A Guide to Writing for Ancient History Magazine

By Owain Williams

In the last few months, we have had plenty of people submitting proposals for Ancient History. I think it is fantastic that so many of our readers have turned their hands to writing history. Unfortunately, however, many of the submissions are not what we are looking for. So, I thought I would put together a little guide to writing articles for Ancient History.

The first thing to consider when putting together a proposal is scope. The longest articles we publish are 2400–2500 words long. This is not a lot, not really. It is enough to cover plenty of topics, but many submissions I receive are far too grand in scope to fit this maximum wordcount. One submission, for example, wanted to compare Athenian democracy with the Roman republic. This is certainly an interesting topic, particularly given the ways that people, today, look back to the ancient world for exemplars for modern behaviour. However, there is no way that this subject could be satisfactorily covered in a single article. Indeed, such a topic could be the focus of a large book – both the Athenian democracy and the Roman republic have been the subjects of their own books many times!

An important factor to consider when thinking about the scope of your proposal is what evidence is available for your given topic. The more evidence, particularly literary evidence, there is for a topic, the longer an article needs to properly cover it. I am sure we can all agree that an article offering a biography of the emperor Augustus would be impossible. There is just too much to consider. On the other hand, Cleopatra Selene II, Cleopatra VII’s daughter, who was the subject of a two-page, 800-word article I wrote for Ancient History 47, is a suitable candidate for a biography. There is, simply, very little evidence that directly relates to her.

However, while an article on Cleopatra Selene II could have been four pages, or even six, a longer article on her would have run into the issue of applicable images. Each article needs a large number of applicable images, both smaller artefacts as well as larger artefacts and locations, to be publishable (we do have long-form articles, but only two per issue). Had we increased the length of the Cleopatra Selene article, then we would have had difficulties finding an appropriate number of images for the article. Indeed, we struggled a bit with just two pages!

A typical two-page spread of an Ancient History article

Applicable images are images that directly relate to the main text or can be connected to something mentioned in the main text of the article. Ideally, the artefacts or locations in the images should be contemporary to the people, places, or events being discussed in the article. It would be silly to use artefacts from Late Antiquity to illustrate an article discussing the Hellenistic east, for example. Moreover, these images must be Open Access, so we can use them. It is all well and good if the British Museum has an excellent display on just the topic you want to write about, but unless someone somewhere has uploaded photos they have taken of the objects online for free use, we cannot use them. Therefore, when thinking about a proposal, it is important to always have what images you think would be a good accompaniment to your article. Sites like Wikimedia Commons and Flickr have a wide selection of images that we can use, and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art are Open Access. That said, if you can’t find lots of applicable images, there’s no need to worry. Our Image Researcher is fantastic at their job and comes up with images that I would never have been able to find! If you do submit a proposal, it is a good idea to have at least four to eight image suggestions for us alongside your article. There must also be a good variety of images available. Having an article that is only illustratable with coins or red-figure Athenian pottery would make for a rather repetitive reading experience.

It is also a good idea to submit a list of what secondary literature you consulted when you were writing your article or what literature you will consult if you are making a proposal. Without any secondary literature in your submission, I have no way to know where you pulled your information from. If that is the case, I am far less inclined to accept a proposal. I appreciate that finding secondary literature – by which I mean literature written by modern historians – is often hard to come by and can be very expensive. However, a JSTOR account is free and lets you read up to 100 articles each month (although, not all articles are freely available, such as the Journal of Hellenic Studies). Additionally, authors often upload their articles or book chapters to Academia.edu or Researchgate.net, where you can read them for free. Also, it is important to choose secondary literature that has been written in the last fifty years, otherwise you run the risk of offering out of date interpretations. Ideally, you should consult works that are as recent as possible. Occasionally, the only articles on a particular topic do only come from before then, but that is rare.

To sum up, there are three main things that you should consider when writing a proposal or a submission to Ancient History. The first is scope. Ask yourself, can this topic really be explored in 2500 words? I would suggest looking at individual sites or even buildings, events, people who we know very little about, and, for those people we know a lot about, a single moment or event from their life. The second is image availability. Are there enough images of a sufficient variety to properly illustrate my article? Are these images in Open Access? Together, these two points will really help narrow down what you should write about. Say you want to write about prostitutes in ancient Athens. Firstly, there is a lot of information on prostitutes, so you should narrow down what you want to write about. Do you want to write about hetairai or more common prostitutes? Do you want to write about prostitutes at Athenian symposia? Perhaps you want to write about Neaera, the famous hetaira? Conceivably, these topics could be covered in a 2500-word article. However, are there enough images to properly illustrate such an article? There are a lot of images of prostitutes on Athenian pottery, but these are largely the same type of images with little variety. There is little else, however. In Athens, there is only one excavated building that could possibly have been a brothel – Building Z – and images of that are hard to find. If you keep asking these questions, you will come up with a very good proposal. Finally, make sure you make a note of the secondary literature you consult when you are researching.

I hope this is helpful to any would-be writers reading this. If you have any questions about writing for Ancient History, feel free to ask!

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