A Historian’s 5 Tips on Writing

Kevin Kruse is professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of two important works in American religious history: White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005) and One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (2015).

At his Twitter account, @KevinMKruse, Professor Kruse did a series of tweets on writing advice. With his permission, they are reprinted here in a more permanent format.

The best way to improve your own writing is to read as much as you can from other authors. Not just the great books, either. You can pick up good habits in reaction to bad writing, too.

And don’t just read narrowly in your own sub field, or even in your own discipline. Historians should read novelists, not just for prose but for plotting and pacing.

Maybe this section works as a mystery, with slow build up and then a reveal? Maybe that chapter needs the tension of an upstairs-downstairs plot? Does this political tale need the grandeur of a heroic battle, or the intimacy of a flawed character study?

This advice will come too late for more advanced scholars, but if you’re in college and just starting out—try your hand at as many different kinds of writing as possible.

When I was in college, in addition to my classwork, I wrote for the campus newspaper and took a lot of creative-writing poetry courses. Now, I was a horrible poet. But I learned a whole lot about word choice, structure, meter, rhyme, and rhythm along the way.

I’ve written this a thousand times on undergrad papers, but it’s a lesson that could be learned by some grad students and senior scholars too. You’re trying to persuade readers with your argument, not impress them with your thesaurus.

Avoid jargon whenever possible. There are certain terms that are vital to a field, but if they’re not readily understood by non-specialists, neither will your argument. Break it down for them.

There’s a reason newspaper editors often tell op-ed writers to imagine they’re writing for an audience of “intelligent non-specialists.”

I wrote every line of my dissertation with two people in mind—my dissertation director and my mom, a high-school graduate. I knew that if I could craft a history that met his high standards but was accessible and understandable to my mom, then I’d have done it right.

Too often, academics hear their writing as they imagined they wrote it, and not thinking about how it sounds to someone approaching them fresh. This is why I always tell students to read their work aloud.

Sentence structure matters here. I often read work that’s a mass of uniform sentences styles and length, but writers have to remember they’re not just providing the lyrics of a song, but the music that will accompany it.

There’s a popular quote by Gary Provost that gets this point across well:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the larger process of writing an article, a dissertation or a book, so think about the big picture first and then focus in on one sentence, then one paragraph, then one section. One at a time.

Some grad students follow the model of my brilliant colleague Tony Grafton by setting a minimum word limit to hit each day, but I learned a long time ago that I’m no Tony Grafton. (You may be, though. Have at it!)

But yes, write something each day. Some days it flows effortlessly, and I can crank out five to ten solid pages. Some days I struggle over a single sentence, but if I finally get it right, that’s enough. Some days I realize I just have to walk away.

But the writing is only the beginning. That “write drunk, edit sober” line attributed to Hemingway might be apocryphal, but it has the stress in the right place. Editing and rewriting are the key to the whole thing.

And this can be, and should be, a collaborative process. Whether it’s presenting in formal workshops or sharing drafts with a friend, get some fresh eyes on your writing whenever you can.

And, this should go without saying, but you should be circulating your worst material, the stuff you need the most help on. You’re not trying to show off, you’re asking for help. We all need it.

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Not All Turkey and Touchdowns

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony weren’t the first Europeans to settle in North America, nor were they the first permanent English colonists. But because of our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, and our hazy images of their 1621 meal with Native Americans, the Pilgrims have become the emblematic colonists in America’s national memory. Although modern Thanksgiving has become largely non-religious — focused more on food, family, and football than explicitly thanking God — the Pilgrims’ experience reveals a compelling religious aspect of our country’s roots.

Although people often refer to the Pilgrims as “Puritans,” they technically were English Separatists. These were Christians who had decided that the state-sponsored Anglican Church was fatally corrupt, and that they should found their own churches. (The Puritans, who would establish Massachusetts in 1630, believed in reforming the Anglican Church from within.) Establishing independent churches, however, was illegal. Under heavy persecution, some Separatists decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands around the same time that the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607.

The Netherlands offered the Separatists religious liberty, but the Pilgrims also became concerned about the negative influences of living in such a culturally diverse society. So in 1620, 102 settlers sailed to America on board the Mayflower. Their final Old World port was Plymouth, England, which supplied the name for their new settlement in what became southeastern Massachusetts.

All adult men on board the ship signed the “Mayflower Compact,” which many consider the first written constitution in American history. It is a very brief document, but it powerfully articulated the colonists’ commitment to God and government by common consent. It reads, in part:

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.

Documents such as the Mayflower Compact leave little doubt that the New England colonies were founded primarily for religious purposes.

The Compact noted Plymouth’s legal connection to Virginia (they shared the same charter), but their southern neighbors were less motivated by religion than were the New England colonists. Some today may exaggerate the secular nature of Virginia, however: among the first laws of that colony was a demand that the people honor God, to whom they owed their “highest and supreme duty, our greatest, and all our allegiance to him, from whom all power and authoritie is derived.” The 2011 discovery of the remains of the oldest Protestant church in America at the site of the Jamestown fort also reminds us of the southern colonists’ faith.

Although our records for the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are sparse, we do know that in 1621 the Pilgrims held a three-day celebration with allied Indians, in observation of a good harvest and in gratitude for God’s help in passing through the trials of the first year of settlement (half of the settlers had died in that scourging winter). And yes, they had a “great store of wild turkeys” to eat for the festival.

The American colonies, particularly in New England, continued the tradition of holding thanksgiving days into the Revolutionary era, when the new American nation also picked up the practice. The Continental Congress and American presidents, beginning with George Washington, regularly proclaimed days of thanksgiving. In 1789, the first year of his presidency, Washington declared that the last Thursday of November would be a “day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

Thanksgiving became an annual holiday in America during the Civil War, and Congress made the fourth Thursday of November an official national holiday in December 1941, shortly after America’s entry into World War II.

Thanksgiving historically was about “thanks-giving” directed to God. This is an instructive lesson, not only for better understanding our history, but also for curbing the temptation to make Thanksgiving into a holiday of overconsumption. The Pilgrims remind us that Thanksgiving is not all about turkey and touchdowns.

This post originally appeared at The Anxious Bench, Patheos.

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