Notes from the judges’ bench
Anne Laurence, emeritus professor of History, The Open University
This comment is prompted by having been a judge for more than 10 years for two book prizes for historians, both of them for a first monograph. As a result, I have read more than 100 first monographs. I would like to think that these notes will help anyone who is about to try to turn a thesis into a book, now a necessary step for aspirants to academic posts.
I should start by saying that the experience I’ve had has been fascinating and has introduced me to the writing of many new scholars which I would never otherwise have come across—I say new because not all of them have been youthful. Prizes are an excellent way of encouraging people and nothing can better display the health of the subject than good lists of first books. However, the process by which theses become books is not always proof against publications which could have been very much better. Here, then, is some advice that can vastly improve first books, especially if they are based upon PhD theses.
UK theses are intended for an audience primarily composed of supervisors and examiners. Books have to reach a much wider audience and the qualities that make an excellent thesis—an apprentice piece—are different from those that make a good book. A book should make a difference to the subject by putting forward a compelling and readable argument. Not many people are able, as Amanda Foreman did, to turn the subject of their thesis into a successful trade book (trade books are usually published by large general publishers who have considerable marketing budgets and expect books to be a commercial success, access to them is normally through a literary agent). Another tactic is that of Andrew Biswell who produced a thesis on the writer Anthony Burgess while at the same time writing a biography of Burgess.
There are a number of requirements of a thesis, exercises to show your examiners that you have learnt the craft, that if included in a book make it less interesting to read. Of course, ideally, a thesis should be a beautifully crafted piece of historical writing which immediately changes the face of the subject. In reality, the pressure to finish in the required period tends to mean that authors take short-cuts and complete in a hurry.
- For your thesis you may well have had to compress your subject from a study of agriculture and rural life in England and Wales 1400-1900, to a study of Ambridge’s rural economy 1800-1900. This was necessary to make your task as a PhD student achievable within the limited time and resources available. But not many people are going to find a study of Ambridge alone of interest. What most readers will want is some link between Ambridge and the wider economic and social context, some generalisations beyond the specifics of Ambridge. This may well require you to do some more work beyond your thesis, but it will be worth it. But beware of overstating the claims for your study of Ambridge’s economy to change the face of rural history. Small studies do make a real difference because of the empirical research on which they are based, but rarely do they overturn an existing argument, though they may nuance it in very significant ways.
- Literature reviews are an essential part of the apprentice piece, they show your examiners that you’ve immersed yourself in the secondary literature on the subject and are aware of the arguments that your own research may confirm or refute. But literature reviews date quickly, especially in subjects where there is active current research, and they are often very boring to read. Rather than leaving in a literature review as a separate chapter, dismantle it and, where you need to refer to the work of another historian, do so at the point where your research intersects with theirs. It’s much more interesting for the reader if the author engages with specific arguments in the literature at the relevant point in the text of the book.
- When discussing work done previously, be scrupulously courteous. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have worked in history before us. It’s tempting to imply that everyone who has gone before you is wilfully neglectful of your favourite topics, has ignored the obvious, and failed to ask the right questions or read the right documents. No-one minds having their research superseded by a fine piece of research from their successors, that’s what intellectual progress is about. But no-one likes having their work belittled in public. Be pragmatic: you never know when a historian whose work you have dismissed might be on an appointment panel for a job you are after.
Sometimes there’s been a good reason for a historian’s work to have been shaped as it was, a reason that you might not know about (availability of records, state of scholarship at the time they were writing, political or censorship constraints, for example).
- Consciousness of the generation to which an historian belongs is important. For example, if you work on queer history, it is of some relevance to know whether an historian was writing during the period when male homosexual acts were illegal.
In some historical subjects, such as gender history, historians have often had non-traditional academic careers, which means it can be hard to know how old our historical foremothers are. Linda Kerber (b.1940) has made the point that historians such as Natalie Zemon Davis (b.1928), Gerda Lerner (1920-2013) and Joan Kelly (1928-82) are professionally her contemporaries despite being almost a generation older.
You should not assume that all women’s and gender history is the product of second-wave feminism. Ivy Pinchbeck and Alice Clark are well enough known, but there were many other women who in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wrote about women in the past, some of these historians having been inspired by first-wave feminism. Charlotte Carmichael Stopes (1841-1929) and Rose Graham (1875-1963) both wrote on aspects of women’s history. In the introductions Mary Anne Everett-Green (1818-95) wrote to the volumes of the Calendars of State Papers she edited between 1867 and 1895 there are many references to women, children and families she came across in the course of her editing. I think of a young writer castigating a historian writing before the First World War for her lack of concern for the position of women in the past. This historian was a well-known suffragist, a fact unknown to the young researcher.
