Writing American History Outside of the Academy

Writing-History Have you ever wondered what it takes to write a great history book for a popular audience?

This year’s American Historical Association conference hosted several panels about writing history. I attended 3: “Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary,” “Writing History for the Public,” and “Writing American History Outside the Academy.”

All of these panels contained helpful information, tips, and suggestions for historians who want to write for a general audience.

Today, I offer a recap of “Writing American History Outside of the Academy,” which provided advice on how historians can make their writing more enjoyable for a non-academic audience.

You can find my summaries of “The Art of the Obituary” and “Writing History for the Public” on John Fea’s blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.”

Biggest Takeaways: Historians need to learn the conventions of nuance and complex storytelling from novelists. As humanists, historians have a duty to portray the complexity of human life. Historians need decent writer websites.


Panel Summary

“Writing American History Outside of the Academy,” explored “the act of writing and how history gets done.” Unfortunately, bad weather limited the 5-person panel to chair Joseph Kip KosekAdam Goodheart, and Louisa ThomasMegan Marshall e-mailed her comments, which Thomas read.

An historian, essayist, and journalist, Adam Goodheart writes for National GeographicOutsideSmithsonianThe Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. He also wrote [amazon_link id="1400032199" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]1861: The Civil War Awakening[/amazon_link], “a gripping and original account of how the Civil War began.”

Once upon a timeGoodheart believes that historians should simplify their analysis, but embrace complexity in their storytelling when they write for a general audience.

Goodheart urged historians to read and study works of fiction. Novels often feel more life-like than history books because they present nuance and complexity. Historians could produce more life-like histories if they used these novelistic conventions.

Goodheart drove his point home with a quote from author Philip Roth: “As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being.”

According to Goodheart, there is no reason a 300-page history book cannot show nuance and contradiction. Historians are humanists and humanists have a mission to show the world the complexities of human beings.

Finally, Goodheart asked the audience to be concise and not to get hung up on “simplification.” Historians already simplify; the historian’s focus on argument represents a form of simplification. Additionally, historians simplify history again when they choose which facts to leave out of their monographs.

Stranded in Boston by the“Blizzard of January 2014,” Megan Marshall e-mailed comments for the audience. Louisa Thomas read them.

Marshall believes that anyone can write history and her experience proves her point. Marshall is not a trained historian, but she has written 2 historical works, both biographies and the first, [amazon_link id="0618711694" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]The Peabody Sisters[/amazon_link], won several awards, including the 2005 Francis Parkman Prize for the best-written work of American history.

1804_Ralph_Eleaser_Whiteside_Earl_Family_Portrait_National_Gallery_of_ArtMarshall also questioned the historian’s reliance on argument, which she feels limits them when they write. Instead of focusing on argument, Marshall wants historians to write more about the people, places, and times they admire. She would also like historians to write more biographies because the narrative art of the genre would teach historians how to write exciting, well-written history books.

Like Marshall, Louisa Thomas is not a trained historian. After completing her B.A. in English at Harvard, she worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker. Thomas credits this work with giving her the experience she needed to research and write her book, [amazon_link id="B007HW6AOE" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—A Test of Will and Faith in World War I[/amazon_link].

Thomas reiterated the need for historians to study fiction. Historians need to give readers a reason to turn the page, something many fiction writers do well.

Thomas stated that good history starts with the impulse to be close to people of another time. Like historians, readers also want to get to know the people of the past. Historians need to understand and talk about human beings as they are—emotional, conflicted, and contradictory creatures—if they want to reach a large audience.


Audience Q & A

Washington Irving, 1809

Questions from the audience encouraged Goodheart and Thomas to provide more practical information about publishing and how to write for a general audience.

The Q&A discussion fell into 3 categories: Writing, Publishing, and Marketing



• Historians need to write more about people than about their arguments. Historians can make arguments through their narratives without having to focus on a thesis statement.

• Footnotes: Thomas commented that academic historians use footnotes to highlight their sources. Trade authors use them as a place to present the historiography for those who wish to consult it.

• Goodheart suggested that historians approach writing as if they were foreign correspondents in a foreign past. This approach will help historians write for their readers and help them describe the “obvious” information that isn’t obvious to most readers.



Should you publish with an academic or popular press?

• Thomas: If you are looking for an academic job, go with an academic press.

• Goodheart: Be strategic and go with the press that caters to the audience you wish to reach.

