A guide to academic writing and an annotated bibliography of books on writing

Note: below is a short guide to writing better. Skip to the end for the annotated bibliography.

No part of my graduate coursework emphasized writing. It was assumed that we could all construct a sentence, a paragraph, and (hopefully?) a dissertation chapter. As someone who struggled with his writing in the early parts of graduate school, this was frustrating. Since then, I’ve realized people with PhDs don’t talk about improving academic writing very much either. But they should. Everyone should. Below are some strategies I’ve used to improve my writing.

Improving your writing in the short term

Think about writing as three different stages: planning, writing, and revision. In reality, the lines between these stages are blurred and its okay to revise each paragraph as you go or to change the outline as the chapter unfolds, but when you’re trying to improve, thinking deliberately about each piece is critical. The three small suggestions below address each of these stages. If you feel the first two are too obvious, you can ignore them, but you should try the third one if you don’t do it already.

1. Work from an outline. You want to have a clear sense of how your chapter or article should unfold. Once I have my plan, I go back to my evidence (or material) and often sort it based on the outline. An outline is also the best cure for writer’s block. If you can’t start writing, just make the outline more detailed. This refines your argument and you end up writing a lot of the topic sentences for the chapter. An outline is also handy when it’s time for revision. In fact, if you’re struggling with the structure of an already written draft, make a reverse outline, which is an outline constructed with the actual topic sentences (in order) of the written chapter. You can then compare your actual structure—and the clarity of your topic sentences—with the original plan.

2. Topic sentences. Again, this feels too basic. It’s not. As I was finalizing my manuscript, I realized that bad topic sentences were responsible for almost all the problematic or confusing parts. Topic sentences guide the reader as well as keep you honest: you can’t write them clearly unless you really understand the point you want to make. If you revise nothing else, make sure your topic sentences are clear.

3. Print your work and edit in pen. You probably edit on the screen. That’s totally fine. But if you want to improve your writing, I strongly suggest actually printing your work. First, it forces you to treat revision with the respect it deserves. Secondly, I think it alienates you from the text, which is actually a good thing. It makes it easier to see how the piece is constructed since you’re coming into contact with it in a new way. It also means you revise in two stages; when you first make the edits in pen and again when you enter them into the manuscript on the computer. Even if you aren’t persuaded, just try it. I’ve convinced a few people to do it and they all found it useful. There’s not much to lose, though be sure you like the technique before buying a new laserjet printer.

Improving your writing in the long term

The cliche is that you should read a lot (and widely). It’s good advice, but I’m guessing you already do that. The key is to train yourself to read like a writer. You should be reading not just for enjoyment and/or information, but to understand how the piece you’re reading is constructed.

1. Go through your favorite books and think about how they are written. Ask yourself why you enjoyed your favorite academic book so much. Can you apply any of the author’s techniques? How did they open your favorite chapter? Similarly, look at a prize-winning article you like. How is it constructed? You’re already familiar with the content of these works, so focus on the writing. Initially this requires deliberate effort, but over time you’ll learn to think about the writing whenever you read anything.

2. Read other people’s drafts. It teaches you to think about writing. When you revise one of your own pieces, you face familiar challenges. When you look at something you never would’ve written about or something written in a completely different style, you train yourself to be attuned to alternate stylistic choices.

3. Write as much as possible. Revision counts. Almost everyone I’ve met who writes beautifully kept a diary growing up. I didn’t, but since it’s a little late for that, I write as much as possible. It’s okay to write things that never go anywhere. Experimentation is a good thing.

Annotated bibliography of academic writing resources

William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

My favorite. Zinsser emphasizes simplicity and clarity. While this is all relative (particularly in academic writing), his philosophy of writing and concrete suggestions are great. The book is beautifully written, so it makes for a good read if you need inspiration.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

Basic, but if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP. Lots of specific examples.

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing.

This one is useful because it’s written specifically for academics. It’s also practical, dealing with questions like titles, chapter openers, etc.

Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space.

Bad title, great book. Based on Sword’s conversations with academics about their writing.

Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot.

I like this one because it deals with the mental aspects of writing. Silvia is a psychologist and he gives motivational suggestions as well as practical advice on writing and submitting articles.

Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor.

Save this one for when you’re moving to the revision for publication stage (particularly for a book). I found it really useful when I was revising my book manuscript.

Wendy Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

The title says it all. If you want a step by step guide to writing, revising, and submitting a journal article, this is it. I’ve never tried to follow the plan exactly, but I found it an interesting read.

If you have book recommendations, send me the title and a sentence on why it’s useful (I’ll give you credit). You can find me on twitter or via email.

