Welcome!

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, 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. 

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