History Writing Guide

  1. Introduction
  2. Types of Papers
  3. Discipline-Specific Strategies
  4. Don't Forget to...
  5. Professors' Comments and Web Sites
  6. Appendix

Introduction

Writing about history entails paying close attention to methodology and historical context while telling a story and building an argument. When writing a history paper, it is important to make certain that you focused your topic so that it can be explored in depth using primary and secondary sources. Your argument should be succinct, and you should aim to strike a balance between description and analysis.

Types of Papers

For your history papers at Swarthmore, often you will be asked to construct a specific argument around the answer to a historical question, such as how or why something happened. If historians have previously addressed this issue, then you will have to comment on the scholarly debate and situate your argument within it. Historiography requires the careful examination of various historical arguments and perspectives to arrive at the best answer possible.

Another type of paper is the "case study." In case studies, a general historical principle or argument is tested against a specific case.

Discipline-Specific Strategies

To be a good historian, you must choose your evidence carefully and present your findings persuasively. Take careful note of the following points:

  • Question and determine the reliability of your sources before beginning to write a draft. The reliability of the sources you use to construct a historical argument critically determines the validity of your argument.
  • Construct a persuasive thesis that you can support with appropriate evidence.
  • Create a historical context in the introduction of your paper to situate your thesis in the appropriate historical framework.
  • Stay focused on your own specific argument unless you have researched your topic broadly and deeply. A good rule of thumb is to make the magnitude of your claim (i.e. thesis) commensurate with the scope of your research. For example, a historian who has gathered extensive historical evidence and read widely on a topic might make the claim, "World War I was the inevitable result of an entanglement of conflicting alliances in Europe." A first-year history student, on the other hand, would be wise to stay away from such a big claim when writing at 2-3-page paper about the causes of World War I.
  • Sound historical analysis requires that you imagine and address counter-arguments. Incorporating or explicitly refuting opposing viewpoints will make your argument stronger, not weaker.
  • Organize your paper carefully and logically. A thoughtful historical argument presented in a desultory or haphazard fashion is often as unclear to the reader as a paper without a thesis. Both fail to guide the reader through the argument effectively - the first, for lack of a clear and cohesive structure, and the second, for lack of a main point.

Don't Forget to...

  • Define any terms that are essential to your thesis or used often in your paper.
  • Incorporate adequate analysis to insure that your paper is not simply a summary of information.
  • Avoid using excessively general phrases such as, "throughout history..."
  • Consider complex causal relationships. There may be a multitude of factors at play, and simultaneous events may be a coincidence.
  • Read your longest sentences out loud. If you can't say them in one breath, you're bound to lose your reader. In fact, it is a good idea to read your entire paper aloud to check it for overall intelligibility.
  • Use primary sources whenever possible.
  • Unless your instructor has given other instructions, cite your references with full-form footnotes. Historians often use obscure sources that can be difficult to track down.

Professors' Comments and Web Sites:

Steven Bensch

Courses taught: HIST 1A/T, 2A, 6, 12, 14, 16

Grammar/spelling and word choice/usage pet peeves:

  • Vague pronoun references, e.g. The French disdained the British because they had injured them.

Allison Dorsey

Courses Taught: HIST 5B, 7 A/B, 15, 53

Expectations different from the provided department discipline:

  • I place less emphasis upon primary sources. Four of the seven courses I teach are introductory courses, and to date I have been limiting students to secondary sources.

Specific content considerations that your students should keep in mind when writing papers:

  • Content has been a problem in seminar papers - many students seem to think the seminar papers are designed to be reviews or synopses of the texts rather than the result of investigation of the topics.

Particular stylistic issues that your students should keep in mind:

  • I remind my students that an expository essay is argument on paper - they must use evidence from their reading to make the case - otherwise the papers become summaries.

Grammar/spelling and word choice/usage pet peeves:

  • Spelling errors that are a result of "spell check" rather than proofreading, i.e. "granite" when they mean "granted." And the standard-allness statements, e.g. "All women have suffered at the hands of men." Do not cite lectures as sources!

Links you can provide to your guidelines for writing or online resources you recommend for students:

  • I have not used online writing guides - instead I strongly recommend Jules Benjamin. I have directed students to online resources for HIST 15 - American West.

Additional comments:

  • Read the question! Understand that the question grows out of the reading. If students have failed to complete one reading, they cannot answer the question.

Robert DuPlessis

Courses Taught: HIST 1U, 2B, 91

Specific content considerations that your students should keep in mind when writing papers:

  • Avoiding unsupported claims and generalizations; failing properly to cite quoted and paraphrased material; confusing summary and description for analysis and evaluation; misunderstanding "critique" as simply criticism of a negative sort; using every manner of unexamined assumption.

