They may cover your papers with red ink. Writing is hard work, but it requires neither native genius nor initiation into occult knowledge. We historians demand the same qualities stressed in any stylebook— good grammar and syntax.
It uses the active voice; it has a thesis; it explains the significance of the topic; and it tells the reader who, what, when, where, why, and how. We hope that this booklet will help you to avoid the most common problems of style and substance that students encounter in writing history papers. Get a good general stylebook and keep it by your side as you write. You engage in cheap, anachronistic moralizing.
You are sloppy with the chronology. You are vague or have empty, unsupported generalizations. You write too much in the passive voice. You use inappropriate sources. You use evidence uncritically. You are wordy. You have no clear thesis and little analysis. Avoid pretentious, vapid beginnings. Get to the point. For example, you might go on to argue that greater British sensitivity to Indian customs was hypocritical.
State a clear thesis. Whether you are writing an exam essay or a senior thesis, you need to have a thesis. A good thesis answers an important research question about how or why something happened.
Develop your thesis logically from paragraph to paragraph. Your reader should always know where your argument has come from, where it is now, and where it is going. Be sure to analyze. Students are often puzzled when their professors mark them down for summarizing or merely narrating rather than analyzing.
What does it mean to analyze? In the narrow sense, to analyze means to break down into parts and to study the interrelationships of those parts. If you analyze water, you break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. In a broader sense, historical analysis explains the origins and significance of events.
Historical analysis digs beneath the surface to see relationships or distinctions that are not immediately obvious. Historical analysis is critical; it evaluates sources, assigns significance to causes, and weighs competing explanations. Many students think that they have to give a long summary to show the professor that they know the facts before they get to their analysis. Try instead to begin your analysis as soon as possible, sometimes without any summary at all.
You can't do an analysis unless you know the facts, but you can summarize the facts without being able to do an analysis. Like good detectives, historians are critical of their sources and cross-check them for reliability.
Likewise, you wouldn't think much of a historian who relied solely on the French to explain the origins of World War I. Only a professional liar would deny this Neither the people, the government, nor the Kaiser wanted war As always, the best approach is to ask: Who wrote the source? Under what circumstances? For whom? The first statement comes from a book by the French politician Georges Clemenceau, which he wrote in at the very end of his life.
He was obviously not a disinterested observer. The second statement comes from a manifesto published by ninety-three prominent German intellectuals in the fall of They were defending Germany against charges of aggression and brutality.
They too were obviously not disinterested observers. Now, rarely do you encounter such extreme bias and passionate disagreement, but the principle of criticizing and cross-checking sources always applies. In general, the more sources you can use, and the more varied they are, the more likely you are to make a sound historical judgment, especially when passions and self-interests are engaged. Competent historians may offer different interpretations of the same evidence or choose to stress different evidence.
You can, however, learn to discriminate among conflicting interpretations, not all of which are created equal. See also: Analyzing a Historical Document Be precise. Vague statements and empty generalizations suggest that you haven't put in the time to learn the material. The Revolution is important because it shows that people need freedom. Landless peasants? Urban journeymen? Wealthy lawyers? Which government? Who exactly needed freedom, and what did they mean by freedom? Be careful when you use grand abstractions like people, society, freedom, and government, especially when you further distance yourself from the concrete by using these words as the apparent antecedents for the pronouns they and it.
Always pay attention to cause and effect. Abstractions do not cause or need anything; particular people or particular groups of people cause or need things. Watch the chronology. Anchor your thesis in a clear chronological framework and don't jump around confusingly. Take care to avoid both anachronisms and vagueness about dates. The scandal did not become public until after the election. Which revolution?
When in the twentieth century? Remember that chronology is the backbone of history. What would you think of a biographer who wrote that you graduated from Hamilton in the s? Cite sources carefully.
Your professor may allow parenthetical citations in a short paper with one or two sources, but you should use footnotes for any research paper in history. Parenthetical citations are unaesthetic; they scar the text and break the flow of reading.
Worse still, they are simply inadequate to capture the richness of historical sources. Historians take justifiable pride in the immense variety of their sources. Parenthetical citations such as Jones may be fine for most of the social sciences and humanities, where the source base is usually limited to recent books and articles in English.
Historians, however, need the flexibility of the full footnote. I, Nr. The abbreviations are already in this footnote; its information cannot be further reduced. For footnotes and bibliography, historians usually use Chicago style.
