For our history 297 class, we were required to read from The History Student Writer’s Manual. Specifically, we read Chapter 2, Writing as Communicating.
The chapter starts by referencing the greater wordsmiths of American History; Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and John F. Kennedy. These men, as the chapter states, did not begin their lives with some Mozart-esque talent at writing. Their speeches were prepared, proofread, edited, and revised many times before the public ever heard it. This process is the main theme of the chapter.
The paper starts by telling the reader that, even if the subject they have to write about is not within their area of interest. It tells them to remain confident in their work and work on it with the same level of enthusiasm they would have shown in any other case. From there, it returns to the first actual step in writing a paper: choosing a topic and narrowing it down. For historians, this is not as simple as saying “write about the Revolution.”, but rather “write about how the patriot movement was popularized in the colonies.” After that the topic has to be narrowed down to something more specific, without being so specific that the historian would have incredibly limited resources. So, continuing with the theme of the revolution, the topic would become about “the acts of the British government and their effect on the Patriot movement.”
From there, it reads a bit like the books we had in our public speaking class. We must choose whether or not we are trying to inform or to persuade. This is also affected by who the audience is. Understand what the audience is seeking to get by reading the paper. The tone of the paper would also be different if the paper is being written for the professor, your colleagues, or for some form of historical journal.
After that, the chapter goes back to the formatting of the paper. Creating outlines, formatting those outlines, writing statements for each paragraph to get the general idea, etc. Continuing from there, it adds in the usual advice for a paper. Keep away from slang terms, be formal; do not use clichés, if you have to use an analogy, be original about it.
All in all, I found the whole chapter a bit refreshing, in the sense that it is the type of document you would find in a refresher course. It goes over the same type of writing rules that we have learned, but done so in a way where it is more conducive to the writings of a historian. It certainly is worth reading. Especially considering that it’s the fall semester, and people forget things like these over the summer. It establishes the criteria for what is expected of us in our writings. That being said, it does at times, seem a bit tedious. There is the sense that, considering most of our class are in the junior year, we would understand this by now. Still, it is nice to look back at the rules of writing, knowing that it might influence our writing for the better.