The purpose of this page is to provide students a writing guide, written by their peers, for creating an effective essay in history courses. Effective writing is an essential tool for every discipline, but writing in history has special concerns and methods that are unique to the profession.
What is effective writing? Effective writing is more than strong points and descriptive phrases, though these are important concepts. Beyond that starting point, effective writing for historians can be described as being able to convey a topic or argument that is supported by evidence.
A. What is an introduction?
B. Topic/Lead Sentences
A. What is a conclusion?
B. Why is a conclusion important?
Editing and Proofing
A. Types of Sources
B. Evaluation of Sources
C. Proper Citation
The subject about which you will be writing. An assignment may suggest several different ways to examine a broad topic, or look at a broad topic and leave the details more open to you examination.
ü Think about what the assignment asks you to do.
ü Investigate your topic
ü Focus on one aspect of the topic
ü Consider if that aspect will make for a good paper
ü Try to write on something that interests you.
The First Sentence and Over-Generalization:
DO NOT MAKE OVERLY BROAD GENERALIZATIONS OR STATEMENTS THAT YOU CANNOT PROVE. Good academic writing does not do this and writing such statements is simply a waste of space and time (yours and your professor’s). Especially in the context of history courses it is almost always a bad idea to over-generalize temporally (over time) and spatially because the study of history tends to focus on how the world and its parts change in different ways over time. In fact, throughout your written assignments it is best to avoid sentences that begin with phrases such as: “from the beginning of time,” “throughout history,” “people all over the world,” and “as everybody knows.”
Example of what NOT to write: “All people everywhere from the beginning of time have always loved to
learn about history.”
Makes an argument, states the conclusions you have drawn about your topic. Informs reader about the direction you will be taking with your paper. The thesis should be focused enough to be proven within the scope of your paper
ü State your assertions
ü Summarize the main idea, then list the other main points you wish to include
ü Use all info from points 1 through 3 to write a working thesis, you will revise it later.
o Avoid making your thesis too broad or too narrow. If it is too broad, you will not be able to effectively support it in the length of the paper, too narrow and it will fail to fulfill the assignment.
o Make sure readers can easily identify the thesis statement.
o When writing in response to an assigned prompt, DO NOT just reword the professor’s question. Take your own position.
o Good thesis statements do not merely list points or state facts they express one’s opinion or one’s position on the issue or issues in question.
o Excellent thesis statements show relationships and processes that are of interest and strongly make a point.
Not so good: The United Kingdom
is relatively industrialized, while
Better: British imperialism in
Style and Format
It is important to make sure that there is continuity in your paper; essentially, there needs to be a reason for why you talked about a certain issue where. Having an outline of the points you want to make will give you a great starting point for organizing your paper. Make sure that your paragraphs flow in a logical order (present your points in the order you want your reader to read them) and provide enough information for the reader to understand.
ü The body is the heart of your paper. This is where you discuss your facts, research, and make your argument.
ü Be sure to defend your argument. Do not simply quote, but rephrase and analyze your sources.
ü Re read this section and make sure that your points are arranged in the manner you want.
o Example, if you need to introduce the background of the topic, it should come before you make your argument.
ü Make sure you have transitional sentences between paragraphs
ü Make sure there is a topic/lead sentence for every paragraph
After you have decided how to format your paper, it is important to create the paragraphs that will form that style. In every paragraph you write, there must be a topic, or lead sentence. This sentence will guide the reader on what the paragraph is about.
What is a conclusion?
ü Restate your initial claim (be more specific and complete than in the introduction) -State Practical Application, New Significance, and/or New Research (in any combination.)
ü Bring in new/different ideas (possibly ones that disagree with you) and/or limitations of your argument
ü Possibly suggest further research.
Why is a Conclusion Important?
ü Make sure readers have clear understanding of what paper was trying to say.
ü Insure readers understand importance of paper’s points.
ü Place paper in context
ü Express possible limitations of your paper/research
ü Other Suggestions:
ü Do not use the phrase “In Conclusion…”
ü Don’t overstate findings
ü Don’t just restate the introduction in different words (though you do want to touch on points from the introduction.)
Editing and Proofing
Proof Reading Papers
ü Use computer spell checking and then manual spell check. Remember that a spelling checker won’t catch mistakes with homonyms (“they’re,” “their,” “there”) or certain typos (“it” for “hit”).
ü Work from a printout, not the computer screen. This makes mistakes easier to catch.
ü Read out loud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences, but you’ll also hear other problems that you May not see when reading silently.
Paper Editing Checklist
Definition of a sentence in passive voice: A sentence in which the subject is the thing being acted upon (bread is eaten) and not the person, people, or thing performing an action (I eat bread). With passive sentences inclusion of an actor is optional (bread is eaten OR bread is eaten by me). Because of this passive sentences make it much too easy to neglect or de-emphasize demonstrating responsibility for and the causes and effects of events and processes.
