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, 26 August 2013


I’ve finally laboured to the end of Chapter 10 of the monograph. What I had envisaged as a light-touch, comparative, brief sketch of attitudes towards the Reformation around the courts of Europe has turned into the longest chapter in the entire book, currently weighing in at 45 pages.

So long as the chapter isn’t so long as to be boring (and the risk of reader boredom rises exponentially with every page), the main problem with a heavy-weight final chapter is that it might unbalance the book. I’ve always had a sense that writing a monograph is a bit like building a bridge, that you have be mindful of which sections are going to be the most load-bearing. It feels instinctively right to have a brief and arresting introduction, the meatiest chapters in the middle, and then (like an athlete) to give the reader a warm-down in the final chapter or so, a gentle descent towards the end. But readers of this book will find that, rather than limbering down with dignity, the MS as it stands revs up dramatically in the last chapter.

I currently feel that the book argument requires this, because the comparative material has to come at the end (after the Polish case-study has been presented), and it has have some minimum level of detail, precision and close argument in order to be convincing. I think readers don’t like being taken by surprise, however, so the introduction will have to flag up what the reading experience is going to be like, and what to expect when. Perhaps it should include a diagram, saying ‘this book is not like this’

‘But like this, less elegant but hopefully still exciting’...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Fictions of Book Writing

The monograph felt as if it were moving at a good, steady speed (like an athlete making it around a track) in the late spring, but since the summer holiday it has rather lost momentum. The point of a 2 week foreign holiday at this late stage in the book writing process (90% of book drafted) was to clear my head, so that I could come back to the last section fresh. It cleared my head a little too effectively,  and that  - coupled with a major house move - has showed that no matter how hard to you plan, how determined and self-disciplined you aspire to be, how keenly you try to coax your brain into deep historical analysis, sometimes life gets in the way. Writing a monograph is all about persuading yourself you have, and can maintain, control – of your routine & motivation over a period of months and years, of the stupefying mass of material you are trying to shape into a crystal-clear argument, and even of the external factors which can so easily sap a writer’s concentration and energy. In that sense, writing a book involves telling oneself a lot of fictions, in order to make task in hand appear achievable.

So I am now labouring through chapter 10, in which the Reformation stance (and religious language) of Zygmunt I of Poland is compared with that of Charles V, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. I had thought this would be a straightforward and relatively quick chapter, but having typed that sentence I now realise just how unlikely that always was.

There are technically about 7 weeks left of the British Academy Fellowship, the year of sabbatical I have to write the book, and now I have a dilemma. Part of me thinks the priority is to use the remaining time to edit what has already written into good shape. Such editing needs a good, concentrated chunk to time, when the fine detail of the chapters can mesh together (ideally!). Part of me, however, thinks the more pressing task is to finish the draft itself, to press on with this chunky last chapter, so that I can at least have the psychological satisfaction and comfort, come October, that there is an entire book manuscript in existence (whatever state that MS might actually be in). So I’m still deciding whether to impose a strict guillotine on Chapter 10, or whether to keep ploughing on, until I have finally worked out exactly what Francis I thought about his own Lutherans…