Writing Tips

Why Are Popular History Books Popular?

WhyWhat makes popular history books "popular?" Over the last few months, I have read several popular history books for Ben Franklin's World.

I read these books with the same care and thought I give to scholarly work. I also read them with an eye toward trying to figure out why they are "popular."

Why do history lovers choose these books over scholarly ones, which often contain better evidence, information, and analysis?

In this post, I offer observations about the popularity of popular history books.


Popular History Books Feature People

Many historians argue that popular history books are popular because they tackle a founding father or famous person.

A casual glance at the bookshelves or best-seller tables at Barnes and Noble supports this idea.

With that said, I am not convinced that famous people make popular history books popular.

Listeners of Ben Franklin's World love learning about the founders and famous people, but do you know what they love learning about even more?

The lives of everyday people.

Each week, I receive e-mails with requests that I present more episodes about how non-famous, non-elite men and women lived.

You know who tackles this topic best and writes about it the most?

Academic historians.

If readers want to read about everyday men and women, why are popular history books popular?

They are popular because they feature people readers can follow and live through vicariously. I suspect that many history lovers settle for books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they can't find books about people like Martha Ballard or George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The feedback my listeners provide strongly suggests that they would love to read books about men or women who lived average lives; books that allowed them to witness the past through the eyes of someone like them.


Amazon Bestselling History Books Jan 2016


Popular History Books Use Plain, Evocative Language

Language has the power to evoke ideas, images, and emotions. The writers of popular history books embrace language. They use words and idioms that enliven or humanize the people and events they write about.

I love scholarly history books, but comparatively the language within them is flat. Many scholars focus more on the point they are trying to make rather than on how they express their point. Popular history writers pay more attention to expression.

Popular history writers also use plain language, short sentences, and idioms.

You won't find the "technical or specialized parlance of a specific social or occupational group" in a popular history book. You also won't find copious citations or in-text references to other historians' books.*

Popular history writers write like they talk.

Scholarly writers often write like distant narrators who use big words and complex sentences.


Popular History Books Make Judgement Calls

Writers of popular history books pass judgement. Historians mince words.

Often, scholarly authors use language that both implies judgement and offers them plausible deniability for such thoughts.

For example, a popular history author writes "Benjamin Franklin was a womanizer." An author of a scholarly work pens "Benjamin Franklin seemed to have an affinity for women given all of the flirtatious language in his surviving correspondence."

Readers view authors as subject experts. They want to know the writer's opinion on the topic or person at hand. A preference at odds with scholars' training.



I offer the above as observations on the patterns I see.

I freely admit that while reading some popular history books my eyes have rolled and audible, exasperated sighs have passed through my lips.

I think popular history writers are on to something with people and the use of plain, evocative language.

If writers of scholarly history books took these techniques and applied them to their studies of everyday men and women, I believe we could see a resurgence of scholarly historical research on bestseller lists and on the bookshelves of non-university bookstores.


*Encyclopedia Britannica, "jargon."

What Would Ben Franklin Do?

WWBFD1What would Ben Franklin do? July has turned out to be an exciting and stressful month.

I am traveling a lot: I visited Bermuda at the start of the month and I just came home from the SHEAR conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Next week, I am off to Podcast Movement, the national podcasting conference, in Fort Worth, Texas.

On the home front, I am working a LOT.

Ben Franklin's World: A Podcast About Early American History continues to do well, it just surpassed 225,000 downloads. It has also started to grow in ways that I hadn't anticipated. I must create plans to handle this growth. (I promise to explain once my plans are in place.)

I am also trying to find time to work on my book. Yes, I am still working on turning my dissertation into a book and I really want to finish it so I can start my next research project.

With all of this going on, I need to find more time. Which brings me to my new mantra: What would Ben Franklin do?

I am confident that Ben would cut all non-essentials from his schedule and focus on finding an apprentice and funding for his publication.

Therefore, I will not be posting "Book of the Week" or roundup posts until I can figure out how to outsource more podcast work. I have a couple of plans to find/attract funding. I promise to share these ideas soon.

Additionally, my posting on this blog will likely be a bit more sporadic over the next few months, or perhaps not. I have several posts in my draft queue. They cover topics such as 18-Second History: How Historians Can Use Clammr to Spread History & Promote Their Work; Podcast Workflow; Crowdsource Funding Your Digital History Project; How to Tweet a Conference Panel; To Conference or Not to Conference; and Tick-Tock the Academic Publishing Clock.

Thank you for your understanding and support.


Journalists, Platforms, & Historians

blogYou know you've made it as an academic blogger when a senior scholar reads one of your blog posts and expands upon it on their blog. This happened to me last week, when "Historiann" Ann M. Little read "How to Write for Your Readers" and offered a follow-up post.

Ann points out that in addition to writing a good story, journalists have the benefit of platforms and publisher advances that they can use to hire researchers.

