Scholars Talk Writing: Sam Wineburg

How a Stanford professor, known for his work on "historical thinking," learned to trust his own voice

August 17, 2015

Stanford U.
Sam Wineburg

Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and, by courtesy, of history at Stanford University, emailed himself into my life when he sent me a brief request: "No beating around the bush: Do you do any freelance consulting — i.e., looking over a book proposal and spanking me as necessary?"

No freelancing, I told him; no spanking of strangers. I was, however, interested to know about his project and why he thought he needed help.

Like many successful academics, Sam wanted to try writing for a broader readership. His previous book, a collection of essays, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, has sold more than 40,000 copies for Temple University Press. He realized that a lot of the stuff he’d written was getting attention, but, he said, "I’ve never written a non-university-press proposal before. My guide is your Chronicle essays, all marked up in fluorescent yellow and orange peering out at me from my bulletin board."

Flattery will get you everywhere. At least with me.

Scholars Talk Writing

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

So for the last year we’ve been having conversations about agents, editors, and trade publishing. We’ve discussed what a book proposal should look like. And — mostly, because we’re both obsessively interested in the topic — we’ve talked a lot about writing.

Eventually I read his proposal, said not much more than Bravo!, and told him to send it out. Sam got great offers and ultimately accepted a contract from the University of Chicago Press. In the process, we’ve become buddies, and so I was eager to chat with him for this series.

Can you talk about your development as a writer?

Wineburg: My freshman tutor at Brown University was Steven Millhauser, then a doctoral student, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I arrived in Providence thinking I knew how to write. Millhauser put a quick end to that. To this day, one of his summary comments sits framed on my desk. A-minus was the grade, and his comment began, "A strong paper, carefully considered and forcefully argued." But then came the line I’ll never forget: "The better you are, the more imperative it becomes to rid yourself of all the evidences of amateurishness, carelessness, and flawed education that your paper, good as it is, still reveals." Mr. Millhauser — Mister is how we addressed him — taught me that the two most important tools a writer has are his ears. The most important things I learned about writing I learned during the first semester of my freshman year in college.

Over the years, I’ve had to learn to embrace my own voice. I had inklings of this understanding even as a high-school student, when I excelled at news writing for the school paper but felt less capable with human-interest stories. Experience has taught me to listen to my voice rather than trying to mimic others. It’s hard, because as humans we compare ourselves endlessly to others. We read terrific writing and say to ourselves, "Boy, I want to write like that." And how I’ve tried, endlessly imitating voices that aren’t my own. Then, one day when reading a book by my favorite Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld, I came across these lines, "If there is meaning to the words of an author it is because he is true to himself, his voice, and his pace. His subject, his thesis are byproducts of his writing, not its essence." These words sit framed on my desk as well.

What do you do when you get stuck on a project?

Wineburg: Eat junk food and start to detest myself. And then I place my two hands around my derrière and force what I grab into the seat of a chair.

How do you get your writing done?

Wineburg: As Twain said, first thing in the morning (when I am healthy and in a rhythm) I eat the frog. (Mark Twain: "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.") All the other self-deception (that answering email is "working") can wait until I’m spent (i.e., after three hours, if I am lucky, of concentration).

What do you tell your students about writing?

Wineburg: To write is to hear the cadence and rhythm of prose. When my writing matters most, I sit at my desk and read it aloud. Not in a subvocal mumble. I enunciate the words so that someone outside my door can actually hear them. I taught freshmen this past quarter — incredibly talented young people who won the college-admission crapshoot by getting into Stanford. But many of them come to us tone-deaf. They write 40-word sentences that even they can’t understand. I make them stand up and read these sentences aloud so that they can train their ears to listen. Other than assigning good writing, I know of no better way to develop students’ internal rhythm for prose.

I am also a stickler on topic sentences. They should direct. They should guide. They should create a toehold into broader and deeper ideas in the body of the paragraph. The problem is that I toil in a field, educational research, where sophistication is often equated with jargon and polysyllabic nominalizations (ouch!). I watch smart Ph.D. students — who come to us as clear, lean writers — progressively adopt all the affectations of their professors before they’ve even finished their third quarter. Writing is like eating. A diet of junk food weakens the body. A diet of prose choked with jargon, and it’s only a matter of time before our own prose becomes larded with "posits," "delineates," and "imbricates."

I teach a course on scholarly writing for students at the end of their Ph.D. program. I define Stage 4 prose decay as the moment when "mediate" is the only verb left in their vocabulary. I start the class with an exercise. I take a random page from a prestigious scholarly journal and make them compute the average number of words in each topic sentence. Then I take a page from whatever Jill Lepore New Yorker article happens to be my favorite and have them do the same. The last time I did this, the average for the "prestigious" journal was 46 words (versus 15 for The New Yorker), a number so outrageous that, whatever goals the author had in mind, communication wasn’t one of them. When we’re done I can see the bemused looks on students’ faces. What have we become, they ask.

Do you have a favorite writing exercise to give students?

Wineburg: In a course last semester, I asked third-year Ph.D. students to write an abstract of an article they aspired to publish. In class, I had them put aside their abstracts, take out a sheet of paper, and rewrite the same abstract in language their next-door neighbors or great-aunts could understand. I then arranged students in pairs and had them exchange their laser-printed originals along with their handwritten rewrites.

Not surprisingly, students preferred reading the handwritten versions. They were more straightforward, less jargony, and more to the point. But what I didn’t anticipate was the heartfelt confessionals that followed. To a one, students testified that rewriting their abstracts in plain language helped them understand at a deeper level what their study was about. In other words, polysyllabic strings of "mediations," "peripheral participations," "hegemonies," and "cultural tools" muddled their thinking.

What books on writing do you recommend to students?

Wineburg: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul Silvia; Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, (especially the "Shitty First Drafts" chapter) by Anne Lamott; and the first part of Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style: A Guide to Written English.

I often teach by slogans. Do you have slogans that students remember that help them learn how to write better?

Wineburg: "Good writing is good editing."

"God posts guard dogs at the gates of creativity. The secret is they never bite."

"Comparisons are odious."

[When I asked Sam to explain this last one, he said it was about comparing yourself to other writers, and, as I’ve come to expect from him, he elucidated it with a text. He sent me a passage from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, a story about a rabbi named Zusya who, when he died, imagined God sitting in judgment asking him why he wasn’t Moses, Solomon, or David. When God appeared, the rabbi was surprised by the question God asked: "Why weren’t you more like Zusya?" Sam said, "The imperative I give myself when I write is to write like Sam, not like someone else."]

What else should people who care about writing well know?

Wineburg: In that same comment from my freshman paper, Mr. Millhauser said it best, "Never stop reading, and never be satisfied."

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is She welcomes comments and questions directed to