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Workshop Report - The Craft of Writing Maritime History

Posted: Sunday 27th December 2020

Workshop Report - The Craft of Writing Maritime History

Report of a workshop on Saturday 30th November 2019

To further its aim to ‘advance the education of the public in the subject of maritime history’, British Commission for Maritime History (BCMH) identified a need to advance the communication skills of maritime researchers. To this end, the Commission collaborated closely with the National Maritime Museum to stage this all-day workshop. The museum promoted the workshop, provided facilities and organisation whilst the BCMH set the programme and drew speakers from its trustees and fellows.

Both morning and afternoon sessions were followed by opportunities to ask questions, which developed into a wide-ranging discussions. In addition, delegates had ample opportunity during the day to talk with experienced authors, editors and publishers to discuss individual issues.

Introduction

From stem to stern: celebrating the wonder of maritime history

Cathryn Pearce, Portsmouth University, Chair of the BCMH.

Cathryn Pearce chaired the meeting and stood in at short notice to give an enlightening introductory talk on the wide ramifications and importance of maritime history. This drew on experience of the Society for Nautical Research, whose research had shown that its membership, broadly typical of the audience for maritime history, comprised roughly 32% of independent scholars, 27% enthusiasts and 20% academics.

Session 1 Writing for academic audiences

How to turn your thesis into a book

Peter Sowden, Boydell and Brewer, Publishers

Peter Bowden’s talk drew on his wide experience of identifying postgraduate researchers whose work could be successfully turned into a book. He stressed the importance of writing to both inform and entertain the audience, giving practical advice on length of the text, style, organisation of the text and the importance of a good title in getting the target audience to want to buy and read the book.

Journal article writing from an editor’s perspective

Martin Wilcox, University of Hull and Reviews Editor of the International Journal of Maritime History

Academic journals are the prime means of disseminating researcher’s findings, offering both credibility and relatively rapid publication. Martin Wilcox discussed the choice of journals, including peer-reviewed publications such as the Mariners’ Mirror, the International Journal of Maritime History, plus the ‘local’ history journals such as Maritime South West and Maritime Wales. He offered advice on submission, on the organisation of an article and discussed the essential process of peer review.

Session 2 Writing for public audiences

Writing on controversial subjects and difficult-to-explain objects: gallery text and object labels

Aaron Jaffer, Royal Museums, Greenwich

Aaron Jaffer expounded on the art of writing text for museum displays, whose essentials were readability, context and accuracy. He gave numerous examples of good and bad practice, stressing the importance of conciseness, appropriate length and suitability of the language employed.

How to write scholarly non-fiction for a general audience

Andrew Lambert, King’s College, University of London

The critical issue with any writing is to understand the audience: who do you think will want to read your work, how will they expect to access it, and which publisher is best placed to make the connection? History has a large audience outside the academy which has attracted the interest of mainstream publishers, and the trade divisions of academic presses. For the past forty years ambitious naval history texts have appeared in large editions, with reviews spread across the mainstream press and academic journals.

Writing for wider audiences requires a degree of recalibration. Do not assume the reader has an academic background, or a deep engagement with the latest academic output. Explain what you are doing, and why in clear and accessible English. Good history is defined by intellectual merit, discipline-relevant methods, and accessible delivery.

The key relationship for any author with ambitions beyond a single work is with their editor. A good editor will understand, advise, assist and if necessary tell you the unwelcome truth.

When it comes to subjects, you have to believe in what you are doing if you hope to persuade the reader. It is also important that you have something new to say, there are far too many books in print already for yet another pedestrian account of a familiar story.

Finally, if the prospect of sustained research and writing does not excite there must be a better way to spend your time.

How to find an agent and write a book proposal for popular history

Margaret Lincoln, Curator Emeritus, Royal Museums, Greenwich

Echoing the previous speaker’s remarks on the importance of working with those you know and trust in publishing, Margarette Lincoln talked about her experience with finding a literary agent. While much research can be done on the Web and via social media to find out what kind of topics appeal to different agents, another useful exercise is to spend time in a bookshop. Grateful authors acknowledge good agents and by browsing books in a particular subject area, one can often find the names of agents who specialize in that field.

Research in bookshops also offers a chance to check out different ways to structure your book and get a sense of what sells to a popular readership. This is essential when putting together a proposal to submit to a potential publisher of a maritime history text for a general readership.

Social media, websites and marketing your book

Helen Doe, University of Exeter

Budgets for promoting sale of specialist publications are small and perhaps non-existent, which, as Helen Doe explained, means the author has to be an important part of the marketing operation. She discussed the utility of personal websites, Facebook, Twitter and personal appearances and their role in the successful promotion of her books.

Concluding remarks

The workshop proved very popular, giving a unique opportunity to connect maritime historians who have been successful in the craft with over 40 delegates, including postgraduate students, independent scholars, early career researchers, museum curators and others. The extent to which speakers were questioned after each session, and how readily participants engaged with the presenters, indicates that the workshop was very well received.

Future workshops

Although the Covid 19 epidemic meant that no workshop could be held in 2020, it is fully intended to hold future workshops which will build on the success of the first meeting. 

Look out for news on our upcoming events on this site and through our networks.