Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates
The following document was prepared by Professors Matt Matsuda and John Gillis. The authors gratefully acknowledge the following for their aid:
- Ziva Galili, Rutgers University Department of History
- Mark Wasserman, Rutgers University Department of History
- Professor Kurt Spellmeyer and the Rutgers Writing Center Program
- Professor Scott Waugh and the UCLA Department of History for their Guide to Writing Historical Essays
- Professors Ronald R. Butters and George D. Gopen at Duke University for their GUIDELINES for the Use of Students Submitting Papers for University Writing Courses and Other Classes in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Department of English, 1992).
The purpose of this guide is to provide you with the basics for writing undergraduate history essays and papers. It is a guide only, and its step by step approach is only one possible model; it does not replace consultation with your professor, TA, or instructor about writing questions and getting feedback, nor the excellent tutoring services provided by the Rutgers Writing Center program (room 304, Murray Hall, College Avenue Campus) and the Douglass Writing Center (room 101, Speech and Hearing Building, Douglass Campus).
Writing is a craft. All serious writing is done in drafts with many hesitations, revisions, and new inspirations. Remember always that there is nothing natural about being able to write (we all have to be taught—over many years), and writing well is a matter of application, discipline, and effort. You may already write well. Just remember that our subject here—critical, scholarly writing—has special requirements.
In what follows we will briefly discuss the nature of historical writing, lay out a step by step model for constructing an essay, and provide a set of useful observations from our experience as instructors regarding problems that most frequently crop up in student writing.
Section 1: What Is Historical Writing?
The basic elements of academic essay writing are two: a thesis and evidence, divided into three parts: an introduction, the systematic development of an argument, and a conclusion. All scholarly writing, from the most concise paper to the longest book, follows these basic guidlines.
Historical essay writing is based upon the thesis. A thesis is a statement, an argument which will be presented by the writer. The thesis is in effect, your position, your particular interpretation, your way of seeing a problem. Resist the temptation, which many students have, to think of a thesis as simply "restating" an instructor's question. The writer should demonstrate originality and critical thinking by showing what the question is asking, and why it is important rather than merely repeating it. Your own informed perspective is what matters. Many first-year students ask whether the "thesis" is not just their "opinion" of a historical question. A thesis is indeed a "point of view," or "perspective," but of a particular sort: it is based not only on belief, but on a logical and systematic argument supported by evidence. The truism that we each have "our own" opinions misses the point. A good critical essay acknowledges that many perspectives are possible on any question, yet demonstrates the validity or correctness of the writer's own view.
Thesis and Evidence
To make a good argument you must have both a strong central thesis and plausible evidence; the two are interdependent and support each other. Some historians have compared the historian's craft to assembling and presenting a case before a jury. A strong statement of thesis needs evidence or it will convince no one. Equally, quotes, dates, and lists of details mean nothing by themselves. Your task is both to select the important "facts" and to present them in a reasonable, persuasive, and systematic manner which defends your position. To support your argument, you should also be competent in using footnotes and creating bibliographies for your work; neither is difficult, and both are requirements for truly professional scholarship. The footnote is a way of demonstrating the author's thesis against the evidence. In effect, it is a way of saying: "If you don't accept my thesis, you can check the evidence yourself." If your instructor is unclear about your argument, he or she may very well go back and check how you are using your original sources. By keeping your notes accurate your argument will always be rooted in concrete evidence of the past which the reader can verify. See below for standard footnote forms.
Be aware also that "historical" writing is not exactly the same as writing in other social sciences, in literature, or in the natural sciences. Though all follow the general thesis and evidence model, historical writing also depends a great deal on situating evidence and arguments correctly in time and space in narratives about the past. Historians are particularly sensitive to errors of anachronism—that is, putting events in an "incorrect" order, or having historical characters speak, think, and act in ways inappropriate for the time in which they were living. Reading the past principally in terms of your own present experience can also create problems in your arguments. Avoid grand statements about humanity in general, and be careful of theories which fit all cases. Make a point of using evidence with attention to specificity of time and place, i.e. "context."
Section 2: Steps in Preparing an Historical Essay
1. Understand the question being asked.
Pay attention to the way it is worded and presented. Be aware, for example, that "evaluate" does not mean the same thing as "describe," and neither is the same as "compare/contrast," or "analyze." What are the key words? Can you properly define them? What sort of evidence is required to respond effectively? If you are developing your own topic, what are the important issues and what questions can you pose yourself?
