Tag Archives: writing

How to write, and not write, a history paper


A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of the Venerable Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

Trolling through some old material from my days as a Duke preceptor (teaching assistant), I find the following advice on papers I gave to Susan Keefe’s CH13 one year. Re-reading it now, some 15 years later, I find that students still have much the same issues when writing history papers, and I still recommend the same solutions. Some of these problems and solutions apply to any humanities paper, or any paper at all. Some are more specific to history.

[Point 1 of my notes had to do with a specific paper they were working on, so I've deleted it]:

2.  Key issues in papers.

a.  A certain distractedness; a tendency to drift from the question asked, or the topic at hand.  Given an assigned question—or in the case of your research paper, once you have established your own topic, question or thesis statement, make sure that everything you write relates to that question.  Cut everything out that doesn’t.  Don’t worry about running out of things to say; any given historical question—at least at the level we’re working—has had countless books written about it. There’s far more than enough material for a single paper.

—Watch out for getting caught up in the vivid details about the lives of those you write about; details that are compelling and fascinating, but don’t relate to the question.

—Look with particular suspicion at your first page.  Often “huffing and puffing,” getting the engine going, giving background material that only vaguely relates to the topic. Continue reading

Dorothy Sayers on “the contemplative vocation of the artist”


Shout out to my all-time favorite female apologist (that is, a person who is female and a Christian apologist)–Dorothy L. Sayers. A neat article today by a smart young fellow I once met at the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton, named Cole Matson. Cole presents one of Sayers’s most powerful ideas: the spiritual as well as intellectual integrity of the artist/writer/dramatist:

For Sayers, the artist is a person who is called to a contemplative vocation, and who delights in sharing the fruits of that contemplation with others through the creation of artworks. Artistic creation is a necessary part of the vocation; a contemplative who is not also a craftsman is not an artist. But contrary to Lewis’ focus on an artwork’s potential value for edification, Sayers focuses on the artist’s inner delight in making as the raison d’être of artistic creation. ‘The only rule I can find,’ Sayers writes, ‘is to write what you feel impelled to write, and let God do what He likes with the stuff’[7].

[SAYERS:] Do you think that love of creation is sufficient reason to justify making art? Or do you think an artist must also consider whether or not his art will edify? If you are an artist, how do you keep yourself open to hear the words or images you may be given?

You can read the whole article here.

Follow-up to “Don’t do this in any academic paper”: How to craft a central claim


Marc Cortez’s wise and funny piece on how not to destroy your own academic paper with wishy-washy language has obviously struck a nerve, judging from the number of hits. I thought it might be helpful to offer as a follow-up some advice on how to develop a strong, workable central claim (often called a “thesis”) for your paper.

The best thing I’ve seen on this topic is a handout from an old employer of mine, the Duke University Writing Studio. What follows is an excerpt. I love especially the list of criteria for a strong thesis: contestable, reasonable, specific, significant, and interpretive–Oh, if only my students would all read this before writing any more papers for me! Continue reading

Don’t do this in any academic paper at any level. Anytime. Ever.


Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones in action. Write like he would!

Friend Marc Cortez over at WesternThM has provided some wise and important advice for all academic writers at all levels on how not to kill your essay in the very first line. And yes, Indiana Jones figures in this sage wisdom.

A sample:

“So, I would like to try to explore the possibility of….”

Just stop.

This sentence and its ilk taint the beginnings of far too many otherwise good papers. Using a sentence like this to describe your paper is like building a solid table and then ripping one of its legs off. It may still be standing, but no one will want to use it. With one sentence, you’ve cut the legs out from under your own research paper. Continue reading

InTrust writers’ workshop


Folks,

Sorry for the blog inactivity over the past couple of days. I’ll be posting something more substantial shortly, but to explain myself:

I was at a writers’ workshop for InTrust magazine over the weekend. InTrust, which goes out to presidents and trustees of evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic seminaries all over North America, is edited by my friend and fellow Dukie Jay Blossom. I write for it once in a while [one of my InTrust articles, on a new Wesleyan seminary, is here], and each year they hold a writers’ workshop in which we writers hear from seminary presidents and others about issues that impact the running of seminaries.

Here is the happy group of writers from this weekend. We are standing on the gorgeous campus of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, a venerable (and wealthy) seminary of the Episcopalian Church (we also visited Wesley Seminary in D.C.) Yes, that’s me in the outrageous Hawaiian shirt, third from the left: