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Writing Centre Online Resource Guide


Introduction to Writing in History

The essential aims and features of a History paper:

  • Asserts a clear thesis that proposes an answer to a historical problem.  It may either challenge or qualify current historiography or present new research in the form of an argument.
  • Evaluates the significance of primary source documents and situates findings in a historiographical context (the work other historians have done in the recent past).
  • Supports the thesis with evidence from primary sources and from credible, academic secondary sources (the published work of reputable historians).
  • Employs the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) or the Turabian style of documentation to direct the reader and grader to your sources. Think of these footnotes as breadcrumbs which help your reader to follow a trail of ideas and arguments throughout the history of the debate to which your research contributes.

Common problems:

  • The paper simply lists examples from primary sources or summarises the evidence without explanation or analysis.
  • The paper consists primarily of an assembly of block quotations or paraphrases from secondary sources without any original contributions, arguments or connections.
  • The paper fails to provide sufficient evidence to support an argument about the subject.
  • The introduction is too long or too general. The introduction does not present a clear thesis. Conversely, the introduction is too short and does not provide adequate insight into the purpose of the essay or origin of the thesis/research question.
  • The thesis is vague or a statement of fact rather than the promotion of an argument.
  • The title poorly reflects the purpose of the paper.
  • The paper is poorly laid out in regards to spacing and margins; the paper makes unnecessary use of headings; the paper lacks appropriate pagination.
  • The sources are inadequately documented.

Writing a History Paper: Steps

1. Pick a topic. Crime, gender, religion, economics, trade, politics, monarchs, war, everyday life, print culture, the environment, disease, medicine... there is so much to study in history!

2. Read. Read through a few general books for background on the topic that interests you. This will give you an idea of what historians are already saying about the topic. Reading will point you to more specific sources for later in the process (check footnotes and bibliographies in these books).

3. Form a research question. You should have a specific question you want to answer. This can and will change as you do more research, but selecting a question will help narrow your primary and secondary sources as you progress. A good research question is structured something like this: I want to know more about X so that I can understand Y because Z. Make sure you can answer the dreaded ‘so what’ question!

4. Research! Usually you start with primary source research first, but sometimes it is helpful to begin with secondary sources until you understand your topic better. Ensure you document whether your notes are direct quotations or paraphrases, and include the author, short title and page number beside these notes. Part of your research might involve determining what type of history you are writing: take some time to familiarize yourself with Marxist, feminist, postcolonial and other approaches so that you can situate your work in the field.

5. Outline. Arranging your notes in an outline is crucial: it will give you an idea of which areas might need more information, if your arguments are strong or lacking, and whether you have enough information (and a variety of sources) to fulfill the length and content requirements of your assignment. If you know you can write 10 pages before you begin, you will be less likely to find yourself ‘fluffing up’ pages to reach the page count at the last minute.

6. Draft. Get those notes in paragraph form. As you write, you will form connections between your supporting arguments and gain a better idea of what needs more support. One of the biggest mistakes you can make with a history paper is waiting until ‘all the research is done’ before you begin to write. The research will never be done. There is always another source to consult. Having a rough draft will give you a realistic idea of how well your argument has developed and will help you to prioritize the remainder of your research.

7. Research again. This is the time to fill the holes in your argument. Round up the books you did not have time to look at before the first draft. Seek out more sources now that your argument is coming together or moving in a different direction from your original question and adapt your research accordingly.

8. Revise & rewrite. Incorporate your original research. Restructure or organize if necessary. Tighten and focus your introduction, thesis and conclusion. It might turn out that you need to perform steps 7 and 8 multiple times. This is fine. The best papers are those which have undergone multiple rounds of editing.

9. Finalize. Leave your paper alone for a day or two, if possible. You will benefit from taking a short break. Go back with fresh eyes and look for grammatical errors, word choices, sentence structure and potential problems with clarity. Read through your paper multiple times, focusing on one aspect of your writing at a time. Printing out a hard copy and making notes by hand is useful, as is reading your paper backwards, sentence-by-sentence, to catch mistakes that your mind will gloss over when you read in order.

10. Format. Once the paper is in its final form, format footnotes and bibliography according to CMS or Turabian standards. Double check page numbers, spacing and font size/style for consistency.

11. Print and submit!

· Pagination: Provide a title page and bibliography with no pagination. Number all other pages except for the first page of the body of the paper.

· Spacing: Double-space text, except block quotations and footnotes (1 or 1.15 spaced).

· Font: Set font size at 12 pt. Times New Roman (or similar), with the exception of footnotes (9-11 pt.).

· Block Quotations (longer than 4-5 lines of text): indent quotations which exceed 1-2 sentences on both sides, justify and single-space. For example:

Block quotations are quite useful when quoting large passages of primary text documents. You should avoid using block quotations to present arguments from your secondary sources when a paraphrase or shorter section of the quotation would suffice. However, sometimes scholars phrase things in particularly effective ways and, in rare cases, the use of a block quotation to convey these ideas to your reader is acceptable.

Kinds of History Writing Assignments

In some classes you may be assigned a review of a book or article.  These are not the same as a research paper; they require a different set of skills and a different approach.

 The essential aims of a book or article review:

· Establishes the significance and value of a recently published book or article

· Identifies and evaluates the main and supporting arguments of the authors

· Evaluates the methodology and sources the authors use to support their arguments

· Evaluates the stylistic and mechanical elements of the book or article (briefly)

· Provides a brief summary of the contents of the book or article

· Accomplishes the above concisely and critically (the typical length of a book or article review is between 4 and 6 pages)

 Common problems

· The review consists mostly or entirely of a summary, with little to no discussion of the author’s arguments or methodology

· The review reports the author’s arguments but does not evaluate them critically

· The review consists mostly of a mechanical evaluation of the book (word choice, structure, grammar, stylistic choices, etc.).  This is something that readers will want to know, but only if the writing is exceptionally good or very bad.  You should keep this to a minimum in your summary or conclusion, or exclude it entirely.

Chicago/Turabian Citation Style

Resources for Writing in History