A short guide to preparing for general exams

General exams are scary. At least until you pass them, and then you remember them fondly and condescendingly explain to early graduate students how much you enjoyed your generals prep year and that maybe they should too. I remember finding that dynamic infuriating in my second year of grad school and then contributing to it in my third. In the spirit of helping people who are panicked about general exams (aka orals/quals/prelims), here is a guide I wrote for a friend shortly after passing them myself back in the day. Since my exams are a fading memory, I haven’t really changed the advice, which served me extremely well. The suggestions are based on the generals format I had in graduate school, where you prepare four exam “fields” (long lists of books) and must demonstrate mastery of them in an oral exam. However, these techniques work well for any exam in which you need to familiarize yourself with a huge academic literature.

1. Triage your books: Take your list for each field and divide it into three parts. The first category comprises the most important books. You might feel like they’re all in that category, but they’re not. This is probably the most important 15-20% of all the books/articles on the list. You’ll need to read these carefully, so be sure to allow time for that each week. Then there’s the books that are pretty important, but you won’t have time to read at normal speed. Allow time for either a slower skim or read introduction/conclusion and 1-2 chapters carefully. Finally there’s the books that matter least. You’ll be skimming these. Give yourself an hour (or so) with each. At first it’ll seem too difficult to understand a text in an hour, but you’ll get better with time. For all of the books, read reviews to supplement. Pro-tip: if you’re an Americanist, Reviews in American History is one of the best publications around/ever/of all time.

2. Take useful notes, NEVER longer than a page: When you finish reading (reviewing?) a book, write a one paragraph (sometimes two) summary of the text, providing an overview of the argument and any other key information. This is absolutely critical as it develops your ability to quickly identify an argument and it makes reviewing much easier.

3. Develop historiographic narratives: Come up with your own way to link books conceptually. If you can put the books into dialog you’ll be better able to think synthetically about the field and you’ll actually remember the specific arguments as well. For example, if you had to explain the linkages between books A, B, and C, you could say something like, “Book A established the earliest perspective on this subject, while B followed years later as a corrective. While B’s account was useful, C observed that a more nuanced account would adapt B to account for the critical parts of A.” You get the idea. Generals is all about historiographic narratives.

4. Review with a friend: Once you have useful summaries or notes, anybody can quiz you. In the month (or two) before the exam, get friends to quiz you incessantly. Have them flip through your notes asking you what the arguments of the various texts are. Write a list of sample generals questions and have a friend quiz you. They don’t need to know the answers. You’ll know if you’re getting them right. As the exam approaches, you can even do mock fields or mock exams. Get a list of ten questions and have a partner ask you questions for thirty minutes. Then you can switch and do the same for him or her. This is perhaps the most important principle. Generals is about understanding how to explain history and historiography out loud and you’ll only get good with practice.

Oh, and stay calm. I really enjoyed my generals prep and maybe you should too.

Questions/comments? Find me on twitter or send me an email.

How to write an academic book review

Note: this guide is for writing the 500-750 word “academic summary” review. Some of these suggestions are helpful for longer reviews or review essays, though those are much more about making an argument about the book or historiography.

What do you do if you’re unsure whether you need to read that new book about rats in revolutionary Paris or the untold story of Jefferson’s wig? You look for reviews. In particular, you seek the academic summary kind, a 500-750 word overview that tells a busy reader what is at the book’s heart. Writing these summaries isn’t the most glamorous job, but they grease the wheels of the historical profession. Below are some suggestions on how to write academic reviews as painlessly as possible.

A good review starts with careful reading and economical note-taking. Somewhere during my preparation for general exams I stopped actually reading. Mostly, I skim. That’s no good for this. As a reviewer, you owe it to the author to read everything carefully and check the footnotes. However, don’t take an overabundance of notes. Be on the lookout for a few key quotations from every chapter. I like to write a 2-3 sentence summary of each chapter after I’m done reading it. Keep a broad perspective; you don’t want to lose the forest for the trees.

When it comes time to write the review, think about what the reader wants. Generally, it’s a short overview of the subject and argument followed by a slightly expanded discussion of some particularly interesting key themes and then an overall assessment. That’s it.

To do that, open with a short hook describing an interesting nugget or anecdote from the book. A well chosen opening like this should ideally reflect the book’s focus or argument and therefore give the reader a sense of the book’s flavor. Then you pivot to a one-to-two paragraph overview. Tell us the book’s subject, argument, and importance. Use at most two quotes; you don’t want to bury the reader. Then you want a paragraph on an interesting theme of the book (this one should be pretty positive). The next paragraph or so can raise another theme, with an eye toward constructive criticism or engagement with the book’s ideas. This is where you can get a bit into your analytic take / perspective. By this point readers expect a little of that. Then you end with a paragraph (or even a few sentences) providing an overall assessment of the importance or relevance of the book. Bam! You’re done.

