Writing & publishing workshop report

http://www.flickr.com/photos/masi/31257614/Sarah Watkins attended yesterday‘s writing and publishing workshop, and has kindly written this report for us. We’d love to publish reports from other seminars and workshops too – please email Emma (elundi01@mail.bbk.ac.uk) if you’d like to contribute.

The Writing Workshop with Maria Margaronis and Daniel Pick on Monday evening was full of useful information on not only writing up but also publishing your research. The session was split half and half between the two topics, with the first hour spent discussing a piece of work submitted by a brave PhD student for dissection by the group. As in previous workshops the extract to be discussed is circulated beforehand, to allow everyone to read through and prepare comments and observations. Obviously it is quite a daunting prospect to put your work out there for public scrutiny, but the emphasis is on constructive criticism within a supportive environment.

The willing volunteer this time was Gillian Williamson, who is working on constructions of masculinity in the Gentleman’s Magazine between 1731-1815. I don’t want to talk about the specifics of the extract, other than to say that the material Gillian is working with is very exciting; I’m also working on eighteenth-century sources, and found so much of interest in her short piece. What I’d like to do here is just give some of the tips I took from the session, and want to apply to my own work. I hope the advice will be useful for those not able to attend the workshop.

Writing Tips

  • Avoid the passive voice – it is tiring to read
  • Check paragraph length – long paragraphs can also be very tiring
  • Avoid cramming sentences full of information, split them up to make them more intelligible
  • BUT, don’t be afraid of long sentences either
  • SO, vary sentence length!
  • Consider how your information is ordered: state the purpose of the piece at the very beginning; highlight what is new about the research; has the reader got the information they need to follow your analysis?
  • Have you made an argument or given an account of your research? Which did you want to do?
  • Integrate your examples/sources as evidence for your arguments
  • Lead the reader through your thinking on the topic, but try to do it elegantly rather than with clunky ‘I think’ sentences
  • A useful exercise is to try and say in one sentence the purpose of each piece of writing you produce – has it been achieved?

The second half of the session was devoted to discussing the merits and pitfalls of publication. The importance of knowing whom you are writing for was first on the agenda. For journal articles how popular or academic the publication is dictates the tone and structure of the essay. Things to consider are: how much academic apparatus to include, such as historiography, theoretical underpinning and the like; how to begin the piece may change, for example an anecdote is a good way to start a more popular piece; the focus of the piece may change, for example a case study could take centre stage in a more popular magazine whereas the academic argument could come to the fore in an essay for an academic journal. Highlighting what is new about your argument is always a good idea.

Other avenues into publishing well worth considering include book reviewing. It’s worth approaching journals to offer your services as a book reviewer. Choose a journal that covers your research area and have a new/recent book in mind to suggest. As is so often the way, the first gig is always the hardest one to get. The proliferation of online publishing means there are now more opportunities than ever, although of varying quality. This history research student website is a very high quality outlet, of course, and an excellent place to test out your written communication skills. The editors are interested in reviews of events or conferences, pieces about on-going research, and your suggestions (find out more here).

More generally, it is worth considering your own motives for wanting to publish. Is it a route into an academic career, for the sheer joy of your subject, to highlight a particular issue or person, or something else entirely? It might help in deciding where to try and place your work. Publishing your work is essential to pursuing a career in academia, and a book is best of all. However, getting a book deal is a tricky business. It is worth investigating literary agents, and researching the various publishers’ criteria for submissions. Publishing articles and books takes time, so if this is something you are interested in doing it is a good idea to start thinking about the process well in advance. It can be a scary prospect, but don’t worry it’s completely normal to feel that way. Also, it is completely normal to experience an anti-climax upon achieving your goal!

Finally, there were three keywords I noted down that I am taking as my new writing mantra: Bold, Innovative, Engaging.

There will be another workshop in June, details TBC. If you haven’t been to one before I’d highly recommend coming along.

Other workshop reports: read Clare Roche’s report on social media for historians

(Image courtesy of Markus_ on Flickr)

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