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MONTHLY BLOG 88, HOW I WRITE AS A HISTORIAN

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

Invited by Buff-Coat to comment on how I compose works of history,
the answer fell into nine headings,
written as reminders to myself: 1

  1. Learn to enjoy writing: writing is a craft skill, which can be improved with regular practice.2 Learn to enjoy it.3 Bored authors write bored prose. Think carefully about your intended readership, redrafting as you go. Then ask a trusted and stringent critic for a frank assessment. Adjust in the light of critical review – or, if not accepting the critique, clarify/strengthen your original case.4
  1. Have something to say: essential to have a basic message, conferring a vital spark of originality for every assignment.5 Otherwise, don’t bother. But the full interlocking details of the message will emerge only in course of writing. So it’s ok to begin with working titles for books/chapters/essays/sections and then to finalise them about three-quarters of way through writing process.
  1. Start with mind-mapping: cudgel brains and think laterally to provide visual overview of all possible aspects of the topic, including themes, debates and sources. This is a good moment for surprise, new thoughts. From that, generate a linear plan, whilst keeping mind-map to hand as reference point. And it’s fine, often essential, to adapt linear plan as writing evolves. As part of starting process, define key terms, to be defined at relevant point in the text.6
    2018-04 No1 Mind-map clip-art

Idea of a Mind-Map
© Network Clipart (2018)

  1. Blend discussion of secondary literature seamlessly into analysis: beginners are rightly trained to start with a discrete historiographical survey but, with experience, it’s good to blend exposition into the analysis as it unfolds. Keep readers aware throughout that historians don’t operate in vacuum but debate constantly with fellow historians in their own and previous generations. It’s a process not just of ‘dialogue’ but of complex ‘plurilogue’.7
  1. Interpret primary sources with respect and accuracy: evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of primary sources from the past; be prepared to interpret them but only while treating them with the utmost respect and accuracy. Falsifying data, misquoting sources, or hiding unfavourable evidence are supreme academic sins. Historians are accustomed to write within the constraints of the evidence.8 That’s their essential discipline. Hence the claim by postmodernist theorists that historians can invent (or uninvent) the past just as they please is not justified. Indeed, if history (the past) was simply ‘what historians write’, there’d be no way of evaluating whether one historian’s arguments are historically more convincing than another’s. And there’d be no means of rebutting (say) Holocaust denial.9 The challenging task of evaluating, interpreting and knitting together many different forms of evidence from the past, in the light of evolving debates, is the essence of the historian’s practice.10
  1. Expound your case with light and shade: Counteract the risk of monotony by incorporating variety. Can take the form of illustrations; anecdotes; even jokes. Vary choice of words and phrases.11 Vary sentence lengths. Don’t provide typical academic prose, full of lengthy sentences, stuffed with meandering sub-clauses, all written in densely Latinate terminology. But don’t go to other extreme of all rat-a-tat sub-Hemingway terse Anglo-Saxon texts either. Variety keeps readers interested and gives momentum to an unfolding analysis.
  1. Know the arguments against your own: advocacy works best not by caricaturing opposite views but by understanding them, in order to refute them successfully. All courtroom lawyers and politicians are well advised to follow this rule too. But no need to focus exclusively on all-out attack against rival views. That way risks making your work become dated, as the debates change.
  1. Relate the big arguments to your general philosophy of history:12 Don’t know what that is? Time to decide.13 If not your lifetime verdict, then at least an interim assessment. Clarify as the analysis unfolds. But again ensure that the general philosophy is shown as informing the unfolding arguments/evidence. It’s not an excuse for suddenly inserting a pre-conceived view.
  1. Know how to end:14 Draw threads together and end with a snappy dictum.15

ENDNOTES:

1 This BLOG is the annotated text of a brief report, first posted on 15/03/2018 on: http://keith-perspective.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/how-i-write-as-historian-by-penelope-j.html, with warm thanks to Keith Livesey, alias Buff-Coat, for the invitation.

2 See P.J. Corfield, Coping with Writer’s Block (BLOG/34, Oct. 2013), on website: https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/. All other PJC BLOGS cited in the following endnotes can be consulted via this website.

3 Two different historians who influenced me had very distinctive messages and writing styles: see P.J. Corfield, Two Historians who Influenced Me (BLOG/15, Dec. 2011).

4 P.J. Corfield, Responding to Anonymous Academic Assessments (BLOG/81, Sept. 2017). It followed idem, Writing Anonymous Academic Assessments (BLOG/80, Aug. 2017).

