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Writing History for Periodicals: Tips and Tricks by Cian Manning

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Non-Fiction Guides | Getting Non-Fiction Published

Cian Manning

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Winston S. Churchill.

As a new editor to the field of history journals; a minefield of issues related to publishing opened to me of which I was unaware. Typesetting, copyright, print quality of images exemplified my ignorance and inexperience. However, in reading submissions and seeking contributors, I know what I like. I imagine I am no different to any other editor in that sense. I want to be both informed and entertained. A very hard act for anyone to find the right equilibrium. However, there are some notable similarities that the best writers of history follow. Everything can be simplified in life whether its teaching physics, the offside rule or explaining the plot of ‘Inception’. You just need to take a ‘paint by numbers’ approach. Hopefully the following pointers will act as a structure into which your research and writing can flourish.

Here’s ten points to follow:

  • Don’t be afraid to tackle a subject that may have been stretched to ad nausea. A subject can always be interpreted, analysed or presented differently to previous works. With this in mind its worth remembering the words of Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” If you have something new to say on a subject don’t be afraid to say it.
  • Often a mistake authors make, particularly when writing a journal article, is to try to cover too big a time frame. This leads to the piece becoming very thin, like overstretching the dough of a pizza base. Its far more enjoyable to read a subject that covers a reasonable period or event that is researched thoroughly. Think a narrow width of hole, but dig deep.
  • The three R’s of History: research, research, research. The most integral part to writing history is research. Be thorough in checking your sources and their validity. A major failure is when people use speculation or hearsay as fact. In presenting your narrative, point fingers at your sources. It’ll demonstrate your understanding of the topic as well as inform the reader.
  • Don’t be afraid to cover difficult subjects. This often puts people off due to controversy. This echoes the previous point on research. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Epic states Homer “made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.” In this case, the first step is the hardest but once you engage in the research process, the writing and authority with which you put together the piece will leave you with nothing to fear.
  • Context: Though there is value in covering the basic facts of an individual’s life or the timeline of an event, the author can undermine the quality of their own research by failing to adequately place their narrative within the context of wider society, Europe, etc.
  • Keep it simple! The best advice I ever received from my History teacher in Mount Sion Secondary School was “keep it simple!” Don’t feel you have to use verbose words or jargon to make your piece stand out. If you’re just flicking through a thesaurus without really understanding why/what you’re using the word for, more than likely the reader won’t understand your piece.
  • Less is more. If you can’t explain a point in one sentence, then it’s probably not worth saying at all, as the mantra of Richard Brinsley Sheridan goes, “never say more than is necessary.” A word count should not be seen as a challenge but a necessary constraint.
  • Track trends: A clear example of this is the avalanche of works related to the 1916 Easter Rising. No coincidence that this dovetailed with the centenary this year. Be aware of forthcoming anniversaries or even news stories that may direct interest to a similar incident in the past. Example: Emigration from Ireland…articles on the Irish Diaspora.
  • Humour/The Bill Simmons Effect: The worst kind of history is dull history. Don’t be afraid to use humour or even popular cultural references. Bill Simmons revolutionised sports writing with his blog the ‘Boston Sports Guy’ by using Hollywood Movies to illustrate his point. Often it’s a great way of explaining a point and engaging the reader.
  • Be aware of word count: The most irritating mistake from the point of view of an editor is going over the word count. Before starting your article, look through the length of works in previous journals or e-mail the editor or publisher to check. If most articles are around 8000 words, don’t think 16000 will increase your chances of being published.

Like History we’re all continually evolving and tips like these are guidelines.

(c) Cian Manning

About the author

Cian Manning is the current editor of Decies, the journal of The Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society.

The society was founded in the mid 1950s as the Old Waterford Society. Winter lectures and summer outings were organised and an annual journal The Old Waterford Record published. Decies, the journal of the society was first published in 1976. In recent times the production of Decies has been assisted by a generous subvention from Waterford City Council and more recently also from Waterford County Council. The Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society organises a series of lectures from September to May and a series of outings to places of historical interest during the summer months. The Annual Subscription is €25. This fee entitles the member to admission to the lectures and outings as a copy of the annual journal.


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