I couldn’t help but think about the evolution of my own writing career as I completed yesterday’s post on the selection of Civil War titles at Barnes and Noble and Borders. A few months back a reader asked me to share how I got my start writing about the Civil War. I thought it would be worthwhile to take a few minutes to reflect on this for the benefit of those out there who would like to give it a shot. Before I get started I should say that I can’t help but feel just a little ambivalent about giving this advice – whatever it’s worth. After all, there is so much nonsense out there in both printed and electronic sources that passes for Civil War history, and I don’t want to be responsible for exacerbating the problem. Still, if "everyman is his own historian" than I guess we all have a right to jump in at some level.
The best place to start out is at the local level in your local newspaper. Back in 1997 when I was working for Borders a colleague suggested that rather than simply read all of these Civil War books why not write a review for the newspaper. He suggested the Washington Times which apparently included a Civil War section every Saturday. The late Woody West edited that particular page and is responsible for providing me with my first publishing opportunity. I sent in a review of James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and although it was not solicited it still made the paper. Over the following few years I reviewed a couple of titles and even published two feature articles. Local newspapers are always looking for good writing and especially for people who can write in a timely fashion. If you live in a "Civil War Hot Zone" such as Virginia your local paper or magazine may devote space to the Civil War. The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star regularly includes articles and book reviews focused on the war. Your local publications are an excellent way to get your feet wet and begin to build a resume that can be used to break into other areas. Check to see if reviews will be considered without being solicited or just do what I did and send them in. If it’s well written it will be published.
I emphasize book reviews because they allow you to focus your writing, and most importantly, publishers are always looking for good review writers who can keep to a schedule. In addition to newspaper there are a number of publishing opportunities in both printed and on-line magazines. Since I ran the magazine section at Borders I opened the first batch of North and South Magazine when it arrived in 1997. I immediately called Keith Poulter to ask if I could write a review for the magazine. Over the next four years I contributed reviews on a regular basis. Again, magazine publishers are always looking for well-written book reviews. You may also want to check out the numerous on-line magazines such as Civil War News and Civil War Book Review. Once you’ve established yourself in a few magazines and newspapers you may want to check out a historical journal. The same rule applies as stated above so start with your local historical society’s journal where there may be less of a constraint on the minimal academic qualifications. Most state historical organizations commission reviews from academics, but given that you’ve now published a few reviews it may be possible to convince the editor to give you a shot. Even without an M.A. and a number of reviews in publications like the ones cited above I was able to get into both Civil War History and The Journal of Southern History.
What matters in the end is that your reviews are well-written. In addition, stay away from summarizing the narrative. If the book under review has a thesis make sure that you explain what it is and if you feel comfortable – based on your understanding of the historiographical terrain – critique it in light of what else has been written. Finally, the best reviews offer some kind of critical assessment of the book. Regardless of whether you enjoyed or disliked the book state as clearly as possible why. Reviews are a great way to develop your analytical skills as the writing forces you to concentrate on the author’s thesis rather than a straightforward narrative approach.
While I started out writing book reviews, over the past few years I’ve cut back as I am focused on larger projects. If you are interested in writing an article I would recommend taking the same approach. Stick with local publications and work your way out into more popular venues. You are much more likely to run into a roadblock as you move into publications that attract more qualified writers. Still, there are plenty of opportunities. That said, keep in mind that most of what is submitted to magazines, newspapers, and journals is rejected. And most of what is rejected is the result of little skill or an inability to write. I say this as someone who continues to struggle to improve his writing skills. It is a painful process. The best advice I can give is to start out small. Stick to a local publication and write a short, but thoroughly researched article.
I guess the final option is to start your own blog. It gives you a venue to share your ideas and also to practice writing. The number of Civil War blogs continues to grow – though I have not kept up with all of them – so why not jump in. There is no risk in starting a blog and it is just as easy to stop as apparently occurs in the overwhelming majority of cases. My only piece of advice here is that if you are thinking about getting into the blogosphere make sure that you have something to say. Blogs that simply link to news items and other unimportant things are of little value. The other nice thing about blogging is that it levels the playing field. As long as you write thoughtful posts people will read them and pass them on to others.
Try to find a niche in the blogging community. I like to think that my blog satisfies a certain demand out there for posts that go beyond a more traditional understanding of the Civil War. Most of the other Civil War sites on my blogroll have managed to find a niche of their own. Well, that’s about it.