2. Prepare the material.
Begin reading (or re-reading) your texts or documents. Students often ask: "How can I give you a thesis (or write an introduction) before I have done all the reading?" Obviously, you cannot write a good paper if you haven't done the readings, so be sure to keep up. Remember however that merely "reading everything" doesn't guarantee you'll do good writing. Some students rush through assignments, others highlight every line, both thinking that by counting pages or words they are doing well. As you read the important point is to identify critical arguments in the texts. Don't just read for "information." Do a "strong reading" of your materials—critically examine or reexamine your sources with questions in mind. What is the author saying? What are his or her stated and unstated assumptions? What kind of evidence supports the arguments and how is it used? What do particular documents or texts tell you about the time in which they were written? Your questions will be the beginning of your own thesis.
3. First Draft
As noted above, all serious writing is done in drafts, and not the night before. Even if you are pressed for time (as, of course, you will be) give yourself enough time to review and revise your own writing. Students will sometimes turn in papers they have never actually read themselves; this is a mistake which shows. Think of the first or "preliminary" draft as a detailed outline. Establish your thesis and see how it looks in writing. Is it too general or specific? Does it address the questions asked by the instructor? Because the thesis is so critical, small changes in it will have a big impact. Don't be afraid to refine it as often as necessary as you continue reading and writing.
As you write, pay attention to the following points:
- Organize your ideas on paper. Order your arguments and connect them to the relevant supporting evidence. If the evidence contradicts your thesis, you will have to rethink your thesis. Obviously you must not alter the evidence, but always look for some citation or text which makes your point better, clearer, more precise, more persuasive. Avoid needlessly long quotes which only fill up space, and be sure what you select actually makes the point you think it does. All citations must be integrated logically and systematically into your argument. Remember that no quote "speaks for itself." Your job is not only to select evidence, but to explain and analyze what you cite, to demonstrate the meaning and importance of what you choose.
- Be attentive to paragraph construction and order. Paragraphs should have strong topic sentences and be several sentences long. Try to show development in your argument. Point one should lead logically to point two in paragraph after paragraph, section after section. Avoid simply listing and detailing your arguments in the order which they occur to you. Though there may be no absolutely correct sequence in presenting an argument, a thoughtful ordering and systematic development of points is more convincing than ideas randomly thrown together.
- Pay attention to transitions: when you switch to a new argument, let the reader know with a new topic sentence. Resist the temptation of thinking, "they'll know what I mean." Don't make your reader guess where you are going or what you are trying to say; the purpose of an essay is to communicate and to convince.
- Take time with your conclusion, which should close and summarize your arguments. Remember that conclusions can have a big impact on the reader, as closing statements do to a jury. You are of course not being judged, but—as part of the scholarly process—your work is being evaluated, so try to make the best presentation possible.
4. Drafts and Final Draft
Now you have completed your draft. Return to your introduction. Is the thesis clearly stated? Have you established the argument and evidence you will present? Rephrase your thesis if necessary. You may not even be clear about the final thesis until you have written much of the paper itself and seen how the argument holds together. Add examples or delete non-relevant materials and make sure paragraphs connect with transitions and topic sentences. Proofread the work: set it aside for some time and come back to it, or try reading it aloud to yourself (if your roommates are tolerant). Some classes, such as the History Seminar, have students critique each others' research drafts, often several times. Such exercises are invaluable opportunities to learn how other people read you, and how to be fair, judicious, and helpful in your own critiques. Whenever possible try to have someone else read your work and comment on it. Finally, check for sense, grammar, spelling, and mechanical and typographical errors. Common mistakes can be avoided by consulting such aids as the Writing Program Proofreading Guide available for $1 in the English section of the University Bookstore. Show respect for your reader by not making him or her wade through a sloppy manuscript. Details may not make or break a work, but they make a definite impression about how much you care.
Section 3: Grading, Originality & General Observations
A Note on Grading
Every professor or instructor has his or her own standards for excellent, good, average, and unacceptable work. "Standards" means that some papers will receive higher marks than others. A common grading misunderstanding arises from a student belief that answering a question "correctly" in essay form means an automatic "A." From an instructor's point of view, you do not get credit for excellence by doing what you are supposed to be able to do: write coherently and intelligently with a thesis, introduction, argument, and conclusion. This is only "competent" work. How well you write is what makes the difference. Do you detail your arguments, define terms, make logical connections, expand points, develop ideas, read sources in original and imaginative ways? The difference between competent and excellent work is difficult to define. Read your own work critically. Are you making the easy points most students would make? Are you really citing and examining the texts? Have you developed original interpretations? Have you given careful thought to argument and presentation, and the logic of your conclusions? Excellent work begins when you challenge yourself.
