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More Lessons from Reading Tuchman

I don't want to seem as though I'm beating a dead horse, but in today's post I'd like to share some more quotations from Barbara Tuchman's book Practicing History. Her insights provide good principles for writing by not only historians but also all other writers.

I'm categorizing the quotations into four groups: (1) the definition of history, (2) the qualifications of historians, (3) the task of historians, and (4) general writing principles from which all of us writers can benefit.

What History Is: People

"[H]istory is human behavior, not arithmetic." (Focus on the human element; don't get bogged down in statistics.)

"Human beings are always and finally the subject of history. History is the record of human behavior. . . ." (So focus on the people!)

"[W]e can no more escape the past than we can escape our own genes." (So embrace the past, share it, and learn from it.)

What Historians' Qualifications Are

"[T]his quality of being in love with your subject . . . is indispensable for writing good history--or good anything, for that matter." (Love it, and you'll never want to leave it!)

"[C]oupled with compulsion to write must go desire to be read." (Envision who your readers are, and write to and for them.)

"A historian needs, I think, a perspective of at least twenty-five years, and preferably fifty, to form an opinion of any value. . . ." (This reminds me of one of my college professors, who said that he didn't think anyone should write a book until he or she was at least 50 years old. I guess I was a late bloomer since my first book wasn't published until I was much older!)

"Perspective changes every view." (So work to maintain perspective.)

What Historians' Tasks Are

"[S]tay within the evidence." (Or as Sgt. Joe Friday said, "Just the facts, ma'am.")

"There is no such thing as a neutral or purely objective historian." (But fight the urge to pursue an agenda. Present the evidence so well that the readers will, by themselves and based on those facts, reach the same conclusions you reached .)

"The historian's task is . . . to tell what happened within the discipline of the facts." (Remember what Joe Friday said!)

"Selection is everything; it is the test of the historian." (Focus on presenting the truly important facts, not the peripheral details.)

"A historian cannot pick and choose his facts; he must deal with all the evidence." (Don't give in to the temptation to cherry pick, proof text, or pull things out of context.)

What All Writers Need to Learn and Remember

"Historians can--though not all do--make themselves understood in everyday English. . . . Let us beware of the plight of . . . the behavioral scientists, who by use of a proliferating jargon have painted themselves into a corner--or isolation ward--of unintelligibility." (Write so that everyone can understand you!)

"To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse." (Get away from your computer search engines and into a repository of real, tangible books!)

"[A]n imitator can never feel himself the equal of an originator." (Be yourself; develop your own voice and style.)

"The will to do the impossible, the spirit of can-do. . . ." (Dream big! Attempt the difficult!)

"Great endeavor requires vision and some kind of compelling impulse. . . ." (Act on that impulse! Risk rejection!)

"[T]rouble in writing clearly invariably reflects troubled thinking, usually an incomplete grasp of the facts or of their meaning." (Get your thinking right, and the writing will be good, too.)

These quotations from Tuchman helped me. Maybe you'll find them helpful,


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