The realities of writing

Buddy Eric Wittenberg has made a very revealing series of posts over the past couple of weeks entitled “Things I Wish I Knew Then But Know Now” about the realities (oftentimes harsh realities) of writing about the Civil War.  His posts could apply equally as well to any type of historical writing.  There are 7 installments to Eric’s series and the first one is here.

His posts should be required reading for anyone considering, or starting out, writing about Civil War subjects.  Eric’s insights may not prevent every novice writer from making certain mistakes or experiencing particular common pitfalls, but at least one would realize they’d been warned.  Eric’s insights weren’t meant to turn any promising authors off from pursuing their dreams, but instead to make them aware of the realities of the nuts and bolts of the researching, costs, writing, publishing, and marketing aspects.

In just thinking about the various well-reasoned subjects that Eric posted about, I also thought of another this morning: Be prepared for criticism of your work.  You gotta have a thick skin, folks.  Criticism, both good and bad, of your work will only make you better at your researching, thinking, and writing.  If you’re willing to put your work out there in print in front of thousands of people, you have to be prepared to take some heat.  Some of it will be useful, others not.  Like some authors, some readers have an agenda – and they won’t like your interpretations.  We all get tomatoes thrown at us, and you just have to learn to duck and smile.  But much of the criticism you receive will be very helpful – it will point out weaknesses in your research and you’ll learn a good lesson from it. 

Let’s face it – regarding Civil War history, there are many things that are hard and fast facts.  Many other things are open to interpretation.  And sometimes things in each category can move back and forth – for instance, if some primary source comes to light for the first time and modifies something we previously thought was hard and fast.  You have to learn that a subject you write about may be looked at differently down the road.  Be able to adjust to that.

Previously, I’d mentioned that some authors/historians seem to have an “agenda.”  We all know some whom we call, for lack of a better modifier, “contrarians.”  Some seem to be out to change the historical record no matter what that takes – ignoring some evidence while reinterpreting other evidence.  For some reason, they’re not happy that Gen. Joe Schmo’s cavalry charge happened in a particular place.  Or that a particular unit was in a certain area of a battlefield for a rather mundane reason – they have to make their location a grandiose part of a much larger plan, attempting to reinterpret an entire battle.  No matter that there’s no evidence for these reinterpretations, and that existing evidence, in fact, refutes their new “theories.”  If you’re going to stick your neck out and attempt to change what historians feel to be established fact, then be prepared to take the heat in a mature way and back your interpretations with evidence.  If you’re proven right, you will be deservedly lauded.  If not, you have to roll with it.

So, when you get published (whether it be articles, books, or contributory material) you become somewhat of a public figure.  As in politics, you will get commentary, praise, and criticism from all sides.  Be prepared for it, and deal with it.  Learn from it.  Grow from it.  Stand your ground when necessary and warranted, and be willing to adjust when necessary and warranted.  Let’s face it, all of us authors will blow it from time to time – we will screw up the narration of an event.  We’ll put the wrong person in the wrong place.  We will map something incorrectly.  We’ll put the wrong date on something.  If we keep in mind that we weren’t “there,” and that everything we study and write about is based on the evidence that’s out there, we’ll be able to take shots from readers who, in many cases, may know more about something than we ourselves do.

For one more angle, I would also like to commend a couple of fantastic posts by my publisher, Ted Savas, on his personal blog.  Recently he’s been posting about the “view” from the publisher’s angle, and his posts go hand in hand with Eric’s eye-opening series.  See the first by Ted here, and the second here.  Just as there are many myths about authors and writers, there are many misinterpetations when it comes to publishers.  Ted’s very insightful posts will educate all of us about what publishers must deal with in today’s marketplace and the ever-changing demands of the consumer.

In the end, if you’re a budding author of any genre, don’t let any of what I, Eric, Ted, or others have to say turn you away from it.  Write.  Do it.  And love it.  Giving birth to a book is like putting breath into a child.  You’ll likely never see your investments back, you’ll get criticism, praise, and you’ll be constantly frustrated.

And you will love and treasure every moment of it.  Simply seeing my wife and family smile when one of my articles or books comes out puts a burst of wind into my sails, and I can’t wait to sink my money and time into the next project and do it all over again.

You’ll see.  So stay with it.

Published in: on May 9, 2008 at 10:47 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post JD. Both you and Eric have shared some excellent insights. One subject that I believe is key to being a writer (in any genre) is perseverance. It took me years of writing for free before I was able to become a professional at it. My path was a step-by-step process: newsletters led to websites, websites led to newspapers, newspapers led to magazines, and magazines led to books. Now I do all four, but all of them are tied together as my foundation. Also, don’t be afraid to get out there are speak. (You and Eric know that one for sure.) I used to have a fear of public speaking, now I’m booked up every month until Nov. and I love it. What a privilege it is to share our interests and expertise’s with others. We get the opportunity to meet all kinds of wonderful people (who often by our books) and word of mouth (ours and theirs) is the best marketing tool of all. Once I started doing lectures, I was hooked and as I do more, I get better at it. I look at our work as a product that the public needs to know about in order to enjoy it. Of course it’s not all about the money. None of us would do this it if it was, but the more books that are sold, the more articles published, the more signings and speaking engagements that are booked – the more stories of our nation’s history are shared. I have learned more about the Union cavalry, through your work and Eric’s, than any other outlet and if not for your’s (and his) perseverance, it may have never come to light.

  2. Thank you so much, Michael, and your words are another of those things that keep us all at it. The very same goes for your work.

    I too enjoy public speaking, and that keeps our batteries charged – and as I’ve often said, I learn more when I hear and answer questions, hear readers’ comments, and they share so many things with me that I didn’t know before. Secretly, I like giving talks and tours simply for the fact that someone is going to point out something that causes me to learn something new!


  3. JD,

    Excellent points, and ones I wish I had thought of. They’re so good, in fact, that I will make a point of referring my readers to this post.


  4. […] D. Petruzzi’s got a great post over on his blog that easily could have been (and probably should have been) the eighth post in my […]

  5. All excellent points gentlemen. When I first started writing, I was advised by a “professional consultant” to never write anything for free. I ignored that advice because as someone much wiser once said, “writers write because they have to.” If we did it for the money, the vast majority of us would have quit long ago. So I wrote for free, then someone saw those pieces, liked them, and offered payment for a piece in their journal. From there, things just seemed to snowball. Now time is my biggest challenge – finding enough of it to write all that I want to – and HAVE to.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Very helpful.


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