The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Use primary sources. Use as many primary sources as possible in your paper. A primary source is one produced by a participant in or witness of the events you are writing about. A primary source allows the historian to see the past through the eyes of direct participants. Some common primary sources are letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, church records, newspaper articles, and government documents of all kinds.
Not all primary sources are written. Buildings, monuments, clothes, home furnishings, photographs, religious relics, musical recordings, or oral reminiscences can all be primary sources if you use them as historical clues. The interests of historians are so broad that virtually anything can be a primary source. See also: Analyzing a Historical Document Use scholarly secondary sources.
A secondary source is one written by a later historian who had no part in what he or she is writing about. In the rare cases when the historian was a participant in the events, then the work—or at least part of it—is a primary source.
Historians read secondary sources to learn about how scholars have interpreted the past. Just as you must be critical of primary sources, so too you must be critical of secondary sources. You must be especially careful to distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly secondary sources. Unlike, say, nuclear physics, history attracts many amateurs.
Books and articles about war, great individuals, and everyday material life dominate popular history. Some professional historians disparage popular history and may even discourage their colleagues from trying their hand at it. You need not share their snobbishness; some popular history is excellent. But—and this is a big but—as a rule, you should avoid popular works in your research, because they are usually not scholarly. Popular history seeks to inform and entertain a large general audience.
In popular history, dramatic storytelling often prevails over analysis, style over substance, simplicity over complexity, and grand generalization over careful qualification.
Popular history is usually based largely or exclusively on secondary sources. Strictly speaking, most popular histories might better be called tertiary, not secondary, sources.
Scholarly history, in contrast, seeks to discover new knowledge or to reinterpret existing knowledge.
Good scholars wish to write clearly and simply, and they may spin a compelling yarn, but they do not shun depth, analysis, complexity, or qualification. Scholarly history draws on as many primary sources as practical. Now, your goal as a student is to come as close as possible to the scholarly ideal, so you need to develop a nose for distinguishing the scholarly from the non-scholarly.
Who is the author? Most scholarly works are written by professional historians usually professors who have advanced training in the area they are writing about. If the author is a journalist or someone with no special historical training, be careful. Who publishes the work? Is it in a journal subscribed to by our library, listed on JSTOR, or published by a university press? Is the editorial board staffed by professors?
Oddly enough, the word journal in the title is usually a sign that the periodical is scholarly. What do the notes and bibliography look like? If they are thin or nonexistent, be careful. If they are all secondary sources, be careful.
If the work is about a non-English-speaking area, and all the sources are in English, then it's almost by definition not scholarly. Can you find reviews of the book in the data base Academic Search Premier? If you are unsure whether a work qualifies as scholarly, ask your professor. See also: Writing a Book Review Avoid abusing your sources. Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses: Web abuse. The Web is a wonderful and improving resource for indexes and catalogs.
These questions are: Was the New Deal a success? Why or why not? In order to answer these, you will also have to consider two additional questions: What was the New Deal? What problems was it supposed to solve? Begin your research, keeping your questions in mind. Reread the information on the New Deal in your textbook, and look for a list of suggested further readings at the end of the textbook chapter.
If your instructor has assigned a primary source reader, recheck the material on the New Deal. Search the catalog at Swem Library and electronic databases. Read several different works to get a sense of how different historians have analyzed the New Deal's effectiveness.
Take notes that will help you in formulating a thesis and creating an outline. Be sure to record the sources of your notes so that you can properly cite them later. Formulate a thesis. A thesis is the central argument of your paper, based on the evidence you have discovered in your research. After reading several works, weigh the evidence and decide whether or not you think the New Deal was effective. Your answer to that question will be the thesis of the paper. In this case, you've concluded that while the New Deal did not actually end the Great Depression, and that some of its programs were not successful, the bulk of the evidence demonstrates that the New Deal did help to restore public confidence, promoted a partial economic recovery, and created many beneficial programs.
You state your thesis as follows: "Although the New Deal did not end the Depression, it was a success in restoring public confidence and creating new programs that brought relief to millions of Americans. Also, use the thesis as the starting point of your outline, writing it at the top of your outline page.
Find supporting evidence for your thesis. You should have done most of the work in this area during your initial research. You may, however, wish to do further research to find additional information to strengthen your argument.
Some examples might include statistics on the number of people employed in New Deal programs, and firsthand accounts of people who benefited from participation in those programs. When you find evidence that contradicts your thesis, don't ignore it! As a historian, you should present contradictory evidence, but show that it is outweighed by the evidence that supports your views. In this case, you find the following evidence in support of your thesis, and list each as a separate point in your outline: A.
