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.
“Don’t let the tone of your research influence the tone of your writing.”
It’s simple and perhaps obvious advice, but in fields such as history, journalism, science writing, historical literature, and any other genre of writing that involves research, it is crucial advice.
It is also much easier said than done.
In my own writing, there are several different tricks I’ve discovered that help me keep the tone of my research from becoming the tone of my writing.
Research First, Write Later
It isn’t always possible, but when I can, I like to research first and write later—both in the long term and in the short term. Ideally, I’ll have plenty of time before I start writing with earnest to plow though book after book and document after document. But usually I like to start writing partway through the reading, so then I switch to reading and writing in chunks as I work toward finishing the project. This saves my brain from having to switch back and forth between my documents and my prose. I try to scour the masses of documents first, and then organize them into piles based on which section of the chapter/book/paper I will need to use them. Then, I read all the documents in one pile carefully, highlighting and marking profusely. When I’m done, I take a break to give my brain time to shift gears. When I come back to my work, I start writing, referring to the documents only as needed to fill in dates, names, and other facts.
Read What You’ve Already Written
If I notice that my writing is terrible and I’m having a hard time shifting from the tone of my documents to the tone of my tome, then I spend some time reading back over chunks I’ve already written—especially the better chunks! This helps me remember what I want to sound like, and it helps me recapture my rhythm and tone. Often all it takes is one paragraph, or even just a few sentences, and I can already feel the words rearranging themselves into better sentences.
Don’t Break the Flow
If I’ve finished writing the bit I planned to write, but the writing is going well, then whenever possible I try to keep going. I’ll skip around to different sections of the chapter or book and write whatever I can without having to go back to my sources. Likewise, if I finish reading through a pile of documents, but am having a good time and am in the mood, then I’ll pick up another pile.
Write First, Research Later (Sort Of)
The best way for me to keep writing when the writing is going well is to ignore the fact that I need to do more research. By the time I get to this point, I’ve usually read through my sources several times and have a pretty good notion of what they say and how I want to use them, but I may not remember exact dates, names, dollar amounts, and other details. So I’ve created a code to solve this problem. I start to write, and when I come to a point where I need to go back to a document to fill in a gap, I type a bracket, then a note to myself, then another bracket. Then I make the whole bit light blue (other colors mean other things to me, but light blue means this).
On March ??, 195?, [these three guys] met for the first of what would become monthly meetings of the Research Committee.
This allows me to keep writing while making it easy for me to go back and fill in the blanks later. I also do this for footnotes. In History (as in other disciplines), citing one’s sources is critical, but it can often take some time and can break the flow of writing. So I’ll often use my blue-highlight code to insert a footnote:
[CITE: document from first Research Committee meeting].
Write, Rest, Rewrite
In the end though, the best way to ensure your writing does not reflect the tone of your sources—as it is the best way to improve anything in your writing—is to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.