So this is the part of the story that I think is missing from Zuckoff’s advice about writing a bestseller:  First of all, the journalists-turned-bestsellers that I know of are writers who already have a prominent platform and a name brand.  This is why a lot of U.S. Americans think Cokie Roberts is a more authoritative source for information on early American women’s history and the history of American First Ladies than Catherine Allgor or Mary Beth Norton, two professional historians who have published with trade presses and know how to tell a story.

Additionally, Ann questions whether historians should attempt to compete with journalists when they write their books.

Should professional historians try to compete on this playing field?  (Do we even want to?  I’m sure some of you will have different answers to this question.)  I’m all for writing books that people want to read.  Although I give away a metric tonne of free writing on this blog, I strongly believe that if we want to publish physical books and ask people to buy them, we need to think about the quality of our writing and tell a good story.  Covart and Zuckoff are absolutely right about that.

I am all for writing the best books possible, but like Ann, I wouldn't want to hire out my research. I enjoy researching. I also like that I can control the material I see and consider.

You should check out Ann's post. She provides great insight into academic publishing and she offers a sneak peak at her forthcoming book The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale, 2016).

Click here to read Ann's post


How to Write for Your Readers

Chapter 1Have you ever wondered why journalists-turned-historians tend to sell more books than professionally-trained historians? A couple of years ago, I took a writing course about how to write more effective beginnings with Michelle Seaton, a journalist. In a passing comment, Seaton mentioned that all authors need to think about how readers want to learn about the story the writer wants to tell.

This comment stuck with me. History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

Since this revelation, I have tried to learn more about how professionally-trained historians can tell better stories and still make important historical points that advance our understanding of history.

In this post, you will discover how an article I read on vacation imparts more insight into how journalists-turned-historians write about history.


BermudaTim and I passed our vacation with a roundtrip cruise from Boston to Bermuda. We spent most of the vacation at sea, which allowed us to disconnect from e-mail and the internet.

This glorious 7-day period of respite allowed me to catch up on a lot of reading that I have wanted to do for pleasure.

I read 2 books (a post on [simpleazon-link asin="0393351394" locale="us"]The Book of Negroes[/simpleazon-link] by Lawrence Hill is forthcoming) and articles in approximately 40 different magazines. Articles ranged in subject and came from some of my favorite periodicals: The Week, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Mindful, Yoga Journal, AHA Perspectives on History, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.

Bermuda BoatIn the May 2014 issue of The Writer, the “Writing Essentials” segment contained an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalist and professor of journalism who has authored two World War II-period history books: [simpleazon-link asin="0061988359" locale="us"]Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II[/simpleazon-link] (2011) and [simpleazon-link asin="0062133403" locale="us"]Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II[/simpleazon-link] (2013). Both achieved status as New York Times best sellers.


Writing Like a Journalist

Allison Futterman’s article, “Steps to Believability: Mitchell Zuckoff offers tips on working with research and creating narrative,” investigates Zuckoff’s writing process.

Zuckoff writes using a 3-step process that most historians will find familiar.


Step 1: Identify Topic

Zuckoff identifies a topic before he writes. In the case of both of his history books, Zuckoff wanted to write about World War II. “A self-described ‘newspaper nerd,’ Zuckoff spent countless hours reading newspapers from 1939 to 1945” looking for “the right story that had yet to be told."

Once Zuckoff thinks he has found the “right story,” he conducts “research to see if there is a critical mass” to sustain a book-length project. Like many professionally-trained historians, Zuckoff spends countless hours seeking out information from primary and secondary sources. “By the time Zuckoff starts writing, he has completed 85 to 90 percent of the research.” He completes the remaining 10-15 percent of his research as he writes and discovers holes in his story.

Zuckoff does not confine his research to the historical record. Arctic weather played an important role in the events covered in Frozen in Time. Zuckoff wanted to convey some of what the survivors of the plane crash experienced so he researched the psychological effects people experience when confronted with difficult physical conditions. This research, combined with the survivors’ first-hand accounts, helped him bring the survivors’ experience to life for his readers.


Step 2: Write


Zuckoff wants the people he writes about to “leave an indelible impression” on his readers. To this end, he writes about his topic as a story.

Zuckoff strives “to cultivate a connection between his reader and the material.” He creates this connection using two techniques.

First, Zuckoff does not create dialog. Like professionally-trained historians, he uses quotes from “actual people” in the historical record. By integrating what people really said into his story, Zuckoff fosters “clear development of each character,” which brings “even greater realism” to his work.

Second, Zuckoff writes as authentically as possible. He accomplishes this by remaining true to the historical record and by traveling to the places he writes about so he can place himself in the physical context of his story.

Zuckoff believes that visiting the places you write about and standing on the same “dirt” that your main historical figures once stood on allows a writer to bring an “even greater realism to their work."


Step 3: Revise

Once Zuckoff has drafted his narrative, he revises. Zuckoff offered two revision techniques.

