Writing It Up
Manuals of music composition do not have a final chapter on musical penmanship. Textbooks of topology do not conclude with instructions on how to format a paper for a topology journal. But the writing up of history bulks large in the methodology of history. This is partly because history began as a large audience enterprise, and considerations of large-audience effectiveness have persisted into its scientific period. We are here concerned with small audiences, but whatever the size of your audience, bad presentation will not help the cause. So here are some hints on style and presentation, as homage to tradition, and to supply a category which readers may expect to find. For detailed hints on English in particular (the recommendations which follow are meant to work in any language), see the Readings list at the end. With the usual grain of judgemental salt.
[Reader expectation or no, we would not have included this page without having been reminded, by the Jerry Muller article listed below, that there really is a problem in this area].
- Don't make sentences too long.
- Don't say more than one thing in a sentence.
- Don't develop a habit of parenthesized clauses.
- Go easy on nominalized constructions; they are an academic vice.
- Repeat a noun rather than risk an indeterminate pronoun.
- Economize on passive verbs; in general, say who did what to who.
- Don't praise or blame by adjective; rather, supply an evaluative footnote.
- Avoid humor; it is not transcultural, and it dates rapidly.
- Don't allude; it presumes more familiarity with your personal reading than you are entitled to expect from others.
- Forego jargon, and any other gestures of guild membership.
- In general, be clear. Clarity is the most elusive of all stylistic virtues.
- Preparation: Read enough in another field to understand what a new reader appreciates.
- Know where you are going: write your last chapter first.
- Avoid tawdry beginnings (the Mattingly effect).
- Start by saying where you are coming from, and where you are going.
- End by saying where you have arrived, and what it proves.
- Don't refer to a proof later on; give it at the point you will need it.
- Of several parallel arguments, put the best first; use the others as support.
- Chronological order is a wonderful assistance to reader understanding.
- Signal the stages of your argument with subheads and topic words.
- Use inset paragraphs for quotes; it helps the mind and relieves the eye.
- Diagrams can replace many words, and with advantage to understanding.
- Exploit the two-level discourse made possible by footnotes on the same page.
- Two weeks after you finish it, go back and read it again. Eek!
- Strunk and White. A Manual of Style. Exaggerated for the classroom, but still salutary
- H W Fowler. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. A model of sense and judgement
- Jerry Z Muller. Style is Not a Luxury Option: Reflections on the Prose of the Profs. AHA Perspectives, v44 #3 (March 2006) 44-45
- Style Sheet (in the Journals section)
- English Usage Recommendations (in the Journals section)
7 Nov 2000 / Contact The Project / Exit to Outline Index Page