‘How to Write History that People Want to Read’ by Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath

2009, 238 p.

This book is exactly what the title says it is: a how to book on writing history.  This no-nonsense approach pervades the book- it’s a real [clap] “Come on! Get stuck into it!” sort of book.  It could have, but wisely has not, been called “History Writing for Dummies” because it shares features of those little yellow books- the cheery, confident tone, the jokes that make you groan, the dot points,  the anecdotes and the bubbling optimism that of COURSE you can write history that people want to read!  I must admit that there’s something about all this bustling, practical advice that brings out the long-lost teenager in me.  I want to roll my eyes, toss my head, and mutter “der–” (the ultimate expression of nonchalance and superciliousness in my adolescence- I warned you that it was some time ago).

Except that it is so damned practical and, yes, good advice.  The book is aimed at a wider readership than just  PhD student- it also has family historians and local historians in its sights.  It is very simply written, with short sentences which at times seemed  just a little patronizing.  But of course, this is a book of advice and it does not pretend to be other than this. Clarity and  a certain amount of  firm direction is fundamental to the act of giving advice: I must remember that a bit of humility and preparedness to listen is fundamental to gaining from it.

This book starts from the beginning, right from conceptualizing your history project and your projected audience.  It has good, practical advice about archives  and the how-to of working with sources , then moves on to the writing.  It was at this point that I stopped my eye-rolling and read more carefully because writing, and thinking about narrative and action, character and the emotions  is right where I am at the moment.  And this is probably the real strength of this book; at some stage it is going to connect with you as history-writer at some point in the cycle.  In this regard, you could buy it at the start of your thesis or project, and dip into it usefully for a bit of a kick up the backside or a dust-off after a setback when you need it. The examples they used from a range of histories were well-chosen; you didn’t need to know anything about the content, and the text guided you to look through the content to the technique.  The discussion of footnotes, grammar and punctuation again had me tossing my head with impatience -until I’d come across something that I thought “oh really? Is THAT the difference between a colon and semicolon?” and “You mean that my examiners won’t even READ my quotations?”.  At times I bridled at the decisiveness of their approach but when I came to areas that for me are foggy and ill-defined, the clarity was reassuring.  I suspect that  I am very bad at taking advice.

The trouble with aiming at a broad audience is that sometimes, in order to avoid alienating one audience, the needs of another audience are put onto the backburner.  As a postgraduate student, I yearned for a chapter about analysis.  They do mention analysis, but its difficulty is downplayed by giving it equal billing with themes and chronology as a narrative problem.  I think that analysis is more than this: it goes to the heart of the endeavour; it is what makes history more than just a good story.  It might be stripped out of histories for publication so as to attract a wider audience; it might be over-kill for a local or family history, but for an academic thesis there  is a fundamental assumption that your thesis says something, means something beyond just the narrative at hand.  This is the real work of history,- it’s the part that makes your head hurt- and it’s hard.

I almost didn’t read this book when I first heard about it because I thought that I had read it before. But no- that was an earlier book (2000)  by the same authors that has been recently re-released: Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration.  It  is an edited collection of papers by contributors to a Visiting Scholars Program workshop for fifteen very lucky post-graduates, and is a who’s who of Australian historians who I admire deeply:  Tom Griffiths, Bill Gammage, Donna Merwick, Greg Dening, John Docker, Deborah Bird Rose, Peter Read and of course Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath themselves.  This book, in many ways, supplied my “missing” chapter, even though I found it rather daunting.  In my reading journal after reading this book I wrote:

I can’t say that I feel empowered- intimidated more like it; overwhelmed by other people’s erudition and breadth, and feeling stodgy and constipated!

It’s a pity that the two books aren’t released by the same publisher, because they would be a wonderful combination within the same volume.  The prose and vision doesn’t exactly soar in “How to Write History” but it is warm, encouraging and empowering.  The virtuosity and incisiveness of the historians talking about their craft in “Writing Histories”  while inspirational, can be almost paralysing.  As an aspiring history writer, I need both.  I need to be beckoned onwards by those up ahead of me;  I need the grip of a confident, more experienced friend at my arm, and  a damned good shove from behind as well!

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10 responses to “‘How to Write History that People Want to Read’ by Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath

  1. Wow, great book and thanks for the review, will look for it!
    So many history books that are as dry as a drought-riddled plain are bursting with rich resources but it’s difficult to stay awake as you plod through them, while others that are easy to read have eliminated the footnotes, references, etc, leaving the text somewhat wanting. Some sort of cross over from PhD text/thesis and for general entertainment type writing medium is needed to grab those who’ve been burnt by boring history teachers at school.
    *New history book is launched tonight “Closets are for Clothes (That’s So Gay)” a history of queer Australia by Rachel Cook 😉

  2. Don’t make it so hard. Start with a tease about the scandal, there always is one, and take your time getting to the detail. Not quite tongue in cheek.

    Like good television, what you think may be uninteresting and dry can be become riveting when well told. I admire writers with such skill. Then, some can fail with one book and succeed with another.

  3. Thanks for this review … I’m going to check this book out as I am currently helping to draft a course on Community Histories – from the librarianship/archives management of, end but they need to know how historians work and what they need. This sounds like it will give me a bit of a perspective on that. (Are these both ANU historians??)

    • Yes, they have both been at ANU and I assume still are. The Community Histories course sounds good- who is that with?

  4. Oh, this is a new course in Information Science at Charles Sturt Uni. It’s for library/archive professionals who acquire, manage/preserve, and provide access to local history/family history materials. I am really enjoying working on it.

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  8. Can you tell me if this book offers anything to undergraduate students just writing small papers? Or should I wait until I’m due for a longer project before picking it up?

    • I think that it’s more aimed at a longer project- maybe a major research project in later years of an undergraduate degree.

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