This blog takes you behind the scenes of the writing of an academic history book – like a ‘making of’ featurette. Its aim is to make visible the traditionally invisible process of what it’s like for a university academic in the Humanities to write a research monograph, i.e. a single-authored 100,00 word book.

I’m a History Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford, and the book I’m writing has a working title of The Elusive Church: Luther, Poland and the Early Reformation. This project is supported by a British Academy Mid Career Fellowship (2012-13).

On these pages, you'll find a regular 'log' of how the book is progressing, plus information about the project. I welcome your comments and thoughts - whether you're studying or teaching history at school or university, or writing non-fiction yourself...

Monday 14 October 2013

A Year of History

On September 30th, the British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship which had funded the past year of monograph-writing came to an end. When midnight struck, I was pleased that I could in fact point to a full draft of the book, complete (for better or worse) with two more chapters than I had originally planned on writing. However, I was disappointed that – even with a full draft – finishing a book is such a slow, drawn-out process, and that it will require a few more weeks of minor but crucial editing before the MS is ready to send off to readers.

Above all, I was very sad that the Fellowship had come to an end, because it had created an invaluable, exciting, stimulating space within my career to think hard about one big problem for a concentrated, significant period of time. My colleagues have all been great about respecting the hermit-, purdah- like state of being on leave. It has probably been the most productive and interesting time of my research career – less frenetic than being a doctoral student (when you’re learning everything from scratch), less stressful even than being a post-doctoral researcher (in Oxford parlance a Junior Research Fellow), because so much of one’s research time then is spent applying for, and worrying about, permanent jobs. Even so, the BA Fellowship probably finished at the right time – there comes a moment when you need to leave a draft for a few weeks, and clear your head, before tackling a raft of small, precision-engineering changes.

It’s hard to know how to thank the British Academy – my main ‘human’ contact has been with their helpful administrative staff who have answered my small queries along the way; the committee of scholars which read the application and decided to support it was anonymous, and has long since dispersed. So this blog – which has also been supported by the BA – seems a fitting place to express public gratitude to them for a great year of history.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Painting in the detail

Photo by Ashley Mayes
After taking a deep breath, I read through the first complete draft of the monograph. There are now various files labelled ‘editing’ on my computer, which explain what needs to be done to the book text: which sources need to be incorporated into paragraph x, which are flabby sections in need of cutting, which chapters need to have parts swapped around. There is also a slightly anxiety-inducing document entitled: ‘bibliography: things that still need to be read.’

Before I settle down to an intense spate of book editing and further reading, however, I’m taking a week to read through all my notes. I had always planned to do this with my first book, but ran out of time. Elusive Church has, however, been conceived and written over a rather longer period than my doctorate-book, and the argument has evolved significantly, probably crystallising most fully in my mind as I wrote the last chapter. It’s a bit like time-lapse photography: I’ve read scores and scores of articles and books on the Reformation and late medieval church since 2007, but each one has been read in light of my (ever developing) thinking about my monograph at a given moment in time. Re-reading all the notes now ensures that all this secondary reading has finally all been considered through the same lens, i.e. the argument as it exists in the full, latest draft of the book, in something very close to its final form (I hope).

Going through my mainly handwritten notes is both laborious, alarmingly slow, and stimulating. It’s a good way of testing the book argument: what in the secondary literature seems to corroborate it, and what should give me pause and encourage me to think through a particular issue more carefully. I’m adding all these extra bits of information & thoughts into the monograph as marginal comments. It feels tuning a machine, or like carefully painting on layer after layer of evidence. The trick is to make sure this process gently enhances the book and its argument, and doesn’t sink it beneath a dead weight of detail…

Monday 26 August 2013


I’ve finally laboured to the end of Chapter 10 of the monograph. What I had envisaged as a light-touch, comparative, brief sketch of attitudes towards the Reformation around the courts of Europe has turned into the longest chapter in the entire book, currently weighing in at 45 pages.

So long as the chapter isn’t so long as to be boring (and the risk of reader boredom rises exponentially with every page), the main problem with a heavy-weight final chapter is that it might unbalance the book. I’ve always had a sense that writing a monograph is a bit like building a bridge, that you have be mindful of which sections are going to be the most load-bearing. It feels instinctively right to have a brief and arresting introduction, the meatiest chapters in the middle, and then (like an athlete) to give the reader a warm-down in the final chapter or so, a gentle descent towards the end. But readers of this book will find that, rather than limbering down with dignity, the MS as it stands revs up dramatically in the last chapter.

I currently feel that the book argument requires this, because the comparative material has to come at the end (after the Polish case-study has been presented), and it has have some minimum level of detail, precision and close argument in order to be convincing. I think readers don’t like being taken by surprise, however, so the introduction will have to flag up what the reading experience is going to be like, and what to expect when. Perhaps it should include a diagram, saying ‘this book is not like this’

‘But like this, less elegant but hopefully still exciting’...

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The Fictions of Book Writing

The monograph felt as if it were moving at a good, steady speed (like an athlete making it around a track) in the late spring, but since the summer holiday it has rather lost momentum. The point of a 2 week foreign holiday at this late stage in the book writing process (90% of book drafted) was to clear my head, so that I could come back to the last section fresh. It cleared my head a little too effectively,  and that  - coupled with a major house move - has showed that no matter how hard to you plan, how determined and self-disciplined you aspire to be, how keenly you try to coax your brain into deep historical analysis, sometimes life gets in the way. Writing a monograph is all about persuading yourself you have, and can maintain, control – of your routine & motivation over a period of months and years, of the stupefying mass of material you are trying to shape into a crystal-clear argument, and even of the external factors which can so easily sap a writer’s concentration and energy. In that sense, writing a book involves telling oneself a lot of fictions, in order to make task in hand appear achievable.

