Notes: Writing History for a Non-academic Audience

Today we had a “Brown Bag” session about writing for a broad audience. Our department has a grad student association that sponsors these type of things. My advisor was the professor we chose to give the talk. He’s an extremely productive writer and with an impressive publishing record of books that appeal to broad audiences. He’s made a career of being engaged with the public both with his books, through documentaries, and as a historical consultant for several History Channel shows. I’ve read several of his books and his writing style is captivating. Obviously I’m a little bit partial considering he’s a large reason why I chose to enroll at my particular institution. But hearing him talk about his process today, and even the way he explained, really reinforces that decision.

Because of the idea of writing or a broad and popular audience has a lot of resonance lately in discussion of public history, alternate careers, and by people feeling the pinch of budgets, below are some of my thoughts and notes from his talk. Making history more accessible and more appealing to broad audiences can only help to reinforces it’s utility and importance. Indeed, I have long thought that all history should be public history. So with that in mind, I hope that these notes are useful and/or stimulating to those of you seeking out a broader reach for your scholarship. It is important to note that these are my notes and interpretations of the presentation, so they may not entirely reflect the views of my advisor.

Before I begin, one final note that about my advisor’s approach and training,  he earned an MA in literature before his Ph.D. in history and is a big proponent of reading widely. In fact, he often recites, relevant, era specific poetry in classes. It’s impressive to see him break out in verse, but it’s also evident that this broad interdisciplinary training and reading has informed his research, teaching, and writing styles. This brings us to his first point:

  • You need to think like a writer, a cinematographer, not a researcher or historian. This means a lot of things. Central to this statement is that it’s important to think and reflect on writing techniques. What makes writing good? Why do you enjoy a particular writer or piece or writing?
  • It’s important to set the scene early, to create a mystery and emotional connection with the reader so they want to keep reading. Don’t be scared to be a little bit literary, think about what makes novels good and use those techniques in writing about the past.
  • Embrace notions of creative non-fiction, but don’t make stuff up. Your facts/quotes/details need to be 100% correct, but you can write about them and use them to create a scene. You can raise questions and mysteries with how you present the details. This does not mean fabricate or recreate things that you can’t prove, but instead to be aware and on the look out for those details as you research. One way to do this is when you do research (particularly in newspapers, etc) is to read more than just the article you want. Check out the other major stories, the weather report, etc. It helps you build the setting and understand the context.
  • Story, story, story. It’s all about the story you choose to tell. You have to pick the right story, one that is big enough and has some historical themes and significance. Within that story it’s essential to know when/how to create a scene and when/how to provide a summary. Thick description is important but you can’t do it throughout the text. A good rule of thumb is to pick and build around 4-6 main characters, having a strong narrative arc, and engaging the reader at a visceral level.
  • One of the curious things he said was that he doesn’t really engage in historiography much or other historical debates. People don’t want to read about historiographic questions. While those questions do appear in his books, they don’t drive them. Beyond grad school and the academy, no one cares about the small differences in interpretation. Of course, he did say that we all do need to be grounded in historical methods and solid researchers because those skills help us become great storytellers, but the form of a lot academic history doesn’t appeal to general readers. The bottom line, however, is that you wont get anywhere without first being a good historian
  • Write as soon as you can. Writing helps you process what you’ve learned and discover what details/facts you’re missing. Writing as you go often inspires more research, but also prevents you from doing too much research. If you’re struggling to try and explain something, more research can help provide extra details.

Beyond the paraphrased points above, here are few memorable/quotable tips to keep in mind:

  • You have to look around and observe to tell a story.
  • Details are what bring a story to life.
  • The setting is based on facts that we sometimes over look.
  • Use details to raise questions and advance your narrative.
  • Strive to bring an emotion and response out of the reader.
  • Alternate scene (thick description) and summary.
  • Choosing a topic is essential. Be sure to choose topics/stories that you think are interesting.
  • Read the whole newspaper when doing research, not just specific articles.

I’ll close with two things that I found particularly interesting regarding topic selection his approach to advising graduate students. First, he emphatically emphasized the central role of choosing a good topic. You absolutely have to choose something that you find interesting. If you don’t, you’ll hate yourself and the book. You won’t give it your all. Now that seems pretty obvious, but it’s important to remember. If you like what you’re writing about and are fascinated by it, it will show. Also, if the topic is something interesting enough to maintain your interest for several years, it’ll probably also be interesting to someone else. Of course, that’s not always the case., but it’s a good guiding principle.

