History can excite—unless you make it boring

May 31, 2016 | by Ken Walker

I was aware of Eric Metaxas’ popular 2010 biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and had mentioned it a couple times in stories I wrote for a Christian trade publication. Yet it wasn’t until my wife recently brought home a copy that I took the time to read it.

The book made waves in the Christian publishing world because it violated industry wisdom. Instead of short (no more than 200 pages) and priced around $14 or below, Bonhoefferran nearly 600 pages and had a retail list price of around $25. Yet it sold like hotcakes.

Despite critics who lampooned it, I found the book quite engaging, not only for its intimate look at Bonhoeffer’s life but the detail that it offered about Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime. While I had a somewhat casual acquaintance with Bonhoeffer and his execution for plotting to assassinate Hitler, the depth of his courage shone more brightly through these pages.

Making history come alive

The subject matter reminded me of another book I read many years ago, David Gushee’s Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust. I got an autographed copy at a book signing Gushee did at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky soon after the book’s release.

I recommend either for professors, pastors or researchers who dream of turning a thesis into a book because of the way Metaxas and Gushee make history come alive. Sometimes, I wonder if people think heavily-footnoted material means it must be synonymous with boring—an idea that these two authors put to rest.

I know some writers think that in order to be faithful to the past, they must record every boring detail. One time a friend asked me to review a history of a state organization that included endless minutiae—who made what motion, who seconded it, and the vote—that would have put Rip Van Winkle to sleep for another 20 years.

Attempting to breathe some life into it, I relegated such details to footnote status in order to focus on the significance of various past actions and why they were relevant today. My efforts met with considerable resistance. Not surprisingly, the project fizzled into the annals of a dusty desk drawer.

Stepping forward

I mention this because, having read a number of academic documents, I know there are certain conventions one must follow to satisfy professorial requirements and scholarly review standards. Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t enliven the account once you have moved beyond those boundaries.

After all, Gushee’s book originated with his doctoral dissertation, which proves that there can be life beyond a seminary library’s reference collection. What says that you can have similar success? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Research Amazon and other online sites to see who has written about the same or similar topics. Why is yours different? What would you tell a publisher who wants to know why they should be interested in your idea?
  • Do you have some professional peers or acquaintances who would be willing to read a chapter or two of your work and offer some feedback on what they think of your work? You can offer a small stipend or a restaurant gift card—after they provide their insights.
  • The best writers are inveterate readers. If you expect to transform your research paper into a book, you should know what makes a good book.

If all else fails, you can always self-publish. Low-cost options like Create Space, Lulu and many others can preserve your work for posterity.

Topics: Leadership, Ministry, Teaching Resources, Vision

Ken Walker

An experienced freelance writer, co-author and book editor, Ken Walker edits blogs for several contributors to Church Central and has coached various bloggers for the site. A member of the Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network), he has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 50 books. You can see samples of his work or ask about his services as a writing coach by going to http://www.KenWalkerWriter.com or by e-mailing kenwalker33@gmail.com.


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