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...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

When is a book like a machine?

Gear cogs: a picture of intellectual harmony?
Photo by Ralph Bijker, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

I was talking recently to someone who has experience of working with big City management and strategy consultancy firms, and I was interested to hear a description of what these hot-shot teams do when they go into a company. My interlocutor used a machine metaphor. It sounded surprisingly like writing a monograph.

Consultants apparently start by learning a little bit about the client company, and then come up with a hypothesis about its activities and trajectory – this is the big master cog which turns the machine. As they get into the nitty-gritty of the firm’s documents and processes, they produce little bits of analysis (the small cogs), which have to fit with the big cog. The trick, of course, is that the cogs are not static, but always turning, because new information is always popping up, which leads to new insights, which can change the shape of both the small cogs and the big cog. The aim is to adapt your overall, evolving hypothesis to the smaller units under examination, as they evolve too. When (and if!) it all comes together, you have a well honed, gleaming, analytical piece of work, with all the cogs driving each other, teeth neatly biting into place.

So that’s given me a new, ‘world of forms’ visualisation of my book, and something very lofty to aim for – the bigger argument and the individual chapters working in harmony, like a fine, well-tuned, elegant chrome machine. Whether such a book can exist beyond the world of forms is a moot point. 


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