Archaeological Writing for Successful Journal Publication and Grades
It has been said that writing is as vital to archaeology as fieldwork is, and it is certainly true that artefacts and sediments do not become exciting propositions and established theories about human behaviour and development on their own. Knowledge, experience, curiosity, analysis, reflection, logic and insight must be combined in effective written communication to bridge the gap between material discoveries and the understanding of the past that is derived from them. Archaeological writing bridges this gap by sharing with its readers plausible and engaging stories about the past that ultimately shape and reshape authoritative perceptions of humanity and its history.
Thinking of archaeological writing as a form of storytelling can establish a foundation on which to build engaging prose. Archaeology may not be fiction, but it can certainly benefit from some of the techniques used by writers of fiction. Hooking the reader’s attention immediately, for instance, is always a good idea and can be achieved by providing interesting background and introductory information that emphasises why the reader should care about your work. The process of your research from first breaking the soil at a new site to examining its artefacts in detail can then be presented as an exciting narrative of gradual discovery. Elements of suspense can be created by revealing information in strategic ways, and asking questions is an excellent policy for generating curiosity in your readers, who will keep reading to find your answers and compare them to the answers that may be running though their minds as they reflect on your finds.
Presenting your research as an exciting narrative is one aspect of the thoughtful organisation required in all archaeological writing. Background information and research results must be balanced with the logical arrangement of your overall argument. A well-designed structure that divides the material you are introducing into sections and subsections that are heralded by catchy and informative headings and subheadings will clarify and more effectively present your argument and evidence. Relatively short sentences, preferably in the active voice, will communicate more efficiently than very long sentences can, but varying your sentences in terms of length and structure is also a good policy. Each paragraph should focus, as much as possible, on a single idea and logically lead the reader into the next paragraph and idea. Transitions between sections, paragraphs, ideas and sentences should be smooth and clear.
Clarity is, after all, absolutely essential for expressing the subtleties and complexities common in archaeological writing. Spelling, punctuation and grammar must be correct. Specialised terminology and nonstandard abbreviations must be defined when introduced and used with precision throughout a document. The dates so central to archaeological work must be applied with the utmost accuracy and consistency if your argument is to be taken seriously, and the dating conventions adopted for a document should be explained for readers. Citations and references must be both accurate and thorough, with every source cited appearing also in the bibliography or list of references, and references usually need to observe a specific style as well. Finally, graphs, maps and photographs can be enormously helpful, but only if they convey the information they contain with clarity and efficiency. They also need to be carefully labelled and specifically referred to in the main discussion so that readers understand their contents and their precise role in your research and argument.
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