~ West Texas Historical Association ~

Style Concerns when Submitting an Article to the WTHA Yearbook
Style matters.  Editors of the West Texas Historical Review concern themselves with writing, with good English prose, and with proper usage.

Communication is the key, of course.  People write to communicate their ideas, their views.  Sometimes, as a result, people do not always follow so called correct grammar and proper English usage.  And, moreover, what is proper for, say, newspaper writing may be different from what is normally considered proper for the West Texas Historical Review.

Editors of the Review - and there have been only five or six of them over the years - have used the University of Chicago Press’s A Manual of Style to govern matters of style and footnotes or endnotes.  A good, shortened version is Kate Turabian’s guide for writing.  One of the best brief style guides is William Strunk and E. B. White’s little book, The Elements of Style.  It is terrific.

But, there are several good guidebooks for writing history.  They come with all kinds of titles: Historian’s Handbook; A Short Guide to Writing about History; Writer’s Guide: History; and for students there is Getting the Most out of Your U.S. History Course: The History Student’s Vade Mecum.  Don Whisenhunt, one of the WTHA’s Life Members, produced such a guide to the writing of history.    

A longer guide is Savoie Lottinville’s, The Rhetoric of History.  Lottinville was for many years editor of the University of Oklahoma Press.  In his book, Lottinville writes about the importance of balance, proportion, and, above all, continuity in writing.  He talks about “internal clarity,” tricks of style, the character of a paragraph as a unit of thought, and how short, one-punch titles are best.  He writes about abolishing wordiness, about grammar and usage, about word choice, and about how good writing must be clear, forceful, and elegant.

Whether one uses Lottinville or Strunk and White or someone else, the writer of history will find that good, clear writing is hard work. 

Some helpful hints for all good writers submitting articles and essays to the WTHA YEAR BOOK follow:

  • Avoid the use, or over use, of “this” and “these.”  Far too often the adjectives/pronouns are used poorly, lazily, carelessly.  Consider, the following sentence from a good 2002 book from Texas A&M University Press: This explanation is insufficient, for any increase this had on their total population would have only been a result of this practice . . . . The motivations for this behavior . . . .”  Sometimes they are even used as the subject of a paragraph. 
  • Do not use “since” for “because,” as in “since John was ill, Pete took him home.” A better construction is “because John was ill, Pete took him home.”  Review editors think “since” means a time: as in “since 1924.”
  • One of the most frequent grammatical errors is the use of improper antecedents.  For example, “Although John was ill, he went to the WTHA meeting in Abilene.”  A pronoun- he in this case- must, if it is to be used correctly, refer to a person in an independent clause.  “Although John was ill” is clearly a dependent clause; it cannot stand alone as a sentence.  Properly, the sentence should read: “Although he was ill, John went to the WTHA meeting in Abilene.”
  • No split infinitives.  Newspapers use them all the time.  Newspaper people think they read and sound better. Editors of the Review try to eliminate them.  In other words, try to carefully eliminate split infinitives.  But, no less an historian as the great Carl Becker had no aversion to them.  He once wrote: “he has in any case no time, and no need, to curiously question or meticulously verify.” How does one not split the infinitive?  Curiously to question does not work, nor does to question curiously. 
  • Avoid passive voice.  Why hide the subject and dull the prose with passive voice?  It is not WRONG usage, perhaps, and, granted, sometimes passive voice works well, but it is not the best usage. For example, “He was sent by the air force to Abilene” is not as strong, as active, as effective, as “The air force sent him to Abilene.”  Newspaper persons who write history, it seems, are often “guilty” of the sin.  One of them, who has written several books for the University of Oklahoma Press, is particularly enamored of the usage.  In one of his books there is a paragraph of seven sentences and six of them are in passive voice.  It makes for dull reading.
  • The proper use of commas remains a common problem.  Perhaps a good rule on comma usage is: be consistent.  The Review editors want its writers to follow A Manual of Style on matters of commas.  Thus, when 3 or more items are listed consecutively, there ought to be a comma before the “and” that ends the list- as in: “Lubbock, Taylor, and Tom Green counties,” not Lubbock, Taylor and Tom Green counties.”
  • Again, on commas: as per the use of dates, the editor of the YEAR BOOK wants a date to read, “I heard this sorry lecture on April 2, 2004, in Abilene,” not “I heard this sorry lecture on April 2, 2004 in Abilene.”  Set off the year with commas.
  • On dates, moreover, a good rule of the thumb on the use of dates is to place the date near the verb or noun it modifies, it goes with.  Do not put dates at the end of the sentence- unless the date is the most important aspect of the sentence.
  • Again on dates, the editor of the West Texas Historical Review, tries to eliminate constructions that read something like “By 1928 the WTHA was four years old.”  Rather, the sentence should read:  “In 1928 the WTHA was four years old.”  Or, try a similar construction: 
By 1928 the money had totaled $40.  Not, “By 1928 the money totaled $40.”
Better is: “In 1928 the money totaled $40.”
  • One topic equals one paragraph.  That should be easy enough to remember, but too often writers try to squeeze two or even three subjects into one paragraph.
  • On capitalization: a good rule is be consistent- kind of like commas.
  • Numbers:  A good rule is to spell out numbers of one or two digits, but use numerals for those running to three or more.
  • Quotation Marks:  Periods and commas are always placed within the end quotation marks; colons and semicolons outside.  Question marks, dashes, and exclamation points stand outside unless they are in the original.  Is that clear?  Actually, the good and experienced writer can make his own exceptions to the rules.  There is a military adage that “a good general does not place his army with its back to a river, unless he is of a mind to do so,”  meaning, of course, that there should be a good reason for an action contrary to accepted practice.
  • Note the following sentence and its use of “this.”
This explanation is insufficient, for any increase this had on their total population would   have only been a result of this practice . . . .  The motivations for this behavior . . . .”
Because he was ill, John did not go to Abilene.
Not: Since he was ill, John did not go to Abilene.
Although he was ill, John went to the WTHA meeting in Abilene.
Not: Although John was ill, he went to the WTHA meeting in Abilene.
Try carefully to eliminate split infinitives.
Not: Try to carefully eliminate split infinitives.
The air force sent him to Abilene.
Not: He was sent by the air force to Abilene
  • Wherever possible use action verbs rather than “be” verbs.
  • Thus, try to avoid “am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.”
  • Note the small letter (no caps) on “counties”:
Lubbock, Taylor, and Tom Green counties
Not: Lubbock, Taylor and Tom Green counties
April 2, 2004, in Abilene. . . .
Not: April 2, 2004 in Abilene. . . .
By 1928 annual dues had reached the staggering sum of $3.00.
Not: By 1928 annual dues reached the staggering sum of $3.00.
Good: In 1928 annual dues reached the staggering sum of $3.00.

P.O. 41041
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas

Ph. 806-742-9076 wthayb@ttu.edu

Contact Information:

Robert Weaver, Editor
West Texas Historical Review
Texas Tech University
Box 41041
Lubbock, TX 79409-1041
(806) 834-5734 Work
(806) 742-0496 FAX

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