History Monograph Introductions

There’s a lot of advice out there on what to do and not do when writing a monograph. The main sub-genre is thesis-to-book advice, but there’s plenty more besides on finding an authorial voice appropriate for the format, how to go about revising such a long piece of text, etc. Yet there’s nothing out there (that I’ve found, at any rate) on how to approach, structure, and what to include in the opening chapter.

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It was my experience that most of the substantive suggestions from  my anonymous peer reviewers of my monograph manuscript concerned the opening chapter. It’s something I’ve heard from others too.

I guess this may well be a consequence of the opening chapter often being what’s sent in with the book proposal, so it might be all that they can initially comment on in detail. Or even with the full manuscript it’s possible that the detail fades as the reviewer gets further into the book. So it might not be that there are actually more problems with those opening chapters, but they still get more attention and are the subject of more suggested revisions.

That said, maybe there are reasons the introductory chapter does need extra attention. After all, the opening chapter is where the premise of the book is outlined and the case made for its importance. I’ve noted before that the most common criticism in published reviews is more-or-less that the book isn’t the one the reviewer would have written. It’s utterly self-indulgent and unhelpful when the book is already written and published. When the book is still in draft form there is perhaps a little more value, though you’d really hope the suggestions would focus on best delivering on the vision of the author. Navigating the changes proposed to the opening chapter by peer reviewers are to some extent about asserting ownership of your own book, but that doesn’t mean they can simply be dismissed.

Whatever the reason, it seems authors are often needing to pay careful attention to academic writing in this very particular format. When I showed my reviewers’ comments to a senior colleague they replied: “It’s always the introduction!” So perhaps some guidance wouldn’t go a miss.

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Mural by Roberto Matta (1992) at Museo a Cielo Abierto de Valparaíso, Chile. Photograph taken by the author in 2015.

When I sent in my full monograph manuscript, the comment came back that it could do with a more typical introduction chapter. Which left me wondering: what exactly is a typical monograph opening chapter? In my case (and not mine alone) it rather felt like the peer reviewers wanted me to make the book more thesis-like, pulling in the opposite direction from most of the thesis-to-book advice I’ve come across, and the opening chapter is where this was most pronounced.

I turned to my academic writing guru of choice and emailed Professor Pat Thomson, who was very helpful. She made some sensible points about the need to convince the reader of the value of what you’re saying and make them want to read on. But there were, she said, no real rules or templates for an opening chapter. This is in part because every book is different – and looking through my favourite monographs there are some shared features but no real pattern. But it’s also because every discipline has its own expectations.

So, what about a History monograph? What would you expect to see covered in the opening chapter? Should it serve as something akin to a literary-style preface, a teaser or a hook for what’s to follow, or does it have a more functional job to do? What might you expect to see kept out of an introduction for the first substantive chapter? What annoys you about poorly written introductions and opening chapters? Is it even possible to come up with some sort of template for a History monograph opening chapter, or does each book need the freedom to find its own form?

Answers on a postcard… or, better still, in the comments section.

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4 Replies to “History Monograph Introductions”

  1. My personal pique with dissertations, theses and books is the needless repetition of having a conclusion at the end of wach chapter and the full manuscript. It treats work like a series of individual topics and distracts from the sense of overall coherence.

  2. Interesting, in part because I’m spending today on a book review so have been thinking about these questions. I think an introduction has to be about ‘why this matters’, which will usually involve some contextualisation of research questions. I’m not a fan of lengthy discussions of sources in the introduction – some idea is needed, particularly if the sources are unfamiliar ones, but I’d save detailed discussion for when sources are actually being analysed. Likewise, I find long literature reviews have the feeling of desperately trying to prove that the author has read absolutely everything. I think the footnotes and the bibliography are better places to do that.

  3. Currently grappling with this in putting my book together, so am interested to see responses. Getting all the big points, themes and arguments together is tricky. Both times I’ve done this I’ve had a couple of good examples with me to look at. So my first book I used Chris Hamlin’s Public Health book, and one of Warwick Anderson’s. Currently my favourite model is Sasha Handley’s Sleep – it’s a really good blend of organisation, clarity, addressing current knowledge, dealing swiftly (and generously) with background literature, explaining the book’s structure and making the whole lot really interesting. I’m a fan of jumping straight in with clear sentences such as “This book is about A”. “It argues B”. Having said that, my first draft at the moment has an opening vignette…

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