Writing for the Public

In 1994, a survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University interviewed over 1,000 U.S. citizens of varying ages, occupations, and ethnic backgrounds about how they use history in their everyday lives. In The Presence of the Past, Rosenzwig and Thelen relate the findings of this survey. Some of the most popular uses of history included looking at “photographs with family and friends,” and taking “photographs or videos to preserve memories.” (19) Only 53% of those interviewed claimed to have read a book about the past in the last 12 months, and the study found that people didn’t feel nearly as connected to the past reading a book as they did “celebrating a holiday,” or venturing to a historic site with family and friends. (19-20) Why does reading the opinions and findings of history professionals rank so lowly in the public’s mind? Perhaps it is because many academic historians do not know how to write in a way that captures the interest of the public.

Writing for public history purposes needs to be concise, purposeful, and appeal to “non-specialist readers” (Cauvin, 115). According to Cauvin, “the main point/argument should be available in the first paragraph,” and hook the reader’s interest. (118) If the reader cannot tell what the article or book is about, they probably won’t keep reading it. A great example of this from previous readings can be found on the Spokane Historic Preservation Office’s website. Recently, the Spokane HPO received an in-depth report that was over 200 pages long about the history of Riverfront Park. The report contained a lot of interesting information, but they knew the public wouldn’t read something so long and technical. The Spokane HPO’s solution was to create a few public-friendly webpages that related the most pertinent and interesting information, and made the longer report accessible to the public if people wanted to read more.

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Cauvin also notes that professional historians usually “try to be objective,” which results in writing that is considered dull by many public audiences. (118) Failing to “overcome habits of professionalization,” as Rosenzwig and Thelen call it, disconnects the reader emotionally. (4) That is not to say that we should sensationalize history, or blow emotions out of proportion, but embracing the humanity of history is something that helps better engage the public. Taking a cue from writers, such as journalists, trained to tell an interesting story focused on people, might be necessary to relate with the public at large.

Another important aspect of public history writing is the modern technology widely available to writers. Web-based content has the potential to be enhanced with photos, videos, links to relevant information, and much more. Cauvin points out that this reality has made many forms of public history writing “like creating a tradition exhibit, with multiple components and media.” (123) The complexity and layers of content that are possible, even in a simple blog post, are staggering. When writing for a general audience, public historians should focus on creating content that is clear and concise. The material should also take advantage of the technological tools that are available to them.

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