General tips:

Reviews of this kind are somewhat formulaic. This is not the time to experiment with form. Readers of this kind of review are looking for a summary. If you want to write one of those reviews that is more about the human condition than the book in question, save it for the LRB/NYRB/LARB.

The first few paragraphs are an overview. Be faithful to the author’s argument, and keep your (brief) analytic take for later in the review.

Now is not the time to dump on a bad book. Be charitable. Raise legitimate criticisms constructively. Even bad books have useful information and content for other scholars.

Don’t nitpick. It’s lazy and stupid. None of us devote years of our lives to the copy-editing. Engage with the ideas.

You should write a few of these a year. You owe it to the profession!

For an example of a few reviews, here’s one I wrote for the Kentucky Historical Register and (slightly longer) one for H-NET.

How to (quickly) write a lecture

I am now in my fourth consecutive semester of running new classes and I think I’ve figured out a pretty good system for writing lectures quickly. It is by no means perfect (as the linked slides and outline below reveal), but it gets the job done and has helped me make the most of my time.

(1) Write your lecture the day before.

This is scary the first few times, but will save you a lot of time and anxiety in the long-run. The other advantage is that the material is fresh in your mind, so you can extemporize well and you remember your notes. If you’re too nervous to try this the very first time, try writing your lecture well in advance, but in 24 hours. You will, however, really need to believe the deadline for this to work.

Regarding content, if you don’t know what you should be lecturing about, start by reading a textbook. The point is to get a sense of the key events, incidents, and people for the relevant period. Then find one or two key monographs to get some ideas for lecture themes. If there really isn’t a relevant textbook, find 2-3 monographs on the lecture topic. Read their introductions and reviews, and you’ll have the same list of key events, incidents, people, and arguments. The point is to spend ~2 hours at the beginning reviewing this material and compiling a rough list on paper. Take this list and try to break it into relevant parts using the structure described below. When it comes to finding images, wikipedia / wikimedia commons is your friend. As is google image search. Try to be more original than simply getting the top image for the relevant wikipedia article (though I’m at times guilty of this).

(2) Use bullet points, do not write out a talk. 

This saves a huge amount of time. It also avoids the dreaded problem of having WAY too much information. Lectures should be lean, otherwise the students get swamped. Ideally, a slide should have three to four relevant bullet points (and these can have a few sub-points). Anything more, and you’d be better off either streamlining things a bit more or adding a new slide. In my bulleted outline, I generally indicate a new slide with brackets and in bold: [SLIDE TITLE]. Makes it easy to see, especially if it’s buried in some larger outline point.

(3) Have a clear structure that you use every lecture.

This helps the students with note-taking. It also makes life easier for you. Below is the structure I use. It could be improved, but I find it covers the rights bases of keeping it interesting, being clear, and providing the key information. This is based on a 90 minute lecture; for shorter lectures, I’d probably do two “content chunks” and one student discussion topic halfway through:

1. [Announcements] Tell the students about updated readings, due dates, etc. This is a boring necessity, so get it out of the way immediately.

2. [Hook] An anecdote or story to introduce the topic and lecture themes.

3. [Overview] Signposting is key. I generally have a three point overview.

4. [Content chunk 1] Any number of slides, lecture for 30 minutes or so.

5. [Discussion Q] No matter how good you are, your students are now bored. So put a slide with some sort of discussion question. These don’t have to be complicated or deep historical questions, in fact, you want something the students can latch on to. This is as much about refocusing them and getting out some energy as being a pedagogical exercise. If you really can’t think of anything, often an image to interpret/discuss is a good way to get the audience involved.

6. [Content chunk 2] Back at it for 30 minutes or so.

7. [Discussion Q] At the ~60 minute mark, they’re bored again. You need a short discussion to refocus.

8. [Content Chunk 3] Last piece of lecture.

9. [Contextualizing the reading] Be sure to explicitly link the lecture to the readings, the students don’t always connect the dots. How you do this will vary by course format, but make an effort.

10. [Conclusions] Remind them about the key takeaways.

11. [Key terms / dates] I always end with a list of key terms and a short (6 date) timeline. Helps a lot for review and their notes.

12. [Additional reading] I like to suggest three books if they’re interested in more detail. These are academic. Very very occasionally I recommend fiction, a film, or documentary.

13. [Next lecture or week] Set up the next one!

