History majors take note!
Here’s a letter (and some tips) on writing from Dr. Suzanne LaVere, Associate Professor of History at IPFW:
Writing is an incredibly important part of my work as a historian. I write something every day, and part of what I try to do with my research is take obscure texts (which are usually in Latin) and attempt to make them meaningful for a modern audience. I think it’s especially important to be able to communicate unfamiliar ideas in writing in a way that helps people to understand why these ideas matter, and writing is one of the major ways I try to do this. I think that learning to write well is very important to my field; I benefited from great teachers in middle school, high school, college, and graduate school who helped me become a better writer, both in terms of expressing ideas and the more technical things like word choice, smooth transitions between paragraphs, and all that good stuff. One of our department’s goals for history majors is to have everyone work on their writing through learning how to write different kinds of papers. Ultimately, we’re hoping that extensive written work will help students in their future careers—we think it pays off, since we have so many students who go on to careers where they need to effectively communicate in writing every day.
At this point in my career, I’m usually working on bigger projects (a book, a scholarly article), and so I try to find ways to break these big projects into smaller parts. For example, when I was working on my book, I dealt with a large number of medieval manuscripts. I tried to focus on one particular manuscript, transcribing it and translating the content I needed, and then thinking about how it fit into my overall project. I found it was easier to focus on one thing at a time, rather than getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material out there that I needed to incorporate. I think this method could apply to a student doing a research paper—work on researching/gaining information from one source at a time, rather than jumping from source to source. I do think it always helps, if using this strategy, to have a backup source/portion of your project to tackle in case you get burned out or bored with what you’re working on.
What does she recommend?
1) Revise and revise again! It rarely happens that what you write the first time is what you really want to say. I revise just about everything, working through multiple different versions. I really try to emphasize the idea of writing as a process to my students (and to myself, especially when I run into writer’s block or other problems).
2) Outlines are a great way to organize thoughts, especially toward the beginning of a project. Later, as you do more research, you can fill in the outline, move sections around, and so on.
3) Keep a notebook and/or a folder (with a bigger project, you might have multiples) to jot down ideas about your project, to try out certain ways of writing out your ideas, and to collect useful articles, etc. that you come across in your research.
4) Read your work out loud. It doesn’t necessarily have to be to any audience other than yourself, but reading aloud helps you catch things you won’t catch if just reading your paper silently. I find this to be especially helpful when I don’t like the wording of a sentence I wrote or the flow of a paragraph—reading it out loud helps me find what I want to change.
5) Get feedback—have other people read your writing, ideally people from different audiences (those who might know something about your paper topic vs. someone not familiar with the material).