Objectivity, vigor, accuracy, and exhaustive research

A Checklist for Historical Writing

I’m reading an article in the magazine True West – Preserving the American West by author and literary agent James Donovan.

The article, “What Has History Taught Me,” starts with Donovan’s discussion of the secret to writing history books that sell.

His response: “…adhering to the three tenets of good popular historical writing as laid down by … Samuel Eliot Morison: Objectivity, vigor, and accuracy.”

Donovan says he would add “exhaustive research” to that list.

A Brief Explanation:

Objectivity – don’t let your personal opinions sway the facts

Vigor – active verbs, clear images, specific examples, unique metaphors

Accuracy – get it right! I see this as being tied to the last item. To quote from the movie Basic, “all we gotta do is tell the story right.”

Exhaustive Research – Do you visit the places you write about? Listen to music from that time period? Internet? Interviews? Newspaper articles? Museums?


My Question:

Do we miss crucial pieces of the puzzle by relying solely on the internet for our research?

photo credit: Ian Hayhurst via photo pin cc

About melindamcguirewrites

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. ------ William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech, Stockholm, 1950
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7 Responses to Objectivity, vigor, accuracy, and exhaustive research

  1. DM Yates says:

    I believe we do, Melinda. but our local libraries aren’t very good here. I can’t wait until all libraries are on the internet. Imagine the wealth of information.

  2. I have been very lucky to find much needed historical books no longer in print on ebay. It’s sad though when 3 of the 5 books I needed are no longer in print. One I was able to purchase and the 4th was public domain. This research will take a while to sort through but I can’t imagine not having access to those books to get the historical facts correct.

  3. First-person interviews are a must if you can get them. I guess it depends on how far back you are trying to go. Also, your list reminded me of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

    • Hi Charlene,
      Agreed, first person interviews are incredibly valuable. History – first hand – is disappearing faster than we realize, I’m afraid. I am interested in collecting the oral histories of people in my area … need to get busy finding out more ways to make that happen.
      And, many thanks for the resource. I had not read that before!

  4. Pingback: Mayhem in May | melindamcguirewrites

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