First, Zuckoff reads all of his writing out loud; “read each chapter, then the whole manuscript.” He believes that reading out loud will help you see what research you should keep, which you should omit, and where you need to Edituse better language and tell a better story; “if you read your book aloud and perform it, you will find places where syntax is twisted or it drags or you’ve gone into a black hole."

Second, Zuckoff treats his research-intensive writing as a process. He concedes that “research does not morph itself into fascinating prose.” Zuckoff polishes his writing “again and again until it feels like you’re [the reader and writer] there” in the historical moment.

As a process, Zuckoff admits that research-intensive writing can be overwhelming. He suggests that we “treat it as a process and understand that as many times as [we] do it, it’s always intimidating. It’s daunting, but it’s one step after another."



For many historians, myself included, thinking about how your readers want to learn about the historical person or episode you want to write about can seem like the most daunting challenge of all. How do we write the history we care so deeply about in a way that will resonate with our readers?

Writing-HistoryWhat I found most interesting about this short interview with Michael Zuckoff is that writing for our readers is not rocket science. In fact, in describing his process Zuckoff revealed that he uses many of the tools in the professional historians’ toolbox to write his New York Times best sellers.

I took away two important ideas that may help professional historians write better history books.

First, we should write about people as much as possible. Most readers connect best with history when they can relate to and live vicariously through other people. Perhaps this is why nearly all fiction books focus on characters.

Second, just as journalists-turned-historians and historical fiction writers reach into the professional historians’ toolbox to write their books, professional historians should reach into the toolboxes of journalists and fiction writers when we write our books.

Zuckoff approaches the main figures in his stories just as a fiction writer treats their protagonist. He accumulates as many details as he can about the people central to his story. He adds to these historical details by conducting interdisciplinary research and by making the effort to experience the environments and places his subjects encountered. All of this knowledge allows him to write about the people of the past as though they were alive.


What Do You Think?

What techniques do you use to write the best books possible?


Boogie Board Sync: An Awesome Research and Writing Tool for Historians

BOOGIE-BOARD-Sync-9-7-eWriter-Zwart-en-OranjeAre you an historian who would like to go paperless, but can’t quite seem to kick your pen and paper habit? If so, you should check out and try Boogie Board Sync. This tablet captures handwritten notes or drawings and wirelessly transfers them to your smartphone or Evernote account.

In this post, you will discover Boogie Board Sync, a writing tool that has increased my productivity and helped me to go almost paperless.


Boogie Board Sync


[simpleazon-link asin="B00E8CIGCA" locale="us"]Boogie Board Sync[/simpleazon-link] is a tablet device that functions as a notebook.

This lightweight tablet comes with a stylus that feels good to write with. It has internal memory that will save around 200 written pages before you need to sync it with your computer or Evernote account. All notes save and transfer as PDF files.


Field Test Review

boogie-board-syncI have been using my boogie board since February. I use it to take notes at meetings, when I am reading, and when I am doing some quick research.

I am one of those historians who desperately wants to be paperless, but cannot rid myself of pen and paper because I retain information best when I write it down. I have tried using a stylus with my iPad, but this practice never felt natural; it lacked the feel and sound of pen and paper writing. Boogie Board feels different and better to me.

The Boogie Board stylus has a weight similar to my Pilot Precise V5 pens (my pen of choice), writes with a fine nib, and when placed on the Boogie Board screen, it has the familiar resistance and sound of putting pen to paper. Writing on Boogie Board feels natural.

To date I have saved just over 200 paper pages by taking notes on my boogie board. The pages sync to my designated Evernote folder through a bluetooth connection with my smartphone.

Major Plus: I have found that if I print my notes, as opposed to writing them in my script, Evernote can search them when I perform a keyword search.



I love my Boogie Board Sync, but the device does have three downsides:

1. You cannot erase within your note.

With the exception of a full-page erase option, the Boogie Board stylus cannot erase a written mistake. If you make a mistake when you write your note, just like pen and paper, you must cross out your mistake and move on.


4b005262ffd6391b6b20299ebe70eb052. You cannot gather like notes into a single PDF file from Boogie Board.

Each page of notes saves as a single page. Sometimes I will take multiple pages of notes on a single book or subject. All of these pages sync individually to Evernote. If I want to save these pages as the one document they comprise, I use my DocScanner app to consolidate them. This adds an extra step to my organization process.


3. You need the case.

If you intend to travel with your Boogie Board in your backpack or briefcase, you will need to purchase the [simpleazon-link asin="B00G41F2LQ" locale="us"]folio case[/simpleazon-link]. The screen marks up easily when jostled among items in your bag. The case adds an additional $20 to the $85-$95 price tag of the Boogie Board.



If you desire to be paperless and keep your pen and paper writing habit, then [simpleazon-link asin="B00E8CIGCA" locale="us"]Boogie Board[/simpleazon-link] is a fantastic tool.


Share Your Story

What awesome tool are you using that has helped you with your research and writing?