How to write from archival research

How to write from archival research

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘How to write from archival research’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Writing of different kinds is mentioned in most of the ‘How to…’ pages, conveying the message that writing about an archival research project should be built into all stages of its activities. Following through on this will mean that the researcher will become habituated to documenting the trail and development of their activities and ideas, including the where, what and why aspects, and data recording, analysis and also interpretation, from the very start of beginning a piece of research through to its conclusion.

2. Rule number 1, then, is that writing should be a standard, routine and everyday practice that is built into all activities and stages of an archival research project. This will mean that writing of this routine kind will come to hold no terrors!

3. But for many, perhaps most, archival research projects there is in addition the need for a different kind of writing to be done at the end, one that is more formal and designed for outside audiences of different kinds. The main possibilities might be a report, an article for a newspaper or website, an undergraduate essay, an undergraduate or Masters level dissertation, a PhD thesis, a journal article, a book. These involve very different styles of writing: there are different conventions regarding each of them, and these position the research, the writer, the intended reader/s, the kind of focus, the language of expression, in different ways, with other differences including how long the piece of writing needs to be, how in/formal its language can be, how and if references to sources and provided. So….

4. Rule number 2 is to decide what it is that you intend to write and to think hard about – and preferably also make a bullet-point list of – what the conventions are for this. A helpful way of doing this is to pick two or three good examples and do your thinking and your list-making around these before embarking on any of your own writing. What you end up with can then act as a checklist for your own activities in ‘writing up’.

5. One of the main differences in what is required for different kinds of writing can be illustrated by thinking about a report, as compared with writing a dissertation, thesis, article or book. A report is well-described by the word, for it involves reporting on activities and is largely descriptive of these. It is a way of writing that is close to the suggestions for documenting research activities that have been made in some of the other ‘How to’ pages. However, the other kinds of writing just listed need to be analytical and interpretive, and they confine the description of activities to only a small part of the piece of writing, which should be much more concerned with presenting an understanding or interpretation that is original and distinctive that the researcher has gained. So on the pages concerned with ‘How to…’ interpret documents, there are some ideas about this different form of writing as well.

6. Rule number 3 follows. It is that a report can be descriptive and follow the temporal order of activities that have been engaged in and document the main findings from these, but that for most other kinds of ‘writing up’, something more condensed, more analytical and more interpretive is needed.

7. If a report requires thinking descriptively and expansively, then by contrast these other kinds of writing require thinking small and significant. The colloquial expression ‘what is the bottom line?’ is helpful here in considering what needs to be put across to whoever the intended audience or reader is and to be quite precise about this. At this stage it is helpful to think about four or five linked points that convey the most significant things to put across to the audience/reader. These can then be used to help structure the piece of writing to be embarked upon.

8. Starting with just four or five main points may sound too limited – how on earth could a whole PhD chapter, or an article or book be produced from this? The answer is, very easily, it will have a good and clear structure, and it will emphasise the things that are significant rather than get lost in a welter of relatively unimportant detail. It will also be much longer than perhaps anticipated, because each of these main points can later be expanded on, by being broken down into sub-headings.

9. Rule number 4 comes in here. It is, make a list of no more than five of the most significant and important things that are to be conveyed to the intended audience or reader. Then mull it over, have a good think about this list and whether it needs modification, or whether different points should be substituted for some of the things initially listed.

10. Thinking in terms of what the structure of something to be written should be in advance of actually embarking on writing it is helpful too in making it much clearer how – and if! – these main significant points fit together. What needs to come first, what needs to be at the end to make a final significant point, where things are best discussed to convey their most interesting aspects, are all involved here. This is also the stage when it is likely to be helpful to break down each of the main points, once you are really satisfied with them, into sub-points under each heading.

11. Rule number 5 is, once there is a settled list of the five or so most significant interpretive points to put across in a piece of writing, then start to build sub-points under each of these headings. Do this schematically, in the form of bullet-lists, because then it is easy to move things around as you reflect on what you’ve done and perhaps decide that some things need to be put in different places in your structure.

12. Draw this up neatly! Make the structure clear and visible, put it on paper, put it above your desk, put it in the bathroom or kitchen, anywhere it will catch your eye – and mull it over! Don’t rush to start writing, let it settle in your mind, think about it, think about whether it hangs together and everything appears in a sensible and logical order. Revise as needed. And, once it has achieved its final form, keep this schematic outline of the structure of what you want to write and the main points to convey, and use it as a guide to how you actually write.

13. Rule number 6 is, write to the structure! It will be much easier to do it like this, it will have a clear structure and order to it from the word go, and going backwards and forth between what you are actually writing and your schematic outline will enable you to see whether the outline needs revision, or whether what needs changing is how you are writing from it. And if the structure changes, then produce a different version of the structure for your desk, kitchen etc – it’s a good idea to record which version it is, by putting a date on to identify successive versions, for instance.

14. Nobody writes perfectly first go, so it is important to learn how to edit our own work, for if we write for public purposes other people will do this if we don’t. They are supervisors, referees, editors, publishers, but it almost always better for the writer to do this, rather than a third-party. The structure is helpful here too, for it provides an outline guide to what we are trying to put across and it gives us a benchmark for thinking backwards and forwards between what we intended, and what we have actually accomplished. It is also a good idea to involve an outside reader, a colleague or friend. And here talking them through the outline before they read the writing itself will help them have a clear idea of what we are trying to accomplish so they can make an assessment of whether and to what extent we have done so.

15. Usually responses will come back in the form of broad comments and suggestions, although sometimes very specific recommendation may be made about things that don’t make sense or that are dubious. The next stage is to make any detailed changes to a piece of writing that seem sensible. The details of editing are helpfully done on paper, with a pencil and rubber, because this enables decisions to be made and unmade about what to remove or new things to include before transferring these onto a computer file.

16. Rule 7, then, is edit before considering that a piece of writing is finished enough to be released into the world. This involves a number of stages: firstly, go back and forth between the outline structure and the piece of writing produced from it; secondly, get a friendly third-party to read and comment; thirdly, edit by hand and pencil to remove or include to make better; fourthly, transfer changes onto the computer file.

17. And lastly, this short ‘How to’ is itself in a small way an example of the suggestions that have been made. It is structured around a schematic outline composed of seven main points, the significant things that have been put across in it. Thinking about these has involved thinking backwards and forwards between the schematic outline and what has actually been written, and so on through the other points suggested. It works!

Last updated: 27 May 2021