Messages from Scholars about History and Culture
Every writing task presents its own challenges, but to me, the first and most important consideration is determining and appealing to an audience. After all, if we are writing for others rather than for our own diversion, our goal is to craft a document that someone wants to read, either for information or for entertainment.
Appealing to an audience—and the ultimate success of any document—starts with the topic, which ideally should be something that presents new information to the audience or refracts the information in a fresh way. The topic of the excerpt from the scholarly paper here was sparked by pure happenstance, a casual walk that I took through a graveyard in the King’s Chapel Burial Ground in Boston, Massachusetts. I was simply taking a shortcut through the graveyard on the way to Filene’s, a now-defunct department store justly famous for its bargain basement.
Gingerly picking my way through the soggy ground that cool October morning, I started reading some of the headstones and was struck by the age of the inscriptions. Later did some research on the burial area and learned that it dated back to the early 17th century. I read about some of the notable people who had been interred there and was transfixed by the headstone for “Elizabeth Pain.” As a scholar of 19th century American literature, I was struck by the fact that the headstone bore an inscription that seemed to echo the headstone Hawthorne created for the fictional Hester Prynne’s grave, Hester being the central female character in Hawthorne’s most well-known book, The Scarlet Letter. Since I was fascinated by this find, I knew I had found a topic that would be of equal interest to my audience—other Hawthorne scholars—but I had to be sure that another scholar hadn’t found it before me.
It took me five years to read all the literature on the topic to make sure that another scholar had not written on the topic, draft the manuscript, edit, and revise. I also returned several times to the Burial Ground for inspiration and to decide how to frame my findings. Since scholarship requires meticulous attention to detail, I wanted to be extremely sure that I had my facts right before I approached my audience: literary journals that focused on Hawthorne studies.
The second consideration in writing is style, which includes such elements as tone, diction (words), sentences, punctuation, allusions, figures of speech. Before deciding on a style, I carefully analyzed my audience: obviously, as fellow professors, they were well-read in the field, scholarly, and thoughtful. They would be expecting a staid, serious, scholarly tone; elevated diction with multi-syllabic words; long compound–complex sentences, semicolons and colons rather than mere commas, erudite allusions, and so on. How could I make my article more appealing to this audience? I decided to try something radical and depart somewhat from the accepted style: I would make the article lighter and more humorous than my audience would expect. My goal was to make my article enjoyable reading and thus help it stand out from the crowd. Since humor is a delicate art, I decided to keep my touch very subtle. To hook my readers, I established this tone from the very start:
So ends Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and so begins the search for Hester Prynne’s grave. Seventeenth-century Boston town officials, meticulous about keeping accurate records, nevertheless failed to record the death—or life, for that matter—of Hester Prynne, adulteress, seamstress, and ministering angel. The town officials must have been too busy surveying chimneys, keeping pigs off the streets, keeping count of the “…many Miscarriages [that] are committed by Saylers …immoderate drinking, and other vain expences,” setting laws to curtail :…the wicked practices of many persons, who do prophane Gods Holy Sabbaths,” and granting widows permission to keep houses of “publique entertainment for the selling of Coffee, Chuchaletto & sydar by retayle.”
The humorous tone, established by the details of the minor issues that concerned the magistrates, especially the pigs and unruly behavior of sailors, draws in readers more used to bone-dry academic prose. I included quotes from the research to establish my bona fides as someone who had dug in the mines and so was qualified to write on this topic.
The third element of successful writing is following the conventions of the genre. Each document has its own special conventions, such as format. For instance, the format of a résumé differs from the format of a movie script. Readers expect documents that have an accepted format to follow it. Since I was deviating from the conventional tone of a scholarly article, I knew that I had to hew very closely to the format of a literary essay, and so I did. “Another Possible Source of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne” follows the conventions of literary scholarship: text of fewer than five lines that I took from other sources is enclosed in quotation marks and integrated into the text, outside text of more than five lines is inset and single spaced, errors in quotes or missing words are included in brackets. I used internal documentation, as per MLA guidelines. Paragraphs are indented five spaces. The publisher chose the font; I would have used the standard Times New Roman 12.
The last element is correctness. I edited ruthlessly, cutting unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs. I spent a lot of time on the opening, because if I didn’t grab my readers at the start, they would be unlikely to continue reading. Here is how I edited the beginning of this essay. Notice that I cut an entire paragraph and was ruthless with unnecessary modifiers.
The example here is literary scholarship and the format is an essay. My purpose was to provide information to a very specific audience: scholars of Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially those with an interest in Hawthorne’s best-known work, The Scarlet Letter. Since this novel is so familiar, I had to find a fresh angle, something that had not been chewed over by previous scholars. Otherwise, no one would be interested in what I had to say, no matter how well I said it.
Every writing task presents its own
specialchallenges, but to me, the first and most important consideration is alwaysdetermining and appealing to an audience. After all, if we are writing for others rather than for our own amusement ordiversion, our primary taskgoal is to craft a document that someone wants to read, either for information or for entertainment.
Appealing to an audience—and the ultimate success of any document—
muststarts with the topic, which ideallyshould be something thatpresents new information to the audience or refracts the information in a fresh way. The topic belowof the excerpt from the scholarly paper here was sparked by pure happenstance, a casual walk that I took through a graveyard in the King’s Chapel Burial Ground in Boston, Massachusetts. I was simply taking a shortcut through the graveyard on the way to Filene’s, a now-defunct department store justly famous for its bargain basement.
Finally, I proofread the essay. Then I set it aside for a week and proofread it again. I repeated this process several times to make sure I had not made any careless errors. I paid special attention to text in large print and quotes, as I tend to assume that I must have keyboarded them correctly. Often I had not.
This seems like an arduous process because it is, but like any skill, writing gets easier the more you do it. And it gets to be fun, too. I promise.