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On Revising Historical Manuscripts for Publication

First of all, I would contend that history is, in addition to its basic concern with the communication of ideas about the past, a literary enterprise entailing the framing of a narrative that has plot, character development, storyline, climax, etc. As you prepare a historical manuscript please think how literary devices might be employed to help achieve a more readable history. I would recommend a book by Savoie Lottinville, The Rhetoric of History (University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), as a very fine handbook on the writing--as opposed to the researching, etc.--of history. It contains important and useful discussions of opening scenes, the structure of narration, continuity and analysis, portraiture, and the issue of writing for the general adult reader.

I would also recommend reading the book by Paul Parsons, Getting Published: The Acquisition Process at University Presses (University of Tennessee Press, 1989). This book traces the steps involved in manuscript acquisition--initial contact between author and editor, the editor's evaluation of a work, outside review by scholarly peers, and final approval of the publisher's editorial committee. It also discusses procedures and strategies employed by participants at each stage of the publication process. As a result, it is a handy reference describing the process of book publication.

For most historical works these handbooks were not necessary for potential authors even as little as a decade ago. But the publication business, even at non-for-profit publishers such as university presses, has become so economically difficult in the last few years that every advantage is needed. Typically, even at university presses, the editor is inundated with manuscripts that come in all the time. Something must distinguish your work from the larger pile or it will probably be rejected out of hand. Even in my relatively small publishing operation for NASA, where we issue something on the order of seven to ten publications a year, I receive probably 70 unsolicited manuscripts each year. Occasionally, I find a great one that must be published. Mostly, I am overburdened by the need to determine if the book merits anything beyond a cursory review. That is something I try to decide quickly, but without a manuscript that I can readily see has potential I cannot afford to commit my time improving it to the point that it warrants publication. If promise is not immediately apparent I typically return the manuscript and suggest further work. My experience is typical of press editors, and I would urge you to ensure the best possible manuscript goes forward for consideration.

At the time that a manuscript is submitted for consideration, if not before, I recommend sending a short proposal (less than ten pages) explaining the importance of the study, its key findings, its thesis, and its structure. This proposal should be well-honed to reflect exceptionally positively on the book manuscript and its author. It should also entice the acquisition editor to pursue in a serious way consideration of the book. Along with the proposal, include a chapter outline, explaining in a single paragraph for each chapter the main points, findings, and interpretations. Along with the proposal enclose a short vita--emphasis on short, less than three pages--to demonstrate your education, training, background, experience, and publication record. In the current economic environment, according to several press directors I have talked with, the scholarly record of the author is an increasingly important determinant of sales potential for a volume. If you are illustrious in your field, don't let modesty prompt you to hesitate to demonstrate it.

In this book acquisition process clear, evocative, muscular writing is critical. Not only does it distinguish your work from the thousands of other manuscripts that authors seek to have published, it helps ensure the sales potential of the work. Most presses, even university presses, can no longer aford to publish books that they believe will not sell at least 1,000 copies. Many historical books are in the 400-500 sales region, and they can no longer be published by most presses. A crisis in non-fiction and especially scholarly publishing is definitely afoot. The result may be that much valuable knowledge will no longer have as its traditional outlet the scholarly monograph.

I hope your work will not fall victim to this economic crunch, but to ensure against it please consider carefully and realistically its longterm sales potential. Sales potential is usually based on several factors. One of them, perhaps the most important, is the topic. Does it have broad appeal? Is it one that speaks to a multiplicity of disciplines, audiences, and analytical needs? Is the topic handled with alacrity, verve, and style? In publishing the NASA History Series we have tried, not always successfully, to ensure that the topic was of sufficiently broad appeal to invite a readership of more than 1,000 people willing to purchase copies of the book. For example, Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational Culture in the U.S. Space Program ("New Series in NASA History" published for the agency by the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), written by Howard E. McCurdy, explored a significant topic for NASA and all federal agencies as the nation seeks to "Reinvent Government." It is, accordingly, of interest to government executives and public policy-makers; scholars in history, political science, sociology, and public administration; and practicing scientists and engineers both inside the agency and other organizations of the federal government and the private sector.

Only slightly less significant is the ability to handle the topic in a deftly-written manner and with a well-structured argument that offers a useful and perhaps provocative thesis. Many historians have labored valorously to bring to fruition Leopold von Ranke's dictum, wie es eigentlich gewesen , to write history as it actually happened. A noble quest, but in the process too many have piled endless details together into a rough chronology and called it history. The result is more obfuscation than enlightenment, more minutia than genuine understanding. Those involved in aerospace history have demonstrated a propensity in this direction, substituting technical detail for synthesis and analysis. The endless piling of particulars--whether we think is good or bad matters not--does not enlighten most readers about the unrecoverable past. No less a figure than Carl L. Becker asked the question in the title of one of his seminal essays, "What Are Historical Facts?" He commented:

the simple historical fact turns out to be not a hard, cold something with clear outline, and measurable pressure, like a brick. It is so far as we can know it, only a symbol , a simple statement which is a generalization of a thousand and one simpler facts which we do not for the moment care to use, and this generalization itself we cannot use apart from the wider facts and generalizations which it symbolizes.

For Becker, historians imbue facts with importance based on the concerns they personally felt and the issues they sought to illuminate. Clear writing that keeps people at center stage as they wrestle with difficult technological and scientific and programmatic issues will help any aerospace history manuscript toward publication. Please work to write for an interested adult, but non-specialist, audience. If the manuscript will not appeal to that audience, then the question of its publication potential must be seriously considered.

