Writing – Tips & Suggestions


Left to right: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, Toni Morrison, Zora Hurston, Frederick Douglass, and Herman Melville -- great writers who know more about history than virtually all historians. Why?

First, some useful links:

The Elements of Style. The original text of 1918 by William Strunk, Jr. It does not get any simpler, or more difficult, than this. Also available here.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, also available here, and here.

The Writing Centre at the UBC History Department (may require CWL and password).

Bad Writing Contest - How Not to Do It.

Tips on Writing History from the Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Reading, Writing, and Researching for History - a comprehensive guide from Bowdoin College.

How Not to Write, an essay by Denis Dutton, the late editor of Arts and Letters Daily.

Prune that Prose:  Learning to write for readers beyond academe.

Here are some tips and suggestions:

Writing is fundamental to learning in the liberal arts and humanities. If we do not write about what we read and study, it becomes virtually impossible to understand what we read and study. Flannery O’Connor, a gifted American writer, put it more or less like this: “I don’t know what I think until I see what I write – and then I have to write it again.” O’Connor meant that she could not know her own thinking until she wrote down her thoughts, and then, to achieve a clearer understanding, she would have to rewrite – and rewrite, and rewrite. O’Connor, like most writers, understood that writing is not really about writing – it is about rewriting. To succeed in writing, it usually is necessary to follow O’Connor’s sage advice. More concretely, it also is necessary to avoid the problems that habitually appear in many papers, among them:


* Paragraphs that lack topic sentences, ramble or contain more than one main idea, or are not logically connected.

* Sentences that are not logically connected.

* Assuming that your reader understands what you are writing about.

* Failure to “set-up” and introduce quotations – and then to explain them.

* Failure to answer or confront a question. (To answer a question, you have to formulate one. Then, you need to ask yourself: what questions do I have to answer in order to answer the question? In other words, what do I need to know to answer the question? Also, and possibly most important: what does my reader need to know to understand what I am saying and arguing?)

Please consider the following writing tips from George Orwell that are lifted from his essay, “Politics and the English Language”:


* Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

* Never use a long word where a short one will do.

* If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

* Never use the passive where you can use the active.

* Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

And here are some “Elementary Principles of Composition” (From The Elements of Style):

 * Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic. Ordinarily… a subject requires subdivision into topics, each of which should be made the subject of a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him (or her) that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.

* As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning. Again, the object is to aid the reader. The practice here recommended enables him (or her) to discover the purpose of each paragraph as he begins to read it, and to retain the purpose in mind as he (or she) ends it. For this reason, the most generally useful kind of paragraph, particularly in exposition and argument, is that in which:

* The topic sentence comes at or near the beginning;

* The succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and,

* The final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence. (Ending with a digression, or with an unimportant detail, is particularly to be avoided.)

Finally, some general suggestions:

1.) If you cannot see it, or draw it, do NOT write it. Make real human beings the subjects of your sentences.

2.) What is the question? All good writing starts with formulating a question or a problem. You need to ask yourself, what question am I trying to answer? And: why is this question important? And: Why does the reader NEED to know the answer?

3.) Seek out the ambiguities and tensions in your thinking; explore the paradoxes; share your thinking about them with yourself and then with your reader; THEN, take a clear stand. Always level with your reader – and with yourself.

4.)  Perhaps the chief personal goal is to figure out how you think about something, and then to find your voice. You may not have the answer(s) – which is okay. Just try to define the problem(s) – which is plenty hard enough.

5.) Begin by thinking of a title. The title should hint at the argument you are making.

6.) Do NOT use categories of analysis as explanations; in truth, such categories – themselves the product of the very processes which we seek to understand – are problems. They are not explanations. At best, they are descriptive terms – but you need to provide the meat of these descriptions yourself.

7.) Instead of making facile dismissals or points, look to real people – real historical actors, groups and individuals – to make your case for you. To be sure, it will still be your case, but your argument will be much more convincing if you anchor your analysis in the lived experience of the groups or individuals you are considering. Do not write off human striving by invoking normative analytical terms. Seek out comparisons, make them – and then pass judgment, if you like, but with all the humility and empathy you can muster.

You may find that many of these suggestions will lead you away from paths that you ordinarily follow when writing a paper, and that the new paths can prove to be downright painful. Writing can be rewarding, but it is not always fun. As the journalist Gene Fowler, with characteristic sarcasm, once remarked, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Thomas Mann, with (characteristically enough) less humor, offered this somber assessment of those who write: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

The written assignments in my classes are based upon an understanding of how difficult it is to write, and therefore of how important it is to begin with the basics. In the effort to understand and master them, you may sweat blood and experience some difficulties, but you also may come to know more clearly what you think and therefore to know more of who you are.

Predatory Reading for H237, H331 & H335, and for H548D – suggestions to help make reading and writing a bit easier