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One curiosity after another

Nonfiction writing

Historians, perhaps more than many kinds of academics, often find themselves in the role of public intellectual, needing to translate ideas gained from their scholarship to others.  Having studied our nation’s development and character, historians get asked to lend perspective on current events.  Whether this happens in flagship publications or in conversations over a family BBQ, the study of history lends itself to non-academic conversation.  You’re likely to need to develop your skills communicating your understandings of the world with non-historians; you might even find you enjoy using your skills in this way.  Many of us came to history in part because we loved the stories of our past; historians tend to love narrative.  This assignment helps you retain your instincts for story – which I can tell from your writing that all of you have – while developing a skill that will increase your professional options after graduate school.

If you are interested in help improving your nonfiction, non-academic writing, I strongly recommend William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” a book that grew out of his experience teaching non-fiction writing at Yale, as well as his work as a journalist and freelance writer. I’m going to quote a couple things from him for you.

“There isn’t any “right” way to do such intensely personal work.  There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you. … But all [writers] are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally.  They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write.  The problem is to find the real man or woman behind all the tension.  …[There’s a] personal transaction at the heart of good nonfiction writing.  Out of it come two of the most important qualities this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth.  Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize”the author.  It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter.  Can such principles be taught?  Maybe not.  But most of them can be learned.”  

He then writes the body of his book explaining the principles of good, clear writing.  For example, on simplicity:

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.  Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.  And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.”

This assignment is likely to make you uneasy precisely because you are people who have spent a lot of time gaining the education that makes you more likely to cloak your writing in caution and big words.  Communicating to intelligent but ordinary people isn’t what you’ve been trained to do.  We all feel we sound more authoritative when we speak more complexly.  Compare Franklin Roosevelt’s government’s 1942 blackout order to Roosevelt’s personal advice:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.


Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.

The first sounds official.  The second we can actually bear to read.  You want to communicate your ideas in direct, readable language.

To be readable, to be clear to others,

“Writers must therefore constantly ask: What am I trying to say?  Surprisingly often they don’t know.  Then they must look at what they have written and ask:  Have I said it?  Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, then some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery.  The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.  … Writing is hard work.  A clear sentence is no accident.  Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.  Remember this in moments of despair.  If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.  It’s one of the hardest things people do.”  

As you develop your article,
-keep your writing clear and clean.  Be sure you’re saying what you mean.  Be sure you know what you mean to say.
– write so anyone can follow, but write the piece with the energy, details, and humor that please you.  You don’t want to lose people with poor craftmanship; you do want to develop your own voice, and that’s something not everyone will like.  You want clear mechanics, and also confident self-expression.  But don’t drive yourself nuts over this!  Your voice – the level of formality, humor, type of examples that seem most important – develops with practice.  You will not achieve your final mature voice in this paper.  Don’t expect to yourself to.  But whatever your level of practice, be yourself when you write.  Being yourself doesn’t mean bad mechanics or sloppy usage; it does mean, after you have good mechanics, choosing the style that suits you.

Zinsser covers style, tone, audience, usage, briefly and with humor, but at too great a length for me to summarize here.  But his book is also worthwhile because it has chapters on writing about people, writing about places, writing about sports, technology, business, writing humor, memoir, and criticism.  And he ends by telling you that while you need to write and rewrite to develop your skill, you need to remember writing is part entertainment.  Use humor, anecdote, paradox, unexpected quotations, powerful facts, outlandish detail, circuitous approaches, elegant arrangement of words…what methods you choose become your style.  But choosing an author to read is like choosing a traveling companion, and most of us prefer the person who tries to brighten the journey.