For a while now, I have struggled with actually getting myself to sit down and do the reading I need to do in order to move forward with my research and writing. It is a struggle many writers of nonfiction and research-laden fiction will understand. I find this part of the whole research/writing process to be rather tedious. I love the initial research stage, when I get to immerse myself in library catalogues and tumble down the rabbit hole of my topic, gathering and skimming interesting articles and relevant books. But when the time comes to actually sit down and systematically read through the enormous amount of material I’ve collected, write organized notes, and—well—remember the information in a coherent and useful manner, then I suddenly find myself thinking of all sorts of other things I could do, like vacuum, or laundry, or check my email. It takes some serious discipline for me to get started on the reading, but once I do, I generally find myself enjoying it quite a bit. So you would think I would learn to just get to it faster… but I haven’t yet.
Recently, I’ve encountered yet another stumbling block that has halted my research in its tracks. The problem is that I can’t figure out which version of a book to read. I know I need to read the book, and I’m actually quite excited about reading this one, but for the life of me I can’t figure out if I should read the electronic version or the paper version. I know I need to commit to one or the other, but every time I try to decide, I spin myself into a tizzy of pros and cons.
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It is an interesting exercise to read with writing in mind. Even if a book you are reading is amazing and brilliant, it is still worthwhile as a writer to think about how you would have written it differently. With this in mind, in this post I compare and contrast to great biographies I read recently, paying attention to the ways in which the biographer chose to write his story, and imagine how I would have done things differently…
Over the past year, I have become increasingly interested in the genre of biography, and am considering writing a biography for my next project. I have therefore embarked on what is quite possibly the most delightful stage of writing history: the vague undefined research stage during which you don’t actually have anything you have to read. In essence, that means I get to read whatever I want. Over time my reading list will narrow, focus, and get infinitely longer, but for now I am enjoying this phase.
I decided to start by reading lots of biographies, limited only by whether I was interested in them or not—biographies of men and women, of people long dead and still alive, of scientists, politicians, military generals, artists, intellectuals, and adventurers. The purpose of this eclectic study of biography is to gather a broad awareness of how biographers treat their subjects within the context of their time, how biographers create a powerful narrative given the already determined story arc of an individual’s life, and how biographers handle the varying amount and quality of sources available to them.
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One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever gotten about writing came from my PhD advisor. He is a fountain of wisdom and catchy phrases, and over the years I’ve taken his suggestions to heart. A few in particular cross my mind on a regular basis, as I’m battling this challenge or that problem in my research and writing.
My PhD was in History so I spend just as much time (if not more) researching as I do writing. Hours, days, and weeks will easily pass with me devouring every book, article, and document I can find on my topic. As a historian of science and medicine, my research material includes scientific papers published in journals such as Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Science. Although interesting and relevant to my topic, these papers tend to be written in the classically straightforward and—let’s be honest—dry tones of science-speak.
I am currently writing a book on the history of the department of research at Philip Morris, so I also read a lot of primary sources on the inner workings of the tobacco industry: meeting minutes, research reports, budgets, and memos on all sorts of mind-numbing topics as equipment orders, new hires, and construction plans.
Sometimes, when I’m in the depth of my research, I find myself talking in memo-inspired sentences, thinking in spreadsheets, and—worst of all—writing in the same tone as my research material.
When I notice that happening, I remember my old advisor’s advice.
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During my last year of graduate school (I was doing a PhD in History) I started reading The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, by David Hoffman.
The Dead Hand, by David Hoffman, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
At the time, I was struggling with the Introduction to my dissertation: How to even start an Introduction? How do you write one without sounding dull or pretentious or repetitive? How can you be clear and concise, but also manage to demonstrate everything you’ve ever learned on a topic? How do you introduce a book so that your readers keep reading?
I took a break from writing one day. I was working from home and sat down in my living room—in my favorite chair by the window—with a cup of coffee. My mom had recommended Hoffman’s book to me and I had been meaning to read it for a while. As I sat there, completely uninspired, I decided to start the book. At the very least, I hoped, reading a Pulitzer Prize winning history would help me find inspiration for my own history.
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