All falsities in writing – and the consequent dry-rot that spreads into the whole fabric – come from the notion that there is a stylistic ideal which exists in the abstract, like a special language, to which all [writers] might attain.
All writing is done for specific audiences.
A research article in a specialist historical journal is a different kind of writing to a book aimed at a more general readership. In fact, most historians produce a huge variety of different kinds of writing, which could include lectures, book reviews, abstracts, dictionary entries, blog posts, and chapters. It might even make sense to think of the Book as a number of different things, from the research-intensive monograph, through essay collections – which might be written by a number of contributors, or just one – to synthetic works, such as textbooks, or books that appeal to wider audiences.
Clearly, there is no ‘special language’ in Ted Hughes’ terms that could cover all of these different types of writing.
Among historians, there is not even necessarily a consensus about what the conventions are that apply to any one of these genres. But before thinking about the kinds of questions I have addressed in other posts here, such as using personal reflections, or what kinds of vocabulary are appropriate, you need to think about who you are writing for.
Like all good advice, the idea that historians should tailor their writing to their audience can have perverse consequences. One of my most frequent mistakes in writing for specialist audiences is to assume too much familiarity with technical questions. ‘Popular’ history writing on the other hand, risks treading close to condescension. All genres are contested. What, after all, is a book review for? There is no ‘special language, to which all [historians] might attain’ because all historians do not agree what history is meant to do.
- Make a list of all of the different kinds of writing you do.
- Write your examples down the left side of a table, and make columns for ‘audience’, ‘constraints’, ‘aims’, and ‘models’.
- Fill in the columns for one of your examples. For instance, if you were tackling academic book reviews, you might put ‘specialist researchers and students’ under the audience section, ‘length’ under the constraints section, ‘accurately summarising and fairly criticizing’ under the aims section, and choose some examples of recent reviews you thought were fair and helpful under the ‘models’ section.
- Use this table as a tool to return to, to flesh out your sense of what makes each type of writing tick.
- There’s no reason why you cannot change your categories. You might, for instance, decide to subdivide ‘textbooks’ into ‘general surveys’ and ‘methodological textbooks’. There is no better way than this to discover the genres of writing that are meaningful to you, and to your audiences.
 Hughes, Poetry in the Making, 12.