Review of ‘Writing Archaeology: Telling Stories about the Past’ by Brian Fagan

01st June 2007

Murphy book review cover AA64Writing Archaeology: Telling Stories about the Past by Brian Fagan. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2006, 175pp, ISBN 1-59874-005-9.

Karen Murphy

School of Social Science, University of Queensland, St Lucia Qld 4072, Australia

This book is timely with the recent focus on the importance of public outreach and engaging the public’s interest in archaeology in Australia, particularly through mass media (e.g. du Cros 2002; Nichols 2006), in this case through popular publications. If one author comes to mind in thinking about writing archaeology for the public it is Brian Fagan, who has been publishing widely-used texts and general books since the 1970s. As Fagan himself articulately puts it, ‘this book is about the process of writing, the challenges, frustrations, and deep satisfactions of writing a book not for your colleagues but for a general audience’ (p.28).

Divided into nine logical chapters, it is written in an accessible, conversational style that makes you feel Fagan is in the room coaching you to write. Each chapter contains a key ‘rule’ to keep you on track throughout the writing process and provides a significant reminder to the main point Fagan is making.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to general writing and storytelling with Rule 1 being ‘always tell a story’ (p.13). Fagan provides excellent examples of how to tell an archaeological story (and how not to tell it) when aiming at a general audience and provides advice on practicing writing and setting up a regular routine.

The second chapter provides a way to start off small and local by focusing on writing articles and columns for local newspapers and magazines. In this way, the writer serves an apprenticeship and learns how to write before moving onto bigger projects. Fagan provides a practical outline of how to submit material to major magazines and how the process works, with an introduction to the tougher world of publishing with Rule 2: ‘Deadlines are sacred. Meet them’ (p.29).

The next six chapters detail the process of writing and publishing a trade book for general audiences. Chapter 3 addresses the generation of ideas for the ‘proven niche’ (p.51) of archaeology trade books and introduces the reader to the trade market and how it works. Rule 3: ‘write only about topics that passionately interest you’ (p.47) reflects Fagan’s recommendation to firstly write a ‘passionate narrative’ (p.59) that is the story of your book which gathers and develops the main themes into ‘a seamless tale’ (p.59).

Chapter 4 takes the passionate narrative to the next stage – writing the formal proposal for your book and Rule 4: ‘treat the proposal as seriously as the book because you’re selling yourself and your idea’ (p.63). Fagan details what the proposal should and shouldn’t be, describes how editors make their decisions, and outlines the required elements of the proposal and the book outline.

The next stage, writing specimen chapters, is covered in Chapter 5, which also discusses the fundamental importance of editors, what different types of editors do and most importantly (Rule 5), how to ‘develop a good relationship with your editor’ (p.79). The chapter provides more detail on how the publishing industry works including the use of literary agents, and the world of contracts and advances.

Chapter 6 moves onto the next important stage – writing the first draft. Fagan concurs with every book about writing with his Rule 6: ‘make writing a daily habit’ (p.91). The chapter provides a wide range of detailed hints and suggestions about getting into the habit of writing, setting up a workspace, and how to get started. He also provides his proven strategies to get over procrastination and writer’s block that will be of great benefit to all archaeologists and students who are trying to write. Fagan also discusses doing the research for your book, and various techniques for building up the narrative.

Rule 7 – ‘Revision is the essence of good writing. Listen to criticism and leave your ego at home’ (p.109) – introduces Chapter 7, with Fagan again providing a wide range of useful advice on getting that first draft to the final manuscript stage. He covers his own ‘writing mantras’ (p.111) and provides a suggested (but not the only) revision strategy that works for him. He provides advice for tackling the various rounds of revision, getting others to read the manuscript, and submitting the final version.

Chapter 8 follows the book into the production process and beyond with Rule 8 being ‘don’t walk away from your book when you finish writing it’ (p.127). Fagan covers the nitty-gritty of the process from production through copyediting, illustrations, the cover design, the proofs and index to the actual publication, and then on to the final stage of marketing and promotion.

The final chapter discusses the writing and publishing of another genre of book altogether – the textbook. The chapter runs through the publication process identifying the key differences between texts and trade books. Fagan’s Rule 9 for textbooks: ‘never write a textbook unless you have the time to revise it’ (p.143). Fagan rounds the book off with a concise conclusion and a range of key resources for writers to further investigate the topic, including resources on general, academic and textbook writing, (the very few) on writing about archaeology, archaeological illustration, writing magazines and web resources.

The book provides a practical approach to writing about archaeology for general audiences and enlightens those of us who have never had any experience with the trade publishing world. Focused on the North American publishing scene, the book will be a valuable resource for the increasing number of Australian archaeologists seeking to publish their work in the US market. The structure of the chapters provides an easily accessible format that enables individual chapters to be consulted while actually working through the various stages of the process. Not only does Fagan provide practical advice on the process, he provides inspiration to get out there and start writing. Although aimed directly at those archaeologists wanting to write for a general audience, the advice Fagan provides about writing will be of great value to all professionals and students in the field of archaeology. If, as Nichols (2004:44) indicates, ‘that the future of the discipline … will be dependent on the profession’s ability to reach a wider popular audience’, Fagan’s book is certainly a step in the right direction. To give Fagan the last word: ‘We archaeologists have lost sight of distant horizons, of the great issues of our discipline. We need to write for humanity, for civilisation, not just for our friends – and our enemies’ (p.163).


du Cros, H. 2002 Much More than Stones and Bones: Australian Archaeology in the Late Twentieth Century. Melbourne: MelbourneUniversity Press.

Nichols, S. 2006 Out of the box: Popular notions of archaeology in documentary programmes on Australian television. Australian Archaeology 63:35-46.

Nichols, S.J. 2004 Out of the Box: Popular Notions of Archaeology in Documentary Programs on Australian Television. Unpublished BA (Hons) thesis, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Karen Murphy
Review of ‘Writing Archaeology: Telling Stories about the Past’ by Brian Fagan
June 2007
Book Reviews
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