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...

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Starting Guns

One of the tricky things in research (and probably in any literary activity too) is knowing when to start writing. I’ve now been circling around Chapter 2, on the Crown and the Reformation in Royal Prussia, for some time now - wading through the secondary literature, 16C vernacular Prussian chronicles, and the comparative reading which will help me to set these Baltic events in their European context.

Because research is a theoretically perpetual process (you could go on researching any given thing almost indefinitely, following new leads, sources, angles, methodologies, theories etc.), you’re never going to have read absolutely everything of potential relevance to your problem before you start writing (or even when you finish writing). The trick lies in knowing when you have read enough to say something new, to have a stab at a first draft. The challenge is to pick the right moment to open a pristine, blank Word file and confidently type ‘Chapter Two’, in the belief that something sensible will then follow. 

Having a plan isn’t, in itself, necessarily evidence that you’re ready to start writing (unless you’re having an undergraduate essay crisis, in which case you might not have much choice). My doctoral supervisor, Nick Davidson, told his students that you know it’s time to start writing up your research when you start dreaming about your historical subjects. I’m not dreaming about the radical Reformation preachers of Danzig yet, but I do wake up in the middle of the night and realise I’ve been thinking about them in my sleep, which is unsettling in itself. The dreaming question suggests that knowing when to start writing is not an entirely conscious or rationale decision, but is rooted in intellectual and cognitive instincts which are hard to articulate. It’s just a feeling – here’s this great list of texts I still have to read on the 1519 Polish-Prussian war, on the Stegman Danzig chronicle, on Luther’s later letters to Danzig, and although all that is important and will be slotted in later, things are starting to come together in my head, and so this is the moment: ‘Chapter 2’.  Of course, it’s possible to get the timing wrong and plunge in far too early, and make a terrible mess of your piece. No instinct, after all, is infallible. 

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