Monday, October 21, 2013

What Blogging, Twitter, and Texting Do for the Historian's Craft

Heather Cox Richardson

For all their new applications, new technologies are also good for the old-fashioned craft of history. They are excellent for honing our writing skills.

First of all, blogging and tweeting require very low investments of professional energy. There is something daunting about starting A Book. I often panic when I face a new project, because I simply can’t remember how to begin. What do you write first? How do you set everything up? Do you write an introduction? And on and on and on. For days. Everything seems Very Important.

Andrew Sullivan, an early and influential blogger.
Blogging, though, requires none of that. It is an exercise in brevity, centered on a single idea. It is not intended to Sit On A Shelf Forever. It doesn’t have to be Brilliant. It has to get done, and done quickly. So stepping over the threshold is easy. It’s fun. It’s a good way to rev up your engines to carry into the day’s more daunting projects.

Blogging also forces your writing up several notches. It has to convey an idea clearly and, with luck, engagingly. Those are not necessarily skills professional historians practice very much. We tend to fight over arcane theories and dig so deeply into our research that we lose all but a few other specialists. Blogging forces you to distill complicated ideas into crucial points, and then to communicate those points in such a way that a nonspecialist can understand. (Twitter and texting have similar value. Never is the importance of strong verbs more clear than when tweeting. You MUST use short, powerful verbs to keep ideas within 140 characters. Don’t believe me? Follow @JoyceCarolOates.)

Blogging and tweeting also let a writer develop a personal style that is terribly hard to find in academic writing. The form is much more epistolary than academic argument, and that very informality means that much more of your own quirks come out, which can bring your online prose to life. Blogging lets you develop a sense of humor in your writing. Hell, it encourages you to.

And that is maybe the key to why blogging and tweeting are good for the historian's craft. They’re fun. They let us love what we do on a daily basis. We can play with words and new ideas without committing to them for months or years. We get to share our enthusiasms with a different audience, and learn new perspectives and get new ideas to keep our work fresh. There is a whole wide world of terrific historians out there, both in and outside of the academy, blogging about American menus, and things that show up in historical romances, and American cultural icons, and on art history, and so on across an incredible range of topics. Getting to spend time in their company is a gift.

1 comment:

AmericanStudier said...

Totally agree (duh, I suppose), and thanks very much for the link, Heather.

I'll just add that blogging also, ideally, allows for conversation in a much more immediaet and informal way, which is great practice for talks/presentations, as well as teaching and lots of other aspects of the profession.

Great stuff, and again, thanks.