• Wendy Strothman (Literary Agent): If you are looking for a tenure-track job publish with a good university press. University presses are more forgiving when book sales are low; bad sales figures will haunt you when you publish with popular presses.

• Strothman advised the audience to make sure they keep the option to their film rights.


Marketing/Writer Platform

Looking for a Literary Agent?

  • Strothman: Agents will Google search you so create or update your writer website. Your website should contain PDFs and links to your articles as agents want to see your sources and expertise.

Tips and Tricks for Marketing Your Book

  • Be ready the moment your book comes out. Most live or die in the first few weeks after publication.
  •  Call in every favor and connection you have to get word out about your new book.
  • Never say “No” to promotion. Go to the small bookstores and sell 15 copies.
  • Consider investing in promoted Facebook posts or sponsored tweets.
  • Be prepared to be depressed by book sales. Even if others review your work, you might not be happy with your sales numbers.
  • Strothman: Tell agents how you will help them market your book, do not tell them about the market for your book. Also, you need a decent website.


time-to-shareWhat Do You Think?

What do you think about the advice these authors offered?

Do you have tips, tricks, or stories to add?

Take my reader survey so I can better serve you with my content.


First Step to Publishing: Network to Build Relationships, Guest Post by John Wilsey

John Wilsey teaches history and philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of [amazon_link id="1608997928" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America[/amazon_link] and blogs at Successful-Guy“How can I get my ideas published in book form?”

This burning question can sometimes animate a young scholar’s mind, body, and soul for months, sometimes years.

For most new Ph.D.s, the dissertation represents the deepest and widest river of writing and scholarship they have ever crossed.

Therefore, the question of how a new Ph.D. can get their dissertation published is not only natural, it is expected.

In my experience, personal and professional connections go a long way toward getting your revised dissertation published.


Questions to Ask Before You Network

Just as significant to these connections are the questions that young scholars should ask themselves:

  • Whom do I know?
  • Do people respect my work?
  • Do others like me on a personal level?
  • Am I willing to ask my connections for help?
  • How willing am I to market myself to people who do not know me?
  • Am I willing to adapt my work, within sensible limits, to see it published?

Think first about the obvious question—to whom are you willing to entrust your intellectual baby?

A university press might be the natural choice for your work.

Perhaps a trade press is the best fit.

Only you can decide whom you are willing to entrust with your intellectual property and regardless of the choice you make, it will be important for you to establish a personal connection with potential publishers.

Thoughtful-WomanHow Do I Establish Personal Connections?

Attend academic conferences and present conference papers.

If you are not in the practice of at least attending one conference in your field, I have simple advice: Start.


Meet Scholars

Conferences are the best way to meet fellow scholars who work in your field.

You need to build relationships with your colleagues, even those with whom you disagree.

Presenting a conference paper allows you to formally introduce yourself and your research to other scholars.


Meet Publishers

Use the conference website or program to find out which publishers will be present at the book tables.

Look upon most these presses as potential publishers of your work.


Don’t Discount Small Publishers

Don’t be proud or closed-minded. Many small imprints are growing in size and sophistication.

For some, small imprints may be your only option.

Many scholars dismiss small imprints usually because they think their work is too good for them.

Remember: pride goeth before destruction—and obscurity.


CalendarMake Appointments with Acquisitions Editors

Make appointments with acquisitions editors two weeks or so ahead of the conference.

Search for the names and e-mail addresses of editors on press websites.

If possible, e-mail editors directly.

Request an appointment in a concise letter that explains your thesis in one sentence.

You might also attach your book proposal and a copy of your CV so the editor can see what you are offering.

You might have to send a letter as a general inquiry.

No problem. Just do it. The worst that happens is you get no response.

Be sure to bring a hard copy of your book proposal, your sample chapter, and CV when you meet for your appointment.

If possible, make appointments with as many of the editors as possible.

The more editors you meet, the more likely one of them will be interested in your work.


Set Realistic Expectations for Meetings

Keep your expectations realistic.

Few will offer you a contract on your first meeting, but the first meeting will establish a first impression, which is the most important one.

The best you can expect is to meet an editor (or two, or three perhaps) who is genuinely interested in your work and willing to start the process of formal consideration by taking your proposal to a committee.

The least you can expect is everyone rejects your work.

If this happens, keep a positive attitude. You will have gained valuable experience by establishing contacts and founding relationships among editors, which is pure gold.


publishing contractKeep a Positive Attitude

Editorial contacts have enormous potential, and if you are winsome, respectful, and willing to reasonably adjust your work to meet an editor’s standards, there is hope.

