Getting Started as a Writer of History
Friday, March 18, 2016 at 2:33PM
Jack El-Hai

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, Alan Barth declared. Or is it the reverse, that history is just journalism, as Joseph Campbell mischievously asserted? Either way, there’s much in common between writing journalism and chronicling history, and I’ve spent my career exploring the overlap of those two great disciplines.

 I’m always surprised to see that few of my fellow journalists try writing about history. It could be that some writers find history intimidating, they’re afraid of making factual errors, or they mistakenly believe there's no market for historical writing. But many journalists who overcome these fears and reservations — including such people as David McCullough, Rebecca Skloot, Erik Larson, Candice Millard, Deborah Blum, and Sarah Vowell — have been well rewarded for focusing on the past. Their books have become best sellers and they have discovered the excitement of digging up the secrets of the dead by researching in archives, diving deeply into primary sources, and prying memories from living people.

I haven’t become a best-selling author of the stature of Skloot and Larson, but I have seen my history-driven books, articles, and presentations move, transport, and intrigue audiences. I’ve discovered astonishing collections of historical materials, written histories of multi-billion-dollar companies, and had my work published in eleven languages and optioned for film and TV. Many of my history-writer colleagues have become valued friends. What could be better?

If you are considering writing journalistic treatments of historical events, here are some tips:

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