Finally, post the slides online in advance if you can and I like to make a sheet with the lecture’s key quotations. A sample set of slides is here. The outline is here.  It’s a lecture I gave on the Columbian Exchange for the early part of a course on colonial America. In preparation, I read a relevant chapter from a textbook on the history of the Americas and combined that with ideas/material from Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange and Virginia Anderson’s Creatures of Empire. Note that this material is not edited for this post, so they’re a bit rough, which is to say, they’re realistic. The day of lecture I also review the printed outline and sometimes make changes/corrections in pen, so the actual lecture may have been very slightly different. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but the lecture went well and I followed the rules here (though I wrote it before I appreciated the value of contextualizing the tutorial/section readings).

Note on outline length: This is more of a question of feel, so it’s hard to give an abstract estimate. You’ll figure it out in the first few lectures. But if you’re curious, all of my lectures are 90 minutes (more like 80 if you include class change time) and my lecture outlines vary in length, but are usually around 2,400-2,600 words. That includes a few quotes (when I have many long quotes—generally to be avoided—it can push 3000) and student discussion time, which of course complicates things a bit. Your mileage will vary.

Giving conference papers and presentations: a short guide

Note: this is the text from a guide I made for grad students preparing to give their first conference paper. Here is a pdf of the handout this draws from.

Below are my key suggestions to giving a strong presentation. General tips are on the reverse. People engage with presentations fundamentally differently from written work. This is a curse and a blessing; when listening to a presentation, people have a harder time following dense analysis, but they are better at thinking big picture.


  1. Hook: An anecdote or example that draws the reader in and embodies your argument. It, along with the title, will explain the focus of the paper.
  2. Overview: Summarizes what you’re saying and why we should care.
  3. Content: This is the body of your talk.
  4. Conclusion: Reiterates your overview. Also (can) introduce bigger questions.

Few talks actually follow this clear a format. As a result, audiences are generally bored, confused, or both.


  • Talks should never, ever, be dense. You want people able to follow you. Generally this means that you can only speak to one key theme or idea. Ask yourself: “what one thing do I want my audience to take away from this?” At most, they’re only going to remember one thing from your talk anyways.
  • People are distracted, so repetition is always good. In writing, repeating identical phrases can be a bad thing, but it’s actually important in a talk. Similarly, signposting is vital. Don’t be afraid to say “my argument is…”, or “in conclusion…”.


A conference paper is a performance. Therefore, you need to think about how to communicate your ideas in an engaging way.

  • Think about your audience. A presentation for specialists looks different from a presentation for a general academic audience, which looks different from a talk at the local retirement communication.
  • All good performances start with practice. Be sure to practice your talk, including questions (if you have a partner).
  • Enthusiasm goes a long way. Think about what makes you excited about your topic and how to communicate that to your audience. When answering questions, be excited and interested. This saves you when you don’t know the answer; saying something like “I hadn’t thought about that,” or “I need to think about that more,” makes the questioner feel good and makes people more willing to share their thoughts. It does not make you look unprepared.

Minor suggestions


  1. Slides are a good, but they should have as few words as possible on them (5-7 at most!). Anything more overwhelms the listener and they will ignore you and focus on the text.
  2. A slide should only be up for 1-2 minutes. This helps pace your presentation.
  3. If you want to wait a long time before switching slides, consider putting up a blank slide. This also refocuses the listener.
  4. Images keep a listener engaged. Any topic has relevant images; if you only include a few, keep the previous tip in mind.


  1. Practice, practice, practice. Say your talk to yourself. If you’ve written the talk, read it aloud to yourself. Practice with a friend and do simulated questions. Practice!
  2. Talking from a script vs. bullet points / notes: both approaches work well. It’s actually often harder to give a good talk from a written script because it’s hard to write how people talk. Talking from notes forces you to think more schematically, which is good. That said, I’ve seen masterful examples of both.
  3. Be comfortable. Dressing professionally is important, but make sure you don’t feel uncomfortable in what you’re wearing. This might mean practicing in what you’re going to wear or wearing something similar the day before, even around the house.
  4. If you’re nervous, getting to the room early can often help. Try chatting with other people on the panel or other people in the room, this helps build a connection with the audience and can make you less nervous.
  5. On that point, feeling nervous is completely normal. It will get less acute over time.

Argument / content:

  1. Talks are the best place to trial new ideas. You get high-level feedback and you only need a few illustrative examples rather than a wealth of evidence.
  2. Dense historiographic analyses can work for talks, but only if that’s the central focus of your talk and your audience is very specialized. Otherwise its too hard to follow.
  3. People love lists of threes, but they think in binaries. If you want people to understand an idea, set up a contrast or difference (binary), and if you want people to follow along or remember something, try presenting it in three parts.

Note: job talks are more intense and have slightly different requirements. The job talk is always a combination of big picture perspective on your work (breadth) and then a deep dive into a couple of examples (depth). If you put all the advice here in that context, these suggestions are applicable to job talks as well.

Questions/comments? Joshua.specht@monash.edu Or TWITTER.