Episode 4: Zachary Schrag Asks Who Does What to Whom

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For the fourth episode of Drafting the Past, I talked to historian Zachary Schrag. Dr. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University. He is the author of three books of history: The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation, (Pegasus, 2021), Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009 (JHU Press, 2010), and The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (JHU Press, 2006). He is also the author of the tremendously helpful Princeton Guide to Historical Research (Princeton, 2021), a book I wish someone had handed me on the first day of graduate school.

Dr. Schrag’s work has been published in the Journal of Policy History, the Journal of Urban History, Research EthicsRethinking HistoryTechnology and Culture, and Washington History. His essays have appeared in the American HistorianAHA Perspectives, Inside Higher Ed, the Journal of American History, Politico, Slate, Tablet Magazine, TR News, the Washington Monthly, and the Washington Post.

He has received grants and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Gerald Ford Foundation, and the Library of Congress and has been awarded the Society for American City and Regional Planning History’s John Reps Prize and the Journal of Policy History‘s Ellis Hawley Prize.




Zachary Schrag 0:00
That’s really stuck with me. It’s something that I look for in my writing. Can I rewrite this? To make it about people? Can I advise a student to rewrite this sentence to make it about people?

Kate Carpenter 0:12
Welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. I’m Kate Carpenter, your host, and in this episode, I was delighted to talk with historian Zachary Schrag.

Zachary Schrag 0:23
Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.

Kate Carpenter 0:25
Dr. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University. And he is the author of three books of history, which include the Great Society Subway: A history of the Washington Metro, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences. And his most recent, the Fires of Philadelphia: Citizens, Soldiers, Nativists and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation. He is also the author of the tremendously helpful book The Princeton Guide to Historical Research, which we will talk about much more throughout this interview. He also runs the website, which is full of helpful resources for history undergraduate and graduate students. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Zachary Schrag 1:09
I started off, you know, thinking of myself as an urban historian, went to Columbia to study with Ken Jackson and Betsy Blackmar, and other great urbanists. But as someone who was interested in transportation, I realized that a lot of great work was being done in the history of technology. And then I also learned how political transportation can be. So those have been, I would say, my main interests have been public policy, technology and cities. And I’ve written books that don’t always touch on all of those, but touch on some of those.

Kate Carpenter 1:42
I’d like to start just with some real basic, nosy questions. So when and where do you do your writing?

Zachary Schrag 1:48
So I do a lot of my writing in the summer. You know, I try to get the work done. Sometimes during the spring and fall semesters when I’m teaching. And I am fortunate to work at a research university, that gives me some time for that. But it’s certainly a lot easier to get a lot of words on the page when I’ve got, you know, the full day to do it. And so the winter break, and especially the summer is a great time to do a lot of writing. And then, you know, during the school year, I can edit and revise and plan things. But I’m not as productive in terms of getting work done. And in terms of the place, most of my writing these days is done at home. I, you know, when I was doing my dissertation, I would be on the road for archival trips, and did a lot of writing in motel rooms, to sort of write while it was fresh. But recent projects have been either more based at home, or I’m, you know, doing work with a digital camera, which was not around when I started out. And so just taking you know, vastly more photographs than I could read at the time I’m doing the trip and then taking months to work through them at home.

Kate Carpenter 3:02
I know from reading the book that you offer a lot of examples of ways that historians organize your sources, but I know that you prefer some yourself. So how do you go about that organization?

Zachary Schrag 3:13
So I’ve tried some different methods. My main tool, especially for the first two books, and the fourth one was FileMaker, which is a database program. That is just a wonderfully flexible tool, I describe it often as a tool for building other tools, where for someone who doesn’t really know code, but wants to automate some things, you can create a button or a script very easily, and customize it to not only your needs, but your project’s needs. So for example, if you’re doing a lot of archival research, you can set up scripts that allow you to say, Hey, I’m working in the same box, but I’ve got a new folder, or I’m working on the same folder, I’ve got a new document, if you’re doing periodical research, I’ve got some buttons for specific periodicals that I use a lot. I’ve got some buttons saying, Hey, I’m reading the same thing, but it’s weekly, give me a date, a week later, or two weeks later, if it’s a bi weekly publication. So there are lots of flexibilities built into FileMaker. Unfortunately, it’s hard to teach other people to use and somewhat expensive as well. So I and some colleagues are looking for better ways to take notes that would be more universal and easier to teach.

Kate Carpenter 4:31
Have you found any other ways?