In writing a work of history, there are really only two ways in which to organize information. The first is chronologically and its most pure form is little more than a formal listing of facts by date. The second is by topic and involves rigid adherence to discussing a single subject. The best historical writing is a combination of the two. Different historians have handled this issue in different ways, but however you decide to approach the subject, please keep in mind that a work of history is a linear projection of understanding about the past. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thinking of it as a story to be told will help to focus attention on moving it forward from beginning to conclusion. If material does not further that movement, it probably should not be included.

In terms of specifics about any historical manuscript, I have several recommendations. The introduction (leave the personal preface and acknowledgments for last), usually running twelve or fifteen pages of typescript, must leave no doubt in the reader's mind that you have hold of a highly interesting problem --one that is historical (on the order of how or why) rather than historiographical ("I find a hole in the literature"; "My work agrees with eminences like . . .") or merely background laying ("Let's see what came before X").

The introduction should then discuss what we think we know about the problem and its solution (without getting into names and titles in the text; discuss primary materials and give due credit to the work you build upon mostly in an essay on sources) and how you can bring us to a richer understanding of the issues and a fuller solution than we have managed heretofore. Making clear that you want to solve a puzzle of consequence, the introduction leaves no doubt of the work's intrinsic interest and broad implications.

Strive to establish the principal theme of each chapter--to arouse curiosity, engage minds--with the titles as shown in the table of contents. Using verbs effectively will help with this process, especially if they evoke the idea of change. I would also recommend staying away from the use of dates in chapter titles since they represent an arbitrary division. At the beginning of each chapter, establish how its principal subject relates to what has gone before and establish the plan for dealing with it throughout the remainder of the chapter, section, etc. Each chapter ending should also set up a possible linkage for what follows. This is called by Lottinville the "hook and eye" approach and it helps to tie the work together. A powerful linkage helps to move the reader through the narrative with ease and increased receptivity. Poor "hooks and eyes" prompt readers to lay the book aside in favor of more engaging activities.

Each chapter should tackle a large issue (something that binds the material together) while also moving the study ahead chronologically. Sometimes chapters break logically into three or four (but not two) sections, each section narrating a stretch of time that has its own integrity in terms of your conceptualization or, in turn, examining a point or theme in depth (narration suspended). Rarely, however, should a chapter be broken down into a series of more than half a dozen subsections. Doing so creates a choppiness to the analysis and distracts more than it clarifies. Remember that the flow of the narrative must be smooth, with one section folding into another to create a rich tapestry of description and analysis.

Examine each chapter closely to ensure that the first and last paragraphs stand with special strength. Make the entries inviting; avoid mere summaries at the end. See that every paragraph has a strong topic sentence. Avoid long discussions of what, given the literature, we already know.

The English language is one of the glories of western civilization. It provides ample resources for elegant prose whether of the simplest or most sophisticated kind. Good writers are also readers of other good writers. When difficulties are encountered in writing, the problem usually is with the thinking.

Throughout the text, remove all evidence of "dissertationese"--long quotations, stilted phrasing, weak paragraphing, and slavish cross references ("As we have seen"; "As chapter four will show"). Weed out everything like "I will argue," "I have also looked at the work of," and "This chapter proves."

Conduct a ruthless search for passive-voice constructions and--even if active voice--overuse of the weak is/was/were predicate. Also cut unnecessary verbiage and repetitious phrasing. Convert Latinisms (e.g. facetious, ambulate) to English. Expand contractions. Avoid with all the strength of your being the predilection in scholarly writing to turn nouns into verbs and to put "ize" (e.g. prioritize, utilize, definitize), on the end of several other perfectly acceptable words. Avoid anything that smacks of jargon, codewords, or inside knowledge. To the astute reader it betrays a muddled and insecure writer. Remember always to write for the general adult public.

If you are tempted to use a word because you think it will give an authoritative ring to your writing, or because you think it will put you among an in-group of specialist readers, don't. Writers of history are writing not only for today, but tomorrow. They should avoid trendy language that will date their work among future readers.

A strong conclusion or epilogue revisits the implications of the study and perhaps looks ahead to later developments. Do not let an unfriendly reader finish the book, shrug shoulders, and ask, "So What?"

There has long been a tendency in historical scholarship to use it for advocacy of a particular position or personal agenda. When well-grounded on evidence, this is an acceptable and sometimes even a laudatory development. When poorly-based on historical documentation, it is deplorable. All scholars must understand that they are asked to observe the highest professional standards for achieving historical accuracy in the representation of facts and events. All interpretations should be based on solid primary-source evidence, and the few speculations that are permissible should be clearly identified as such.

Check the format for notes (follow the Chicago Manual of Style , 14th edition) and place them, double-spaced, at the end of each chapter or the overall text. In fact, double-space everything in the manuscript and leave wide margins to ease the process of reading the manuscript.

Make photocopies of the illustrations you might like to use in the book and mark where they should appear. Images must be reproducible in clear and usable form; informative, contributory to the text; and visually appealing in terms of composition and human-interest value. Consider the need for maps.

Every image needs a caption that identifies it, states its significance, and tells us where it came from. Obtain permissions to use images that do not lie in the public domain or originate in works published less than seventy-five years ago.

Historical writing is a difficult, but rewarding, endeavor. Its power to shape understanding is critical to the welfare of humanity. At a fundamental level the objective of the historian must be to serve the present, and expanding the perceptions of individuals is an especially noble and challenging goal. I hope that this discussion will be of some use in your work of presenting the past to the present.

Roger Launius, Author
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator

For further information email histinfo@hq.nasa.gov

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