November 02, 2016
The Notes You Don’t Play
8 min read
Some Reflections on Vastness and the Word Count
by Samuel Fisher, WMQ author (October 2016)
I suppose it’s safe to say that the vastness of early America is a bit of a preoccupation in these parts. Big, expansive frameworks are the norm now; that much we know. The hard part comes when we try to actually put them to work within the confines of an individual project, or, heaven forbid, a 10,000 word journal article.
That was the central challenge for me in shaping my piece, “Fit Instruments in a Howling Wilderness,” for publication in the Quarterly. In the article I argue that the American revolutionaries’ view of Native people and their connection to the British had long, Atlantic roots, in Ireland and Scotland. Nor was geography the only thing testing my ability to compress, because (vanity of vanities!) I also wanted to argue that these roots had to be discovered in the seventeenth century as well as the eighteenth. I was dipping my toes into a number of scholarly pools, each of which was plenty deep enough to drown in. What follows, then, are a few thoughts from where the rubber of vastness hits the road of article-writing.
For a start, I learned (again) that big, comparative projects, while they seem liberating at first, are in many ways just as narrow as the fabled New England town study of yore. They are just so in different ways. Every addition of chronological and geographic scope incurs a corresponding subtraction of detail. This is perhaps not news for wiser scholars than I. But as I tried to cover eighteenth-century Irish and Scottish history in a couple paragraphs a piece—haunted all the time by imagined readers who specialized in those fields and were certain to be appalled (APPALLED!) by my feeble attempts—this point hit home. You can throw off all sorts of geographic, chronological or disciplinary restrictions, but you can never escape the tyranny of the word count. All projects are fundamentally shaped by the choices we make, and expanding your scope does not obviate those choices. It only makes them all the more significant.
Still, the temptation to be all things to all people is often overwhelming. And it is never more so than when the people in question are charged with deciding whether your article will be published. This was my first article submission, which only made it harder to imagine saying “no, dear expert, I don’t think I need to cover that.” To return to the earlier metaphor, all those scholarly pools are inhabited, and their occupants don’t always take kindly to toe-dippers. They want you to dive in and stay awhile.
Some of my readers’ reports fell into this category. One reader, for example, wanted more attention to religious differences than I had offered in the first draft. Others were not partisans for any particular topic but questioned the balance I’d struck; didn’t I need to say more about Ireland and Scotland in the paper’s second half? Others disagreed; they thought I could cut those flimsy sections altogether, or move them somewhere else in the manuscript. None of them were dogmatic about these things. Each recognized the challenge I was facing and sought to help me navigate it more successfully. But ultimately I had to make the choices, and to do so I had to think hard—very hard—about what I was trying to do.
Perhaps then it is no surprise that I ended up addressing these points not by adding heaps of new material (though I did add some) but instead by overhauling the introduction—where I laid out the stakes of what I was doing and why I thought the perspective I offered was an important one. What had looked like critiques asking me to do the impossible—to fit more stuff into an already over-burdened word count—were actually asking me to think about what I was doing in a more explicit way. They were asking me to choose, and then to explain why I chose as I did.
And that is the final takeaway for me. Others can help us see the choices before us, and my readers did a tremendous job of that. But we have to make them for ourselves. That, it seems to me, is the value of vastness (and of peer review): not that we can include more but that we can include and exclude more purposefully, that we can define ourselves as much by the notes we don’t play as the ones we do. I know I have been forced to confront, more explicitly than I had before, exactly why I make the choices I do in my work. Or, in other words, to reflect on why my work matters. That has tangible benefits (I like to think my elevator pitch has improved dramatically) but also psychological ones: it feels good to nail our colors to the mast. I don’t know what readers from the many fields and subfields my article covers will think of it. But it works for me. That’s something.