and practice.

For historians, one of the first steps to better writing is self-awareness. We are, in fact, writers, and consequently need to spend some (more) of our time thinking like writers. Such thinking includes paying particular attention as readers, not just as consumers of information and argument, but as craftspeople aware that a range of authorial decisions is always in play.

Jerry Muller voices a common sentiment in his call for more attention to the "prose of the profs." There is an ongoing lament that too few historical monographs reach the general reading public, a fact generally attributed to stiff prose and too many footnotes. Muller gets more specific, identifying structural, bureaucratic, temporal, and financial constraints that limit attention to form, prioritizing instead the content of manuscripts. But as he points out, only the most dedicated reader will plough through a turgid text to unearth useful content. Therefore compelling, engaging prose is as crucial as the message of the book. Assuming you want people to engage with the issues in the first place, as a writer you must use every device at your disposal to help your readers follow you to your conclusion.

As one strategy for promoting better prose, Muller suggests that journals encourage reviewers to remark on the "stylistic quality" of the books they critique. In order for reviewers to do so constructively, however, we all need to be engaged in ongoing conversations as writers and readers with as much vigor as we engage in discussions about sources and interpretations. Reviewers need to be in the habit of identifying specific strengths and weaknesses in the writing and explain why one book succeeds in its language where others might have failed. We need to do more than just exhort historians to perform better as writers; significantly, we should create space where that goal can be nurtured.

Muller's further advice to circulate our work beyond specialist readers for comments on the prose also works best if it happens among people already thinking rigorously about writing and reading. Good writing is the result of individual effort, but it flourishes where it is nurtured in like-minded community, united in a commitment to excellence in craft rather than method or opinion. What does it mean to write within the parameters of scholarly convention? What works succeed, which ones fail, and where are the fault lines which emerge in conversations about style? How do an author's decisions about the craft of writing interact with decisions about the craft of history? The answers to these questions are not universal, but their repeated consideration in multiple venues is bound to improve the texts of those who think along these lines. (One such venue is the Past Tense seminar convened at the Huntington Library.)

Space and conversation are only starting points, though. Despite my characterization of well-written history as magical, there is no spell to improve how we write. Only hard work and careful attention to both writing and reading will do the trick. The real question is whether or not institutions are willing to shift priorities in order to make this time-consuming effort worth while.

Teaching students and ourselves to read, think, and write like writers is time intensive. Moreover, writing demands particular attention at a moment when many individuals experience modern life as already crammed to the gills. This sense of a frantic pace is perhaps all the more reason to slow down to the sentence level, reading and writing with careful attention to detail. A compelling book can remind us that human life is generally lived with intensity. Though the pressures of 21st-century life may be unique, the effort to make sense of the world and express ourselves with grace is not.

—Laura J. Mitchell is assistant professor of African history at University of California at Irvine. Her first book, Belongings: Property, Family, and Identity in Colonial South Africa, which received the AHA's Gutenberg-e Prize, will appear next year in the Columbia University Press Gutenberg-e series.


1. Jerry Z. Muller, "Style is Not a Luxury Option: Reflections on the Prose of the Profs," Perspectives 44:3 (March 2006), 44–45.

The Past Tense Seminar

About 20 historians brave the evening rush-hour once a month to cross the Los Angeles basin from as far away as Riverside and Irvine to converge at the Huntington Library, to talk about writing at the Past Tense seminar. The newly launched seminar (initiated by historians Kathleen Donegan, Elliott Gorn, and Michelle Nickerson, to whom thanks are due) seeks to provide a forum for scholars to transcend the temporal, regional, thematic, and methodological boundaries that often define our audiences, congregating instead around issues of writing.

The first year of Past Tense meetings has demonstrated that good histories do more than exemplify the sound principles of clear expository writing embodied by William Strunk and E. B. White in their classic guide, The Elements of Style. In fact, great writing often breaches conventions judiciously. As with structure and interpretation, the "meta" of writing is most useful when it is poked and prodded. Narrative, history, and prosody are embedded in canons, the self-conscious use of which enriches any text.

Of these three categories, historians typically have the least formal training in prosody, so we are least comfortable analyzing "the writing." The early meetings of Past Tense confirmed this assumption. It was hard work for the seminar to move to substantive conversations about writing mechanics rather than about structure or approaches. By mechanics I mean the elusive qualities of strong writing: voice, authorial presence, lexical choice, and especially the triangulation of author, subject, and reader.

That so many historians show up mid-week in the dinner hour at the seminar suggests that many practitioners are interested in thinking about writing. This kind of conversation—and the space to nurture the development of writing within historical scholarship—is significant.


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