Contributor Center: Intro to Writing
Writing About Arms and Amour
An article by Sean A. Flynt
I got a "D" in high school freshman composition. For our non-American readers, that means a generous teacher rated me minimally competent in the written use of my native language. She recognized, quite rightly, that I failed to master sentence diagramming, basic grammar and outline construction. Two decades later, I'm an experienced and award-winning professional writer and editor but I still can't tell you the difference between a gerund and a participle. Detailed outlines make my skin crawl.
See, although I never learned the theory of writing, I learned to use written language effectively simply by the experience of writing, reading and editing. That's it. I have no other formal education or training in the mechanics of writing. The point is: if you're reading this sentence, you are a writer. You know how to use language. You know that you like to read some things and hate to read others. You know which subjects interest you and which do not. This subject interests you or you wouldn't have read through to the end of this paragraph.
What To Write
If you wait until your head is filled with all the wisdom of the world before you begin writing, you will be laid in your coffin with a blank sheet of paper. Hardly a week goes by in my professional life that I'm not asked to write in detail about something of which I know little. The same is true for my hobby life. I didn't know much about bio-chemical terrorism when I found myself with a feature article assignment on the subject. So I simply learned what I needed to know to satisfy my curiosity and write an informed article. I didn't know much about Oakeshott Type XVIII swords when I volunteered to write about them for this site. So I simply learned as much as I needed to know to write an informed article.
Something about arms and armour intrigues you. Maybe something about spears makes your heart race. Maybe you sigh in ecstasy over the graceful curves of gothic plate armour. Do yourself a favor and pursue those interests. Then do this community a favor and report back to us what you learn.
How To Write
I've already indicated my personal disdain for detailed, formal outlines. Some folks may need them and love them, but the whole concept seems backwards to me. When I write, whether professionally or as a hobby, I gather information and thoughts first, then figure out how best to use the material at hand.
The difference between my approach to writing and the formal outline approach is something like the difference between sculpting with clay and sculpting with stone. With clay, an artist builds up to the final piece. With stone, an artist cuts down to create the final piece. I take the latter approach in my writing, putting all my notes and thoughts into a single word processing document, then moving around blocks of text until I find the organization that best serves the subject and the reader. Then I start reducing, removing ideas and facts that inform my thinking but don't really serve the purpose of smoothly leading the reader through the article. The final polish involves clarifying sentences, dividing the text into paragraphs and trying to make the experience of reading the first sentence something like getting on a waterslide rather than like climbing a mountain (see tips below).
Earlier, I referred to my method of collecting notes relevant to my chosen subject, then paring them down into a final form that seems to best serve the reader. That involves a certain amount of critical reading. I don't literally copy into my document every word I find on a given subject. I may paraphrase in a few words a whole paragraph of someone else's writing. On the other hand, I may find that a phrase, sentence or even as much as a paragraph someone else has written is so important and well-written that I feel I should quote every word in my own work. Either way, I face the question of how to acknowledge my sources.
Non-fiction writers have the good fortune of not having to invent anything, but that luxury comes with certain responsibilities. When we're writing about arms and armourwhether we're writing about antiques or modern reproductionswe're basing our descriptions and evaluations largely on the work of published scholarship. Because we're quoting, paraphrasing or otherwise passing along information found by others, we must acknowledge our sources in some fashion.
There is a popular but misinformed belief that one need not cite a source unless quoting directly, without alteration of the original text. Except in some cases involving journalistic writing and public news releases, changing a word or two of someone else's writing, then representing that person's ideas as our own is plagiarism. Technically, even paraphrasing someone else's work without acknowledgement is plagiarism (with the journalistic exception mentioned above).
The general rule of acknowledgement in non-journalistic writing is that we should cite the source of any information that is not general knowledge. Sometimes, though, we serve the reader best when we point them toward sources even of general knowledge. For relatively informal, short-form non-academic writing, we need not use formal citation such as footnotes. In fact, we probably serve the reader best by casually citing sources within our text (for example, "...according to Oakeshott...," or, "...Waldman notes that...," and then simply providing a bibliography of cited sources at the bottom of the published page.
