The Ten Commandments of History Writing

The latest episode of This American Life, a popular podcast from Chicago Public Radio, focuses on a discussion of the varieties of Ten Commandments. Among those listed by the host, Ira Glass, were “the ten commandments of tractor safety” and “of umpiring.” He also mentioned history. But no further details were provided. In response, we at AHP went digging. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Thou shalt strike thy reader hard with thy first sentence.
  2. Thou shalt strive for clarity above cuteness.
  3. Thou shalt write as if thy reader is intelligent–but totally uninformed on any particular subject: hence, thou shalt identify all persons, organizations, etc., and shalt in every way try to make thy paper a self-sufficient unit.
  4. Thou shalt not use passive voice, nor the present voice.
  5. Thou shalt use quotations judiciously, for color and clarity; if thou must quote, quotations should not break the flow of thine own language and logic, and thy text should make clear whom thou art quoting.
  6. Thou shalt not quote from secondary sources, nor shalt thou fail to document what, where, and whom thy doth quote.
  7. Thou shalt not designate persons by their last names only: in short, thou shalt clearly identify any personality mentioned in the text–be it Jesus Christ or Jean Piaget.
  8. Thou shalt not use the rhetorical question to avoid an intelligent transition.
  9. Thou shalt flee from historical generalizations (e.g., “throughout history,” “man’s history has made clear that,” “In looking at history, it becomes clear that,” and other such vile and vapid phrases) that make thou sound as a college freshman whose mind is yet mush.
  10. Thou shalt revise constantly and rewrite thine text, as rewriting is the secret to good writing; and thou shalt chant often thy holiest piece of writing advice –– “omit needless words” –– for truly that is the practice of every believer. Remember also thy “delete” key, to depress it frequently, for thy reader truly is pleased when needless words, flat phrases, and passive constructions disappear into the eternal fires of damnation, never to be seen again.

See also: The Ten Commandments of Good Writing


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.