The Modern Researcher, Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, 6th ed., 2004, pp. 10-14.

The Qualities of Good Historical Writing

Researchers of all kinds are at one with the public in taking it for granted that to understand the state of a question or subject fully, something must be known about its antecedents. This is called the genetic interpretation. Every speech, report, inquiry, or application begins with "the background." This attitude affects the worker for the most part unconsciously. It guides his curiosity without one's being aware of it by making one look for answers to recurrent questions: Who is So-and-So? When did this happen? Why was that not done? Assuming this cultural trait to be universal among us, we must go on to discuss the habits a researcher must acquire by attention and self-control, the impulses to be curbed or encouraged. No doubt, more qualities than the half-dozen about to be listed are called into play. But these are indispensable, and giving them names may help the worker along his paths.
  • The first virtue required is ACCURACY. No argument is needed to show why. If history is the story of past facts, and report, account, or news story is a piece of recent history, those facts must be ascertained. Making certain implies being accurate—steadily, religiously. To this end, train yourself to remember names and dates and titles of books with precision. Never say to yourself or to another, "It's in that book—you know—I forgot the title, but it has a green cover." Being precise calls for attending to the object when you first examine it and noting small differences instead of skipping over them: "Here is a volume on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It is edited by Edward Concklin, and the author spells his name with an added c and no g." There is no profound significance in this fact, no imperative need to remember it, but if you do this kind of focusing repeatedly, regularly, you will avoid a multitude of mistakes. Some few you are bound to make. Everybody is liable to them almost in proportion to the length of one's work. But they can be kept to a minimum by the habit of unremitting attention. Do not fear that such details will clutter up your mind; they will lie dormant until needed and often will suggest important links with other matters you would not otherwise have thought of.
  • Next comes the LOVE OF ORDER. There is in any piece of research so much to be read, noted down, compared, verified, indexed, grouped, organized, and recopied that unless one is capable of adhering to a system, the chances of error grow alarming, while the task itself turns into a perpetual panicky emergency: What did I do with those bibliographic notes? In what notebook did I list the dates I have checked? Does this page belong to Draft 1 or Draft 2? And so on ad infinitum. Some people may overdo orderliness, but most of us underdo it, usually from groundless self-confidence. You may think you know what you are doing and have done. The fact is that as you get deeper into a subject you will know more and more about it and less and less about your own steps in mastering its details—hence the value of the system, which keeps order for you. Sticking to it is never a loss of time, though it calls for the union of three minor virtues: calm, patience, and pertinacity.
  • You may think that orderliness would also imply LOGIC. In practice, it seems to do so to a negligible extent; the one is mechanical, the other intellectual. The logic considered here is not the formal art of the philosopher but its ready and practical application to the perplexities of the search for sources. As will appear, the researcher must quickly learn the schemes of innumerable reference books; if you are not adept at inference, you will bog down or make mistakes. For example, in the Thesaurus of ancient Latin authors, which offers to the eye under each entry an unappetizing block of print, the punctuation is faint and confusing. If you do not reason correctly from the first or last quotation in each block, you will infallibly connect the one you look for with the wrong author.
  • The physical arrangement of books in any given library may present the same kind of problem: if over here we are in the Gs and over there in the Ks, the intervening books (including the Hs, which I want) must be in between, but where? Ah yes, in the lower part of this large reference table, which has shelves. If you run to the librarian for the solution of every puzzle, mental or physical, trivial or important, you will be an old but inexperienced researcher before you have finished.
  • Elsewhere, HONESTY may be the best policy, but in research it is the only one. Unless you put down with complete candor what you find to be true, you are nullifying the very result you aim at, which is the discovery of whatever is in the records you are consulting. You may have a hypothesis which is shattered by the new fact, but that is what hypotheses are for—to be destroyed and remolded closer to the reality. The troublesome fact may go against your purpose or prejudice, but nothing is healthier for the mind than to have either challenged. You are a searcher after truth, which should reconcile you to every discovery. Even if you are pledged to support a cause, you had better know beforehand all the evidence your side will have to face. For if one fact is there obstructing your path, you may be fairly sure others to the same effect will be turned up by your adversary. It is the nature of reality to be mixed, and the research scholar is the person on whom we rely to chart it. Accuracy about neutral details is of little worth compared to honesty about significant ones.
  • Some persons are honest as far as they can see, but they do not see far enough; in particular, they do not see around themselves. They lack the virtue of SELF-AWARENESS. You, the searcher, need it—first, to make sure that you are not unwittingly dishonest and, second, in order to lessen the influence of bias by making your standards of judgment plain to the reader. No one can be a perfectly clear reflector of what one finds. There is always some flaw in the glass, whose effect may be so uniform as not to disclose itself. The only protection against this source of constant error is for the writer to make all assumptions clear. To invent an outre example, a fanatical teetotaler might in a biographical sketch of General Grant assert that here was a man of revolting and immoral habits. Given nothing else, the reader is inclined to trust the conclusions of the writer. But if the accusation reads, "Anyone who habitually drinks whiskey is a person of revolting moral character; therefore General Grant, etc." The reader has a chance to dissent. This simplified instance bears on two important realms of reporting: the description of cultures alien in time or space, and biography. In both, it is essential to control one's emotions as evidence turns up of behavior repugnant to either of them or to the standards of the age. In such cases, one must set forth (though more subtly than in the example) what one's criteria are before one passes judgment or describes by epithets. Failing this, the way is open to the meanest kind of libel and defamation of character, to say nothing of the caricature of a person who has been thought important enough to write about.
  • Everybody is always urging everybody else to have IMAGINATION, and this is indeed good advice. But perhaps the hint should suggest not so much laying in a stock as releasing what one has. Convention and laziness often exclude the happy thought that, if let alone, would lead to the desired goal. In research, this goal is double—practical and abstract. The researcher must again and again imagine the kind of source needed before it can be found. To be sure, it may not exist; but if it does, its whereabouts must be presumed. By that ingenious balancing of wish and reason, which is true imagination, one make one's way from what one knows and possesses to what one must possess in order to know more. The researcher must also perform these acrobatics of the mind around problems that are abstract. For example, working upon a critical study of Henry James and noticing the novelist's persistent attempts in later life to become a playwright—a determination shown also in the dramatic tone and structure of the later novels—the critic begins to wonder what theatrical influences could have formed this taste. Is it possible that James as a child or youth attended the New York theaters, then famous for melodrama? The dates coincide; and behold, autobiographical evidence when sought confirms the inspired guess. Of course, the historical imagination of a genius cannot be asked of every modest worker. The historical imagination that is insisted on here is an implement that none can do without.