Writing Popular History – Pride

Book being read – J, Davis-Kimbal, Warrior Women: An archaeologist’s search for history’s hidden heroines, (2002)

Pride is a real problem in the world of history writing. Well, to be fair, pride is a problem in most areas of life, but in history it is one worth being aware of. One source of pride is important to understand because it can help you. The other source is important because it will screw up any plans you may have to become a writer.

1) The pride of the ‘experts’

Real‘ historians are those working in the hallowed halls of university, a place of safety and security (admittedly not all of the time), where ideas of personal grandeur are massaged and stroked into an exponential growth which culminates in the ‘real’ historian believing in their own sense of self importance. Now, this does not happen to good historians in those same halls, many of which I have had the pleasure of learning under or meeting in my time – these, I generally have found, have their feet placed very firmly on the ground. But, alas, this is usually an exception rather than a rule.

Now, these ‘real‘ historians enjoy mocking and deriding other people’s ventures, especially if it does not conform to their pie-in-the-sky idealism of what historians should be doing – i.e. what they¬†are doing, because they are real historians . . . obviously. This pride means that they look down on non-academic ventures, thus meaning they neither want, nor desire to write books for the lowly plebs that are the general public. As I was told at a conference a few years ago why should the public get to read our work, they won’t understand it anyway. Interesting.

Now, I was not aware of this mentality in my undergraduate years as I trained under a team of classicists, many of whom often made T.V. appearances, lectured on cruises and did many wonderful and marvellous forms of public outreach. They had stories published in newspapers about their research by cleverly timing press releases (one that springs to mind was a decoded Latin epigraph [I know, fascinating!] that was published to time in with Valentine’s Day because it was about an ancient Roman couple). There was even one young Dr. who was producing a digital, 3D, interactive model of Ancient Rome and now appears on radio and TV every other day, or so it seems! But, these types of historians are not as common as you might think; which is a shame, but also an opportunity for those of us outside of the ivory tower.

So, two things are important here; a) the experts are often unwilling to do public outreach or popular history so there is often a gap for us lowly popular historians, and b) make sure your own pride does not trick you into making the same mistakes. As I have said before, and probably will say again, the answer to doing work for someone is ‘Yes’ unless you have a good reason to say no (such as having too large a work load already [lucky you!] or you have absolutely no knowledge on the subject nor any means of acquiring it quickly). I do not believe that there is any form of history that is beneath me, and I do not advocate that you do either.

2) The pride of your own work

The second form of pride that can destroy any hope of a career in history writing is the pride of one’s own work. Now, I must insist that you should take pride in your work, but to link your writing with your sense of personal pride is a dangerous game. Once a piece is written and sent to an editor your work will be changed, adapted, edited and manipulated- it will not look the same.

You are almost always shown the revised version, I would pretty much demand it if it is not freely given – it is your name at the bottom after all. Feel free to give feedback on the edit when asked, such as if you feel the original facts or message is lost by these changes. This feedback is important for both sides and a good editor will explain the changes that you are not happy with, allowing a dialogue to open up early before it is too late . . . but ultimately it is your editor’s to do with what they wish.

Once you associate your writing with your sense of pride, any comment or critique becomes an attack on you as a person – the two are one and the same. Sometimes you need to accept where your job ends and another one’s begins. You had to write the piece, the editor has to produce a magazine/book/etc that his audience will embrace.

Once you free yourself of this quandary your work takes a different slant in your life. It becomes more enjoyable and the inevitable 5 minute hover over the ‘send’ button before you email it to your editor becomes a 2 second swat at the keyboard, as you move on with other work. Don’t get me wrong, I took a long time grappling this form of pride . . . a very long time – actually I never used to press ‘send’, my wife always did it because she used to get bored of waiting to check her emails. But now I am a new man, I can send my own emails . . . most of the time.


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