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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Writing For Kids Or Anyone

I‘d been a business reporter and editorial writer for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk when I decided to leave daily journalism to write a U.S. history for young adults. That was after I read an academic study that compared student’s comprehension of writing by journalists (this case Time magazine writers) with their comprehension of the same events as written in standard textbooks. Comprehension was 40% higher with the journalists. I understood that right away. If you’re a journalist and your writing is obtuse, or dull, you’re not likely to keep your job. in

At a meeting of the Virginia State School Board, which I covered as a reporter, I learned just how shabby and error-filled many big-selling texts are, and I also learned that there was a need for a good American history. I’d written an op-ed piece on Thomas Jefferson that got published in the Wall St Journal. Some history professors at the University of Virginia had nice things to say about it. Maybe it went to my head. Anyway, I figured that it would take me a year to write what I imagined would be a one volume history. Because of the articulated need for one, I thought if I did a good job the publishing world would fall at my feet. Ah me, it was ten years before I had a published book in hand, the one volume had turned into ten, and just about every publisher I tried turned me down, including Oxford. I was at a cocktail party in Colonial Williamsburg and told my sad tale to Paul Nagel, an eminent historian: I had nine volumes done, accolades from teachers and students who had used the books in manuscript, some academic historians had vetted the work, but no publisher would take a chance on it. He told me, “I know someone in NY who can help you. His name is Byron Hollinshead.”
I sent him the manuscript. Byron, who’d had a distinguished career as a publisher (among other things he’d been chief of Oxford University Press), liked what he read and was sure he’d have no problem placing it with one of his peers. So he sent it off to a major publisher with an “innovative” division. They sent it back; it was too innovative for them. Eventually Laura Brown at Oxford decided to take a chance on the series. It would become OUP’s biggest seller (after the Oxford English Dictionary).
There’s a lot more to this story, but Byron has become a mentor and friend, he has produced all my books for their publishers: Oxford and Smithsonian Books. And more than one teacher has told me of reading scores that have soared after their students read history, and science, as written by a former journalist.
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