I had been on a good run recently. I had a couple of articles accepted on material I am strong on, stuff that was an extension of the work I did for my PhD and for my first book. I had been asked to do two radio interviews on suburban modernity. So it was with some eager anticipation that I opened an email from a journal editor to whom I had sent a prospective article. It was a rejection. A bit of surprise, but it shouldn’t have been. I know that rejection is statistically far more likely than acceptance, but I had got used to the idea of succeeding. This particular article was in a new, but cognate, field from my previous work and with this result I was forced to learn again some lessons that I already knew.
The first of these was the danger of unconsciousness ignorance. In my field, I mostly know what I don’t know and can carry out whatever extra research is needed to fill the gaps. If I have missed something, the referees will tell me. It turned out that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Secondly, I had become complacent, thinking that if I was capable in one field (which took ten years to master) then I would be successful in anything else I was interested in.
Thirdly, I fell in love with my research. This is something I was warned about many years ago, and in turn, I warn students of today. My research was so intriguing that I failed to place it into its historiography in a convincing way.
I read somewhere that if you keep getting your articles accepted then you are not trying hard enough, meaning you have to keep pushing the boundaries. It turned out that I wasn’t trying hard enough in a different way. After a bit of sulking, I got engaged with the topic again and was quite excited to learn from my referees that I had a lot of new reading to do and new ideas to absorb and that, if I did that, then I had the possibility of producing something worthwhile and different.
Almost all the writing I have done in my life has been of a technical or academic nature. When I worked in the commercial world, I had to be careful to keep my writing accurate and to the point, but to quickly engage the reader. When I moved into the academic world, I had to learn how to write in a new way, pretty much from scratch.
You will know what I mean by this. Ensuring that I engage with a sometimes wide historiography, making sure that every use of someone else’s work is properly designated as such and is accurately cited, explaining how I know certain things to be ‘true’. My writing became drained of the elements I used to be proud of, such as what passes for my sense of humour and the ability to conjure up from a set of conceptual ideas what they might mean for a reader.
I am writing something different at the moment, which is a cross-over history book aimed at the sort of history geek who is always found furtling around the history section at Waterstone’s. (i.e. me about ten years ago). I am trying to write something that is serious and has a thesis but which can be appreciated without a literature review and footnotes. It is a sort of coffee table book where I discuss fifty photos from modern London in the 1930s. For each photo I am writing about 450 words, so with an introduction, about 25,000 to 30,000 words.
The good news is that by removing the strictures of academic convention, I can get the narrative and the idea over to the reader very quickly, so that they can see why I found a particular photo intriguing and why it tells us something important about the history of the 1930s. This has made my writing much more immediate and accessible (I think). The bad news is that this format makes building up a sustained argument difficult, as complex ideas are rendered in plainer tones than they really require. I am attempting to solve this by building up the case, picture by picture. I will be reliant on Maddy Hatfield, my editor at Yellowback, to kick me around enough to make sure that I get there. At the moment, because I am treating my first drafts independently for each picture I am repeating my ideas a little, and that will all need to go.
On balance, I like writing for a wider audience. It is good to get to the point inside a few paragraphs. It feels more like journalism than academic writing but that is OK with me for the time being. I also feel like I am learning a new skill and that is a good feeling at my, or anybody else’s, age.