Zachary Schrag 4:33
So you know, one of the things I thought a lot about in writing the chapter on notetaking in the Princeton Guide is how good the old index card system was incredibly flexible, you know, very cheap, you can buy index cards, you know, big pack for $1 or something and you can not only take notes on them, but you can then re-sort them, which is something that a lot of systems that I think people use on the computer are not very good at. It’s not very easy if you’ve got a long word processing document to break that down into chunks and move it around. So what I and some other scholars are thinking about is how can we replicate the index card system, have something that cheap, that simple, but also that flexible. And what a lot of people who know more about software that I do are talking about is using the markdown language, which is, you know, available there. There are many different applications that rely on markdown. It’s a very clean coding system, much, much easier to read markdown than, say, HTML, but you can have links to other pages. And you can have date fields and other kinds of things that might in the future, allow for easier sorting of the cards that you write.

Kate Carpenter 5:45
Likewise, in the book, you talk a little bit about the role of a working document in your process. And I’m wondering, could you expand a little on what a working document is, when you start using that as you’re doing your research?

Zachary Schrag 5:57
Yeah, so you can start writing really, before you have a topic. The example I would give is, let’s say, you got a call from an encyclopedia editor saying, we need you to write three biographies. Here’s the template, well, you’re going to know that the person was born, either they died or they’re still alive, right? Those are pretty much the two possibilities. And then, you know, the typical biographical dictionary template will have early life, education, marriage, career retirement, you know, some basic template fields that you need to fill in. So you don’t even know who the person is. And you’ve already got an outline of what you need to write for that. You could do the same thing. If you were being asked to, say, write about a new technology, right? What were the predecessor technologies, what was the invention of the technology. Various people have defined it right? Were there some key patents or something? Who spread it? Who claimed credit for it? Was it replaced by something else? Is it still with us? All of those things you could write down again, before you even know what technology you’re writing about. Same thing if you’re talking about the passage of a law, or the outbreak of a war or anything like that. So I think it’s good to start writing, you know, as soon as possible. And then later, you can rearrange. If you start writing with a timeline, you can later decide, hey, this is not working as a chronological framework. I would like to cut this up and put these into more thematic chapters, but at least you have something down.

Kate Carpenter 7:31
At what point does a working document become a first draft? Are those separate things for you?

Zachary Schrag 7:37
You know, I think a lot of my drafts have big placeholders in them. I tend to just hit bold and say, Hey, Zach, you need to write about this. And so, you know, to my mind, it’s a draft when there are few enough of those placeholders that I’m willing to let someone else see it. And, you know, so we have workshops within my department, or I’m in an urban history writing group. You know, there are there various ways that you can share your work. But I don’t think there’s a firm line between a working document and draft unless it’s that first circulation to someone you trust.

Kate Carpenter 8:13
Sure, I’d like to ask you how this relates to a quote that you want to put on your, your blog. It’s a quote from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, and the quote says, “Learn the facts, then try on the stories like clothes.” And you talk about how that’s really useful for thinking about writing nonfiction, this story and in particular, and the relationship between research and narrative structure. But I’m curious to know how you make sure that it works out that way. The stories fit the facts, and not the other way around, especially maybe in those early stages, when you’re not sure what all the facts are yet.

Zachary Schrag 8:46
I think, again, you can often know some key facts but not know why they happened. So you know, I think of this. There’s a term in artillery where you’re bracketing your target, you know, you fire one shell, and it hits the left, and you fire another shell and have too right and you say, okay, you know, somewhere between these two angles, I’m going to, you know, hit the enemy. And I think historians can do this. I had this very early on writing my dissertation where there’s a 1959 report that suggests lots of highways and a little bit of transit, and the 1962 report that suggests lots of transit and a little bit of highways. I say, okay, something happened between 1959 and 1962. I don’t know what it is, right? That’s the theory part or the, you know, hypothesis or whatever. But I’ve got these two facts. And I know that something happened, some change occurred in between those two dates. So you know, I could feel pretty confident writing in a draft. Here’s what the 1959 report recommended. Here’s what the 1962 report recommended. And then in between, that’s where I say I need to try on a few different jackets to see which fit these facts.

Kate Carpenter 9:56
I know from the book that you are a fan of Scrivener, which I am too, I I evangelize about Scrivener all the time. Could you talk a little bit about that tool and how you use it?

