In March 2019 Whitman publisher Dennis Tucker spoke about writing and research to eighth-grade students of Meadow Glen Middle School (Lexington, South Carolina). This is a transcript of that lecture.
Hello. My name is Dennis Tucker. I’m a professional writer and editor, which means I get paid to do the things you’re studying and practicing in school.
Since 2004 I’ve been the publisher at Whitman Publishing, a company that produces books mostly in the fields of history and antiques-and-Collectibles. Many of our books involve numismatics, which is the study of coins, tokens, medals, and paper money. This touches on history, art, technology, industry, mining, banking and economics, metallurgy, geography, and many related subjects.
I’ve been a coin collector since I was about seven years old. So not only do I get to help create books, which is something I love to do, but I get to work in what is essentially my lifelong hobby.
My general advice to writers is to know your subject matter; know your audience, and know your strengths and weaknesses as a communicator.
Take your research and writing seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. By that I mean
- be humble,
- always be a student—in other words, always think of yourself as someone who is learning, and
- have fun with your work.
Being a good communicator is an important skill. It always has been. It always will be. Good communication is useful, and valuable, in every field of human endeavor. I mention this not only because of the importance of sharing thoughts and ideas between people, but also because, on an individual level, being a good communicator will open up career opportunities for you.
If you’re writing nonfiction, your reputation as a researcher and author will depend on the integrity of your work. Are you accurate? Are you precise? When you go beyond reporting facts and you draw conclusions, are they based on reliable sources and careful reasoning? Can your readers trust you as an authority on your subject?
Often in research, primary sources will be your best friend. That means going to contemporary newspapers and government documents, letters and diaries, autobiographies, interviews, and the like.
Of course, keep in mind that primary sources can be colored by personal perspectives and biases, or they might contain mistakes. So don’t depend completely on any one primary source. Gather information from as many as you can. If you find discrepancies, look for reasons why.
If you ever find missing pieces in the puzzle of your research, resist the temptation to fill in the blanks with speculation. Or—if you must speculate, and you present a hypothesis or an undocumented possibility, keep these three things in mind:
- base your reasoning on as much historical evidence as you can,
- explain your thought process to your reader, and
- make it clear that what you’re writing is speculative.
Let me give you three case studies on the importance of research. The first is about a researcher whose groundbreaking work was marred by a strange weakness; the second is about a young writer, not much older than you, who solved a 200-year-old mystery; and the third is an example of a primary-source document that had some hidden traps.
Our first case study: There was a genius-level American historian who was active from the 1950s through the 1980s. He revolutionized numismatic research by digging into government archives and other primary sources like no one had before him—and as few have since. He studied America’s coins from the colonial era to modern times, cleared up many longstanding mysteries, and shined light on questions that others hadn’t even thought to ask before. Unfortunately, he had a bad habit for a writer. Some more recent scholars say he made things up. Others say when he reached an impasse in his research he would make assumptions, but present them as historical fact. Many modern experts who have studied his work say things like, “95 percent of his work was brilliant and five percent was either made up, theoretical, or otherwise unreliable.” His encyclopedias are still considered largely authoritative and foundational in the field of American numismatics. But if you’re not an expert yourself, and you’re relying on his published research, it’s very daunting to not know if any given fact or assertion is part of the 95 percent good or the five percent bad.
Our second case study: In the early 1790s a silversmith in Baltimore, named Standish Barry, made a small number of silver tokens. These tokens—they’re not really coins, because they weren’t legal tender—have on their front a bust portrait of a man. The man is not identified in any way. For many years historians speculated that the mysterious figure might be a crude rendition of George Washington, or maybe even a self-portrait of the silversmith. For more than 150 years coin collectors knew about these tokens, but were only able to guess about the portrait. Finally, in 2009, a researcher unearthed evidence from the Baltimore Sun, in an 1843 article, that pointed to the man being James Calhoun, the first mayor of Baltimore. The researcher compared contemporary portraits of Calhoun to the figure on the silver token, which confirmed the identity of the mystery man. The researcher who made this connection was about 20 years old when his discovery was published. I recently asked him about it, and he told me, “I think there’s still a lot of untapped numismatic research potential from early U.S. newspapers. It just takes the time to search through them, but that’s becoming much easier with digital access.”
Our third case study involves a book I wrote on American gold and silver coins and medals. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Mint created a series of gold pieces called “American Arts Gold Medallions.” For various reasons, these were never studied and written about in depth in the numismatic literature. Maybe older writers considered them too modern to deserve serious study. Or maybe they were overshadowed by larger, more successful gold-coin programs that started later in the 1980s. When I started researching the American Arts Gold Medallions for my book, one important primary source was the Congressional Record, in particular, the transcript of an August 1978 hearing on the sale of Treasury gold. Many famous politicians of the day were mentioned: Senator Jesse Helms, President Jimmy Carter, and others. The transcript also quotes many people who aren’t famous, but who testified as experts on the subject of gold, or were otherwise mentioned in the proceedings. I double-checked all of these names, to see if they led to interesting sidebars or new research paths to explore. And I found that some of them were misspelled! The Mint’s assistant director for technology was misidentified as Alfred Goldman in several places. His name was Alan, not Alfred. A gold investor from Texas named Morris Cannan had his name spelled wrong. Now, these mistakes might seem relatively minor. But they’re still mistakes. I’m glad I caught them. I’m not saying my manuscript is 100 percent perfect, but at least I know I got those names right! The fact that they came from the Congressional Record, a primary source usually seen as authoritative, illustrates my earlier comment. Even primary sources have to be scrutinized and cross-checked.
I hope these thoughts on the importance of research and writing have been useful for you.
Remember to take your work seriously, because your reputation as a writer depends on it. But don’t forget to have fun, and keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunity.
I’m Dennis Tucker, and I appreciate your time. Thank you.
Dennis Tucker is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, LLC; numismatic specialist of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee; and author of American Gold and Silver: U.S. Mint Collector and Investor Coins and Medals, Bicentennial to Date. He is a Life Member of the American Numismatic Association and a past governor of the Token and Medal Society.