How History Professors Write

Alison Lewin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History

Quick Facts

What’s a word you always misspell?
Florence and authority.

Do you compose on the computer or by hand?
More so on the computer but still somewhat by hand.

Favorite time to write?

SJU Writes: What kinds of writing do you currently do?
AL: Mostly I’m writing a book. Sometimes when I’m upset I jot down odd personal thoughts to get feelings out, but I haven’t written in that vein for a long time–so I guess that’s a good thing!

SJU Writes: What’s your book about?
AL: A lower middle class artist from the late 1300s named Bindino di Cialli di Travale. Near the end of his life, he wrote to his sons a lengthy narrative about events in Siena, his adopted home town. What intrigues me about Bindino is how he knows what he knows. He is a type of person we don’t hear from often. He’s not elite or knowledgeable in Latin, and yet he seems to know a lot about what’s going on. My working title for the book is “Through an Artisan’s Eye: Popular Culture and Knowledge in Siena.”

SJU Writes: Do you write with the influence of someone in mind?
AL: Yes, Duccio Balastarcci, who wrote The Renaissance in the Fields: Family Memoirs of a Fifteenth-Century Tuscan Peasant. Balastracci found records of the peasant’s family for most of the century. He has become my model for what can be done historically when you have limited access to direct sources.

SJU Writes: Was there a piece of writing that was particularly difficult for you? Why?
AL: In graduate school I had to write a short paper about a source, which normally would be a piece of cake. I just couldn’t get started on it. I had never experienced writer’s block before, but I really had it on this one. So I just decided to write my professor a letter about the source: “Dear John, I was reading this and here are some thoughts I had.” I let it sit for two days, came back to it, took out the letter part, and then handed in the paper.

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students learning to write in your discipline?
AL: First, start with the evidence. Second, decide what question you want to answer. Third, write paragraphs in no particular order and come back later to organize them. Then, walk away and start again. Read as if you’ve never seen the paper before. Ask yourself, is this evidence forwarding my argument? Sometimes you write a really great paragraph but it doesn’t belong. You have to be willing to throw stuff out if it’s unclear or irrelevant to the paper. Last but not least, read it aloud to somebody. Ask that somebody to tell you if the paper make sense.

What I just described to you is how I write. [During the research stage,] I’ll go through and develop a shorthand of abbreviations. As I read through the evidence I’ll put a symbol next to information that resonates with me. Then I think, what’s the relationship? And then I start writing paragraphs. Sometimes I’ll print and physically cut them up so I can rearrange and see how they fit.

Nobody writes as well the first time as the third time. Nobody. That’s why you can’t write it all the night before. It takes time and reflection. If every student becomes his or her own best editor, then we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

SJU Writes: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AL: Like a lot of people, when I need to write something I dread the idea, but once I start writing I get in the beautiful flow state where I get lost and time ceases to exist.

—Courtney Brouder, ’19