Gwyn Alf Williams*
to develop your critical faculties. One golden rule is to assume that all your
books are written by congenital liars. Take nothing on trust.
As you read, look for the footnotes. See what
kind of sources they use. If they quote from a memoir, consider the author of
the memoir; if from an administrative document, consider the character of the
office which would issue the document. At all stages try to see THROUGH the
text to the documents on which it is based. Ideally you should try to DEMOLISH
the book, break it down into its constituent parts. Obviously, at your stage,
you cannot carry this process very far. But try to THINK in this way. The
hardest job of all for a normal student at your stage is to break out of the
prison of respect for the written word. Behind the most impressive prose lurks
an often unimpressive human being. Look at the book as barrier between you and
the materials you would use to construct a more truthful picture. Try, at
least, to think in this way.
Look at the structure of the author’s prose,
at his sentence. Watch for the moment when he stops using pedestrian evidence
and starts using metaphor. Can you catch him stumbling in his argument? Look
at his more categorical statements – what assumptions lie behind those? Can
those assumptions be questioned? It becomes harder and harder the more
technical and monographic a book is, of course, but be on the alert always.
Sometimes it’s easy. There’s one sentence from Cobban on the Convention which
reads – ‘Strange to say, however, the most brilliant triumphs of oratory would
not get the army fed’. Smile, take the point, and pass on. Stop and go back.
Consider there the smooth, easy, almost furtive implication of parliamentary
ineffectiveness, so painfully familiar to us sophisticated students of society
and politics (are they not always the same, particularly if the oratory is
French?). Consider the further implication that if anything got done, it was
by this dictatorial Committee of Public Safety. But look at the facts
–reported by Hampson amongst others, if not fully by Cobban himself. Consider
how open the Committee itself was to ‘parliamentary’ control; look, in fact,
at the whole blinding network of committees, look at the representatives on
mission, at the exact nature of the legislation passed by these orators, and
the legitimacy of Cobban’s insinuation becomes dubious indeed.
More important, you may be driven towards the view that if this is really
Cobban’s opinion, then he should have stated it openly, with evidence
in support. This may lead you to the further inference that Cobban may have
used this sly slip-it-between-the-ribs style BECAUSE he had no valid evidence.
In short, you may ultimately decide that the sentence tells you more about
Cobban than about the Convention. On the other hand, you may not.
is the kind of eye you should train. Keep an eye on their style as well
as their footnotes. The blander they are, the more easy to read they are, the
more effective they are, the more suspicious should you be. There’s only one
answer. You must become a monster. Don’t give them a chance. Tear them apart. Be
thoroughly unBritish. Get them down and when they’re down, kick them.
practical point : if you take notes from books, don’t take notes as you run
through. In nine cases out of ten, you will take your notes in the language of
your authors. This language will then re-appear in your own essay. Plagiarism is
a legal offence. Besides, the exercise is pointless. You will merely transfer
dead bones from one graveyard to another. Your own words, please, at any cost.
Read a large coherent section, run through it in your own mind until you have it
and then, if you need to, summarise the argument in your own shorthand.
Your prime purpose is to construct an
argument. Take the problem, read around it, look closely at the
nationality and logic (in the broadest sense) of your authors and come to some
decision. You MUST arrive at some decision or your essay will be treacle.
There is no call for dogmatism. Your decisions may be multiple, relative or
even contradictory. But the essay MUST have a theme or a group of
inter-related themes. Come to SOME verdict (the more sophisticated the better)
even if it kills you, or more probably, me.
Then build your argument. Construct it as
cleverly as you can, as effectively as you can. You can be as complex as you
like. But you must try to be clear. Clarity is the most difficult of the
virtues. The perennial weakness of most undergraduate essays is their failure
to say what the writer intended them to say. Read over what you have written.
Read it as a non-historian, preferably as a social scientist. If he
can’t understand it then there must be something radically wrong. Make sure
you say precisely what you mean to say.
Do not use words loosely. If you use the same
word in a different sense, say so ―but preferably use another word. Try to be
as EXACT as you can.
Cite evidence to support your contentions.
Loud assertion is no substitute for argument. Neither is windy generalisation.
On the other hand, don’t overload your text. The balance you must seek.
The paragraph is the normal unit; an essay is
usually a mosaic of paragraphs. Make the paragraph the conceptual unit of your
essay. Let it handle one idea or a group of related ideas. You can be as
clever as you like with your paragraphs, but never lose sight of their basic
importance. When your argument changes gear, you should change paragraphs. The
state of your paragraphing usually reflects the state of your mind. If one’s
messy, so is the other.
As well as being a lawyer, you should try to
be a soap salesman. SELL me your line. There’s no need to write like the
Mirror or the Express, but the more life and personality you can get into your
essay, the better. Remember that we, too, have read Hampson and Cobban and the
rest. We don’t want to read them again in your handwriting. The more of
yourself you get into the essay, the happier we will be. Always provided you
don’t sin against the holy ghost.
Quotation is sometimes necessary, but keep it
to the minimum. Unless you need to quote to illustrate a man’s thinking or
feeling, avoid quotation altogether. Only quote a secondary work if it says
something in a peculiarly memorable way.
List the books you’ve read at the end of the
essay. It will help us to judge it. List only the books you really have
read. If you want to show off, do it in the text.
one can tell you how to write an essay. It is impertinence to try. But this may
have told you how NOT to.
important job is to break down the barrier between the world of books and the
world of real life as you know it. Most of us erect some kind of wall between
the two. Young people sometimes swallow stuff from books, they would never
accept for a moment from a living person. Remember there ARE no books, there are
only people speaking. In the last resort, history only exists in the mind of the
historian. Until you are proven wrong, assume that your mind is as good as
of Oxford Brookes University, School of Humanities
See at < http://www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/humanities/gwynalf.html >.