Zachary Schrag 10:06
So when I when for the first two books I wrote in Microsoft Word, and I wrote that work because I was writing one chapter at a time. But even then I would often have three or four documents open, because a chapter is made of sections, and I’d want to have each section but if I were writing, you know, about, here’s what’s happening in 1978, that would only go in one chapter. And so I only needed those documents open. When I started writing about the Philadelphia riots of 1844, suddenly, any source that I had could go anywhere in the book, because of the much more compressed timeframe, pretty much every source I had was, you know, something between, say, 1814 and 1850, and I couldn’t open enough word processing documents, to be able to have all those bins. I don’t remember if it was actively crashing at the time, I mean, computers have gotten a lot more powerful since I started out. But it just wasn’t working for me. And so I turned to Scrivener, kind of in desperation, to see if it would allow me to see the whole project and have all those bins open at once. And in fact, it was, you know, very stable software. And if I were reading someone’s narrative, and they said, you know, here’s what happened on this day. And here’s what happened on the next day. And here’s what happened a month later, I could fit in those facts to the appropriate places in Scrivener. And then once I got into it for that purpose, I realized what other things it could do, it allowed me to look at only one section at a time, or even one paragraph at a time, which was very helpful, it can be overwhelming to try to look at a whole project at a time, however big that project is, it allowed me to move things around very easily. It allowed me to keep a lot of graphs I could, if I have a section and I wasn’t sure it was right, I could duplicate it, make a sort of branch section, rewrite it and then say, Okay, which of these two do I want to keep and which goes to the outtakes folder, without ever actually deleting anything. And then one of the greatest features of Scrivener is its word count is constantly telling you how many words you have in a section or chapter. And to me, that’s very helpful to know, do I have you know, enough material here? Do I have too much material? Do I need to break this up? And that’s been very helpful to me, not only as a writer, but also as an advisor, where I get students papers, and if I think, Well, I’m not really sure the emphasis is right, I can pull their project into Scrivener and say, Hey, you said this person was really important. You’ve only given them, you know, 600 words, and this other person, you’ve given 1800 words, well, is that other person more important, or have you misallocated your word count here?

Kate Carpenter 12:41
I’ve never thought about using it, you know, to work through students’ work as well. And that’s great. I really enjoyed the Princeton Guide to Historical Research. As you know, I even tweeted about it as I was enjoying it. And part of that was because it came as a pleasant surprise to me, because I have often found that while I love craft books of all kinds, I often sort of have to rely on one genre of books for my how to do historical research, and another genre to think about writing and process and things like character and plot and story structure. Could you talk some more about what brought you to write this book, but also kind of how you were thinking as you were at it?

Zachary Schrag 13:18
So the Princeton Guide has two origin stories. One is starting out as a graduate teaching assistant, and, you know, working with students who were, you know, very bright and motivated, but seemed to me to not have, you know, great grasp of some of the formalities, you know, this is an essay form, your thesis statement should be in the introduction. And you should have topic sentences for each paragraph, you know, some students come to college knowing this and some don’t. And so I started out, this was in the late 90s, using a relatively new technology called the graphical user interface for the World Wide Web. I was hand coding by HTML back then. And, you know, I put up these instructions so that, you know, rather than repeat myself with each student, I would say, hey, you know, look at this website. And so that website grew, you know, over the space of decades into what is now And so I had, you know, maybe 20,000 words of material up there. And then I was approached a few years back by Peter Dougherty, of Princeton University Press, saying, we’re looking for someone to write a guide to research. We understand you’ve been working on this in a way. Would you like to expand this into book form? And I thought about it a bit. And I thought, Yes, I really would like that. While there were many topics I’d covered on my website, there were many more that I had not. But I also had an idea of how I would approach additional topics. As you’ve probably figured out, it’s, I try to teach by example. So rather than saying, Hey, here’s what I think you should do this. I say, here’s some great work that other people have done. Wouldn’t you like to be like them? And so, you know, on every page, there are examples of works by historians and other journalists, economists, people in related fields, where I say, here’s something really neat this person did. Let’s think about what makes it so good.

Kate Carpenter 15:18
As that person with a bit of a journalism background, too, I really appreciate that. I know that historians sometimes, and for many good reasons, but sometimes sort of treat the creative nonfiction the journalists do as something separate. But there’s also a lot to be learned from the sort of structures and techniques that journalists use.

Zachary Schrag 15:35
Yeah, I’ve always been more of a lumper than a splitter. And, you know, certainly, you know, some of the classics like The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam, you know, are just so important for not only understanding US history, but also understanding how to tell a good story that will make sense to people. If you read recent work by Patrick Keefe, for example, you know, fantastic historical research and storytelling that I think are really inspiring to, should be inspiring to historians.

