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...

Friday, 21 December 2012


When an articulate teenager was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Answers?’ last week, she talked confidently about herself as a visual learner, as opposed to an aural leaner. That’s not a vocabulary I’ve come across before, but that basic difference in how people prefer to think and learn has long seemed obvious to me, and it plays a big part in how the monograph is being written.

I fall squarely into the ‘visual learner’ category. Even if the monograph text itself looks pretty monochrome on the computer screen, the thinking behind it is underpinned by lots of images. When I moved into my temporary Somerville rooms (a building work exile) back in spring, I printed pictures of the book’s dramatis personae off the internet and put them up on the walls – woodcuts of King Zygmunt I, portraits of Luther and the Prussian humanist Johannes Dantiscus, cityscapes of early modern Cracow, Danzig and PoznaƄ, and so on. These are arranged on different walls to mirror roughly the geography of 16C Europe – the German actors in the far west, then Poznan and Prussia, and Cracow to the east. The desk and pc sit between western Poland and the Baltic.

These pictures liven up my room, and remind me that the heaps of photocopied sources scattered all over the floor (to my scout’s horror) relate to real people and places. They also help me in a big way to analyse what is happening in Poland in the early Reformation, to visualise more easily the spatial and even political relationships between key individuals and urban centres. Unfortunately, when the room gets too warm the pictures curl up and fall off the walls, but I try not to read too much into that….    

Friday, 7 December 2012

When is a draft not a draft?

Colleagues and friends kindly ask me at regular intervals how the book is going, to which I say that (fingers crossed) I’m still on track to have a first draft of the monograph at some point in the spring (giving me several months to do mopping up archive trips to Poland, editing, checking, etc).

I’ve begun to wonder a bit, however, about this phrase ‘first draft’, and what it really means. The printed-out chapters already filed in my mock-up ‘book folder’ are certainly not first drafts, in any strict sense of the word… as any glance at my computer files will reveal. In the pc folder entitled ‘Chap 1’, for example, there are 7 versions of that chapter: the current one, and its much less happy ancestors. By ‘first draft’, I suppose I mean: after weeks of working on this piece, this is the first draft that I am reasonably happy with, in the full knowledge that it will be rewritten (possibly radically) once the rest of the book has taken shape, to keep it in line with everything else. ‘First draft’ means, in other words, ‘good enough for now’.

I’m not sure that many historians do write first drafts of chapters, in the purist sense, of writing a chunk of prose from beginning to end for the first time, like running a race from starting gun to finishing line. You might write some of it, realise that despite all your planning and analysis there is a structural problem, unpick it, then carrying on writing. (A bit like iteration). Editing, writing, rewriting and rethinking are so closely entwined, that what constitutes a ‘draft’ is a moot point, and counting with any precision how many ‘drafts’ of a chapter it takes to get to the final version is perhaps therefore impossible. ‘Draft’ implies that we work in neat units of polished prose; it may look like that at the end, but the process itself feels far more organic. So maybe ‘draft’ is a psychological category used by writers, rather than an empirical measure of progress.