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Writers and History

We all write history. Whatever we write about in the realm of non-fiction is something from the past, or it may be our take on past events. In fact, there is no way those events could be anything else but past events; even if we are writing about our feelings, those feelings have to happen before we can write about them. Fiction writers also write about history, because everything they create is based on what they have experienced and learned in their own past. The fact that they are going beyond the bounds of reality in their imagined worlds does not prevent their own past experiences from setting the guideposts for what they portray happening in their stories. Why is this important? Well, as a historian myself, I have had many opportunities to learn about the limitations a historian faces when trying to explain a past event: quality of sources, personal inclinations, etc. So, if it is true that all writers engage with history, then I think some consideration of the things to watch out for when you are writing history may assist you to be “clearer” in your own writing.

books-1024x683 Writers and History
Study the past, if you would divine the future. Confucius 551-479 BCE

One of the trickiest things about being a writer is being able to write without your personal preferences getting in the way of your subject matter. To write about a subject without any personal bias is impossible, it is what is referred to as “writing objectively”, but you can be clearer in your writing style and avoid writing subjectively — that is, writing purely from your own perspective. The first step is to simply acknowledge that you have this bias and make some effort to reign it in. Admitting you have biases that will make your written work less clear, unless the point of your work is to explain to the reader what your biases are, is the first step to writing in a more convincing way. Consider the observation of historian John Lukacs on two other historians, Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt [and do not worry about the German words he throws in, historians have a tendency to throw in German, French, or Latin terms; it’s just one of “those things”.]:

It is perhaps significant that the limits of objectivity were recognized by Tocqueville and Burckhardt better than by Ranke: unlike the latter, the aristocrat Tocqueville and the patrician Burckhardt admitted and knew many of their personal inclinations and their existing prejudices: and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that they succeeded in overcoming them on occasion. “I began my study of the old régime full of prejudices against the clergy,” Tocqueville wrote, “I ended it full of respect.” (How few of our professional intellectuals would dare to admit such a thing nowadays, let alone put it in a book!) Burckhardt in one of his lectures made a beautiful distinction between Vorliebe and Parteilichkeit, a personal tendency of being attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures, as distinct from mere partisanship; the former was good and proper, the latter wrong. The person of the historian is to determine his work, Burckhardt said. “We are not objective.” “Personal participation is unavoidable.”

John Lukacs
Historical Consciousness (Transaction:2003): 235.

For clarity’s sake, Vorliebe means ‘preference’ or ‘liking something’, whereas Parteilichkeit means ‘partiality’ or ‘bias’. This relates to the general tack of this blog, clear writing, and here the eminent historian is not being clear to the average English reader. The question he had to answer is whether, given the fact the average reader will not understand the German terms, he still wanted to use them anyway? Clearly, he did. In your own writings you will also have to consider the use of technical language, for lack of a better term, and where and when you are willing to use it. But for now, let’s quickly consider what Lukacs observed about writing objectively. That is the important bit!

We take it as a given that we participate in what we write, a la Burckhardt. But here we are presented with two trajectories of participation in writing: one where we are “attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures,” and another where we are partial to a cause or person, or have biases that guide our writing. These historians agree that — I paraphrase and translate — a healthy interest and respect for a subject is a good thing, while writing out of our biases is a bad thing.

Their observations are good ones. Happy writing.

You can find more tips on writing here.

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