Writing History (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.4)

As has already been mentioned, writing is perhaps the most important aspect of being a historian. It is through writing that historians are able to share their ideas with others. For this reason, the historian must be able to communicate clearly and in a way that makes people want to listen to his story. If a historian does not have both of these abilities, all of the detective work he put into gathering and analyzing the clues will have been for nothing.

To write well one must first have a good grasp of the basics of writing. First and foremost among these are, of course, spelling and grammar. Someone who frequently misspells words, especially words that are very common or that are important to the topic he is writing about, is not someone that people want to read. Similarly, people do not want to listen to someone who cannot speak or write with correct grammar. Both of these are fundamental, which means basic but important, aspects of writing well.

Another of these basic aspects of writing well is having a large and growing vocabulary. Words are the way human beings express their thoughts and desires. Without words we would not be able to do things either great or small, from something as simple as asking for a glass of water to something as big as discussing the meaning of life. The more words you know, then, the more thoughts you can have. The less words you know, the less thoughts you are capable of having. Being able to find the right word for the right situation is an important part of writing well.

Mastering all of these basics of writing, including spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, applies to writing well on any topic, whether that topic is history or science, mathematics, literature, or your favorite sport. In addition to these basics, there are writing skills that apply specifically to history as well.

Because the historian is both a detective and a storyteller, he has to find a balance between these two roles. The historian has to be able to tell a story that is both interesting and informative. The historian has to be able to educate as well as entertain. Nobody wants to read a dry list of dates and names. At the same time, a historian must not be so interested in telling a good story that he forgets the facts and starts to write fiction instead. An example will help us understand the sort of writing we want to avoid. We will then look at an example that strikes a perfect balance between entertainment and education.

First, here is a short sentence describing an event from history:

Charlemagne was crowed Roman emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day of 800.

While this works as an entry on a timeline, a tool a historian uses to keep track of when events happened, this would make a terrible paragraph in a book or an essay. Imagine if learning history was just reading a bunch of paragraphs like this one!

Now, here is the description of the same event given by a historian:

Charlemagne lingered in [Rome] until Christmas Day. He went to morning mass, knelt for prayers, and as he began to get to his feet, [Pope] Leo III came forward and put a gold crown on his head. The crowd, which had been coached, cheered: “Long life and victory to Charles, the most pious Augustus, the great, peace-loving Emperor, crowned by God!” He had been crowned imperator et augustus, two titles that belonged to the emperor of Rome…1

Notice that instead of just listing the facts Bauer has given us a narrative, or story, of the event. She has also provided us with details about where the crowning took place, which pope crowned Charlemagne, and the reaction of the people present. We get a better idea of what happened from reading this narrative and it keeps our attention. You should also notice that Bauer does not give her own opinion about whether what Pope Leo did was right or wrong. This is called impartiality. Being impartial means not picking sides in a fight. Although we are allowed to have opinions, historians should be as impartial as possible when presenting their stories. We should try to be as fair as we can to the people we are writing about and present the truth to the best of our ability.

Good writing in any subject is writing that includes correct spelling and grammar. Good writing also demonstrates a large vocabulary and the use of thinking skills by the writer. In history, this means doing the research well and presenting our research in a way that is both interesting and informative. It also means keeping an open mind and avoiding being unfair to the people we are writing about. In short, good writing is writing that effectively communicates well thought out ideas. This is the sort of writing we should strive to produce when we write about history.

 

Review Questions

 1. In a paragraph, identify some of the qualities of good writing. Use your own words.

2. Now, write another paragraph identifying some of the aspects of good writing that are especially important in history. Use your own words.

 

Notes

1 Susan Wise Bauer, History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 393.

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