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.
In the UCL History Department, we’ve been trying to work out how best to support the often difficult transition from school to university study. We’ve come up with (what I think is) an exciting new curriculum which is being introduced for new first years in September. I’ll be convening one of the new first year courses, Writing History. Its aim is to help students reflect on how to write in an effective way. With the help of some colleagues, I’ve just put together some advice on how to write a good essay. This is the sort of thing I say:
Tutors always claim to know when they see a well-structured essay, but you are not alone if you find the term confusing. You probably understand that an essay needs to begin with an introduction (‘what the essay is about’), should then build a logical argument and end with a conclusion, but that basic framework only gets you so far. You need to recognize that different essays (and different tutors, courses, and types of history) lend themselves to different approaches. So there is no one-size-fits-all approach that you can adopt. It may help to think about essay writing in a metaphorical way – as like constructing a building (which can be ornamental or purely functional), or drawing a map to get from A to B.
·Always begin with the question. The question should give you a steer towards what kind of structure will work best. Is it asking you to compare two things, to describe and account for change over time, to explain why something was at is was? Each of these approaches may require a different structure.
·Try talking through your ideas before finalizing your essay. Either talk to a friend, or just an imaginary friend.
·If you have difficulty working out how to structure an essay try writing out a dozen or so key sentences, embodying the development of the argument in its barest form. These sentences may well form the first sentences of each of your paragraphs. This ‘key sentence’ approach can also be useful when you’ve written your essay to test whether or not you have a successful structure: try reading only the first sentences of all your paragraphs in sequence. They should all logically build on each other.
In practice argument is sometimes hard to separate from structure. A good structure will support a good argument. But the important point to make very clear is that while tutors will mean different things by ‘argument’, none of them mean ‘argumentative’. We are not asking you to write a polemic. By argument, we mean a well-supported and thoughtful analysis. It doesn’t have to ‘come down on one side or the other’. In fact, most often, given the complexity of life, a good argument will offer a nuanced line that rejects any simplicity. At the top end of the mark range we’re looking for arguments that display what we call ‘intellectual independence’, which basically means you’re showing in your writing that you’re working this out for yourself, not just parroting what someone else has to say. The key thing to remember is that you don’t use a History essay to tell a story for the sake of it. Knowing stuff is essential, but it’s what you do with it that counts. We want to know what you think about historical problems.
·Make sure you ‘hit the ground running’ in your first sentence. Avoid preambles that set the scene. When you’ve finished your essay go back to your first sentence and read it. If you deleted it, would the essay still make sense? If so, delete it. (You may need to do the same for the whole first paragraph if you have a tendency to take a while before you really engage with the question.)
·Remember the basic rules about sentences and paragraphs. Each sentence should contain one idea; each paragraph should make one point. (You can break these rules if you like, but make sure you don’t do so at the expense of clarity).
·A few well chosen examples are a more effective way of making your point than a clutter of detail.
·If you have trouble formulating a thought on paper, it may be because you’re trying to express two or three ideas at once. Try breaking it up into several sentences instead.
·One way of thinking about argument is to imagine a conversation you might have with someone who asks you why you came to study to History at UCL. One possible way of answering would be to tell your life story, from the moment you first read a Horrible History to your inspiring teacher in Year 6, through to when you couldn’t decide whether to apply for English or History in Year 12, the terrible interview you had at Oxford at so on. This could take some time. An alternative answer would be to say something like ‘I guess there are five main reasons, some positive things, some accidental, but the one that’s most important is…’ The second approach may make you seem a rather odd, nerdy person. But on paper it constitutes something like what we mean by ‘argument’.
This is a term that can sometimes strike fear – or at least confusion – into first year students. You may find that your tutors assume you know what it means when in fact you’ve never come across it before. As with all these terms, it can, in practice, have a variety of meanings, but in terms of essay feedback it usually simply means ‘how well has this student engaged with the works of the historians she’s read?’ We do not want you to ‘name-check’ historians just for the sake of it. Think of this as being about ‘showing your working’. If you are answering a question like ‘What were the causes of the Wars of the Roses’ in the context of a first year survey course, you are really answering the question ‘What, based on your understanding of the reading you’ve done and the lectures you’ve been to, were the causes of the Wars of the Roses?’ You weren’t there at the time, and nor have you examined the primary sources. So the only way you can answer the question is by drawing on what we call secondary sources, or ‘historiography’ – books and articles by historians. So historiography is not something additional that you have to shoe-horn into your argument; you’ve read the books, just show us that you’ve done so, by making clear where you’ve got your ideas from. That’s it, really.
Quality of Writing
One of the authors of The Elements of Style wrote:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outlines, but that every word tell.
This is good advice. All good writing is clear. You can make a complex argument in a clear way; clarity is not the same as simplicity.
·Don’t try and sound clever for the sake of it. Don’t use complex phrases that you wouldn’t use in real life because you think that when you’re writing you need to write in a different way.
·Imagine that you’re writing for an intelligent Great Aunt who never went to university. She’s really interested in understanding what you have to say and has a general background of knowledge and is certainly highly literate. But you’ll need to make your case clearly.
·Don’t be afraid of ‘I’. This is your essay. We want to hear your voice. Too often, academic writing is sterile and dull to read because the writer has ‘hidden’ behind careful circumlocutions, guarding themselves against anticipated criticism. Pick up most history books and compare the style of writing in the Preface with the rest of the text. 9 times out of 10 you’ll find that the Preface is much fresher and clearer because it is there that the author explains how she came to write the book and what she was setting out to do. Then, somehow, an academic shadow falls and the rest of book could almost be written by a different person. How much better to be brave and clear and fresh from the beginning to the end.