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On Writing History…. that people want to read

“Sadly, historical writing has quite a bad reputation. Newspaper reviewers will often praise a history book because it’s not like a history book. They will say it’s ‘as good as fiction’ and thus ‘a pleasure to read.’….”  Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, How to Write History That People Want to Read (Palgrave MacMillan, NY, 2011 edition), p.2.

The number of “how to” books directed at the Ph.D. who desires to turn a doctoral thesis into a book suggests that many have gotten all the way through graduate school by writing only for their academic mentors.  While university English departments offer courses in creative or literary nonfiction, some history students seem to have passed by these. The ability to structure and tell a true story well enough to hold a general audience’s attention to the book’s end too often takes second place to convincing the author’s professorial peers of the most arcane points in one’s argument.

Although I’ve had one history published by an academic press, I’d be the first to say that my writing, and my ability to hold the reader, can always stand improvement. Among the books that attempt to bridge the gap between the historian—academic or otherwise—who knows how to research a topic and the reader who wants a page-turning narrative to read, I’d recommend one I recently read by two Australian historians, Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, the authors quoted above.

The book is written as a primer for wannabe or still-learning published historians covering both historiography and the narrative art. The first chapters are fairly basic. They address such subjects as choosing a historical topic, identifying your target audience, knowing the archival, oral, and other sources, etc. The next chapters, providing writing advice (including narrative, plot, scenes, character, emotion, etc.). These were particularly useful to me. The Amazon  “Look Inside” feature includes the full table of contents: .

Another helpful book is Stephen J. Pyne’s Voice & Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction (Harvard U. Press, 2009). More on that in the future.

In my blog post of August 10, 2012 (, I recommended these excellent books:

  •  Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published, by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato (2002).
  •  The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events, by Peter Rubie (2006).

I would still put these two at the top of my useful volumes list. Still, both could stand an update in light of the advent and increasing acceptance of digital self-publishing, with its too-easy lure of putting books into print without benefit of any real peer review or honest self-checking.

A different kind of book about writing history that I recently finished, Landscapes of History, will be the subject of my next post.