Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Short Histories, or 500 Words

Blank pages , and a word limit...
Photo by  Bobby Dimitrov

The conventional wisdom in our current academic culture is that your published work is what matters – that printed output will determine one’s chancing of securing a university post (permanent or otherwise), and is where one’s contribution to knowledge is ultimately made, and most publically, formally stated.

Having spent a lot of time this autumn writing a large grant application for a putative future project, I’ve begun to wonder, however, whether some of the most important bits of prose historians write might in fact be the unpublished, private ones, which circulate very narrowly behind closed doors. Applications for academic jobs, for a graduate place, a post-doctoral research fellowship or a big research grant/award all require the supplicant to explain their professional life to date, and the importance of their actual and/or proposed historical research. Arguably the UCAS form personal statement (part of the UK’s national higher education entrance scheme) is the simply first of these exercises.

These bits of application writing typically have alarmingly low word limits. In a world where a humanities academic journal article usually runs to 8000-10000 words, and a monograph to c.100,000 words, on job/grant applications the limit is usually 500 words, 2000 characters, perhaps 2 pages of A4. An awful lot rests on those few paragraphs, in which you try to explain what you do as a historian, and why you do it – they can be life-changing if you get them right, or wrong. And, unlike published academic work, these crystallised, distilled prose articulations of who we are as historians rarely see the light of day. An appointment committee or grant board will scrutinise them for a few weeks only, and then discard them; at most a snippet from a successful application might appear on a funding body’s website. I’d take a guess and say some of the clearest (and best?) thinking and writing which historians have to produce takes place in the context of such applications. At my first medieval history lecture as an Oxford undergraduate, the celebrated Professor Maurice Keen, who died last month, quoted (anonymously) from a recent application he had seen for a Chair in Medieval History – the applicant had written that the Middle Ages were worth studying “because it is easier to navigate by a more distant star.” That line has stuck with me, perhaps more than any other from my undergraduate lectures. The super-focused, fine-tuned, lucid bits of prose which applications require and inspire may go on to influence and inform the supplicant’s wider work as a historian, but these crucial texts are themselves semi-confidential, and strangely ephemeral.


  1. Some funding agencies require a layperson's research synopsis for the grant that they will publish in entirety on their website.

    There are also some journals with very strict word limits for the main text (e.g. a Nature article has a limit of 1500 words plus some other limit for the abstract, etc.). One can go into huge details in the supplementary online material (SOM), and one typically needs to do so to convey all of the details---I am currently finishing up a big neuro paper (the one I told you about a maybe 3 months ago) that has 43+ pages of SOM---but there is a huge challenge of having few words and conveying the work and its importance and its context to both a scholar audience and to people who will pick the magazine on a newstand. Those are really hard articles to write successfully, especially if one refuses to compromise about scholarly correctness (which is of course the track one ought to follow).

  2. That's very interesting. The only equivalent I know in Humanities are the European Research Council (ERC) Starter/Consolidator grants, where you have to make the main case for your proposal to non-specialists in a 5-page document, which is backed up with a 15-page technical (i.e. historiographical, methodological) document. Getting these texts to 'talk' to each other in a sensible way is quite a challenge.

  3. Many of the newstand journals/magazines do have some humanities articles in principle, though it's rare in practice (I think because of self-selection, as I suspect it is exceedingly rare for them to receive submissions on such topics).

    It's also a very good exercise for students to write such things.