Kate Carpenter 16:07
So I’d like to also ask you about, you and Scott Berg wrote a piece in The Journal of American History last year, because you had co-taught a class on narrative history, right? Yes. Okay. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

Zachary Schrag 16:23
So, you know, this is something this is a course that, you know, I wish I could have taken as a student, never had that opportunity. So the next best thing was to teach it with Scott, whose work I admire so much. And, you know, he had these great ideas of how you break down the skills of narrative history into some specific smaller pieces. So how do you sketch out a character? How do you create a place was one, how do you tell the story of an episode? And so what we tried to do was, you know, really think about great examples of that, drawing, again, both from people who might not identify as scholarly historians and people that did try to emphasize some of the continuities there. It was hard. I mean, one of the things you realize is that while all historians struggle with incomplete sources, to do good narrative history writing, you may need a lot more kinds of sources and are constricted to the topics as a result. So, you know, with Halberstam, for example, you know, a lot of his books were based on interviews. So you can, you know, and Robert Caro’s, you know, book, I think, what’s it called, Working? Or what is his recent one, you know, he talks about how important interviews were to just, you know, figuring out what it meant to people in Texas to get electricity, all that kind of thing. And as those people died on him, you know, the last people who knew Lyndon Johnson, well, he was much more constrained in what he could do. And so if you’re thinking about writing about, say, the 19th century, where there are no living witnesses, or at this point, the early 20th century, there are a lot of topics that you can’t really write about, in the way you would like to unless someone happens to have left behind a diary, a lot of letters, a memoir, or an extensive interview. So that was that was a big challenge is figuring out with the students, you know, was there something like that, that you could access for your writing? If you can’t be Robert Caro and interview Lyndon Johnson’s brother.

Kate Carpenter 18:32
Has teaching that class impacted your writing at all?

Zachary Schrag 18:35
I think so. I mean, you know, the class kind of grew out with conversations I’d had with Scott for many years. And that certainly impacted my writing, I, you know, sort of studied his work very carefully and figured out what he was doing. And so, you know, one of the things that I tried to do in revising the, you know, narrative book that I wrote, The Fires of Philadelphia, was to apply some of those methods. One of the great things that Scott really worked with me and the students on was point of view, where you’re really trying to tell each scene from the point of view of a certain character. English professors know this very well, there’s, you know, they’re different. There’s what, the third person omniscient versus the third person limited. There are all these specialized terms for how much information you’re giving and how much you’re holding back. And that turns out to be incredibly important for narrative history writing, but again, I think it’s actually incredibly important for all scholarly history writing that if you’re again, telling the story of a policy debate, you know, and, you know, people are working for, let’s say, the Wagner Act, then are you telling that story from the point of view of the unions and their allies, are you telling that story from the point of view of the manufacturers who are hostile to it, are you telling from the point of view of FDR who’s trying to get reelected and isn’t really sure he wants this? These are decisions that the scholar has to make as much as the storyteller.

Kate Carpenter 20:15
Absolutely. And we don’t always realize that we’re making these decisions.

Zachary Schrag 20:19
So I think, you know, I gotta say, you know, having taught a lot of graduate seminars, and you know, sign a lot of books, I think that most scholar history writing is, is neither as bad nor as good as a lot of people think it’s a lot of it some sort of B plus level, where, you know, people write these caricatures. Oh, yeah, those scholars, they’re dry as dust and really not, um, you know, a lot of the scholarship I read, is, is pretty competent. It’s not going to be, you know, David McCullough, but that’s, you know, has to do with subject matter as much as everything else, you know, people are not out there, you know, fighting wars and building bridges all the time. On the other hand, I would say most of the scholarship I read, could have used maybe one more revision, just thinking about narrative, just thinking about how do I introduce this character, to get the reader to pay attention to them to get a better sense of their motivations, not just, you know, this person held this office, but this person, you know, had struggled in life to get to this office and was hoping to do this or, you know, this person, you know, came from a long line of, you know, rich people who had, you know, sort of seen as public service as noblesse oblige, and, and or, you know, this person, you know, whatever it took, to give you a sense of who they were, what they wanted, and, therefore, why they acted in the way they did.

Kate Carpenter 21:53
As I have done in past episodes, I asked Dr. Schrag to walk me through a paragraph of his writing to show me how he went about accomplishing these tasks on the page. Here’s the paragraph I asked him to tell me about from his most recent book, The Fires of Philadelphia: “While Levin was gulping whiskey in a dark tavern, George Cadwalader was sipping port in one of the finest parlors in Philadelphia. At a time when a fortune of $10,000 was enough to afford servants and a fine home, and when perhaps 4% of Philadelphians commanded half or two thirds of the wealth of the city, Cadwalader was very, very rich, with an estimated worth of $150,000. Philadelphians of Cadwalader’s generation could get that rich in one of three ways. They could inherit money from their fathers, marry a wealthy widow or an heiress, or earn their money through manufacturing, trade or finance and real estate. Cadwalader did all three. By his mid 30s, he had become a gentleman of breeding, polish, wealth, and fame. Yet refined as he was, he was also ready to kill.”

