History Writing Guide
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.