How to Write a Good History Paper

The following guide is intended for use in History courses taught by Professors Adamson, Allitt, Burns, Davis, Harbutt, Harris, Mann, Melton, Miller, Odem, Patterson, Payne, Prude, Ravina, and Socolow.

Part I: Reading assignments:

Effective reading lays the foundation for effective writing. To read most effectively:

1). Read the preface or introduction, if the assigned work has one, to learn the author's purpose and objective.

 2). After you have finished each chapter, write a summary of the author's most important points or conclusions.

 3). Try to identify the author's point of view or bias. What kinds of evidence does he or she employ to support the arguments?

Part II: Writinq Essays:
Consider these twelve points before writing an essay, and check your draft against them before writing the final version. Your professor will provide additional information for specific assignments.


1). Write your essay as if it were going to be read by someone who knew less about the subject than you do.

 2). Your first paragraph must have a clear thesis statement which explicitly states your argument. Explain here both what the thesis of your essay is and how you will substantiate it.

 3). Make sure that every subsequent paragraph expands and clarifies the thesis stated in your introductory paragraph. Support your generalizations with specific historical evidence.

 4). All essays must have a clear organizing principle. Effective ways to organize them include (1) chronological organization, (2) thematic organization, (3) organization by geographical region (4) organization by social group, etc. Whichever organizational principle you choose, use references to dates and time periods to structure and clarify your arguments.

 5). In your concluding paragraph, briefly recapitulate your argument and then indicate its wider historical significance.

Editing and style:

Write in the past tense when describing events which occurred in the past. For example: "Lincoln delivered [not ``delivers,'] the Gettysburg Address in 1863."

 2). Use verbs that are in the active (not the passive) voice, so that the reader knows who or what is causing action to occur. For example, write that: "Both the Russians and the Germans invaded Poland" (active voice--tells the reader who did the invading). Do not write: "Poland was invaded', (passive voice-does not tell the reader who invaded).

 3). Separate your voice from the voices of the persons whose experiences or arguments you are analyzing, even when you agree with their arguments. For example, write that: "The Continental Congress declared that the Creator required men to obey his laws. It added that it was justified in declaring independence from the King because he had violated these laws." Do not write: `'The Continental Congress declared that our Creator requires men to obey his laws. The King has clearly violated these laws and thus the Congress's declaration of independence is justified."

 4). To increase the clarity and specificity of your sentences, always follow the words "this" and "these" with a noun. For example, after a statement such as "The stock market dropped 1,000 points," write "This decline increased the bankruptcy rate" not "This increased the bankruptcy rate."

 5). Edit your first draft carefully for content, clarity, and style. Reading your draft aloud to a critical friend who is not taking the class is the best way to identify errors and obscure passages. You must spell-check your essay, but you must also proofread it, as a computer will not catch all errors of style and substance. A few common and notorious errors include:  

References to Sources and Plagiarism:

Your professor will provide guidelines for the use of footnotes, bibliographies, and parenthetical references. In addition, you should note the two general points below:

 1). Quoting from historians or from historical characters can help you to illustrate your arguments, but you must make sure that your own voice dominates your essay. Avoid long block quotations when possible, especially in short papers. Never string two or more quotes together without intervening analysis of commentary in your own words.

 2). A writer's facts, ideas, and phraseology should be regarded as his or her property. Any person who uses a writer's ideas or phraseology without giving due credit is guilty of plagiarism.

Information may be put into a paper without a footnote or an alternative kind of documentation (such as a parenthetical reference) only if it meets the following conditions: (1) it may be found in several books on the subject; (2) it is written entirely in the words of the student; (3) it is not paraphrased from any particular source; (4) it therefore belongs to common knowledge.

Generally, if you write while looking at a source or while looking at notes taken from a source, a footnote or reference should be given. We encourage students to explore, appreciate, and use the ideas of others, but we expect proper attribution of those ideas. Even when describing the arguments or opinions of others entirely in your own words, you must give credit to the original author. For example, we do not require students to invent original theories of human behavior; referencing the ideas of Freud or Marx is thus often appropriate.

All direct citations must be enclosed in quotation marks or indicated by appearing as a block quotation (see the Kerber quotation below for a block quotation). Brief phrases and even key words that are used as they appear in a source should be in quotation marks (see the next paragraph for paraphrasing).

Paraphrasing is the expression of another writer's words and ideas. As the Practical English Handbook (3rd ed. Boston, 1970, p. 245) notes, a paraphrase "preserves the sense" but not the form of the source. A paraphrase does not just replace some words with synonyms or change the sentence pattern; it briefly restates the original document's core meaning in your own words.

A primary source is a document or artifact written or created during the period you wish to study. Secondary works are books or articles written after the fact. For example, the Declaration of Independence is a primary source, while Carl Becker's study of that document, The Declaration of Independence (1960), is a secondary source.

Some Examples:

In reading Linda Kerber's Women of the Republic (New York, 1980), you come across the following sentences on page 23: Rousseau is well known for his sharp criticism of contemporary society and his vision of radical social change. His statements about women, however, usually reinforced the existing order....Rousseau's conservatism about women may well have served to make his radical comments about men's behavior more palatable. Quotation: Kerber questioned Rousseau's reputation as a social critic, noting that his "statements about women...usually reinforced the existing order." (23)

Kerber questioned Rousseau's reputation as a social critic, noting that he always endorsed conventional views of women's roles. (23)

No need to cite:
Rousseau was a prominent Enlightenment philosopher.

Rousseau was a prominent Enlightenment philosopher whose statements about women usually reinforced the existing order.

Rousseau is generally perceived to have been a radical social thinker. Yet his conservatism about women may well have served to make his radical comments about men's behavior more palatable.

Note: rearranging the order of a sentence's components or using a thesaurus to substitute for words within it is still plagiarism, as is the failure to use quotation marks for quotations.