That brings me to the second interesting thing he said: He never lets his graduate students choose their own topics, at least not outright. Now this might seems odd or a little overbearing, and perhaps a bit contrary to my previous point, but it makes a lot of sense. Faculty advisors, particularly those who are more senior and who have written a lot of things, know what’s interesting. (This is probably why in another conversation he told me that he thinks Ph.D. students should work primarily with senior scholars). They know what presses are looking for. They can spot a good story. He considers it part of his job to help his students do their best work with the ultimate goal of publishing books and getting a job. Topic selection is important in that process. He described the process as something of a negotiation. He gets to know his students pretty well, (for example, I’ve TA’d for him for 4 straight semesters). He learns about their strengths and weakness, their interests, and through discussions, coursework, etc. you negotiate your topic, you find something that has a strong narrative arc, a good cast of characters, some interesting and significant historical themes, and that’s ripe for an original interpretation.

These elements are essential for choosing your topic, not just as a graduate student, but also later on. Eventually the advisor-negotiation ends, but it’s replaced by similar negotiations, trials, and failures when dealing with book proposals and editors. Topic is essential. Good stories are what make popular books popular.

This reminds me of my own way to approaching topic selection and history. I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller who uses familiar characters to tell unfamiliar stories. In fact, that last phrase is my exact research philosophy. I’m helped by the fact that I study sports, but there are ways to make other topics interesting and accessible, too.

Today’s “Brown Bag” was a fun event. During my MA, we had a similar type of panel as a part of our methodology class.  I always like hearing about people’s processes and approaches. It helps you think about your own and demystifies how research and history look after grad school. Likewise, hearing my advisor talk about his process, his approach to writing history, and how he reaches out to broader audiences was a nice reminder that I’m at the right place, doing the right things, and working with the right people. It’s always nice to be reminded of that. I’m glad to have such a supportive advisor who is not only open to, but somewhat insistent that I gear my scholarship for a popular audience.

6 thoughts on “Notes: Writing History for a Non-academic Audience

  1. The Professor in the Hawaiian shirt

    Great article. As a mature aged university student as well as a business owner in the educational industry It has been a continual source of astonishment and frustration how often academics make poor lecturers. That is not to say there are not quite a few good ones, nor that many of those who are not exceptionally are not trying simply that teaching is a skill, simply knowing alot about the material does not make you a good teacher- History in that regard is very much like science- scientists need to be taught how to make their research “sexy”, how to sell it to a broader audience or they will continually face the problem of funding, lack of interest and even worse losing out to pseudoscience and whatever it is that the fox media is presenting these days!

  2. wkerrigan

    Your advisor is very wise, and this is really great advice. However, I would hesitate to endorse the idea that ALL history SHOULD be written for general audiences. There are many books in my area of scholarly interest that address pretty complex but important ideas and concepts, and advance our understanding of the past, but would not be accessible to non-specialists. The important thing to do is to make a decision upfront who your audience is, and write for that audience. The most gifted historians are able to write for a fairly broad audience, but I’ve yet to find a book that would have value to both my mother and also spark productive intellectual exchange in a graduate seminar. And I don’t say that to disparage the intellectual capabilities of my mother.

    Thanks for posting this excellent article. These are issues I struggled with in writing my book, and practices I am striving to implement in my next.

  3. Anne Boyd Rioux

    It’s funny, while reading your post I kept thinking about Randy Roberts. My husband TA’d for him in the 1990s. Then I saw you were a History Ph.D. student at Purdue. Must have been Randy! (I was in American Studies–Susan Curtis was one of my mentors.) I agree with you that all history should be public history. Nicely put!

  4. Dennis

    I am one of those readers in the broader non-academic circle. I have little to no education; only an associates degree. I read novels for the most part, and for an understanding of history (which is essential for a novel reader) I turn to historians who appeal to a broader audience. My entire understanding of the unfolding of history is shaped by these writers; which testifies to the importance of their works. Here are some examples; Edith Hamilton, Will Durant, Shelby Foote, Agnes Savill, Daniel J. Boorstin. I turn to previous generations for knowledge because it seems like contemporary writers from academia always have some political agenda they’re trying to advance. I wish someone would spring forth with courage against the controlled speech of today. I think it’s worse now than anything the Catholic Church exhibited in the days of Abelard and Erasmus. I would follow someone like that.

    1. Andrew McGregor Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Dennis. What you’ve identified is one of the problems with writing for your colleagues versus writing for the public. You should check out books by Randy Roberts. He writes mostly about sports, but his writing is pretty straight forward, very readable, and eschews much of the theory or political ax-grinding found in academia today. Richard O. Davies is similar. Although he also writes about sports, he has several good books about other topics, including one of my favorites: “Main Street Blue: the Decline of Small Town America.”


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