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, 3 September 2012

Twenty Minutes

Taking the aerial view...
Photo by Rennett Stowe

One of the biggest conferences on Reformation history, the Reformation Studies Colloquium, is coming up this week, in Durham. For me, this has involved attempting to condense one of the monster chapters in the monograph (Chapter 2) into a 20-minute paper comprehensible to those with no prior knowledge of Polish history. (Entitled, for those who are interested: King Zygmunt Goes to Danzig: Reversing an Urban Reformation in 1526).

It’s not uncommon, at conference coffee breaks, to hear people grumbling about the impossibility of doing justice to their current research in a mere 20 minutes, as if this requirement were fundamentally unjust. I’m of the firm view that any argument or episode can be condensed into 20 minutes (or even rather less). It’s an excellent discipline for historians at any stage of their career. That’s not to say that it’s easy but, like a visit to the dentist, it’s probably very good for you. Writing this paper has, as ever, mercilessly forced me to sift out the very important details from the ‘interesting but less important’ ones, and to undertake the painful process of pinning down in 2-3 clear sentences what I’ve found in 5 months of research on this topic, and why those findings might be important / worthwhile. Writing the short conference paper also means I can look back at the 30-page chapter itself afresh, and see more clearly its structural underpinnings – like an archaeologist doing an aerial site-survey.

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