On writing history articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Warning: this post gets a bit technical and may only be of interest to hard-core historians.

It’s exactly ten years since I learned that my first book was to be published by Faber & Faber.  I remember getting the phone call at work, in our Monday morning management team meeting.  I’d left my phone switched on in the hope that my literary agent Felicity would have good news.  When she did, I had to leave the meeting to go into the kitchen by myself to have a little dance.  I was delighted.  (I was also chuffed to notice that in P.D. James’s autobiography, she says that despite all her writing success – and she’s had considerably more it than me – the sweetest moment of all was discovering from her agent that Faber & Faber were going to publish her first book.)

Over the decade since then, I went on to publish four books containing what must be, – ooh – getting on for half-a-million words.  I’ve written here about that process.  But while I was doing that, I must admit that I’ve hardly written a single academic article.  Of course I write articles very often, but on a few hours’ deadline for some newspaper or other.  In my twenties, though, I spent practically ALL my spare time researching and writing articles based on primary archival research that would be published in peer-reviewed journals, and I have six or seven to my name.

These are different skills, and writing for an academic audience is painful in a different way.  Why would it be hard to get your work published, you might ask, in a journal that only 150 history geeks are ever going to read?  Well, it is a challenge, I can tell you, because the peer reviewers or gate-keepers have to make sure that only really excellent, genuinely new stuff gets through.  I’ve had my share of anonymous reviewers who’ve said ‘A LOAD OF RUBBISH’ and ‘COMPLETELY RE-WRITE AND TRY AGAIN’ and that sort of thing.

Anyway, if you work as a historian in a university, you have constantly to turn out peer-reviewed articles.  In a museum or heritage site, not so much.  When you’re funded mainly by ticket sales, as we are at Historic Royal Palaces, we’ve got to be very mindful of what our visitors would actually want us to be spending their money upon.  Mending the hole in the roof comes pretty near the top of the list.  Putting on exhibitions for visitors comes near after that.  But we’ve also come to hope – no, actually to believe – that our visitors would also like to know that we’re spending curator hours actually chiselling new history out of the primary sources.

And so, as our organisation (we were only founded fifteen years ago, remember) got more mature and more confident, it became clear to us that we wanted to become an Independent Research Organisation (this is a special status that means you’re like a university.)  It would mean taking the research that we constantly do for exhibitions or building works or our many and varied projects, and using it not just to get on with our jobs, as we already do, but writing it up properly and getting it published, in those said, scary, peer-reviewed journals.

And this means, as Chief Curator, that I need to put my money where my mouth is, and once again dive bravely back into the chilly waters of peer review.  The trouble was, I feel out of practice.  I’m much happier producing 800 words in two hours than I am an 8,000 word footnoted article in two months.

So, like any sensible person in difficulty, I asked for help.

s200_sally.hollowayI have teamed up with a very, very, good young historian a generation younger than myself, Sally Holloway.  Sally has just finished her PhD, having been supervised by Amanda Vickery.  (This makes her officially a ‘Vickerette’.  I myself, having been supervised by Professor Maurice Howard, am proud to stand in the ranks of the ‘Morrisettes’.)  Sally was our researcher on the BBC TV series, ‘Fit To Rule’, and then did research for our Georgians exhibition at Kensington Palace while she was finishing off her thesis.

Now, I know quite a lot about the history of the Georgian court from writing my ‘popular’ book about it, The Courtiers, a few years ago.  Sally knows an awful a lot about a very fashionable and of-the-moment new type of history, called the history of emotions (her PhD thesis is on eighteenth century love tokens.)  So, in tandem, we’re working on … ta da … an emotional history of the Georgian court.  I think there’s lots of scope for trying to understand what boredom and love and jealousy were in the eighteenth century from the courtiers, who were in many cases literate and articulate people who went home and night and wrote diaries about what dreadful things had happened at court that day.

Anyway, for the last few weeks Sally has been going through my old databases of primary source material, and I’ve been reading all the historiography about the history of emotions.  We’ve been working together, writing alternate paragraphs, and so far, so good.  Sally, despite being at least ten years younger than me, has a wonderful habit of looking sternly at me through her spectacles and saying ‘No, Lucy, it’s not good enough yet’.

I can’t wait to SEE WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN with our joint project. There is as yet no happy ending to this story, because history – in one very small and technical but important sense – is genuinely being made.

4 thoughts on “On writing history articles in peer-reviewed journals.

  1. Nick van V.

    Writing alternate paragraphs on those who finish each other’s sentences — very nice!

  2. john harding

    Lucy, thank you for this as an elderly retired historian engaged in a private long-term writing project, I find this very interesting. I have had to do masses of catching up on developments in historiography since I completed post-grad work in 1973! So your article is both interesting and useful.

  3. Jo Bailey

    It sounds fascinating, I would love to have a going at the researching and thinking ‘bits’ but I’m sure I would hate the peer analysis! As a high school history teacher I am so many levels below you, however I spend an awful lot of time writing usually negative comments, on other people’s efforts! We do ask the boys to constructively criticise each others’ work and remind them regularly to comment on the work, not the person, and for each negative comment they make, they have to offer a suggestion! Keep the articles coming please.

  4. Chris Hough

    Having written peer reviewed articles I sympathise it is one slog but the joy of acceptance and publication bliss!


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