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, 5 September 2013

Painting in the detail

Photo by Ashley Mayes
After taking a deep breath, I read through the first complete draft of the monograph. There are now various files labelled ‘editing’ on my computer, which explain what needs to be done to the book text: which sources need to be incorporated into paragraph x, which are flabby sections in need of cutting, which chapters need to have parts swapped around. There is also a slightly anxiety-inducing document entitled: ‘bibliography: things that still need to be read.’

Before I settle down to an intense spate of book editing and further reading, however, I’m taking a week to read through all my notes. I had always planned to do this with my first book, but ran out of time. Elusive Church has, however, been conceived and written over a rather longer period than my doctorate-book, and the argument has evolved significantly, probably crystallising most fully in my mind as I wrote the last chapter. It’s a bit like time-lapse photography: I’ve read scores and scores of articles and books on the Reformation and late medieval church since 2007, but each one has been read in light of my (ever developing) thinking about my monograph at a given moment in time. Re-reading all the notes now ensures that all this secondary reading has finally all been considered through the same lens, i.e. the argument as it exists in the full, latest draft of the book, in something very close to its final form (I hope).

Going through my mainly handwritten notes is both laborious, alarmingly slow, and stimulating. It’s a good way of testing the book argument: what in the secondary literature seems to corroborate it, and what should give me pause and encourage me to think through a particular issue more carefully. I’m adding all these extra bits of information & thoughts into the monograph as marginal comments. It feels tuning a machine, or like carefully painting on layer after layer of evidence. The trick is to make sure this process gently enhances the book and its argument, and doesn’t sink it beneath a dead weight of detail…