Some thoughts on how we do what we do – historians, that is

By Kevin O’Sullivan

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently and, since time is always precious, trying to figure out ways of increasing my productivity. My current favourite tactic is to write in short bursts, working on a text until lunchtime before switching to do a different kind of research for the rest of the afternoon when the brain begins to slow. For those few hours, I abide no music, no radio, and no internet (the latter is crucial). The bookstand on my desk keeps my notes or text-that-I’m-about-to-pull-apart-in-the-editing-process at eye level, to save me from that pain between the shoulder blades known mainly to modern slaves of the laptop. It works better if I can put my feet up somewhere, or if I have a swivel chair, and I’m thinking about trying out journalist David Hepworth’s insistence that writing works better while standing up. Sometimes I read the text out loud to check its cadence and rhythm – but only before the others I share the office with arrive; no need to frighten people.

So in the middle of writing a seminar paper last month, I was intrigued to pick up the Saturday Guardian and read its ’10 rules for writers’ assembled from the advice of a number of prominent fiction authors. There were several I liked: Helen Dunmore’s ‘Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite’ and, crucially, ‘If it still doesn’t work, throw it away’; PD James’s ‘Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious’; Andrew Motion’s ‘Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly’; Esther Freud’s ‘Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more’; and Diana Athill’s ‘Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK’. And there were some that were typically pretentious Guardian nonsense: Philip Pullman’s ‘My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work’; Richard Ford’s ‘Don’t read your reviews’; Anne Enright’s ‘The first 12 years are the worst’; and (the winner in this category) Helen Simpson’s ‘The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”’

Some of their words were baldly relevant for the historian, some not so much, and most, above all, reiterated the importance of individual style. But none could displace my favourite piece of commentary on the creative process, something the music producer, artist and former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno once said about making records: ‘What would be really interesting for people to see is how beautiful things grow out of shit, because nobody ever believes that. Everybody thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head; they’d somehow appeared there and formed in his head and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world.’ In other words, if at first it’s rubbish – and it probably will be – then try and try again. Just as long as you don’t suddenly realise that you’ve killed the work’s original spark in the course of draft five and have to go back searching for where you said it better. (Interesting tangent: Eno himself famously became so frustrated with U2 tweaking ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ that on a quiet morning in the studio some time in 1986 only an alert engineer stopped him from erasing the tapes completely. Imagine.)

Anyone out there care to share their thoughts or tips on writing for historians?


4 Responses to “Some thoughts on how we do what we do – historians, that is”

  1. Felix Larkin Says:

    My only advice about writing history, or anything else, is this: If you can’t get it right, the chances are you haven’t thought enough about it. So go for long walks alone, switch off the radio/CD in the car, stop singing in the shower, etc. etc. and RUMINATE obsessively before taking pen to paper or finger to keyboard. There is, in my experience, no substitute for that!

  2. Póló Says:

    My writing is mainly about family history (my own) and for my website ( and blogs. I can identify with a lot of the above.

    My own most common experience is (i) capture the fleeting thought in a few words, (ii) if you can’t decipher it when you come back to it, forget it, (iii) let the stuff fester – this brings your subconscious into play, (iv) write it up when you’re in the mood and on a run – don’t stop for corrections, (v) proof and edit (repeat until item is dead or fit for purpose). Meanwhile talk to, and argue with, yourself and your characters, preferably out loud, short of being arrested.

    And, above all, have fun. Fortunately, I’m retired and my own master in these matters at least.

  3. Frank Says:

    Try not to get carried away with your expertise in the subject and always remember that some of your readers will have little or no appreciation of the historical background. In other words, what you write should stand on its own merits and not necessarily require specialist knowledge from the general reader. Although, the best historical writing will always encourage the reader to learn more about the subject by virtue of the engaging and accessible manner in which it is written.

  4. The challenges of contemporary history « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] been thinking a lot (again) recently about how we do what we do. First, the squeeze on public sector spending and comments […]

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