By Iain Stewart
This is the second of six posts reflecting on the Writing Project series of videos, which feature historians from QMUL reflecting on their own experiences of the writing process.
When does research end and writing begin? In this week’s video some of my colleagues at Queen Mary offer contrasting responses to this question. For Miri Rubin, there is no clear boundary between the two processes: writing and research go hand-in hand. Daniel Peart and Mark White have a different approach, seeing writing and research as quite separate activities. Is this simply a matter of personal preference, or do other factors influence the way historians think about this issue? It may not be pure coincidence, for instance, that Daniel and Mark are both historians of America. Going to the USA to carry out research is more expensive and time consuming than doing it in Britain or Europe. I am writing this from Paris. I came here this morning to teach a seminar, and I’ll stay overnight to fit in a quick burst of research before I head home tomorrow evening. I couldn’t do this if my archives were in New York. We all have different pressures on our time that will affect the way we divide our time between research and writing, and different pieces of work sometimes require us to shift that balance.
Regardless of what kind of historian one is, however, research is usually expensive, and competition for funding extremely fierce. Academic writers cannot simply decide to take a year off to research and write new books; they often need to apply to bodies like the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund the cost of teaching cover while they are away. My own job, for instance, is paid for from funding that a senior colleague applied for so that he could work on a new book. The issue of funding further complicates the relationship between writing and research for academics, because good funding applications require an enormous amount of research to stand any chance of success. This means knowing the secondary literature inside out and having something important and original to say on a topic, whether by uncovering new sources or offering a fresh interpretation of old ones. Writing good funding applications is itself a fine art, and successful ones are often the product of years of work on a subject. And this is all before the “real work” has even started.
Students face challenges of their own. While these may differ from those of their teachers, we all face similar issues when turning research into writing. Doing enough reading to have something interesting to say can be hard, but it is enjoyable work. The thrill of discovery is addictive, though, and research can become its own form of procrastination. There comes a point when it’s time to put down the books and pick up the pen.
Of course, the relationship between research and writing does not end there: academics and students alike must reference their research in footnotes and bibliographies. Even the most groundbreaking authors stand on the shoulders of those who have written and researched before them.