Image supplied by Matthew Kelleher
Matthew Kelleher is the author of Human Rights: Act of Idealism or Pragmatism? The Curious Case of Ramon Colon and the New York State Division of Human Rights recently published in Volume 7, number 1 of History in the Making.
As part of our fourth instalment of our ‘author in focus’ blog series for 2020, Matthew discusses his research and writing practices and has some excellent advice for other history students interested in submitting their writing for peer review.
How did you come to the topic for your History in the Making article?
I originally began my project as an assignment for a 3rd year history course at the University of Sydney, also called ‘History in the Making’. We were given a large degree of creative control as to the scope of the essay, the only requirement being that it must focus on a primary source. During the first half of the course, we spent time discussing cultural histories, and some particular historians with very engaging writing styles; Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon-Davis, Clifford Geertz. I have always had an interest in human rights and international law in history, and a project like this allowed me to write from the perspective of an individual caught in an uncertain time for the enforcement of human rights. My goal was to right something as thought-provoking as Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. While I don’t think my piece is nearly as impressive, writing about a man who had his rights violated by a human rights organisation seemed as compelling to me as 18th century Parisians massacring cats!
What’s your writing process?
Personally, I like to begin writing almost straight away. One of my biggest problems when I first began studying history was perfectionism – pouring hours into every sentence so to ensure my first draft was ‘perfect’. Now, I like to read and write at the same time. During my research process, if I find an interesting idea I could incorporate, I try to write four or five sentences of an argument, rather than dot points. I then arrange all of these short paragraphs into a structure, creating a road map for my essay. This process also helps inform the overall argument. It is very difficult to come up with a highly nuanced thesis without having written anything first, nor is it likely to remain the same throughout the writing process. You should always be prepared for the scope of the argument to shift, and reading widely will only get you so far. My advice: write as much as you can, and certainly more than you need. It will certainly reflect in not only how concise your arguments end up, but how expansive your ideas appear in short spaces.
What did you learn from the peer review process?
Do not be surprised if a reviewer does not see your argument the same way as you do. This does not necessarily mean you need to make every change that is suggested; it is important that your writing maintains a strong sense of authorial integrity. However, be honest and open with yourself when reading and considering critique. Weigh up the positives and negatives of changes – will they fundamentally reshape my arguments, do they synchronise well with my writing style? Personally, I did not need to make many major fixes, but it was suggested in some paragraphs I change my argument emphasis. It is important to keep in mind that the peer review process exists to make your essay better. But never blindly make changes because someone has told you too – consider them carefully and apply any critique to the extent you believe it to be appropriate.
What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to History in the Making?
Submit! You have nothing to lose from trying and everything to gain if your article is accepted. Publication, in my mind, is the highest honour a writer can receive because it tells you that there are interested readers who really enjoy your work. The whole point of original research is to show the world something fresh, expressing a viewpoint on a particular topic that no one has before. Do not be afraid to tell the world – the worst that can happen is that someone disagrees, debate ensues, and everyone comes out the other side having learnt a little more. From my perspective, that is the joy of learning summarised as concisely as possible!
Do you have any advice for history students trying to study and conduct research during the COVID19 pandemic?
Learn how to use digital databases such as interactive museums and libraries, and if you have access, text and data mining tools. Nothing excites a historian more than being able to access original documents that are virtually priceless and centuries old. However, as all types of sources are becoming increasingly and exclusively digitised, it is important, particularly if you are a modern historian, to familiarise yourself with online research skills. It will save you time and travel in the future, and may open new avenues of thought not attainable via conventional research methods.
Where would you like to take your research next?
I am still deciding whether to begin Honours in History next year or move on to the next stage of my law degree. My interests in human rights history and international law mean I have some flexibility in this regard, however the focus would be markedly different depending which route I decide to follow. Nevertheless, I still, and always will, love writing. That will never change, and I hope to continue to write and publish articles for many years to come.