An editor who rejects your work may forward your proposal to another editor, just because she liked you.

Attitude is everything.

Go into every meeting convinced that someone will publish your work; maybe not the publisher you meet with, but someone.

Confidence—with humility, and a willingness to listen—go a long way.


Share-Your-StoryWhat Do You Think?

How did you find your publisher?

Interested in Sharing Your Wisdom on Uncommonplace Book? Email your post ideas to  lizcovart[AT]mac[DOT]com.


How to Write Scholarly Articles: Tips from the William and Mary Quarterly

WMQ COverLast week, I attended a talk given by Chris Grasso and Karin Wulf about how to publish articles in academic journal. Grasso and Wulf serve respectively as the Editor and Book Review Editor for The William and Mary Quarterly. Their helpful presentation really shed light on what goes on behind the scenes at a peer-reviewed journal. In this post I will recap Grasso's advice for submitting a scholarly journal article.

Grasso outlined the general procedure for publishing in a scholarly journal and specified when the process at the WMQ differed from other journals. In general, the author submits an article to a journal. The journal editor then reads the submission and considers whether or not their journal would publish on the proposed topic.

If the editor believes that the proffered topic could be a good fit for their journal they arrange to send the submission on to the next round: peer review.

Editors ask scholars with expertise in the tendered subject matter to review the piece. The number of reviewers depends on the journal. The WMQ uses 3-5 referees and asks them to complete their review within 6-8 weeks.

Grasso mentioned that all referees take their job seriously and spend hours looking over and commenting on a piece; journals do not pay referees for their time. With that said, he mentioned that some scholars can be severe critics, but if authors can take the criticism, they will find that they can use even the harshest feedback to their advantage as they revise and resubmit their work.

Once the editor receives feedback from all the referees, they decide whether or not to publish the article, reject it, or offer the author the opportunity to revise and resubmit. Grasso stressed that referees do not "cast a vote" as to whether or not an article should be published, that decision lies solely with the editor. Editors base their decision on whether or not they agree with the referees' feedback.

Before giving the article and his decision back to the author, Grasso reads and distills the referees' feedback so he can tell the author exactly what they need to revise in order to publish in the WMQ. He feels that this guidance is important, especially as the WMQ allows authors to revise and resubmit only once.

Grasso mentioned that The William and Mary Quarterly receives about 100 submissions a year, that 50-75 percent of the submissions move on to the peer review process, and of those he publishes about 12 percent. Of course, this last number depends on how many authors revise and resubmit their pieces to the journal.

Grasso aims to keep the initial review process to 3 months, but it can take up to 4 or 5 months. Once accepted, The William and Mary Quarterly moves fast and authors can expect to see their work in print within about 6 months.

Grasso also provided useful advice for submitting scholarly articles.

First, authors need to read and conform to the submission guidelines for their chosen journal.

Second, if authors receive a revise and resubmit decision and remain unclear about what they need to revise for publication, they should email the editor and ask for clarification. Grasso warned that asking for clarification does not mean that authors should ask editors to review their revision plan; most editors have too much to do to read revision proposals.


How to Write and Publish Scholarly Book Reviews

Please note that Karin Wulf now serves as the Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and Brett Rushforth as book review editor for the William and Mary Quarterly. At a recent talk, Chris Grasso and Karin Wulf discussed how to publish scholarly articles and book reviews. Wulf serves as the Book Review Editor for The William and Mary Quarterly. From this position, she offered an enlightening perspective on how to publish scholarly book reviews. WMQ COver

Wulf encouraged the audience to look at book reviews as opportunities rather than as obligations.

Book reviews give scholars the chance to get noticed. Through a review, readers become acquainted with both the reviewed book and the book reviewer. Book reviews serve as the last step in the peer review process; they offer the last formal piece of scholarly conversation about the contribution of a particular scholar.

Wulf mentioned that book reviews are read more often than journal articles because they allow scholars to access the most recent scholarship in a matter of minutes. Moreover, book reviews have longevity.

Scholars read reviews long after publishers release a book. For example, Wulf mentioned that Richard Dunn's October 1999 review of Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone is the most frequently accessed piece for the WMQ. For published pieces after 1999, the distinction goes to Peter Coclanis's review of Ira Berlin's The Captivity of a Generation. Wulf recommended the latter piece as an example of a great book review.

