Enlisting Faith is a book about the military chaplaincy, which also means it’s a book about bureaucracy. Analytically, it follows Sophia Lee’s lead in finding legal history outside the courts and, in particular, “focus[ing] on an omnipresent constitutional force in the modern American state: administrative agencies.” But, it turns out, telling people you’re writing about “administrative agencies” or “government bureaucracy” can elicit looks of horror—a reaction, I tend to think, that this research might be the narrative equivalent of standing in line at the DMV.
That would not do.
I wanted to write a book that spoke to historians while being accessible to the very people I was writing about: chaplains. As a result, after I figured out the
structure of Enlisting Faith, I spent a lot of time sculpting prose. I
use sculpting deliberately, because I think the work of revision is
often akin to that of shaping and reshaping clay to find the right form.
Each round of revisions meant cutting words to tighten chapters, breaking apart and rebuilding
sentences, reconsidering word choices, and rethinking pacing through
lines, paragraphs, and sections.
The winnowing process forced me
to think about what was truly necessary to substantiate the argument I
wanted to develop and what got in the way of the story I wanted to tell.
I spent one summer methodically working through chapters with the
primary purpose of trimming, and then one reader report suggested I
prune some more. Which I did: reluctantly at first and then more
gleefully toward the end. I made myself a sign, “is this really necessary?” and
We often talk about being in conversation with other
scholars, but when it comes to crafting prose, it’s helpful to find models. Using models effectively requires reading like a
writer—setting aside the content and argument in order to dissect how an
author put together a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter. In this context,
content is irrelevant. Any writing on any topic can elicit reactions, good or bad. Do I want to keep reading or stop reading? Am I enthralled, jarred, or bored? Why? Describing complex phenomena in simple language,
evoking a sense of place, using rhythm to create energy, deploying explanations
at just the right moment are techniques available to everyone, as long as we're paying attention. When I read, I'm often thinking about what I can emulate. In fact, giving myself writing exercises that borrow other authors' methods, structures, and language has helped me get out of writing ruts, even if the resulting document stays stashed on my hard drive.
To think about
chapter openings and closings, for example, I turned to Michael
Willrich’s Pox: An American History. I had long admired how Willrich
used opening scenes to draw readers toward his argument and ended with
transitions that connected back to the opening and gestured toward the
next chapter. I read, reverse-outlined, and reread the beginnings and ends of Willrich’s
chapters to turn them into models or templates for my own.
The opening to chapter 3, for
example, is a scene from a weekly meeting in the Office of the Army
Chief of Chaplains that I built out of meeting minutes. My goal was to
give readers a sense of decision-making because one argument of the book
is that chaplains exemplify diffuse state power. The key was to figure
out how to narrate a story that wasn’t boring, since the primary source
is not exactly an exemplar of scintillating reading. The opening
sentence of the chapter, “There was a lot to discuss in early November
1943,” therefore plants readers in the midst of bureaucrats at work.
Hopefully the reader is wondering, “What were they discussing? Why? Did
As I worked on creating scenes to open each chapter, I
also turned to a number of books on writing. In particular, I read a
lot of guides for journalists and narrative non-fiction writers. One of
my favorites, Telling True Stories, is a compilation of mini-essays that
delve into the craft of writing. From generating ideas and shaping
characters to building narrative momentum and polishing description,
authors discuss what worked and what didn’t, routes rejected and routes
followed. The chapters are short, so I often read a couple before bed at night, jotting down ideas to adopt or adapt. Moreover, they reminded me that "good prose" is always a matter of "good for what? good for whom? good for what end?" As I reworked my manuscript, I often referred to these chapters when I was stuck or I though a scene or a section could be more precise or engaging.
Similarly, Jack Hart’s
Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, provides
an editor’s view of helping writers find their voice, develop style,
alter point of view, vary sentence structure, and hone their point. While he writes based on his
experience in the newsroom, most of his advice applies to historical
narrative as well. Listening to an editor think
aloud also gave me a way to process the comments I received from my
editor, from reader reports, and from generous colleagues who read all
or parts of my manuscript.
Feedback is essential to the revision
process, but making it as effective as possible requires a team of
readers with different strengths. I have a cadre of mentors, peers, and
friends who play different roles as trusted reader-editors. Some are
better at refining large-scale arguments, while others are line editors
who tweak at the sentence or phrase-level. Some remind me about the
value of topic sentences, while others get emails from me with subject
headings such as “Please fix this sentence. Thank you.” Some are
cheerleaders, others are persnickety critics. Some identify where a chapter stops working while others can parse why an explanation remains illegible. A book needs all kinds. It sounds obvious as I write it, but the key is to know who can provide what kind of feedback and then ask
the right person for the feedback you need.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how working through book revisions as a postdoc came with challenges and benefits.