Originality and Plagiarism
Students are sometimes overwhelmed when asked to produce original, critical work. What could they say which has not already been said by an expert? No one asks you to be an expert. Your originality lies in your talent as a critical reader and a thoughtful writer. Whether you are studying many sources for a research paper or a few passages from one text for a book review, what matters is how you select, present, and interpret materials. "Originality" is this ability to communicate fresh perspectives and new insights. "Originality" also means speaking in your own words. You must at all costs avoid plagiarism, which is a crime and means automatic failure. Plagiarism means taking credit for work which is not your own, and can involve: 1) copying directly or paraphrasing without acknowledgment from published sources; 2) purchasing essays and term papers; 3) having someone else do the assignment for you; 4) turning in a paper previously submitted for another (or the same) class. Pay attention to point 1: changing the wording of a passage is still plagiarism if you don't credit the author for the ideas you are borrowing. Points 2-4 are obvious cases of cheating. A strict definition of plagiarism is as follows:
"The appropriation of ideas, language, or work of another without sufficient acknowledgment that the material is not one's own. Although it is generally recognized that everything an individual has thought has probably been influenced to some degree by the previously expressed thoughts and actions of others, such influences are general. Plagiarism involves the deliberate taking of specific words and ideas of others without proper acknowledgment." (Ronald R. Butters and George D. Gopen, GUIDELINES for the use of students submitting papers for University Writing Courses and other classes in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Department of English, 1992, p. 15]).
Avoid plagiarism by preparing well, relying on your own words and judgments, and—when citing evidence—using proper bibliographic and footnote forms. Attention to plagiarism should not discourage you from using sources to the fullest; on the contrary it should challenge you to think critically about how you make ideas your own, what debts you owe to others, and how you put the two together to do intellectually honest and original writing.
When turning in papers, always keep a copy for yourself; papers do on occasion disappear. Standard format is double-spaced with wide enough margins for reader's comments. Don't forget to put your name, the class name, and the title of the paper on the first page. Always number the pages for easy reference.
For questions on the stylistic, grammatical, or technical points of preparation, familiarize yourself with the standard reference guides used by all professional writers, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (now in a 14th edition), or Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, available at the library. There you will find information on such topics as proper footnote style. We have included some of the standard forms below:
For a book: Jack Horner, The History of Corners in the Modern Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 36-9.
For an article: Mary Contrary, "How Gardens Grow: Things in a Row," The Journal of Earthly Delights, vol. 26, nr. 3 (1995), p. 123.
As noted in the introduction, this guide is a very general formula for writing essays. The goal—and the goal of university education in general—is for you to develop your own methods, strategies, and style. In writing, follow the guidelines, but do not be formulaic. Originality, creativity, and personal style are not crimes if done well. Make use of this guide, but remember that your greatest resources will be your teachers, fellow students, and the other academic programs of the university.
Writing a history paper is a process. Successful papers are not completed in a single moment of genius or inspiration, but are developed over a series of steps. When you first read a paper prompt, you might feel overwhelmed or intimidated. If you think of writing as a process and break it down into smaller steps, you will find that paper-writing is manageable, less daunting, and even enjoyable. Writing a history paper is your opportunity to do the real work of historians, to roll up your sleeves and dig deep into the past.
What is a history paper?
History papers are driven by arguments. In a history class, even if you are not writing a paper based on outside research, you are still writing a paper that requires some form of argument. For example, suppose your professor has asked you to write a paper discussing the differences between colonial New England and colonial Virginia. It might seem like this paper is straightforward and does not require an argument, that it is simply a matter of finding the "right answer." However, even here you need to construct a paper guided by a larger argument. You might argue that the main differences between colonial New England and Virginia were grounded in contrasting visions of colonization. Or you might argue that the differences resulted from accidents of geography or from extant alliances between regional Indian groups. Or you might make an argument that draws on all of these factors. Regardless, when you make these types of assertions, you are making an argument that requires historical evidence. Any history paper you write will be driven by an argument demanding evidence from sources.
History writing assignments can vary widely--and you should always follow your professor's specific instructions--but the following steps are designed to help no matter what kind of history paper you are writing. Remember that the staff of the History Writing Center is here to assist you at any stage of the writing process.