- Remember that the political status of a country may change. Ireland before 1922 was not a republic as it is now with a parliament elected by proportional representation, it was part of the United Kingdom and sent MPs to Westminster. Kings and governments come and go. What is true for England is frequently not true for Scotland and Ireland. Comparable considerations obtain for many pre-First World War European nations and for much of Asia and Africa between 1800 and the present.
- Inevitably, when you wrote your thesis, there will have been bits that bored you to write. If they bored you, how much more likely are they to bore a reader who has actually paid money for the book?
- Open up the subject. Your thesis on chantries in Felpersham, the poor law in Loamshire or air-raid precautions in Metroland will be riveting to a small number of people. They will be the people who have themselves written about chantries in Barchester and Melstock, the poor law in Barsetshire, or air raid precautions in Casterbridge. Your book needs to have some more obvious general appeal even to the scholarly historian. This doesn’t mean saying that your research demonstrates beyond doubt that Felpersham was the world centre for all chantries; rather it involves doing a realistic assessment of where Felpersham chantries sit in the array of places that had chantries.
Likewise, if your work is on Ruritania you will find a readership amongst other Ruritanian specialists, but it is worth pitching your book in such a way that it’s of interest to historians of other countries. So, tell us what the wider application of your research is. (And in the current era of ‘impact’ this may enable your work to be taken up in areas outside your own academic specialism.)
- Signpost the subject. Your introduction needs to entice the reader to continue reading, so set out your general argument and what is really new about your subject (it may be your approach, it may be the archives you’ve used, it may be the designation of the subject itself). You don’t need to rehearse the contents of all the chapters, but you need to show the reader that it is worth his or her while continuing to read. Likewise, signpost the chapters.
- You can afford to be more emphatic and less guarded in your judgements in a book than in a thesis. You have had the affirmation of your examiners—experts in the subject—and they may well make suggestions on to how best to render your thesis into a book. Take their advice! You can afford to take risks with your conclusions.
- Apparatuses of various kinds may have been very important to your thesis. Be judicious about how you reproduce them. They may make or break your argument, in which case they need to stay, but perhaps as appendices.
- If you have taken a theoretical line on a subject about which you are writing, you inspire confidence in the reader by demonstrating that you actually understand the theory. There may have been reference to a theoretical literature in your thesis as part of the task of demonstrating that you have a comprehensive understanding of the literature relevant to the topic. However, as with the literature review, unless the theory actually informs the way you are interpreting your material, it doesn’t impress to refer to a theoretical literature that doesn’t influence your presentation of your findings.
- Editing: A good many academic publishers operate on very tight budgets. They do not have the staff and resources to do detailed copy-editing, so make sure that you are consistent in your use of references and terminology. Whether you contradict yourself in consecutive chapters will be picked up by the reviewers rather than by the publishers, so get help before you hand over your manuscript to sort out this kind of thing. It is humiliating to have a reviewer comment upon poor proof-reading, footnotes or bibliography. Some mistakes are likely to be picked up by the academic readers appointed by the publisher, but it is not their job to do your editing for you; they are there to assure the publisher that the book is of sufficient significance to warrant people buying it. Of course all this is difficult with deadlines, especially those imposed by job applications, promotion and tenure cases, and REFs. Now is the time to call in a few favours.
- Getting a job with your book: It is now an almost universal requirement that your PhD be complete when you apply for your first job, so you will be applying at the point where you must be thinking about turning your thesis into a book. Interviewers are interested in whether it will be possible to enter you for the next REF. The requirements for publications are reduced for early career researchers, but to be rated highly your monograph needs to show rigour, originality and significance to a high degree. For people reading your work for the purposes of the REF, as well as for more general readers, it is extremely helpful if you are explicit about the significance and originality of your work (without, of course making, exaggerated claims).
Rigour: your examiners may have risen to their feet and applauded you for your use of regressions, network analysis, Pearson’s correlation co-efficients or back projection, or of Benedict Anderson, Pierre Bourdieu or Karl Marx’s theories. However, statistical and other methodologies which made your head hurt to work on for your PhD are extremely difficult to make interesting to a reader who has a general interest in your subject but does not care particularly about the details of your analysis and is taking on trust that your calculations are accurate. Increasingly PhD theses are available online so anyone who has a serious interest in your calculations can read them there (usually only PhD theses containing commercially sensitive material are closed for a period of years). So present your results in such a way that an intelligent historian can understand your findings without having to wade through the technical stuff. If you have tables and graphs, explain briefly in the text what their significance is and what the results demonstrate (don’t expect your readers to do the work for you) and consider whether the apparatus is better placed in an appendix than in the text. It may make more sense for you to publish your detailed methodological work as an article in one of the journals devoted to this kind of thing.