So I am now labouring through chapter 10, in which the Reformation stance (and religious language) of Zygmunt I of Poland is compared with that of Charles V, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. I had thought this would be a straightforward and relatively quick chapter, but having typed that sentence I now realise just how unlikely that always was.

There are technically about 7 weeks left of the British Academy Fellowship, the year of sabbatical I have to write the book, and now I have a dilemma. Part of me thinks the priority is to use the remaining time to edit what has already written into good shape. Such editing needs a good, concentrated chunk to time, when the fine detail of the chapters can mesh together (ideally!). Part of me, however, thinks the more pressing task is to finish the draft itself, to press on with this chunky last chapter, so that I can at least have the psychological satisfaction and comfort, come October, that there is an entire book manuscript in existence (whatever state that MS might actually be in). So I’m still deciding whether to impose a strict guillotine on Chapter 10, or whether to keep ploughing on, until I have finally worked out exactly what Francis I thought about his own Lutherans…

Thursday 20 June 2013

A Sea of Notes

The offending pile
It’s the end of term, and even though I’ve been on leave, I’ve stuck to my usual start-of-summer-vacation ritual and spent a day tidying my office. This was in fact particularly necessary this year, because there have been piles of notes (on secondary reading for the book) building up in corners of the room, on tables, under chairs for some time now. As I move gradually from a writing-up to an editing phase, it’s high time to get a handle on all this.

Once I'd retrieved all the unfiled notes and put them into one big pile, that pile was alarmingly large. I had no idea that I’d read this much about the Reformation and the late medieval church, all over Europe, in the past few years. It was a nice surprise to see that I’d done much more work that I’d realised, and a less pleasant discovery to find how little of this I could remember reading, or knowing.

When I wrote my first book, the chapters were thematically quite distinct (a chapter on art history, on diplomacy, on high politics), so the notes from my secondary meeting were easy to keep on top off – you just filed them according to which chapter they were relevant to. In Elusive Church, however, virtually everything I’ve read contains ideas, or snippets of information, which are relevant to two or more chapters, as well as the central argument set out in the introduction. We solemnly tell our Freshers, in their first week, that keeping your notes in good order is imperative. I’ve not done such a good job of that – but writing a book is an organic process, even if the line between materials naturally coalescing, and total chaos, is a fine one. And, at the end of the day, I’m not sure there is any filing system which in itself solves the basic problem – that it’s just very hard for one individual to keep in their head, at any one time, the information from scores of monographs, not to mention hundreds upon hundreds of sources. In that sense, pulling together a first full draft of this book is reminding me more and more of revising for Finals – testing just how much historical information, and argument, you can upload into your brain at once. 

Friday 14 June 2013

Paper on the Carpet

It’s Friday of 8th week, the last day of the academic year in Oxford, and even though I’ve been on research leave this year, it stills seems a fitting day to finally print out the draft monograph as it exists so far. Eight out of ten chapters, plus the introduction, have been drafted, and I tell (promise?) myself that the remaining two chapters are short, quick ones.

 A book will take on many physical forms before the final ‘real’ edition arrives in a package from the publisher – a final MS, MS returned with copy editing comments, proofs etc – but the first incarnation is this pile of A4 paper on my college floor. Given the effort required to produce this much, the pile looks a little smaller than I had expected, although I remind myself that it's printed single-spaced and double-sided. It’s nonetheless very exciting to see even this underwhelming sheaf of papers, and slightly queasy-making too – will it make any sense when I sit down and read through the whole thing (to which end I’m going to the seaside for a couple of days)? Is the central argument which snakes through all the chapters convincing? Will there be time to firm up this first almost-draft by the time the Freshers arrive in the autumn? How good/bad, appalled or relieved, will I feel after I’ve read it? It's a little bit of a Pandora's box.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

End Game?

Well, it now feels as if the monograph is moving towards a kind of endgame – all the months of sensibly splitting my day between reading in the library and writing back in college seem a long time ago, as it’s now just a matter of powering through the final chapters, to complete a first draft this summer.

I had, needless to say, forgotten how hard this stage of the process is. I’d forgotten how, when I first placed a copy of my first book, in its shiny red-black cover, on my shelf, every time I looked at it in the first few weeks as well as pride, I felt a little stab of sorrow and resentment that it had cost so much blood, sweat and tears to produce something which looked so small, so easy-to-miss on a bookshelf.

Writing full time to a deadline is hard because on many levels it's not not very good for you – people get backache, eye strain, RSI and even DVT. Even in short spells, writing for several hours a day is also bad for the brain – I seem to emerge zombie-like out of the 16C century in the early evening, or at college lunch, slightly stupefied, and I’ve seen colleagues on sabbatical with that same vacant but preoccupied book-writing look. I’m trying to counteract the mental drain caused by intense book writing, with things which might stimulate my brain in gentler ways – new box sets, magazines full of pretty photos of Italian interiors, weekends away.

Of course, the paradox is that book writing is gruelling, but it’s churlish to complain about it. It’s a great privilege to have the space to write, something scholars and authors over the century have pleaded for… and a particular privilege that this is funded by the British Academy. It’s just very hard work, like most worthwhile things.