It's ethical, if not particularly helpful, to omit even casual citations from the text and rely on the bibliography to let the reader know that at least some of what we've written is informed by those sources. That method isn't appropriate where direct quotes are concerned. Just for the sake of clarity, we need to place direct quotes in context, and the easiest way to do that is to at least casually, and within the text, direct the reader to the source, as described above.
Many of the feature articles published at myArmoury.com walk the line between journalistic feature writing and academic writing, and that's reflected in the way we acknowledge our sources: neither leaving the reader to guess about our sources nor beating him over the head with them.
Simple Is Often Best
Many authors, experienced and inexperienced alike, try to cram too much information about too many subjects into the 1,000 words at their disposal. Yes, the relationship between swords and armour is fascinating and relevant to your discussion of Oakeshott Type XVIII swords, but you can suggest the importance of that relationship with a couple of sentences rather than explore it in detail in three paragraphs. Your reader will follow—must follow—where you lead, so you have the heavy responsibility of making sure you're leading him toward the promised goal of the article rather than on multiple side-paths that happen to interest you. Set aside those other topics for new articles!
Simple Isn't Always Best
This sword is 42 inches long. The blade is Oakeshott Type XVIII. The hilt is perfectly preserved. The sword is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That's simple, direct writing, but to the reader it's like driving in rush hour traffic. Ironically, a more complex sentence might help pull the reader along. This 42-inch sword from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art features a blade of Oakeshott Type XVIII and a perfectly preserved hilt.
Take long breaks from your writing so you can return to it with "fresh eyes". More than likely, you'll read what you've written and find lots of ways to improve it. As you read, try to put yourself in the place of your audience. Does the article tell you no more and no less than you need to know? Do you have to re-read sentences to understand them? Does any information seem out of place? Are you left wanting to know more but not feeling cheated?
Informed writing doesn't have to be dry. In fact, I'd argue that a conversational tone is usually the best way to convey information. In other words, avoid stilted language and words you wouldn't use in normal conversation. It's possible to take this approach too far. Nobody wants to read 1,000 words of text message abbreviations or a stream-of-consciousness axe review, for example.
A complex idea can and should be explained with simple, direct language. Unfortunately, some writers seem to want to make even simple ideas seem complex by the gratuitous addition of fancy vocabulary (not counting the word "gratuitous"). Don't hesitate to use an important technical or non-English word (langet or ricasso) but also don't hesitate to briefly define the word alongside the first usage (in parentheses, if appropriate) if you think that will serve your audience.
Remember Your Audience
There's a good chance that some of your readers will know more than you about the subject of your article. Don't wait to write until you know as much or more than they do. Rather, write with humility for those who may know less than you do. Tell them what you know and don't pretend to have all the answers. They'll be grateful, and more knowledgeable readers won't feel compelled to put you in your place.
As a humble writer, knowing enough to know how little you really know, you will avoid vague or unsupportable statements and superlatives (This is the best halberd money can buy. It would devastate an armoured opponent). Using such language misleads less-informed readers and sets a big, rusty bear trap for yourself. "What do you mean, 'best'?," knowledgeable and critical readers will ask. "Best compared to what?" "Have you used this halberd in 15th century combat?" "Have you 'devastated an armoured opponent' or simply chopped up a packing tube in your backyard?" Remembering your audience will remind you of your achievements and limitations, serve the novices and quiet the critics.
Know Your Publisher
Finally, one of the smartest things you, the aspiring writer, can do is to read the publications for which you'd like to write, get a feel for their preferred subjects, styles, word-count, tone, graphic requirements, etc. Those hoping to write for myArmoury.com have all this information handed to them in the neat form of this Contributor Center. Use it!
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About the Author
Sean Flynt is a writer and editor living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in Western arms and armour of all periods, but especially those of 16th through 18th century Britain and Colonial North America.