The activity of Roosevelt's first "Hundred Days" in office helped restore public confidence by showing that the government was actively seeking to promote recovery. The "Bank Holiday" helped place the banking industry back on a sound footing. The New Deal created Social Security, which helped millions of people at the time and has been crucial to many more millions of Americans since.
Although you may have found even more evidence to support your thesis, remember that you cannot include everything in a page paper. Limit yourself to the points you believe best support your thesis, in this case the four strongest points. List contrary evidence. In this case, you find two key pieces of evidence that partially contradicts your thesis.
List them in your outline: A. The New Deal did not end the Depression. The Supreme Court declared some New Deal programs unconstitutional. You will touch upon these points briefly in your paper, but you do not want to spend excessive time on them.
It is important that you look at that table of contents and search out the information you need for your paper and not get distracted in every chapter of the book. This is why Wikipedia is a great resource for finding sources. When you skim make sure you take good notes. I used note cards, but those are probably outdated with the invention of the iPad and iPhone.
If you are taking a survey class and decide to write about George Washington, then it better be good because there will be 10 other people writing about the same topic. If you write a paper on a topic that many are writing on, then your paper will be compared to the others. If you are confident you have the best paper, then by all means write it.
However, it is best to steer clear of that. I always chose unique topics and when I say unique I am not talking about obscure topics. Drilling down on a topic will help narrow your competition and make a much better thesis statement. Also make sure you are interested in the topic. You can fill in the smaller gaps of your research more effectively later. Outline: Write a preliminary thesis statement, expressing what you believe your major argument s will be.
Sketch out a broad outline that indicates the structure - main points and subpoints or your argument as it seems at this time. Do not get too detailed at this point. The First Draft: On the basis of this thesis statement and outline, start writing, even pieces, as soon as you have enough information to start.
Do not wait until you have filled all the research gaps. Keep on writing. If you run into smaller research questions just mark the text with a searchable symbol. It is important that you try to get to the end point of this writing as soon as possible, even if you leave pieces still in outline form at first and then fill the gaps after you get to the end. Critical advice for larger papers: It is often more effective not to start at the point where the beginning of your paper will be.
Especially the introductory paragraph is often best left until later, when you feel ready and inspired. The Second Draft: The "second draft" is a fully re-thought and rewritten version of your paper.
It is at the heart of the writing process. First, lay your first draft aside for a day or so to gain distance from it. After that break, read it over with a critical eye as you would somebody else's paper well, almost! You will probably find that your first draft is still quite descriptive, rather than argumentative. Don't despair. That is perfectly normal even for experienced writers even after 40 years and a good deal of published work!
You will be frustrated. But keep questioning your paper along the following lines: What precisely are my key questions? What parts of my evidence here are really pertinent to those questions that is, does it help me answer them? How or in what order can I structure my paper most effectively to answer those questions most clearly and efficiently for my reader?
At this point you must outline your paper freshly.
As always, the best approach is to ask: Who wrote the source? Consider this sentence: "King Frederick the Great sought to expand Prussia, to rationalize agriculture, and that the state support education.
Center around. You are most likely to get into antecedent trouble when you begin a paragraph with this or it, referring vaguely back to the general import of the previous paragraph. As a result, student writers often take shortcuts by failing to place information within its context, or by neglecting to define terms. Identify the assignment's goals, or the professor's question.
Run-on sentences string together improperly joined independent clauses. As always, the best approach is to ask: Who wrote the source? A really pertinent book may be hidden in another section of the library due to classification quirks. Check the several good dictionaries of biography for background on people, or see if there is a standard book-length biography. Immediately after the introduction, you should write a thesis statement. Avoid the use of qualifying terms.
When replacing a singular noun, use a singular pronoun. When in the twentieth century? You are wordy. Your professor will assume that you don't know. Err on the side of shorter paragraphs.
To do it well requires several steps of refinement. Save in the rare case that competing dictionary definitions are the subject at hand, keep dictionary quotations out of your paper. The "Bank Holiday" helped place the banking industry back on a sound footing. Once you reach this stage try to formulate your research topic as a question.
Historians usually wish to focus on the doer, so you should stay with the active voice—unless you can make a compelling case for an exception. See also: Analyzing a Historical Document Use scholarly secondary sources. Contrary Evidence A. Major Research: Now do the bulk of your research. Critical advice for larger papers: It is often more effective not to start at the point where the beginning of your paper will be.