Particular stylistic issues that your students should keep in mind:

  • Clear, well conceived topic (thesis) statements
  • Active verbs whenever possible
  • Varied style (avoiding repetitive use of words, phrases, and constructions)
  • Getting to the point (avoiding euphemism, wordiness, and excessively "correct" terminology)

Grammar/spelling and word choice/usage pet peeves:

  • Passive voice, wordiness, use of slang, split infinitives, incorrect word choice (usually betrays failure to consult a dictionary), use of "cute" words, misuse of quotation marks instead of adjectives as a means of emphasis, not knowing proper rules for formatting substantial quotations.

Links you can provide to your guidelines for writing or online resources you recommend for students:

  • I hand them out when relevant or post them on my courses' Blackboard sites.

Additional comments:

  • They should understand (and thus be able to defend) every statement they include in their papers. They should avoid lazy, sloppy writing. Most of all, they should be sure that they have read carefully and understood whatever they write.

Lillian M. Li

Courses taught: HIST 1G, 9B, 78

Links you can provide to your guidelines for writing or online resources you recommend for students:

  • I provide a style sheet for courses on Chinese and Japanese history.

Marjorie Murphy

Courses Taught: HIST 1J, 54,134 A/B

Expectations different from the provided department discipline:

  • I refer you to Peter Novich on the objectivity question. I argue that we guess at the best estimate of what happened.

Specific content considerations that your students should keep in mind when writing papers:

  • Finding convincing evidence, not just any evidence. Reading the documents carefully, understanding the issues.

Particular stylistic issues that your students should keep in mind:

  • Topic sentences
  • Strong verbs
  • Avoid wordiness

Grammar/spelling and word choice/usage pet peeves:

  • Passive voice, e.g. It was amazing that...
  • Wordy constructions

Links you can provide to your guidelines for writing or online resources you recommend for students:

  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • E.B. White, Elements of Style

Additional comments:

  • Have an argument, support it with evidence, and consider the counter-argument.

Bob Weinberg

Courses Taught: HIST 35, 38, 128 A/B

Specific content considerations that your students should keep in mind when writing papers / Particular stylistic issues that your students should keep in mind:

  • Avoid using the passive voice. This is a difficult challenge, but remember that the passive voice undercuts the force of your argument. Writing that "Many bombs were exploded in Chechnya" (passive voice) does not tell the reader who exploded the bombs and ignores the issue of agency in human behavior. History is about people who are active agents in the making of their history. The passive voice overlooks the matter of human responsibility and results in wordy sentences.
  • Spell out all numbers up to ninety-nine, unless you are providing a series of statistics.
  • Italicize the titles of books, journals, newspapers, and films.
  • Avoid the use of too many quotations or stringing together quotations. Remember that I want to learn what you think about the issues, and you should use quotations to develop your argument and analysis.
  • Please remember to paginate.
  • Italicize foreign words upon first usage; use plain text subsequently.
  • Provide a person's first and last name upon first usage. You can then refer to the person by last name subsequently.
  • Please avoid contractions (don't, won't) and abbreviations (i.e., e.g., and etc.) in all formal writing.
  • Please use footnotes, not endnotes.
  • Please provide a complete bibliography.
  • Use capitals after quotation marks unless the quotation is only a phrase or clause.
    President Clinton said to Monica Lewinsky, "Step into the Oval Office."
    Chelsea Clinton recalled President Clinton's suggestion that Lewinsky "step into the Oval Office."
  • Periods go inside the quotation marks, and footnotes go outside.
    President Clinton said to Monica Lewinsky, "Step into the Oval Office."1
  • Indent (left and right) all quotations longer than three lines. All indented quotations begin with capital letters if the cited text forms a complete sentence. If the opening line of an indented quotation is not a complete sentence, use an ellipsis (...) and lower case. Use an ellipsis and period (four dots) to indicate that the end of a sentence in the quotation has been omitted.
  • Most importantly, remember to give yourself time to revise your essay, which means more than checking for spelling mistakes, incomplete sentences and other grammatical infelicities. It entails revisiting your paper in terms of argument, organization, and writing. How is the flow of the argument? Keep asking yourself the following questions: what am I trying to accomplish in this essay and am I succeeding?
  • Successful writing is fifty percent research and thinking and fifty percent revision.
    Believe it or not, I do not know any historians who submit the first version of an essay for publication. I realize that you lack the luxury of time to rewrite you essay over and over again, but I encourage you to allocate your time so you can write a first version of the essay and then let it sit for a day or so before you return to it. This will provide you with the temporal and critical distance needed to re-approach your essay with a fresh mind.
  • Finally, ask a friend to read your paper. Better yet, have a friend read the paper to you out loud.

Appendix

If you find you are still having trouble writing your history paper, please speak to your professor, and feel free to make an appointment at the Writing Center. For further reading, see Richard Marius' A Short Guide to Writing about History, 3rd edition, or Mike Palmquist's The Bedford Researcher.