Most of the time write in active, rather than passive, voice. It is clearer and more concise.
Example: (Active Voice): Both Democrat and Republican Senators agreed to the legislation.
· Make sure each word group you have punctuated as a sentence contains a grammatically complete and independent thought that can stand alone as an acceptable sentence.
· Too many equally weighted phrases and clauses produce tiresome sentences.
· Place modifiers near the words they describe; be sure the modified words actually appear in the sentence. (A modifier is a phrase or word meant to describe or explain part of a sentence. In example 1, the phrase before the comma modifies the subject of the main sentence, which is I.)
· Be sure you use grammatically equal sentence elements to express two or more matching ideas or items in a series.
· All pronouns must clearly refer to definite nouns. Use it, they, this, that, these, those, and which carefully to prevent confusion
· Make sure to determine whether the pronoun is being used as a subject, or an object, or a possessive in the sentence, and select the pronoun form to match (ex. “he,” “him,” “himself”).
§ *Use commas to signal nonrestrictive or nonessential material, to prevent confusion, and to indicate relationships among ideas and sentence parts.
§ *Unnecessary commas make sentences difficult to read.
§ *Do not link independent clauses with a comma unless you also use a coordinating conjunction such as and, or, but, for, nor, so, and yet. Otherwise use a period or semicolon, or rewrite the sentence.
· Apostrophes indicate possession for nouns (“Sue’s car” or “several peoples’ jobs) but not for personal pronouns (its, your, their, and whose).
· Apostrophes also indicate omissions in contractions (“it’s” = “it is”).
· In general, they are not used to indicate plurals
· Some pairs that are commonly confused: Effect/Affect, Lead/Led, and Accept/Except
§ *Check a dictionary to find the right choice when encountering such word options to find which one is right for you.
· Spelling errors are often times perceived as a reflection of the writer’s careless attitude toward the whole project.
· It is important to not allow your hard work to be marred in this way
· In addition to comprehensive dictionaries, you may want to use electronic spell checkers, spelling dictionaries and lists of frequently misspelled words found in handbooks.
ü Primary sources are the evidence left behind by participants or observers of a given event or during a particular period of time.
ü Primary sources allow us to make personal connections to the past.
ü Primary sources are the evidence used by historians to support an interpretation of the past.
ü The availability and kinds of primary sources vary with time period and topic.
ü Primary materials also need to be carefully read and interpreted. Some questions to ask include:
o Who created the source and for what original purpose?
o Is the document meant to persuade or inform?
o Was the source originally meant to be private or public?
o When was the source created? Soon after the event, years later?
· Types of primary sources include:
ü Published materials: Books (including memoirs), magazines, newspapers
ü Unpublished materials (these can later be transcribed and published): Diaries, letters, manuscripts
ü Records: Government documents, census data, birth certificates, organizational minutes, business reports
ü Images: Photographs, film, art and posters, advertisements, maps
ü Audio: Oral histories, interviews, recordings
ü Artifacts: Buildings, tombstones, clothing
ü Secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people, usually historians, writing about events sometime after they happened.
ü Secondary sources usually come in the form of books and journal articles.
ü Secondary sources are an analysis of past events and times based on evidence provided by primary sources.
ü Secondary sources are useful to:
o Provide an introduction to a topic.
o Provide historical/broader context for a topic.
o Provide historiographical context for a topic.
o Provide hints on where to find primary evidence.
Analyzing Sources: Primary and Secondary
ü Analyzing primary sources requires the historian to ask questions, visualize possible answers, find factual background data, and put together an analytical response.
ü To evaluate primary sources, explore the following questions:
o Who wrote the text and what is the author's place in society?
o Why do you think the author wrote it? What evidence, within the text tells you why he or she wrote it?
o What is the intended audience of the text? How does the text reveal the intended audience?
o What is the text trying to do? Is the text factual, opinionated, or propaganda?
o Is the author and text credible and reliable?
o How do the ideas and values in the source differ from the ideas and values of today?
ü Analyzing secondary sources requires a critical examination of credibility, reliability, and accuracy of any given source.
ü To evaluate secondary sources, explore the following questions:
o Who is the author? What credentials does the author have that enables him or her to write on the subject?
o What is the reputation of the publisher or the periodical?
o What is the audience of the source? Is it a general or a scholarly source?
o What is the purpose of the source? Is it informative or is it persuasive?
o What primary sources has the historian used? Have they been used effectively?
o Why did the author write the book? Who is the author and what is the context in which she or he wrote the book?
(This Style Guide was prepared by Amanda Arentz, Ashley VonRuden, J. P. Krause, Harley Oemig, Kevin Balk, Corrina Dedrich, Melissa Hoppe, Patrick Leigle, Emily Ness, Kelli Ryan, Ben Wandschneider and Kyler Westerfeldt as a collaborative project in HIS 200: Historiography and Historical Methods – spring semester, 2008; reviewed and revised fall 2012.)