Zachary Schrag 23:02
This is a paragraph that has two of my main characters, Brigadier General George Cadwalader, and newspaper editor, Lewis Levin. And we are. we’ve met Levin, and I’m introducing Cadwalader. So that’s basically what’s going on here. And, you know, as we’re talking, one of the major components of good storytelling is good characters. And, you know, again, this is something that I think is kind of built into popular narrative history, that you’re going to have some set of memorable characters. Sometimes it’s one as in a biography. Sometimes you can go to more, Megan Kate Nelson, you know, I think she has eight in The Three-Cornered War. That’s, that’s a pretty high number. I think she cut some characters, if I recall, because eight is a lot. In, you know, a book like Common Ground, you have the three families. So you know, some number between one and eight of important characters. And I ended up with four, having played around with a few different combinations. And one of the things is, once you’ve committed to that, again, especially for more narrative storytelling, once you’ve introduced your characters, you don’t want to lose sight of them for very long. I compare this to, you know, trying to swim across a swimming pool, you can get a certain amount of way underwater, but you have to come up for breath. And I think a good storyteller will say, you know, I’ll give you some exposition, but you know, every few paragraphs or every few pages, I’m going to put it back to my main characters to give the reader some sense of that. And Jon Grinspan’s Age of Acrimony is a very good recent example of this where he’s got the two Kelleys, Pig Iron Kelley and his daughter, Florence Kelley, and, you know, through most of the book, we’re never too far away from them. He brings us back to what they’re doing. So I have Levin, I have Cadwalader and in this paragraph, I’m trying to connect the two, see what they have in common, what they have different. Alcohol becomes important. It’s very important to Levin’s life He is admitted reformed drunkard, which means that he both accepted drunkenness. As part of his life, he admitted that, and he seems to have been a rather heavy drinker early in life, but he becomes a temperance crusader. Cadwalader, the Cadwalader papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are odd. He kept a lot of paper, including, you know, receipts for uniforms, and wine purchases, among other things. And then there are sort of big gaps where, you know, you wish that he had kept more writings about what he was thinking. But, you know, I didn’t know where he was ordering his port, and he was ordering it from Portugal or Madeira, or wherever. So I can say something about that. There’s been, you know, fantastic social history of Philadelphia done, a lot of it was done in the late 1960s, the Philadelphia social history project with people going through census records and tax records. And you know, this is another linkage between narrative history and scholarly history is a lot of narrative history builds on scholarly history. So I was using, you know, great research that had been done in previous decades, as well as my own to try to locate various actors, but especially Cadwalader in the social and economic structure of the city. And so you know, I have his tax records, to some degree, I have his 1850 census records, and I have descriptions of his life. So I was trying to summarize a lot of that into a fairly small place. And again, Scott Berg will tell you, you know, a lot of great writing is cutting. And so how do I give a sense of who Cadwalader was without telling every detail about all of his purchases, and travels and hard work and all the rest, I’m trying to give the sense that, you know, he was a wealthy man, he could have been idle. But he writes this great letter, thank goodness, explaining that he did not want to be idle. He wanted to be active, you know, both in his business affairs, but also in civic affairs, and not wanting to be involved in politics, per se, he chose the militia as his way to be a public person.

Kate Carpenter 27:15
There are two really impressive moves that I think you’re pulling off in this paragraph. More than two, but two I’d like to bring out which is one, as you just said, all of this information really helps us get a sense of Cadwalader in this moment, but it also really paints a picture of the world that he inhabits. And I think, to me, I was very impressed that I have a sense of him sitting there in his fine parlor with his port, but you sort of combine that very close feel of his presence with this much bigger sort of sense of what it what it was like to be in Philadelphia at this time, and the fact that many people had servants and that sort of thing, but also the wealth disparity that might might have been in place. So I thought that was that was really interesting and artfully done. So I’m not surprised to hear you say that cutting is a big part of that, because it must be tricky to keep that balance between sort of keeping things clear and moving along quickly but packing a ton of information in.

Zachary Schrag 28:12
I think good writing requires a follow through, like with tennis, or golf or something, the coaches are always saying, You don’t stop when you hit the ball, you’re going to follow through. And of course, it has no effect on the ball, but your thinking that you’re going to follow through is going to affect you as you hit the ball. And so with writing, I think it’s good to plan to write maybe 20% longer than what you’re actually going to do. For my undergraduates, I asked them to write a minimum of what is it, 1200 words for the first draft, and then they have to have a maximum of 1000 words for the second draft. So I built the cutting in, a 20% cut. For The Fires of Philadelphia, it was much more than that, I think the longest draft I had was about 190,000 words, which is about 50% more than what you get in the final product. And there are a few things that might interest a few people in the many words that were cut. But honestly, you know, by far most people will be much better off with the shorter version. So yeah, I think it’s nice to have a draft for yourself, where you say everything, you know, another draft for the reviewers, and then a third draft for the readers.

