All posts by Iain Stewart

Video Post: Research into Writing

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.

Video Post: Challenges and Inspirations

By Iain Stewart

This is the first of six video posts reflecting on the Writing Project series of videos, which feature historians from QMUL reflecting on their own experiences of the writing process.

Students have more in common with their lecturers than they think. As an undergraduate struggling through my first essays, I assumed that the writing process must be so much easier for academics. My teachers were specialists, sometimes world-leading ones. With all their knowledge, I could never have imagined them tearing their hair out trying to make sense of difficult sources, or pulling an all-nighter to meet a deadline. My grades were mixed. I got my share of firsts in the end, but I started out with 2:2s, even the occasional third. The people marking my essays seemed to belong to a different universe.

It’s been a few years now since I stopped staying up all night writing my own essays and started staying up late marking other people’s. Now I am a published author with several articles under my belt and working on my first book. It’s fair to say I didn’t picture this when I read the feedback on some of my undergraduate essays. If I write much better now than I did back then it’s because I’ve had so much more practice, and taken on board a lot of criticism in the process. But that doesn’t mean it comes easily. In fact, writing is just as difficult for me now as it was when I was a student.

What I have come to realise is that academic writing is supposed to be difficult. If it isn’t, then you’re probably not doing it right. I remember writing the first draft of the first chapter of my PhD. At the time, knowing relatively little about my subject, I found it deceptively easy. I wrote about ten thousand words in a week and sent it off to my supervisor with a sense of great satisfaction. Never before had I been so productive as a writer. Never since have I written anything quite so bad. Writing the second draft of that chapter took about six months. It was agonising. But by the time I finished the work was good enough to publish. What started as a writing disaster ended up as my first article.

Student essays and dissertations, like some of their lecturers’ articles and books, can be ‘ugly ducklings’: they don’t always begin their lives beautiful. Making the most of feedback is really important here. Most students don’t realise that the books and articles they read when researching their essays have been through a process akin to marking. Before an article or book is accepted for publication, the author usually has to make a series of minor or major changes suggested by editors and anonymous reviewers. The final product can differ significantly from the original draft, and as such is more of a collective endeavour than first meets the eye. Next time your writing comes in for criticism, remember it’s probably not long since your reader will have had to respond to some feedback of their own. Your work, like theirs, will be all the better for making the most of this.