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...

Friday, 9 November 2012

Clock and Keyboard

Does monograph-writing bend time?
Photo by Simon Shek

One of the difficult things about writing a monograph is the sense, minute by minute, of elapsing time – of deadlines approaching, or precious research leave evaporating. There’s a constant internal tick-tocking, the pressure to achieve something substantial towards the book every single day.

In these circumstances, what I feel I should be doing most of the time, as the clock ticks, is writing prose - sitting in front of a screen, constructing sentences, paragraphs, chapters. That’s what book-writing, in its final analysis, obviously seems to boil down to. Plus, it’s reassuring to be creating large Word documents.

However, I’m becoming increasingly aware of how much of a siren call this psychological pressure to keep writing can be. Obviously, the book needs to be physically typed out, but the paradox is that the process of composition seems to happen more quickly, efficiently and painlessly if you limit the time spent in the apparently defining authorial act of writing prose. Paradoxically, if you make yourself spend an extra two days planning, even as you panic about deadlines, the chapter often writes itself much faster as a result. Paradoxically, simply putting in more hours at the computer – in an apparent bending of the rules of physics – doesn’t automatically lead to a quicker book completion, and might even have the opposite effect. This is of course what we solemnly tell our undergraduates in their Fresher/induction week: plan meticulously, don’t rush, write only when the argument is clear in your head. But the magnetic lure of the keyboard, and the power of the clock to propel you towards it, remains very strong… Book writing happens in the mind, I keep telling myself, and not really, or not just, on the keyboard.

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