Originality: this is where you say that this work on the Ruritanian national debt has never been done before, or that you have uncovered a new archive/data source that allows you to expound the role of cattle rustling in Ruritanian/Brobdiangian trade relations in contrast to earlier work that argued that piracy that was the main driver.
Significance: this is the hardest element for an early career researcher to demonstrate since significance normally only emerges after a period of time. Nevertheless, don’t shy away from explaining that your work sits alongside older work and may modify the way we think about it (all done, of course, with exquisite courtesy).
Much about writing style is very personal, but it is possible to irritate readers to the point that they stop paying attention to the content, however significant. Here are a few examples of literary tics than can make a book less readable:
- Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Adverbs are words that modify verbs (quickly, rosily, ham-fistedly), they tell us something further about how something is done or happens. ‘The road ran undulatingly towards the city’ would be more clearly expressed by saying something about the nature of the country across which the road ran (if this is necessary information). Adjectives are words that qualify nouns (large, red, hot, fevered, uninhibited). Beware of attaching adjectives unthinkingly to nouns and lapsing into cliché (see below). No point is made by writing ‘staunch Protestant’ or ‘devout Catholic’. The following quotation shows how it is possible to write with eloquence and economy (note the minimal use of adjectives and adverbs by both Daniel Defoe and J.M. Coetzee):
Robinson Crusoe, cast up on the beach, looks around for his shipmates. But there are none. ‘I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them,’ says he, ‘except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.’ Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and become proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. No large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes.
- Sentence order. Complex sentences are divided into clauses, often separated by commas, which need to be in a specific order to convey a particular meaning. A very common fault is to get clauses in the wrong order. An example is this (taken from a novel): ‘Chloe washed a lettuce wearing a beaded jacket’. When did you last see a lettuce wearing a beaded jacket? Presumably what was intended was ‘Wearing a beaded jacket, Chloe washed a lettuce’ or ‘Chloe, wearing a beaded jacket, washed a lettuce’. A separate question is whether we need to know what Chloe was wearing while she washed the lettuce. If a reader is puzzled or amazed by what they read, the writing isn’t achieving its objective.
- Clichés. Clichés are overused phrases that might once have seemed lively but now sound tired and give the impression that the writer doesn’t really care about what they are saying. Examples are ‘staunch Protestants’, ‘devout Catholics’, ‘good Queen Bess’. Sometimes one coins one’s own clichés, so beware of, for example, at each appearance describing with the same adjective a historical character or location: ‘mendacious John Smith’ or ‘the good-hearted Mistress Quickley’, or a place as ‘poverty-stricken Ambridge’ or ‘mountain-bound Ruritania’.
- Another type of cliché is to use a common-place or slang metaphor or simile that might be used in speech but which doesn’t contribute extra meaning on the page. An example might be to refer to someone who changed sides in politics as ‘a vicar of Bray’.
- Overlong, too numerous, or banal quotation. I was given the advice as a graduate student that quotations can illustrate a point but they can’t make it for you. Avoid banal quotations—we all know that Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649, there’s no need to quote someone saying that or to reference it. For more obscure points you can paraphrase and acknowledge the source in the references. Also avoid very long quotations. You will be familiar with the way your eye slides over indented sections of print in smaller typeface. If yours does, so will other people’s.
- Tables, charts graphs. All of these are excellent weapons in your armoury, but if they are in the text, make sure you actually say something about the findings.
- Acronyms and abbreviations. These may have been admissible when your readership was your supervisor(s) and your examiners since you are all experts in the same narrow area. But over-use of them, especially if they are not commonplace ones, can at worst make a book unreadable and at best obscures the argument as readers struggle to remember what XKP stands for, especially if you have neglected to give a guide to abbreviations (it’s no good providing an explanation in a foot-note 40 pages earlier).
- Vocabulary. We share the use of one of the richest languages on earth and there is always an apt word. Make sure you choose the right apt word rather than one that sounds rather like it e.g. comparative rather than comparable. Use dictionaries and thesauruses, never more readily available online.
Make sure, too, that you don’t confuse terms such as under- and over-estimate or under-and over-state. To say it is impossible to under-estimate the effect of slavery on the economy of Jamaica means something very different from saying that it is impossible to over-estimate the effect etc. It is better to avoid using double negatives (of which these are a particular type) if there is any danger of damaging clarity.
There is an understandable desire to thank the person who fed the dog while you were at the Borsetshire archives, the person on the bus who repaired the baby buggy, and the people you go jogging with, but resist the temptation to acknowledge any but the most significant academic and personal debts. Repay the other favours in a different way.