Kate Carpenter 29:17
The other thing that really struck me here is there’s such a great turn at the end of this section where we are getting a sense of his wealth and his personality. And then these last two sentences that he had become a gentleman of breeding, polish, wealth, and fame, yet refined as he was he was also ready to kill, and it’s a lovely surprise at the end, but also feels like a sense of foreshadowing. Do you think actively about that while you’re writing? Or is that just a happy accident?

Zachary Schrag 29:41
I think that foreshadowing is really hard. Um, I noticed that a lot when I read and I did ask Scott and others like, how do you do that? Like when do you know when to foreshadow and I never came up with great tools for that. But you know, absolutely. You know, one of the things about working on the cuts is, you know, people did tell me you’ve got to have bloodshed fairly soon. So we have a kind of, we start with violence out of sequence and a lot of work to do this. It’s, it’s hardly unique to me where you, you know, throw the reader into some horrible scene and then you back out and you say, you know, how did we get here, and television programs and movies, you know, other things do this as well. And then you have a few chapters. But if it’s a book about a riot, or series of riots, again, you’re sort of, you’ve got this countdown timer, where the reader is going to get bored. So you got to get back to the fighting. And so yes, slipping in that foreshadowing into the Cadwalader chapter, don’t worry, people are going to die is, you know, there for the reader who’s wondering, why are we reading about the social economic structure in Philadelphia, I thought this was going to be people fighting. But it also gets to just the bizarre nature of the 19th century volunteer militia, where most of what they’re doing is thinking about their uniforms, and the balls they’re going to host and the target practices, the peacetime militia, they’re having good times, they’re, you know, meeting with friends and talking about things. And then once in a while, they’re called out to keep the peace, which means carrying live ammunition and very rarely, but occasionally shooting. And, you know, they know that this might happen. You know, I think even at the time, people were remarking at how odd that was. And there were significant debates about whether we would want to entrust the militia to do this. And in retrospect, it’s, it’s strange as well. But you know, again, it’s one of the elements of contemporary relevance, I hope, is that we are still asking the National Guard to come out to riot duty, when for the most part, it’s not something that they signed up for, were necessarily particularly well trained for, that they’re probably better trained today than they were in 1844.

Kate Carpenter 31:48
Okay, so, we’ve talked a little bit about cutting, which brings me back to wanting to ask you about your revision process. How do you go about revision? Do you have clear drafts? Or is it sort of a circular process?

Zachary Schrag 32:01
You know, it’s definitely iterative, where, you know, I’m going through something and I might say, Hey, here’s a hole I need to fill. I, you know, again, I need to explain what happened between these two dates, or I need to get the perspective of a different character on this, or, you know, it can be trying out different chapter structures. One of the big differences, I think, between more scholarly and more narrative writing is just chapter length, where a scholarly chapter is often anywhere from, say, eight to 15,000 words. And if you pick up, you know, popular history, more likely, you’re going to have 5000 word chapters. And so that was a big change for me. And again, Scrivener is great at this, you just hit split and what was one chapter is now two. But you can see this in scholarly writing as well, where you have, you know, forms of mitosis, where a chapter gets too long, and you say, Okay, I have two choices, I can cut or I can split. And depending on, you know how important it is, you may do one or the other. Or you can have combined chapters where you say, Okay, this really is not worth a chapter on its own. Can I combine it with something else? Or move sections? So, you know, where does this story fit? Is it better with this set of stories or better with this other set of stories? So you know, it’s nice to have things, you know, again, one exercise I do with my students is we read journal articles. And journals will vary in their format, where some will have very explicit subheadings within the article, and others will do something softer, like a blank line, or a little three asterisks or something. And we reverse outline the articles. And obviously, it’s so much easier to do it, when the journal has put in those subheadings. So having, you know, realized how much easier it is to read an article with subheadings. So students all then write subheadings. Now, doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes. We had one article that I assign where there’s this paragraph, and students say, Hey, should this paragraph really be in this other section? And then when we look at the book where the author has revised this, indeed, that paragraph has moved. You know, subheadings alone won’t save you. But you know, subheadings are great. And again, if you’re working with sections of two or 3000 words, then they can they can move between chapters sort of wholesale. And that can be an important part of the revision process. And again, Scrivener is just so good, you do that you just slide them around and see where they fit. Again, word count is great. I never want to see a chapter more than 15,000 words for myself or my students. You know, if I’m working with doctoral students, and if I get one that’s 18,000, I given them that same choice. You can you can cut or you can split but 15,000 to the hard stop and, and shorter is generally better. You know, some some reordering most of the work I’ve done is more narrative. So I’m not doing anything too fancy, where I’m doing a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards. I know that, you know, some writers do that. But I think I tend to prefer to tell a story from beginning to end and to read a story from beginning to end.