5 History is such a vital subject for all humans that it’s hard not to find something to say. See P.J. Corfield, All People are Living Histories, which is Why History Matters. A Conversation Piece for Those who Ask: Why Study History? (2007), available on the Making History website of London University’s Institute of Historical Research: www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters; and also on PJC personal website: www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk: Essays on What is History? Pdf/1.

6 That advice includes avoiding terms still widely used by others, like racial divisions between humans. They are misleading and based on pseudo-science. See P.J. Corfield, Talking of Language, It’s Time to Update the Language of Race (BLOG/36, Dec. 2013); idem, How do People Respond to Eliminating the Language of ‘Race’? (BLOG/37, Jan.2014); and idem, Why is the Language of ‘Race’ Holding On for So Long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science? (BLOG/38, Feb. 2014).

7 P.J. Corfield, Does the Study of History ‘Progress’ and How does Plurilogue Help? (BLOG/61, Jan. 2016).

8 P.J. Corfield, What’s So Great about Historical Evidence? (BLOG/66, June 2016); idem, What Next? Interrogating Historical Evidence (BLOG/67, July 2016).

9 For further discussion, see P.J. Corfield, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and T. Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert; transl. as Obsession with the Here-and-Now: Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century, in series Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Sonderheft, 25 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015), pp. 71-91. Also posted on PJC website: www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk: Essays on What is History? Pdf/38.

10 On the need to differentiate between facts and pseudo-facts, see P.J. Corfield, Facts and Factoids in History (BLOG/52, April 2015).

11 And at times, new words are needed: see P.J Corfield, Inventing Words (BLOG/84, Dec. 2017); and idem, Working with Words (BLOG/85, Jan. 2018).

12 My own account of historical trialectics is available in P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (Yale University Press, 2007). It’s also expounded theme by theme in idem, Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity So Often Overlooked? (BLOG/2. Nov. 2010); idem, On the Subtle Power of Gradualism (BLOG/4, Jan. 2011); and idem, Reconsidering Revolutions (BLOG/6, March 2011). And further discussed in idem, ‘Teaching History’s Big Pictures, Including Continuity as well as Change’, Teaching History: Journal of the Historical Association, no. 136 (2009), posted on PJC personal website: www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk: Essays on What is History? Pdf/3.

13 The time to decide for yourself might not correspond with interest from others. Never mind! Stick to your guns. See also P.J. Corfield, Writing into Silence about Time (BLOG/73, Jan. 2017); idem, Why Can’t we Think about Space without Time? (BLOG/74, Feb. 2017); idem, Humans as Time-Specific Stardust (BLOG/75, March 2017); and idem, Humans as Collective Time-Travellers (BLOG/76, April 2017).

14 It’s much easier to advise and/or to supervise others: see P.J. Corfield, Supervising a Big Research Project to End Well and On Time: Three Framework Rules (BLOG/59, Nov. 2015); idem, Writing Through a big Research Project: Not Writing Up (BLOG/60, Dec. 2015).

15 On my own travails, see P.J. Corfield, Completing a Big Project (BLOG/86, Feb.2018); and idem, Burned Boats (BLOG/87, March 2018).

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MONTHLY BLOG 84, INVENTING WORDS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Speakers and writers constantly adopt and play with new words and usages, even while the deep grammatical structures of language evolve, if at all, only very slowly. I remember an English class at school when I was aged about twelve or thirteen when we were challenged to invent new words. The winning neologism was ‘puridence’. It meant: by pure coincidence. Hence, one could say ‘I walked along the pavement, puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’. The winner was my class-mate Audrey Turner, who has probably forgotten. (I wonder whether anyone else remembers this moment?)

2017-12 No1 slip-man-black-banana-md

Fig.1 Slip Man Black Banana:
‘Puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’

Another new word, invented by my partner Tony Belton on 26 October 2013, is ‘wrongaplomb’. It refers to someone who is habitually in error but always with total aplomb. It’s a great word, which immediately summons to my mind the person for whom the term was invented. But again, I expect that Tony has also forgotten. (He has). New words arrive and are shed with great ease. This is one which came and went, except for the fact that I noted it down.

No wonder that dictionary compilers find it a struggle to keep abreast. The English language, as a Germanic tongue hybridised by its conjunction with Norman French, already has a huge vocabulary, to which additions are constantly made. One optimistic proposal in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1788 hoped to keep a check upon the process in Britain, by establishing a person or committee to devise new words for every possible contingency.1 But real-life inventions and borrowings in all living languages were (and remain) far too frequent, spontaneous and diffuse for such a system to work. The Académie française (founded 1635), which is France’s official authority on the French language, knows very well the perennial tensions between established norms and innovations.2 The ‘Immortels’, as the 40 academicians are termed, have a tricky task as they try to decide for eternity. Consequently, a prudent convention ensures that the Académie’s rulings are advisory but not binding.

