This blog takes you behind the scenes of the writing of an academic history book – like a ‘making of’ featurette. Its aim is to make visible the traditionally invisible process of what it’s like for a university academic in the Humanities to write a research monograph, i.e. a single-authored 100,00 word book.

I’m a History Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford, and the book I’m writing has a working title of The Elusive Church: Luther, Poland and the Early Reformation. This project is supported by a British Academy Mid Career Fellowship (2012-13).

On these pages, you'll find a regular 'log' of how the book is progressing, plus information about the project. I welcome your comments and thoughts - whether you're studying or teaching history at school or university, or writing non-fiction yourself...

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


As I emerge from the grant-writing storm, and am finally able to sit down and again read through religious texts from 16C Prussia, I have at least learnt that the book-writing rules which I drew up at the start of the monograph-writing are sound.

Over the past month, when writing the grant application, I broke them all systematically – I worked very long hours, in the same room without varying my environment, on the same piece of prose, without interspersing it with other kinds of work or reading, because there simply wasn’t time. My room, in Somerville’s Maitland building, began to suffer and look horribly like the scene of an undergraduate late-night essay crisis – papers everywhere, so many open books on the carpet that I could scarcely reach the door, with a nasty collection of food wrappers and old cups of take-away tea.

And it wasn’t very good for my mental faculties either. It reminded me of periods of writing my first book, when I’d worked so long and incessantly on a particular chapter, that I had become completely snow-blind to it – I had simply lost all sense of whether it was quite good or incoherent rubbish. That gnawing sense of doubt keeps driving you to rewrite it again and again, almost certainly making it a more confused piece of prose in the process.

But now my room is tidy (I’ll spare you a photo of what it looked like before), and I’m back on the monograph-writing straight and narrow, chastened and with a new respect for the rules.

Saturday, 15 September 2012


Photo by gentlemanbeggar,
reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

Having a year to write a monograph feels like trying to steer a ship on a very long journey. So far, the book-ship has been on course, making slow but steady progress. Every so often, however, unexpected headwinds make it harder.

When I was writing my first book (the thesis-book), those headwinds mainly took the form of lengthy and regular job applications. In the past month, Elusive Church has been sailing through some windy weather – at first these were small breezes (checking proofs for an article about to go to press), then slightly more difficult distractions (revisions to another journal article), and how I’ve sailed right into a storm, in the form of a bulky funding application  for a future project, well beyond the horizon of this book. This monster application has slowed progress right down, and caused a little consternation on the bridge… But the end of this inclement spell is in sight, and it will be a relief to get back to the slow-and-steady again.  

Monday, 3 September 2012

Twenty Minutes

Taking the aerial view...
Photo by Rennett Stowe

One of the biggest conferences on Reformation history, the Reformation Studies Colloquium, is coming up this week, in Durham. For me, this has involved attempting to condense one of the monster chapters in the monograph (Chapter 2) into a 20-minute paper comprehensible to those with no prior knowledge of Polish history. (Entitled, for those who are interested: King Zygmunt Goes to Danzig: Reversing an Urban Reformation in 1526).

It’s not uncommon, at conference coffee breaks, to hear people grumbling about the impossibility of doing justice to their current research in a mere 20 minutes, as if this requirement were fundamentally unjust. I’m of the firm view that any argument or episode can be condensed into 20 minutes (or even rather less). It’s an excellent discipline for historians at any stage of their career. That’s not to say that it’s easy but, like a visit to the dentist, it’s probably very good for you. Writing this paper has, as ever, mercilessly forced me to sift out the very important details from the ‘interesting but less important’ ones, and to undertake the painful process of pinning down in 2-3 clear sentences what I’ve found in 5 months of research on this topic, and why those findings might be important / worthwhile. Writing the short conference paper also means I can look back at the 30-page chapter itself afresh, and see more clearly its structural underpinnings – like an archaeologist doing an aerial site-survey.