Kate Carpenter 34:51
How do you get the distance to figure out if and when things need to move around in a piece?

Zachary Schrag 34:57
That’s a good question. So again, the point of view is very helpful. I’ve read some things by nonfiction writers or actually fiction writers as well who are very attentive to this, right? They know, okay, this scene is this character’s point of view, this scene is that character’s point of view. And, you know, one thing I’ll do is I’ll sort of check my topic sentences and say, Hey, am I consistent? Can I, it’s nice to keep a point of view for as long as possible. You know, rather than saying, jumping back and forth between two characters, if you can, you know, keep the reader in one character’s mind, that’s great. And so if I see that I’ve jumped back and forth between two characters, I will try to, you know, rearrange that to be more consistent. And again, I know that fiction writers sometimes do this with color coding. Another thing that you can do in Scrivener, I’ve never been that fancy. But it’s something that I noticed. And again, sometimes it’s easier to see in other people’s writing. And I think, you know, we absolutely cannot discount the distance that just someone else will provide. And I put something, I think on Twitter, where again, I had this recent article that was way too long. And it was in the writing group, and I sent it out. And I said, Look, just, you know, this is way too long. I gave them that mandate. And I had, what I had think I can’t remember, four or five stories, and I had the choice, you know, do I tell all the stories shorter? Or do I cut two of the stories? And they all said, you cut these two stories. And it’s like, okay, I can do that, right? That was just very clear. But it was not something that I knew going into that session, it’s something that others were able to tell me, I didn’t cut them entirely. I went from maybe 1000 words to 200 words for each so that there were still little stubs so that the reader knew that something else was going on. But those colleagues were able to give me the distance on cutting that I did not have for myself, and I hope that I’ve returned the favor in my various peer reviews and workshops.

Kate Carpenter 36:07
How did you find your your writing group?

Zachary Schrag 36:47
So this is something that LaDale Winling at Virginia Tech started for urban historians. I had known him from conferences and various things, but I think he just, you know, put something out on Twitter saying, Hey, does anyone want to join? And this was, I was pretty much done with the Philadelphia project at that point. So I think I did not get a chance to submit that. But I had this sort of side project this last year that I was able to submit work, and hope to keep that up in the future. Twitter is such a bizarre creation, where, you know, my goodness, most of the time, it is really just a time sink and a waste of time. But sometimes it produces something that’s incredibly valuable for and you know, when I was in grad school, we had a much livelier H-net, which was, you know, all scholarship and not people, pictures of people’s dogs. And I confess, I miss that. But there is something to the wild openness of Twitter where you, you know, reach people you wouldn’t otherwise reach beyond the academy. So you win some you lose some.

Kate Carpenter 37:44
Leaving aside the Princeton Guide to Historical Research, you you’ve published three other books, too, with an academic press, Johns Hopkins, and then one that came out last year, the Philadelphia book, with Pegasus Books. Could you talk a little bit about your approach in publishing with an academic press versus a trade press and what what the differences and those experiences have been like?

Zachary Schrag 38:04
So again, I would say that I would rather lump them split here, because there are a lot of great narrative works done by academic presses, especially, you know, my first book, Great Society Subway has, I’m happy to say, reached a lot of readers beyond the academy. And you know, a lot of people are interested in urban issues and transportation, and, and policy. And, you know, with that book, as with the others, I tried to develop characters. So there’s some really great ones, Harry Weese, the architect, and Jackson Graham, the engineer. And you know, even with my second book, which is much more of interest to people within the academy, I tried to bring to life some of the characters like Ithiel de Sola Pool of MIT. And what I was concerned about, however, with the The Fires of Philadelphia is, I’m really not sure that the as scholarship it, it breaks such new ground. These riots are certainly known to historians, and certainly anti Catholicism, anti immigrant sentiment, nativism are known to historians. I think the better contribution of the book was to synthesize a lot of work that had been done by others and to bring it to new audiences. And what I was concerned about was with an academic press, not reaching the right readers or not setting up the right expectations, if you know, this, were published by university press, you know, it could have come out fine, but I think the scholarly readers might have wondered, where’s the thesis? Where’s the claim to novelty that just isn’t there, whereas popular readers might not have picked up because of the label on the book. I was very influenced in this by a talk I heard by Kevin Boyle, author of the Arc of Justice, who, you know, that fantastic work of narrative history. And he said, Look, notice that there’s no introduction to this book, you just start writing with the story. And you know, I hope there are lessons in there, but I’ve not spelled them out the way that I would with my scholarship. And he said to this was to the Asian History Department said, Look, this was not my first book. I wouldn’t recommend this as a dissertation. You can’t have a dissertation without an introduction. And, you know, it’s a different kind of book. And so that was, in a way, a really important model for my Philadelphia book where I said, Look, I’m writing an introduction, I’m not writing conclusion, I am telling the story. And I hope the lessons emerge.

