This post was written by Esther Brot, PhD student at King’s College London and History Day 2018’s postgraduate volunteer. It is part of a series of posts on researchers’ experiences.
I think there is a fallacy sometimes early on in research careers that certain types of primary sources necessarily result in more exciting papers and overall research. Whilst some sources do have better quotes and visuals that can liven a paper, the more important question is what sort of analysis can you as the researcher pull from a given set of sources, what are your questions and how well do you convey the relevance of your analysis to your audience.
Recently I participated in a conference where my fellow panelists and I presented on a related topic, but from three very different source and analytical angles. One presenter employed sensational news and pamphlet literature and another examined broadsheet engravings and prints that were popularly disseminated in early modern England. I on the other hand wrote my paper based on institutional documents whose initial nature is quite dry. But the sources did not determine our reception, nor the sort of papers produced. Both of the other presenters had very well received papers bolstered by their source material, but mostly due to their innovative analysis and lively presentations. Likewise my paper also had a positive reception.
I think when approaching a paper, especially with drier or more formulaic textual entries—the shaping of the paper is essential. It is quite easy to get lost in the minute detail of the source material, which you have spent your time teasing out. To your audience, the context for instigating interest is missing. This is more than a question of framing your questions in an accessible manner or of providing necessary background information; it is injecting your voice powerfully into the analysis. While writing parts of my dissertation, I have found my own voice subsumed in the language of my sources. It is easy to let the standardized and blocky language of the sources dictate your own work as you produce a very tightly focused dissertation. The evidence and the work that you do in stripping away layers of bureaucratic language to get the meaning underneath can lead you to speak in the same voice. The solution that I found to this writing quagmire both for my dissertation, which is at its early phases of writing, and for my conference papers, is to write in two stages. Allow yourself that initial period of dense writing, where you set down the concepts. From here, start anew maintaining the concepts of the earlier piece, but with your voice as the loudest, not your sources. I have tried to inject my enthusiasm overtly into my writing- to highlight parts of the sources that speak the strongest to me and explicitly detail why. Writing styles differ greatly for everyone, but I think one of the great struggles of research is how to make explicit on the page and in a conference paper why your sources are stimulating for those beyond you and perhaps a very narrow group of related scholars.