19 Standards of Historical Writing

In this chapter, you will learn the basic expectations for writing an undergrad history research paper. At this point in your college career, you’ve likely had a great deal of instruction about writing and you may be wondering why this chapter is here. There are at least three reasons:

  • For some of you, those lessons about writing came before you were ready to appreciate or implement them. If you know your writing skills are weak, you should not only pay close attention to this chapter, but also submit early drafts of your work to the History Tutoring Center (at UTA) or another writing coach. Only practice and multiple drafts will improve those skills.
  • Those of you who were paying attention in composition courses know the basics, but may lack a good understanding of the format and approach of scholarly writing in history. Other disciplines permit more generalities and relaxed associations than history, which is oriented toward specific contexts and (often, but not always) linear narratives. Moreover, because historians work in a subject often read by non-academics, they place a greater emphasis on clearing up jargon and avoiding convoluted sentence structure. In other words, the standards of historical writing are high and the guidelines that follow will help you reach them.
  • Every writer, no matter how confident or experienced, faces writing blocks. Going back to the fundamental structures and explanations may help you get past the blank screen by supplying prompts to help you get started.

As you read the following guide, keep in mind that it represents only our perspective on the basic standards. In all writing, even history research papers, there is room for stylistic variation and elements of a personal style. But one of the standards of historical writing is that only those who fully understand the rules can break them successfully. If you regularly violate the rule against passive voice verb construction or the need for full subject-predicate sentences, you cannot claim the use of sentence fragments or passive voice verbs is “just your style.” Those who normally observe those grammatical rules, in contrast, might on occasion violate them for effect. The best approach is first to demonstrate to your instructor that you can follow rules of grammar and essay structure before you experiment or stray too far from the advice below.

Introductions

Introductions are nearly impossible to get right the first time. Thus, one of the best strategies for writing an introduction to your history essay is to keep it “bare bones” in the first draft, initially working only toward a version that covers the basic requirements. After you’ve written the full paper (and realized what you’re really trying to say, which usually differs from your initial outline), you can come back to the intro and re-draft it accordingly. However, don’t use the likelihood of re-writing your first draft to avoid writing one. Introductions provide templates not only for your readers, but also for you, the writer. A decent “bare bones” introduction can minimize writer’s block as a well-written thesis statement provides a road map for each section of the paper.

So what are the basic requirements? In an introduction, you must:

  • Pose a worthwhile question or problem that engages your reader
  • Establish that your sources are appropriate for answering the question, and thus that you are a trustworthy guide without unfair biases
  • Convince your reader that they will be able to follow your explanation by laying out a clear thesis statement.

Engaging readers in an introduction

When you initiated your research, you asked questions as a part of the process of narrowing your topic (see the “Choosing and Narrowing a Topic” chapter for more info). If all went according to plan, the information you found as you evaluated your primary sources allowed you to narrow your question further, as well as arrive at a plausible answer, or explanation for the problem you posed. (If it didn’t, you’ll need to repeat the process, and either vary your questions or expand your sources. Consult your instructor, who can help identify what contribution your research into a set of primary sources can achieve.) The key task for your introduction is to frame your narrowed research question—or, in the words of some composition instructors, the previously assumed truth that your inquiries have destabilized—in a way that captures the attention of your readers. Common approaches to engaging readers include:

  • Telling a short story (or vignette) from your research that illustrates the tension between what readers might have assumed before reading your paper and what you have found to be plausible instead.
  • Stating directly what others believe to be true about your topic—perhaps using a quote from a scholar of the subject—and then pointing immediately to an aspect of your research that puts that earlier explanation into doubt.
  • Revealing your most unexpected finding, before moving to explain the source that leads you to make the claim, then turning to the ways in which this finding expands our understanding of your topic.

What you do NOT want to do is begin with a far-reaching transhistorical claim about human nature or an open-ended rhetorical question about the nature of history. Grand and thus unprovable claims about “what history tells us” do not inspire confidence in readers. Moreover, such broadly focused beginnings require too much “drilling down” to get to your specific area of inquiry, words that risk losing readers’ interest. Last, beginning with generic ideas is not common to the discipline. Typical essay structures in history do not start broadly and steadily narrow over the course of the essay, like a giant inverted triangle. If thinking in terms of a geometric shape helps you to conceptualize what a good introduction does, think of your introduction as the top tip of a diamond instead. In analytical essays based on research, many history scholars begin with the specific circumstances that need explaining, then broaden out into the larger implications of their findings, before returning to the specifics in their conclusions—following the shape of a diamond.

Clear Thesis Statements

Under the standards of good scholarly writing in the United States—and thus those that should guide your paper—your introduction contains the main argument you will make in your essay. Elsewhere—most commonly in European texts—scholars sometimes build to their argument and reveal it fully only in the conclusion. Do not follow this custom in your essay. Include a well-written thesis statement somewhere in your introduction; it can be the first sentence of your essay, toward the end of the first paragraph, or even a page or so in, should you begin by setting the stage with a vignette. Wherever you place it, make sure your thesis statement meets the following standards:

A good thesis statement:

  • Could be debated by informed scholars: Your claim should not be so obvious as to be logically impossible to argue against. Avoid the history equivalent of “the sky was blue.”
  • Can be proven with the evidence at hand: In the allotted number of pages, you will need to introduce and explain at least three ways in which you can support your claim, each built on its own pieces of evidence. Making an argument about the role of weather on the outcome of the Civil War might be intriguing, given that such a claim questions conventional explanations for the Union’s victory. But a great deal of weather occurred in four years and Civil War scholars have established many other arguments you would need to counter, making such an argument impossible to establish in the length of even a long research paper. But narrowing the claim—to a specific battle or from a single viewpoint—could make such an argument tenable. Often in student history papers, the thesis incorporates the main primary source into the argument. For example, “As his journal and published correspondence between 1861 and 1864 reveal, Colonel Mustard believed that a few timely shifts in Tennessee’s weather could have altered the outcome of the war.”
  • Is specific without being insignificant: Along with avoiding the obvious, stay away from the arcane. “Between 1861 and 1864, January proved to be the worst month for weather in Central Tennessee.” Though this statement about the past is debatable and possible to support with evidence about horrible weather in January and milder-by-comparison weather in other months, it lacks import because it’s not connected to knowledge that concerns historians. Thesis statements should either explicitly or implicitly speak to current historical knowledge—which they can do by refining, reinforcing, nuancing, or expanding what (an)other scholar(s) wrote about a critical event or person.
  • Provides a “roadmap” to readers: Rather than just state your main argument, considering outlining the key aspects of it, each of which will form a main section of the body of the paper. When you echo these points in transitions between sections, readers will realize they’ve completed one aspect of your argument and are beginning a new part of it. To demonstrate this practice by continuing the fictional Colonel Mustard example above: “As his journal and published correspondence between 1861 and 1864 reveals, Colonel Mustard believed that Tennessee’s weather was critical to the outcome of the Civil War. He linked both winter storms and spring floods in Tennessee to the outcome of key battles and highlighted the weather’s role in tardy supply transport in the critical year of 1863.” Such a thesis cues the reader that evidence and explanations about 1) winter storms; 2) spring floods; and 3) weather-slowed supply transport that will form the main elements of the essay.

Thesis Statement Practice

More Thesis Statement Practice

 

The Body of the Paper

What makes a good paragraph?

While an engaging introduction and solid conclusion are important, the key to drafting a good essay is to write good paragraphs. That probably seems obvious, but too many students treat paragraphs as just a collection of a few sentences without considering the logic and rules that make a good paragraph. In essence, in a research paper such as the type required in a history course, for each paragraph you should follow the same rules as the paper itself. That is, a good paragraph has a topic sentence, evidence that builds to make a point, and a conclusion that ties the point to the larger argument of the paper. On one hand, given that it has so much work to do, paragraphs are three sentences, at a minimum. On the other hand, because paragraphs should be focused to making a single point, they are seldom more than six to seven sentences. Though rules about number of sentences are not hard and fast, keeping the guidelines in mind can help you construct tightly focused paragraphs in which your evidence is fully explained.

Topic sentences

The first sentence of every paragraph in a research paper (or very occasionally the second) should state a claim that you will defend in the paragraph. Every sentence in the paragraph should contribute to that topic. If you read back over your paragraph and find that you have included several different ideas, the paragraph lacks focus. Go back, figure out the job that this paragraph needs to do—showing why an individual is important, establishing that many accept an argument that you plan on countering, explaining why a particular primary source can help answer your research question, etc. Then rework your topic sentence until it correctly frames the point you need to make. Next, cut out (and likely move) the sentences that don’t contribute to that outcome. The sentences you removed may well help you construct the next paragraph, as they could be important ideas, just not ones that fit with the topic of the current paragraph. Every sentence needs to be located in a paragraph with a topic sentence that alerts the reader about what’s to come.

Transitions/Bridges/Conclusion sentences in paragraphs

All good writers help their readers by including transition sentences or phrases in their paragraphs, often either at the paragraph’s end or as an initial phrase in the topic sentence. A transition sentence can either connect two sections of the paper or provide a bridge from one paragraph to the next. These sentences clarify how the evidence discussed in the paragraph ties into the thesis of the paper and help readers follow the argument. Such a sentence is characterized by a clause that summarizes the info above, and points toward the agenda of the next paragraph. For example, if the current section of your paper focused on the negative aspects of your subject’s early career, but your thesis maintains he was a late-developing military genius, a transition between part one (on the negative early career) and part two (discussing your first piece of evidence revealing genius) might note that “These initial disastrous strategies were not a good predictor of General Smith’s mature years, however, as his 1841 experience reveals.” Such a sentence underscores for the reader what has just been argued (General Smith had a rough start) and sets up what’s to come (1841 was a critical turning point).

Explaining Evidence

Just as transitional sentences re-state points already made for clarity’s sake, “stitching” phrases or sentences that set-up and/or follow quotations from sources provide a certain amount of repetition. Re-stating significant points of analysis using different terms is one way you explain your evidence. Another way is by never allowing a quote from a source to stand on its own, as though its meaning was self-evident. It isn’t and indeed, what you, the writer, believes to be obvious seldom is. When in doubt, explain more.

For more about when to use a quotation and how to set it up see “How to quote” in the next section on Notes and Quotation.”

Conclusions

There exists one basic rule for conclusions: Summarize the paper you have written. Do not introduce new ideas, launch briefly into a second essay based on a different thesis, or claim a larger implication based on research not yet completed. This final paragraph is NOT a chance to comment on “what history tells us” or other lessons for humankind. Your conclusion should rest, more or less, on your thesis, albeit using different language from the introduction and evolved, or enriched, by examples discussed throughout the paper. Keep your conclusion relevant and short, and you’ll be fine.

For a checklist of things you need before you write or a rubric to evaluate your writing click here

Writing Practice Quiz

 

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How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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