Advice

Scholars Talk Writing: James M. McPherson

To be called a ‘popularizer’ is the kiss of death for an academic only if the actual writing is sloppy and sensationalized

February 21, 2016

About a zillion years ago, I was an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, apprenticed to Sheldon Meyer, one of the great editors of American history. Sheldon had exquisite taste and the ability to keep his authors happy and productive by dint of his supportive intelligence, patience, and many-martini lunches. He was responsible for a series of trade books on the history of the United States, to be edited by C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter. The three of them came up with an all-star line up of scholars to write each volume, and contracts were issued.

When I got to the press, in 1984, only one of the books had been published, The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff. The series, as is often the case with ambitious publishing projects, had gotten stalled. So when James M. McPherson submitted a gargantuan manuscript for what would become Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), everyone was excited. I got to do extremely important work on the proj­ect: cheerily typing up the front matter, numbering the pages by hand, making copies, and having endless discussions about maps.

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

The book was published to glorious reviews, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a New York Times best seller.

You are an excellent, lucid, and lively writer. How did that happen? Where and what did you learn about writing well?

McPherson: I learned how to write mainly by the trial and error of writing. I learned little or nothing in high school, because there were few real writing assignments in my classes at a small-town Midwestern public school. The first real papers I wrote were in college, where I guess I showed steady improvement from initial mediocrity to a senior thesis (on the early history of public education in my hometown from the 1850s to the 1870s) that earned a high grade for style as well as substance.

A good many years later, however, I reread that thesis and was demoralized by how bad the writing style really was. I had yet to learn not to use two or more words when one would do, to use the active voice and action verbs whenever possible, and to keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum.

I did take a creative-writing course during my senior year, but, in looking back, I don’t think that I learned a great deal from it — with one exception. The professor assigned us various categories of writing — essays, reports, descriptions of events and scenes, fiction, and so on. At the time, I was going through a Hemingway phase, so I wrote a short story in my best Hemingway style. It must have been awful, because the instructor wrote in his commentary that I should stick to expository writing. From that experience I learned two important lessons: Write in my own voice rather than imitate another writer; and stay away from fiction.

I think that it was in graduate school that I really learned how to write history. In part this was a result of increasing maturity and professionalism, which translated into a more mature and professional prose. It was also the result of reading all the great works by historians that I encountered during those years.

In the final analysis, I think that one learns how to write by reading good writing and consciously or subconsciously absorbing the models while retaining one’s own voice. Writers like Allen Nevins, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Hofstadter, David Herbert Donald, George Mowry, and Arthur Link.

But don’t graduate students also have to imbibe a lot of bad writing along the way, and end up imitating good scholars who have their own set of bad habits?

McPherson: To be sure, the large corpus of books and articles that graduate students must slog through includes a lot of bad writing. But I think that this ordeal actually helped me to learn how to write better by providing examples of how not to do it, and what to avoid.

You studied with C. Vann Woodward. Is there anything in particular you learned from him about how to write history?

McPherson: Woodward was one of the foremost examples of a superb writer of history. I learned how to write by reading his books and essays. He was also a good critic of my papers and dissertation drafts (as well as Battle Cry of Freedom drafts), and his comments undoubtedly helped improve them. But he never tried to "teach" his students how to write in a conscious or direct way.

How did you tackle such a gigantic project — writing the entire history of the Civil War in one volume?

McPherson: One chapter, or section of a chapter, at a time. I don’t write from an outline — I’ve tried it, and it proved to be a waste of time. In my head I had a general outline of the whole book and a somewhat more specific outline of what I hoped to cover in each chapter.

I would sit down to read the sources, secondary and primary, for each part of a chapter, and then write that part before going on to repeat the proc­ess many times until I had a complete book. As I wrote each paragraph, the subject of the next paragraph would become more clear in my mind, and that proc­ess repeated itself through countless paragraphs.

The second and third drafts rarely changed organization or substance; they focused on sentence structure, clarity, and finding just the right word (with frequent use of a thesaurus) in the right place. In revising at the sentence level, I would change the passive voice to active whenever possible, try to change "to be" and other nonaction verbs to action verbs, and to break up some compound or complex sentences into two or more shorter sentences when it seemed appropriate.

I also read my second draft aloud to myself as a way to catch sloppy or unclear syntax from two perspectives — sound as well as sight.

How did that book’s success affect you?

McPherson: It was a two-edged sword. On one edge, I enjoyed the praise and 15 minutes of fame that it earned, the royalties that it paid, the invitations to give lectures that paid additional fees, the prominence in the historical profession that I acquired, and other benefits of success. On the other edge, this notoriety cut deeply into family time, into the leisure for exercise and hobbies like tennis and bicycling that I had previously enjoyed, and into the peace and quiet that are part of a quality life that was eroded by my newfound prominence.

Do you ever get stuck as a writer? How do you get unstuck?

McPherson: Like virtually every writer I know, I sometimes get stuck and suffer a relatively mild form of writer’s block. This usually happens at the beginning of an essay, a chapter, or some other writing proj­ect. Getting started is the hardest thing for me. Once I have gotten a paragraph or two under my belt, sometimes just a sentence or two, it is much easier to keep going.

I have discovered that the best way to get started is to grit my teeth and just start writing, even if those first sentences or paragraphs turn out to be gibberish. I can always go back and rewrite once I have built up the necessary momentum to keep going. When I have finished writing for the day, but the piece is still unfinished, I usually try to jot down a topic sentence and an idea or two for the next paragraph, so that I won’t have to overcome the inertia of starting when I return to the piece the following day.

Pet peeves about academic writing??

McPherson: Too much of it is aimed at fellow specialists and inaccessible to a general reader. Technical terms, jargon, words that the reader has to look up in a dictionary, opaque prose, abstract concepts, and the like characterize a great deal of academic prose. Some historians — especially younger ones hoping to make an impression — try to impress their peers or mentors with "cutting edge" methodology or findings that they present in a form that only those insiders can understand, as a way of proving their superior knowledge. That is exactly the wrong way to do it; we ought to try to present our findings in a narrative format that the intelligent nonspecialist can grasp.

One of the worst things an academic can be called is a "popularizer." Do you think it’s important for academics to be able to write for a general readership? Is there a risk for young academics in writing too accessibly?

McPherson: To be called a popularizer can be the kiss of death to an academic, young or old — if such a denigration is directed toward writing that is cheapened by a conscious effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In my opinion, however, good historical writing based on sound scholarship can and should be accessible and meaningful to an expert as well as a popular audience, so long as the canons of accuracy and sound interpretation are not violated. If this kind of accessibility is "popularizing," I consider it a badge of honor rather than shame.

What do you tell your students about writing? Any exercises? Any stylebooks you recommend?

McPherson: All writers and would-be writers should master Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

In historical writing, one of the biggest faults of beginning students — at the graduate as well as undergraduate level ­— is the tendency to cram all of one’s research into the text of a paper, chapter, or dissertation. To overcome this fault, I urge students to think of an iceberg: six-sevenths of it is invisible below the surface but is necessary to support the one-seventh that is visible.

The same is true of historical research and writing: Only one-seventh of the data, quotations, and other information one finds in one’s research should make it into the text, but the invisible six-sevenths of that research is necessary to support the text. A good many students have told me that this iceberg metaphor is helpful.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing in Eastern Washington University’s writing program. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.