Sunday, June 24, 2012

Behind-the-Scenes: On Re-Writing the Dissertation

In the beginning there was me, Scotch Settlement, an empty Access database, and an empty page. Even in this emptiness, I knew that the Scotch Settlement immigrants who were helping me answer questions about the Scottish diaspora were also people's ancestors. Ergo, I firmly believed that the published version of my dissertation ought to be accessible to the descendants. Meaning it had to be readable and affordable.

On the other hand, to obtain a tenure-track position the published version had to meet certain important, but undefinable standards of "academic rigor." The academic integrity of my work could only be validated by being published by an university press. These sorts of books are useful to professional historians and advance our understanding of the past. They are also expensive. And boring.

It seemed to me that it would be impossible to please both audiences: "regular" people like stories, academics demand arguments and evidence. For a dissertation, mine is well-written, and would pass muster with the academic world. People with connections to Scotch Settlement might buy it and maybe even read it, but they probably would not like it very much.

As I am no longer an academic, I no longer need to worry about meeting the rigid, amorphous, almost unreachable standards of the academy. On the other hand, I still am a historian and can't simply write-up a collection of family stories and genealogies while ignoring my larger thesis about Scottish emigrants and their communities.

Enter Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Non-Fiction by Stephen J. Pyne. His goal is to help academics, particularly historians, break-out of the thesis-evidence-evidence-conclusion style of writing.  While, I didn’t always like Pyne’s style, I really liked what he said. Truly, it was a revelation. 

He succinctly summed up my quandary when he compared writing serious non-fiction to sports commentary: one person is the analyst, the other person is color. So the historian, if they want to reach an audience larger than 25 other historians, must attempt to balance analysis with color. Byne admits that this is difficult; most books he has seen lean one way or the other. To help the historian find this balance, Byne provides suggestions about plot, setting, dramatization and more; examples included. He also sets two rules that absolutely must not be broken: one – DO NOT make things up; two – DO NOT leave out anything that would substantially alter your conclusions, e.g. don’t hide evidence.

I could hardly read Byne’s words because my brain was so busy rewriting my own words in my head. I’m not sure how, or even if, I can successfully integrate the analysis I have already written with the color from family stories of Scotch Settlement. But, I’m excited to try because it sounds like fun!

Next Sunday: Flights of Fancy

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...