New to Writing?

Help for new writers

If you are new to writing, or just new to writing about archaeology and history, here are some tips and some useful resources to check out.

Getting started

First ask yourself why you’re writing?  For example:

  • You have a particular belief in an idea that you have explored in depth and wish to share your findings
  • You have a general interest in a theme about which you have read and would like to inform others by aggregating existing knowledge in an article
  • There is something about Egypt’s past which puzzles you and you want to write a piece which asks questions on the topic with a view to generating discussion
  • You disagree with something you’re read and wish to argue an alternative scenario
  • You enjoy writing and you like Egypt so it seems like a good idea to put the two together

Each of the above is a different reason for writing and will influence what type of article you will produce, who your target audience will be and what sort of research you will need to carry out.  You need to think that through so that you aim for the right type of publication (academic, less formal, very informal) and so that you organize your material accordingly.

Equally important, you should remember that you are writing for someone else, not yourself.  You will naturally be closely involved in your own writing and your topic,  but if you are to appeal to someone else you will need to put yourself in their shoes and think about how best to make your subject and your writing appeal to an audience who are not as involved and interested as you are yourself.  Your writing needs to engage with them and present your subject in a way that will encourage people to continue to read.  This is particularly important when you are writing for the Magazine and In Brief sections.  To find out more about writing reader-friendly articles see Brian Fagan’s, Writing Archaeology – Telling stories about the past, Left Coast Press 2006

Structure your work.  It will need a helpful introduction and a convincing conclusion.  To make it more digestible to readers unfamiliar with your subject break the body of your article down into sub-headings, and move logically between them so that readers can follow the flow of your article.

Read as many articles and reviews as you can with a view to learning about composition and construction.

Write lots of test pieces of different kinds before you want to submit something.  Go into a museum and write a review of a gallery.  Write a review of a book you’re reading, whatever the topic, think hard about what you would want to get out of a review written by someone you don’t know personally.

Writing articles

To reinforce the points made above, the first thing to think about is your audience – the people for whom you are writing, wind with whom you want to communicate.  If you are writing for the Journal a formal style is appropriate, but if you are writing for the Magazine you will need to aim for a more friendly, involving and approachable style.

If you are accustomed to writing essays for tutors, for example for undergraduate and certificate courses, it is important to remember that writing for an audience is a very different thing.   When you write an essay for your tutor, you are demonstrating your grasp of a theme and your acquisition of knowledge.  When you start to write for wider audiences you need to think as much about how to talk to you readers as what information you want to include.  The way in which you structure your article and the style in which you write it are at least as important as the quality of your research.

Good articles rely on good research.  It is always a good idea to model your work on good examples, so have a look at papers and articles written by respected authors to get a feel for what editors feel that the public will want to read and learn from their content, style and overall approach.  Archaeology and history magazines, journals, and online content provide good examples.  For academic content see, for example Michael Brass’s Antiquity of Man website and  open access material on Antiquity‘s free Bulletin.  For more popular style writing you might try Archaeology Magazine‘s online Exclusive Features section and History Today’s website, which contains numerous free articles.  Although most of these resources are not specific to Egyptology they demonstrate appropriate writing styles.

Using and finding research tools

Academic and other authoritative books are expensive but there are ways to access them.  For example, you may be able to find some good volumes at your local library either on the shelves or via inter-library loans.  If you are in a town with a university you may qualify for a Reader’s card (where you can go to the library to read academic books and journals but cannot take them away with you.

There are a lot of academic papers available online, either for purchase from the publishers or, if you are lucky, freely available.  Etana is a great source of Egyptological material.  Some online journals, like Antiquity, offer a small selection of papers free of charge.  It is always worth doing a web search, particularly using a specialized search engine like Google Scholar.

There are a number of websites that have grown directly out of academic activity, and enable researchers to use the information held on those sites with confidence.  A particularly good examples is EThOS:  The aims of EThOS are:

  • To offer a ‘single point of access’ where researchers the world over can access ALL theses produced by UK Higher Education
  • To support Higher Education Institutions through the transition from print to e-theses
  • To help UK Higher Education Institutions expand available content by digitising paper theses
  • To demonstrate the quality of UK research and help attract students and research investment into UK Higher Education

It isn’t a pretty website but it has a lot going for it.

I hesitate to mention, which is a form of social networking for academics, but in spite of a lot of irritating “so and so is doing this at the moment” and “John added a new friend” bubbles, some of the people who have signed up to it post links to their academic papers.  If you look under the department menu item and select “Egyptology” you will find the names of people who have entered themselves under this category.  Unfortunately there does not seem to be a search engine for papers alone, and searches under keywords that match papers that I know exist on the site don’t turn up the papers. It is more about finding people than finding research topics.  So, this is a resource that may have potential if you can find a viable way of using it.  There’s a useful article on the pros and cons of using the site posted on the Publishing Archaeology blog.

Using popular works

Some popular works can be valuable resources, other less so.  Still others should be avoided at all costs.  How do you know which ones are suitable?

First consider the author’s credentials.  There is usually a small biography on the back of the book or in one of the fly leafs which will give you some idea of his or her education, interests, publications to date and overall level of scholarship.  Some academic writers have written specifically for the public and these tend to be good sources.

If, having checked the author’s credentials, you are none the wiser then look at the book’s bibliography and see whether the sources used seem extensive and appropriate.   Not only will this give you a good idea of how much work went into writing the book, and whether it will be of use in your own research, but it may provide you with other avenues to explore.

Writing Articles to Spec

There is a short but useful post, with comments, on the Savage Minds blog, by “Rex”, about writing to meet a specified set of criteria set by a journal or magazine.  It provides a useful set of guidelines:

Writing Book Reviews

Book reviews combine description and assessment.  You will need to summarize the content of the book to let the reader know what is covered but it is also important to assess the value of that content.  Be factual.  Your opinion matters but you need to explain in detail what forms the basis of that opinion.   Ask some obvious questions.  Does the book set out what it says it is going to do in the introduction?  Does the information provided support the writer’s main arguments?  Are there flaws in the authro’s logic? Is the book digestible and easy to understand?  Did you find it sufficiently comprehensive?  Is it supported by good photographs, maps and illustrations? Would you recommend it to others and why, or why not?

The best way of learning how to write good reviews is to read good reviews. There are some excellent formal academic book reviews on Bryn Mawr Classical Review,   American Journal of Archaeology, Antiquity Book Reviews and Scholia Reviews.  If you are aiming for a more informal tone keep an eye on the heritage book reviews on Al Ahram Weekly and check out reviews in broadsheet newspapers.

General Writing Advice

Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to Plain English (Third Edition), Oxford University Press 2009

Martin Manser and Stephen Curtis, The Penguin Writer’s Manual, Penguin Books 2002

William Kelleher Storey, Writing History:  A Guide for Students (Third Edition), Oxford University Press 2009

William Strujk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition), Longman Publishers 2000

R.L. Trask, The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, Penguin Books 1997

Advice about Writing Archaeology and History

Brian Fagan, Writing Archaeology – Telling stories about the past, Left Coast Press 2006

Graham connah, Writing about Archaeology Cambridge University Press 2010

William Kelleher Storey, Writing History:  A Guide for Students (Third Edition), Oxford University Press 2009


Last modified: September 8th, 2010