Writing Historically

For many of us—not just students, instructors too—writing can be difficult. But if your thinking, reading, and researching does not culminate in coherent prose, it is lost. Reading and research are separate activities that must be translated into comprehensible writing if that effort is to build knowledge (or allow you to complete the course and graduate)!  Even good digital productions use a script, as the next section on communicating findings argues. This section on “writing historically” seeks to help you meet that goal of translating your ideas into written form.

Good writing starts with good preparation.  A quick review of the chapters of historical thinking and good habits of research will be helpful.  For example, if you’ve asked good questions, thought carefully about what your sources can and cannot tell you, and narrowed your focus sufficiently, you will find the entire process of writing a paper based upon historical research less daunting.  Look over those chapters and your notes as a means of mapping out your ideas (or brainstorming) as the first chapter of this sections suggests.

If good preparation is important to good writing, so is making sure you do not stop prematurely. History’s unique position as a subject than many non-academics like to read has led historians to place a great deal of value on clear, cogent writing–and that takes time. This chapter provides some guidelines on the standards of historical writing, and you should follow them closely.  Take advantage of any opportunities you have for peer review or first drafts offered in your course. But there’s no substitute for practice and persistence—writing and revising one’s own writing is the really the only way to become a better, more confident writer (another transferable skill). At one point in your career as a student, you likely thought one complete draft was enough. At this point, however, you will find that drafting and revising are central elements of the writing process.  The last chapters in this section concentrate on what to prioritize as you revise—does the introduction still work? Are grammatical errors fixed? Do your citations follow the proper form? Sometimes it will seem like a lot. But by taking one step at a time, you will reach your destination. Cliché, yes.  But also true.


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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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