Condensing Complex Texts

History writing is hard work. We have immense respect for the professional historians who produce the work that we use as sources. They’re constantly having to make impossible choices – about the authenticity of sources, whether one source is more important than the other, whether a particular theory fits a certain set of events, whether basing a grand theory on certain fragments of evidence is really valid… the list is endless.

As journalists attempting to communicate history to mass audiences, our work involves a lot of tough choices too. Academic writing has a reputation for being long and overwritten, but at its best, the length can be entirely justified – either by the level of detail that is packed in or by the complexity of the argument. Attempting to reduce such texts into short, easy to read summaries is the intellectual equivalent of playing with a house of cards – one wrong move and you bring the whole thing crashing down.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

This is the process we currently follow:

(Note: I use the first person in the following paragraphs for the sake of convenience, but the “I” is obviously interchangeable and refers to whichever team member is working on the paper.)

  • I begin with a first read, where I’m just skimming the paper, focusing on the abstract, introduction, core argument, and conclusions – the goal here is to identify whether the text fits our needs. Approaching academic texts this way is something I learned from this blog post titled “How to Read in College written by Dr. Timothy Burke. I highly recommend checking it out if you find yourself getting intimidated by the length and complexity of such writing.
  • If it passes the first stage, I do a second pass, in which I read carefully, paying attention to detail, highlighting important sections as I go along.
  • Right now, we use two colours to highlight: yellow for important stuff which we may or may not end up using and red for very important points, which will most likely be unmissable. (Note-taking nerds, if you know of a better, more advanced system, tell us!)
  • Then, I give Thomas an oral summary of what I’ve read and managed to retain in my head. This exercise automatically forces me to focus on the core argument that I’d like to highlight and the most important supporting details. Ideally, at the end of this conversation, the person I’m talking to should have a clear idea of the text without having read it.
    • Once that’s accomplished, we have a discussion about headline, which is super important, because it decides the angle/framing of the entire article. This is also the point at which we discuss the “why you should read this” section of the post – that basically involves answering the all-important question of why this text might be relevant or useful to a potential reader.
  • With the argument in focus and the headline nailed, I write out a bullet-point skeleton of the post based on the discussion. Then, I return to the original text, combing through each of the highlights I made in it to see how they can fit into the skeleton. This step is heart-breaking because it is where tons of minor details that are interesting but non-essential are culled. We now have a rough draft of the final piece!
  • In the final stage, the summary would pass back to Thomas, who would sit down to trim the fat further, simplifying language, making it more conversational, and doing away with any details that are extraneous to the core narrative. They are also tasked with making the skim version of the article work as an independent piece, shorn of the details that are in the subsidiary points.
    • This final step is vital because, so far, most of our audience has been consuming our content directly on social platforms, where we only post the skim version. We’re learning that it is sometimes useful to edit the skim version by pasting it into a Twitter thread or Instagram post – somehow the words being in those environments forces a (more accessible, relatable) voice on us that just doesn’t happen when we’re editing in Word or WordPress or any of the other sterile, context-less, white-background-black-text editing softwares we use.

There’s a lot more to be said about the intricacies of this editing process, but I’m going to save that for future posts.