1. Make sure you know what the paper prompt is asking.
Sometimes professors distribute prompts with several sub-questions surrounding the main question they want you to write about. The sub-questions are designed to help you think about the topic. They offer ideas you might consider, but they are not, usually, the key question or questions you need to answer in your paper. Make sure you distinguish the key questions from the sub-questions. Otherwise, your paper may sound like a laundry list of short-answer essays rather than a cohesive argument.
A helpful way to hone in on the key question is to look for action verbs, such as "analyze" or "investigate" or "formulate." Find such words in the paper prompt and circle them. Then, carefully consider what you are being asked to do. Write out the key question at the top of your draft and return to it often, using it to guide you in the writing process. Also, be sure that you are responding to every part of the prompt. Prompts will often have several questions you need to address in your paper. If you do not cover all aspects, then you are not responding fully to the assignment. For more information, visit our section, "Understanding Paper Prompts."
2. Brainstorm possible arguments and responses.
Before you even start researching or drafting, take a few minutes to consider what you already know about the topic. Make a list of ideas or draw a cluster diagram, using circles and arrows to connect ideas--whatever method works for you. At this point in the process, it is helpful to write down all of your ideas without stopping to judge or analyze each one in depth. You want to think big and bring in everything you know or suspect about the topic. After you have finished, read over what you have created. Look for patterns or trends or questions that keep coming up. Based on what you have brainstormed, what do you still need to learn about the topic? Do you have a tentative argument or response to the paper prompt? Use this information to guide you as you start your research and develop a thesis.
3. Start researching.
Depending on the paper prompt, you may be required to do outside research or you may be using only the readings you have done in class. Either way, start by rereading the relevant materials from class. Find the parts from the textbook, from the primary source readings, and from your notes that relate to the prompt.
If you need to do outside research, the UCLA library system offers plenty of resources. You can begin by plugging key words into the online library catalog. This process will likely involve some trial and error. You will want to use search terms that are specific enough to address your topic without being so narrow that you get no results. If your keywords are too general, you may receive thousands of results and feel overwhelmed. To help you narrow your search, go back to the key questions in the essay prompt that you wrote down in Step 1. Think about which terms would help you respond to the prompt. Also, look at the language your professor used in the prompt. You might be able to use some of those same words as search terms.
Notice that the library website has different databases you can search depending on what type of material you need (such as scholarly articles, newspapers, books) and what subject and time period you are researching (such as eighteenth-century England or ancient Rome). Searching the database most relevant to your topic will yield the best results. Visit the library's History Research Guide for tips on the research process and on using library resources. You can also schedule an appointment with a librarian to talk specifically about your research project. Or, make an appointment with staff at the History Writing Center for research help. Visit our section about using electronic resources as well.
4. Take stock and draft a thesis statement.
By this point, you know what the prompt is asking, you have brainstormed possible responses, and you have done some research. Now you need to step back, look at the material you have, and develop your argument. Based on the reading and research you have done, how might you answer the question(s) in the prompt? What arguments do your sources allow you to make? Draft a thesis statement in which you clearly and succinctly make an argument that addresses the prompt.
If you find writing a thesis daunting, remember that whatever you draft now is not set in stone. Your thesis will change. As you do more research, reread your sources, and write your paper, you will learn more about the topic and your argument. For now, produce a "working thesis," meaning, a thesis that represents your thinking up to this point. Remember it will almost certainly change as you move through the writing process. For more information, visit our section about thesis statements. Once you have a thesis, you may find that you need to do more research targeted to your specific argument. Revisit some of the tips from Step 3.
5. Identify your key sources (both primary and secondary) and annotate them.
Now that you have a working thesis, look back over your sources and identify which ones are most critical to you--the ones you will be grappling with most directly in order to make your argument. Then, annotate them. Annotating sources means writing a paragraph that summarizes the main idea of the source as well as shows how you will use the source in your paper. Think about what the source does for you. Does it provide evidence in support of your argument? Does it offer a counterpoint that you can then refute, based on your research? Does it provide critical historical background that you need in order to make a point? For more information about annotating sources, visit our section on annotated bibliographies.
While it might seem like this step creates more work for you by having to do more writing, it in fact serves two critical purposes: it helps you refine your working thesis by distilling exactly what your sources are saying, and it helps smooth your writing process. Having dissected your sources and articulated your ideas about them, you can more easily draw upon them when constructing your paper. Even if you do not have to do outside research and are limited to working with the readings you have done in class, annotating sources is still very useful. Write down exactly how a particular section in the textbook or in a primary source reader will contribute to your paper.