For my part, I love encountering new words and guessing whether they will survive or fail. In that spirit, I have invented three of my own. The first is ‘plurilogue’. I coined this term at an academic seminar in January 2016 and then put it into a BLOG.3 It refers to multi-lateral communications across space (not so difficult in these days of easy international messaging) and through time. In particular, it evokes the way that later generations of historians constantly debate with their precursors. ‘Dialogue’ doesn’t work to explain such communications. Dead historians can’t answer back. But ‘plurilogue’ covers the multiplicity of exchanges, between living historians, and with the legacy of ideas from earlier generations.

Will the term last? I think so. Having invented it, I then decided to google (a recently-arrived verb). To my surprise, I discovered that there already is an on-line international journal of that name. It has been running since 2011. It features reviews in philosophy and political science. My initial response was to find the prior use annoying. On the other hand, that’s a selfish view. No one owns a language. Better to think that ‘plurilogue’ is a word whose time has come. Its multiple coinages are a sign of its relevance. Humans do communicate across time and space; and not just in dialogue. So ‘plurilogue’ has a tolerable chance of lasting, especially as it’s institutionalised in a journal title.

2017-12 No2 plurilogue Vol 1
A second term that I coined and published in 2007 is ‘diachromesh’.4 It defines the way that humans (and everything in the cosmos for good measure) are integrally situated in an unfolding through-Time, also known as the very long term or ‘diachronic’. That latter word is itself relatively unusual. But it has some currency among historians and archaeologists.

The ‘diachronic’ is the alternate pair to the ‘synchronic’ (the immediate fleeting moment). Hence my comment that: ‘the synchronic is always in the diachronic – in that every short-term moment contributes to a much longer term’. Equally, the conjunction operates the other way round. ‘The diachronic is always in the synchronic – in that long-term frameworks always inform the passing moment as well’.5 Therefore it follows that, just as we can refer to synchromesh gear changes, operating together in a single moment of time, so it’s relevant to think of diachromesh, effortlessly meshing each single moment into the very long-term.6

So far so good. Is diachromesh liable to last? I can’t find a journal with that name. However, the word in is circulation. Google it and see. The references are few and far between. But! For example, in an essay on the evolution of the urban high street, architectural analyst Sam Griffiths writes: ‘The spatial configuration of the grid is reticulated in space and time, a materialisation of Corfield’s (2007) “diachromesh”.’7

2017-12 No3 clock in Guildford high street

Fig.3 Guildhall Clock on Guildford High Street, marking each synchronic moment since 1683 in an urban high street, diachromeshed within its own space and time.

Lastly, I also offered the word ‘trialectics’ in 2007. Instead of cosmic history as composed of binary forces, I envisage a dynamic threefold process of continuity (persistence), gradual change (momentum) and macro-change (turbulence).8 For me, these interlocking dimensions are as integral to Time as are the standard three dimensions of Space.

Be that as it may, I was then staggered to find that the term had a pre-history, of which I was hitherto oblivious. Try web searches for trialectics in logic; ecology; and spatial theories, such as Edward Soja’s planning concept of Thirdspace.9 Again, however, it would seem that this is a word whose time has come. The fact that ‘trialectics’ is subject to a range of nuanced meanings is not a particular problem, since that happens to so many words. The core of the idea is to discard the binary of dialectics. Enough of either/or. Of point/counter-point; or thesis/antithesis. Instead, there are triple dimensions in play.

Coining new words is part of the trialectical processes that keep languages going through time. They rely upon deep continuities, whilst experiencing gradual changes – and, at the same time, facing/absorbing/rejecting the shock of the new. Luckily there is already a name for the grand outcome of this temporal mix of continuity/micro-change/macro-change. It’s called History.

1 S.I. Tucker, Protean Shape: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Vocabulary and Usage (1967), p. 104.

2 http://www.academie-francaise.fr/.

3 P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History “Progress” – and How does Plurilogue Help? BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/.

4 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), p. xv.

5 Ibid.

6 This assumption differs from that of a small minority of physicists and philosophers who view Time as broken, each moment sundered from the next. See e.g. J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in our Understanding of the Universe (1999). I might call this interpretation a case of ‘wrongaplomb’.

7 S. Griffiths, ‘The High Street as a Morphological Event’, in L. Vaughan (ed.), Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street (2015), p. 45.

8 Corfield, Time and Shape of History, pp. 122-3, 211-16, 231, 248, 249. See also idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and T. Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert/ Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century (Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Sonderheft, 25, Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91; also available on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

9 www.wikipedia.org/Edward_Soja

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