3 Rules For Writing Great History Features

Updated: Dec 3, 2019



It’s noisy out there. The sound and the fury of social media, infinitely commentating on everyone and everything in the news. The blur of blog posts and features, by A-list columnists and dedicated amateurs alike, providing hot takes on every last inch of pop culture.


Amid all of this, you can get a head start in being heard if you’re targeting your content at a passionate audience that’s already primed to listen. One example of this is online fandom, with its buzzing communities energetically exchanging ideas on everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to cult sci-fi shows from the 1970s.


History has its own online fandom, engaging with the same kind of passion on every conceivable subject, from the Crusades to the Cold War. There’s a huge appetite for this kind of content, and writing meaningful, interesting features can provide cut through amid the din of the Internet. But there are some important rules to bear in mind.


1. BE CONTROVERSIAL


If there’s one thing history fans really relish, it’s a good debate. This is a constantly evolving field, with historical events and figures relentlessly being re-assessed, often in ways that would have once bordered on heresy. Consider Churchill, once universally acclaimed as one of the greatest ever Britons, now increasingly condemned for his imperialist fervour. Even the saintly reputation of Gandhi has come under fire, with revelations about his apparent racism in South Africa.


If you really want your history content to get noticed and commented on, be bold and be controversial. Pose a question about a historical figure which encourages readers to see them in a new light – one article we wrote for the History TV channel asked whether Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin’s most ruthless and bloodthirsty enforcers, may actually have had the potential to be a “peacemaker and reformer like Gorbachev”. Counterfactuals (eg, “What if William had lost the Battle of Hastings?”) are also effective.


But there’s a fine line between intelligent re-appraisal and cheap, clickbaity sensationalism. If you want to build a solid relationship with a community of history fans, you have to ensure your controversial point is credible, with evidence to back it up. Which takes us to the next rule…


2. CHECK YOUR ACCURACY, THEN CHECK IT AGAIN


History fans know their stuff. And if there’s even the smallest mistake in your content, they will absolutely let you know, and probably ridicule you in the process. This isn’t just a matter of making sure you get your dates right. One of the hazards of the Internet is its effectiveness at spreading rumours, historical half-truths and tall tales as fact. For example, Voltaire never actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Which doesn’t bother the edgy meme-lords of Facebook, but should bother you if you’re writing a serious history feature on the freedom of speech. Check your sources, check your quotes, check your facts, check everything. Twice.


3. LEVERAGE SOCIAL MEDIA


Simply crafting an original, bold, nuanced, fact-checked history feature and putting it on your website isn’t enough. You need to get it out there, and encourage robust (ie, fiery) debate. This is where it’s crucial to leverage the superpower of social media. Post a link on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, not forgetting a good image illustrating the subject of your piece.


It’s also important to monitor the response to the post, as it’s likely to generate some juicy comments and debate right there. You may also need to curate the debate. Certain historical subjects can attract trolls who may post inappropriate or outright offensive responses, so being vigilant and deleting comments written in bad faith can be important part of the content-producing process, especially as your community’s visibility grows.

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