6. Draft an outline of your paper.
An outline is helpful in giving you a sense of the overall structure of your paper and how best to organize your ideas. You need to decide how to arrange your argument in a way that will make the most sense to your reader. Perhaps you decide that your argument is most clear when presented chronologically, or perhaps you find that it works best with a thematic approach. There is no one right way to organize a history paper; it depends entirely on the prompt, on your sources, and on what you think would be most clear to someone reading it.
An effective outline includes the following components: the research question from the prompt (that you wrote down in Step 1), your working thesis, the main idea of each body paragraph, and the evidence (from both primary and secondary sources) you will use to support each body paragraph. Be as detailed as you can when putting together your outline.
7. Write your first draft.
This step can feel overwhelming, but remember that you have already done a lot of work and--armed with your working thesis, source annotations, and outline--have all the tools needed. Do not feel that you have to work through your outline from beginning to end. Some writers find it helpful to begin with the section in which they feel most confident. Look at your outline and see if there is one part that is particularly fleshed out; you may want to begin there. Your goal in the draft is to articulate your argument as clearly as you can, and to marshal your evidence in support of your argument. Do not get too caught up in grammar or stylistic issues at this point, as you are more concerned now with the big-picture task of expressing your ideas in writing.
If you have trouble getting started or are feeling overwhelmed, try free writing. Free writing is a low-stakes writing exercise to help you get past the blank page. Set a timer for five or ten minutes and write down everything you know about your paper: your argument, your sources, counterarguments, everything. Do not edit or judge what you are writing as you write; just keep writing until the timer goes off. You may be surprised to find out how much you knew about your topic. Of course, this writing will not be polished, so do not be tempted to leave it as it is. Remember that this draft is your first one, and you will be revising it.
When you are writing up the evidence in your draft, you need to appropriately cite all of your sources. Appropriate citation has two components. You must both follow the proper citation style in your footnotes and bibliography, and document always but only when such documentation is required. Remember that you need to cite not just direct quotations, but any ideas that are not your own. Inappropriate citation is considered plagiarism. For more information about how and when to cite, visit our section on citations.
8. Revise your draft.
After you have completed an entire first draft, move on to the revision stage. Think about revising on two levels: the global and the local. The global level refers to the argument and evidence in your paper, while the local level refers to the individual sentences. Your first priority should be revising at the global level, because you need to make sure you are making a compelling and well-supported argument.
A particularly helpful exercise for global-level revision is to make a reverse outline, which will help you look at your paper as a whole and strengthen the way you have organized and substantiated your argument. Print out your draft and number each of the paragraphs. Then, on a separate piece of paper, write down each paragraph number and, next to it, summarize in a phrase or a sentence the main idea of that paragraph. As you produce this list, notice if any paragraphs attempt to make more than one point: mark those for revision. Once you have compiled the list, read it over carefully. Study the order in which you have sequenced your ideas. Notice if there are ideas that seem out of order or repetitive. Look for any gaps in your logic. Does the argument flow and make sense?
When revising at the local level, check that you are using strong topic sentences and transitions, that you have adequately integrated and analyzed quotations, and that your paper is free from grammar and spelling errors that might distract the reader or even impede your ability to communicate your point. One helpful exercise for revising on the local level is to read your paper out loud. Hearing your paper will help you catch grammatical errors and awkward sentences.
Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself while revising on both the global and local levels:
- Does my thesis clearly state my argument and its significance?
- Does the main argument in each body paragraph support my thesis?
- Do I have enough evidence within each body paragraph to make my point?
- Have I properly introduced, analyzed, and cited every quotation I use?
- Do my topic sentences effectively introduce the main point of each paragraph?
- Do I have transitions between paragraphs?
- Is my paper free of grammar and spelling errors?
Remember, start revising at the global level. Once you are satisfied with your argument, move onto the local level.
9. Put it all together: the final draft.
After you have finished revising and have created a strong draft, set your paper aside for a few hours or overnight. When you revisit it, go over the checklist in Step 8 one more time. Read your paper out loud again too, catching any errors you might have missed before.
At this stage in the process, you need to make sure you have taken care of all the details. Your paper needs to have a title that does not just announce the topic of the paper, but gives some indication of your argument. Reread the paper assignment and make sure you have met all of the professor's requirements: Do you need page numbers? A separate title page? Will you submit your paper electronically or in hard copy? Have you followed all of the stated formatting guidelines (such as font-size and margins)? Is your bibliography appropriately formatted?
10. Congratulate yourself. You have written a history paper!
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