Kate Carpenter 40:15
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Zachary Schrag 40:18
So, you know, I’ve got this footnote in the Princeton Guide, thanks to Barbara Fields, because it’s something she said, and I’m not sure she’s ever written it down, which was about writing about people as the subjects of your sentences. And she said that to me, what, 25 years ago, and when I noticed this in, you know, both good writing and bad writing that there’s such a difference between not only the passive voice which everyone clamors about for good reason, but also other constructions, expletives or existential phrasing, as they’re called, you know, there was a war, you know, what, or even if it’s an active voice, a battle broke out, it tells me nothing, you know, tell me who what was doing, who is doing what, to whom; Kto–kogo as the Russianists say. That’s really stuck with me. It’s something that I look for in my writing, can I rewrite this? To make it about people? Can I advise a student to rewrite this sentence to make it about people? Honestly, in many cases, it’s much more than a writing question. This student or, you know, I or someone else has, simply they just they don’t know. You know, again, to go back to those two reports. You know, I don’t know why things changed between 1959 1962. It’s not until I’ve done the research that I can say, Darwin Stolzenbach reordered the agency’s priorities. You know, that’s a lot more work than just saying priorities changed between 1959 and 1962, even though they’re both active voice sentences. So I think by insisting that you write about people, Barbara Field was also insisting that you know what you’re talking about.

Kate Carpenter 41:51
Always good advice, I think, for a writer. Do you mind if I ask what you’re working on these days?

Zachary Schrag 41:56
So I’m trying to figure out what’s next. I did, I sort of thought that publishing two books in a year would give me some relief from that question. I do have a piece sort of in in print, or, you know, coming out, I was asked by some historic preservationist to write about the historic preservation challenges of the Washington Metro. And this is something you know, I wrote the Metro book and published in 2006. So I sort of returned to old stomping grounds, but it was a really interesting assignment, because a lot has changed since 2006, including some controversies about to what degree the historic architecture of Metro can continue to serve the system, what modifications are needed, and I’d happened to hear a wonderful, wonderful presentation by a lighting designer named Claude Engle, about the work he did to convert the metro’s lighting, from fluorescent bulbs to LEDs, saving enormous amounts of money and energy, but also preserving, not merely preserving, but bringing back the original lighting design, probably better than even it looked when the system open. I mean, that’s how attentive he was. And he was very concerned about the lighting that had been designed in the 1960s by lighting designer Bill Lam, I knew that was a story I wanted to tell. And I was happy to flesh that out. I teach a seminar about every other year about the politics of technology. And you know, having worked on that with the Metro book, and to some extent with my second book on institutional review boards more about the politics of social science, I think I would like to get back into that realm. But it is daunting to think about getting back on the horse and starting anew. I will say that very same talk that Kevin Boyle gave about not having the introduction. He also said, Don’t go from one book to the next, try to write an article, you know, maybe you like it and you want to continue, maybe you’ll say no, that’s all I had to say on it, or that was dreadful experience. But I think that’s really good advice as well. And so I’ll probably try to write more shorter things before committing to a major project. I mean, there’s, there’s, you know, a lot of incentives to work on book length projects, it’s easier to get grants and leaves where you say, Okay, I’ve got this multi year plan. But there’s also, I think, a lot of good reasons to start smaller, you know, you may actually stumble into something without even knowing it. My second book was going to be an article. And then I found more than I realized was there and I said, okay, it will be two articles. And then by the time I realized I need at least 50,000 words to tell the story, I could approach the press and say, hey, here’s a proposal, and it ended up being, you know, 70,000 words. So, you know, I think that’s another great piece of advice is don’t commit until you have tried it out a bit at a shorter space. And that’s probably something that one could do at any scale. So even if you’re an undergraduate thinking about a senior paper, if you’ve written a shorter essay on it, that’s probably a good indication of whether you want to continue with that larger project.

Kate Carpenter 42:12
I want to thank you for spending so much time today to talk to me and be willing to share your experience.

Zachary Schrag 43:47
And thank you for launching this series. You know, I kind of wish you had done it a couple years ago, so I could have incorporated all of the insight you gather. Maybe we’ll do another addition someday.

Kate Carpenter 45:02
Thanks again to Dr. Schrag. I hope you’ll check out all of his books, but especially the Princeton Guide to Historical Research. And as a special bonus, he tells me that if you order the book from the Princeton University Press website, you can get 30% off with the code ZS30. I’ll include that information in the show notes at And a big thanks to you for listening to Drafting the Past. Wishing you another week of happy writing.

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