Wulf spent some time addressing the ethics of reviewing.

First, scholars should review books only when they think they can be fair.

Everyone understands that reviewing is not an impartial business, but scholars should avoid reviewing books that are too closely related to their work; these reviews often become essays about why the reviewed book is not as good as the reviewer's book.

Scholars should also avoid reviewing the work of close colleagues and friends.

Wulf suggested that reviewers consult the American Historical Association website for the ethical standards of the profession; H-Net Reviews offers a summarized version here. Someone in the audience offered the National Book Critics Circle as another resource with useful guidelines for reviewing.

Wulf also discussed how book reviews in The William and Mary Quarterly differ from other journals. The WMQ publishes lengthy reviews of at least 1200 words for a single book, many of the reviews run 1500-1700 words. The WMQ only considers reviews written by scholars with a doctorate.

Wulf encouraged junior scholars to be proactive and seek out book review editors at journals and on-line forums like H-Net Reviews. In their e-mails, scholars should provide the editor with a brief introductory note about who they are and the kinds of books they would like to review. Scholars should also attach a CV to their e-mail.

For those content to wait until book reviewers discover them, Wulf mentioned that she knows several book review editors who keep an eye out for savvy reviewers on H-Net Reviews and by reading book reviews in other journals.


Writing More Effective Beginnings

I often feel that the hardest part of writing is beginning. Where do I start my story? How will I engage my readers? Last Saturday, I attended Michelle Seaton’s “Effective Beginnings” workshop to see if I could improve my approach to writing beginnings. Michelle imparted a lot of great advice for how to think about written beginnings. The following represents my biggest takeaways from the class.


ReadingThink About Your Reader

The most important information I learned: Writers need to think about how readers want to learn about what they have to say.

This sounds logical, but really, how many of us think this way?

I think like an academic. I find a topic that interests me and know that I have something important to say when I produce an interesting answer to the "so what?" question (so what about this topic is interesting? important?).

On Saturday I realized the ugly truth about my academic way of thinking. At some point I came to believe that people would want to read whatever I write because I have an interesting argument and a Ph.D. (I said it was an ugly truth.)

Graduate school teaches students to think of their arguments first. Journalism school teaches students to think of their readers first.

I will change my mindset. I want to write history for the broadest possible audience and a key part of that is thinking about how my readers want to learn about what I have to say. I truly believe that this mindset is why history enthusiasts read a lot of bad, journalistic histories. Successful journalists-turned-historians cater to their readers’ desires from beginning to end.


The Elements You Need to Write Effective Beginnings


First Page: 3 Ways to Draw Readers In

What is the best way to draw a reader into a story?

Your first page should contain:

Dog-and-Books1.     An intriguing first line that suggests drama. All readers, and editors, want to see the essence of a good story early on.

2.     A lede paragraph that sets a scene, poses a narrative conundrum, or delivers readers to a new world.

3.     A bridge graph or nut graph: the paragraph or line that tells readers what is at stake for the narrator. Why must the narrator tell this story? Why are they the one to tell it? Why now?


3 Types of Lede Paragraphs

1.     Scene-setter: paragraphs that draw readers in by placing them in a scene. For an example see Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."

2.     Anecdotal: Anecdotes provide a short, interesting account of something that has happened over and over again. They show personality by providing an example of the subject’s mindset or individuality. See the first paragraph of Sari M. Boren’s “Escape."

3.     Narrative: A narrative opener allows the narrator to show his or her personality. The opening sentence should be an idea that the narrator has about the world. See Adam Gopnik’s opening paragraph in “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli.”


First Line

First sentences should be simple and clean. They should suggest the drama of the story.


Other Wisdom for Thought

  • Beginnings should provide readers with a sense of how the story ends. Readers want to know what they will gain from reading.
  • Writers need to be aware of what their sentences are doing or not doing.
  • First drafts don't have perfect beginnings. Writers craft them when they edit later drafts.



I had hoped to leave the class with a clear-cut formula to writing effective beginnings, but unfortunately no shortcuts exist. Writing great beginnings is an innate skill acquired through practice. Regardless, Michelle supplied me with the elements I need to write effective beginnings and with a new way to think about writing. From this point forward I will think about my argument and my readers. I will consider how readers want to learn about what I have to say. This approach will take time to develop but it will be well worth my effort.

Do you have a trick or tip that you use to write effective beginnings? Please share them in the comments.