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August 17, 2015

Scholars talk writing: Sam Wineburg (featuring Sam Wineburg)

The Chronicle of Higher Education

How a Stanford professor, known for his work on "historical thinking," learned to trust his own voice

Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and, by courtesy, of history at Stanford University, emailed himself into my life when he sent me a brief request: "No beating around the bush: Do you do any freelance consulting — i.e., looking over a book proposal and spanking me as necessary?"

No freelancing, I told him; no spanking of strangers. I was, however, interested to know about his project and why he thought he needed help.

Like many successful academics, Sam wanted to try writing for a broader readership. His previous book, a collection of essays, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, has sold more than 40,000 copies for Temple University Press. He realized that a lot of the stuff he’d written was getting attention, but, he said, "I’ve never written a non-university-press proposal before. My guide is your Chronicle essays, all marked up in fluorescent yellow and orange peering out at me from my bulletin board."

Flattery will get you everywhere. At least with me.

So for the last year we’ve been having conversations about agents, editors, and trade publishing. We’ve discussed what a book proposal should look like. And — mostly, because we’re both obsessively interested in the topic — we’ve talked a lot about writing.

Eventually I read his proposal, said not much more than Bravo!, and told him to send it out. Sam got great offers and ultimately accepted a contract from the University of Chicago Press. In the process, we’ve become buddies, and so I was eager to chat with him for this series.

Can you talk about your development as a writer?

Wineburg: My freshman tutor at Brown University was Steven Millhauser, then a doctoral student, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I arrived in Providence thinking I knew how to write. Millhauser put a quick end to that. To this day, one of his summary comments sits framed on my desk. A-minus was the grade, and his comment began, "A strong paper, carefully considered and forcefully argued." But then came the line I’ll never forget: "The better you are, the more imperative it becomes to rid yourself of all the evidences of amateurishness, carelessness, and flawed education that your paper, good as it is, still reveals." Mr. Millhauser — Mister is how we addressed him — taught me that the two most important tools a writer has are his ears. The most important things I learned about writing I learned during the first semester of my freshman year in college.



Brooke Donald, Director of Communications, Stanford Graduate School of Education: 650-721-402,


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