A good historian does not adopt a thesis until quite late on in the process of preparing a paper. First, find good questions to ask yourself, questions that deserve and actually call for an answer, real world questions even if the paper is about a remote period of the past. Only at the almost-final stage of preparation will you know at last more or less exactly what you want to argue, what your line of argument (thesis if you will) is to be. You can then make sure that we readers know too, by signalling to us both questions and thesis in the introduction.
In the body of the paper, argue your case for your answers to the questions you have set youself. Do not write a simple narrative, or just tell a story, or try to include everything (no matter how little) you know about a subject.
Of course, in making your argument, you will need to give examples that support the thesis, and these examples may well include narrative. But you should try to persuade the reader of the validity of your argument. So aim to write an analytical paper in which you discuss the thesis, and then draw a conclusion for the preceding debate. By the end the reader should be able to state your point of view clearly, and to summarize the evidence of which you base that argument.
Take a position; don't waffle. Say what you think, and why. In history, although certain facts are indisputable, there are few "right" or "wrong" answers; usually it is a matter of a "good", i.e. persuasive, argument, or a "bad" one, i.e. an unpersuasive, poorly planned one.
A research paper requires research, i.e. finding the relevant primary sources, secondary literature, etc, and evaluating all this material. Skim through the secondary sources and see what general lines of argument develop that relate to your topic.
- Consult one of them for broad suggestions on manageability of the topic, which directions might be most promising, etc.
- Ask for pointers on bibliography.
- Come to Office Hours ahead of deadlines!
After you have done your research, plan in advance what line of argument you will take. Depending on the complexity of your subject and on your own study habits, the outline may be anything from a broad general guide to a very detailed plan. The outline should enable you to check easily on the development of the argument, and to re-order it in the most effective, logical order.
An outline will also help you gauge your time. Start working on the paper well in advance of the due date. It is highly recommended that you meet the specified due date. Notify your instructor as soon as possible if it seems that, for some legitimate reason, you may need an extension. A paper simply turned in late, without prior negotiation, will usually draw a penalty
You may need to go through multiple plans before writing the paper, to clarify your questions and their ordering (crucial) and to gradually sort out the argument with which you bring together the different questions you have set yourself. .
Choose a title which suggests a question or debate you will address. Print it at the top of the first page, and on the cover sheet. Bear it in mind while you are writing the paper. Don't let yourself stray from the subject as you have framed it. Subtle suggestion: If you have something nifty you badly want to include, you should arrange the initial presentation (title and introduction) to make it relevant -- Right from the start.
Start strongly. This is where you manage (or fail) to capture interest and thereby improve your grade. Usually the first paragraph should introduce the argument. Sometimes a short opening paragraph is also needed to set the historical context.
Marshall evidence to support your thesis. This does not mean that you simply pile up facts. If others take different lines of argument on your topic, indicate why you agree or disagree with them.
Finish with a bang not a whimper. Summarize the debate neatly in a paragraph or two. Save a point of interest to end on -- a comment on the significance of the subject, what is original about your argument, etc. The conclusion should reinforce, in the reader's mind, the persuasiveness of your whole argument.
Write in clear, concise English. Use the least number of words possible to make your point.
- Always write in the past tense: this is, after all, history. The events have occurred already and should be treated as such. Do not use colloquial or abbreviated English.
- Complex points of debate or material which is necessary for background but somewhat tangential to your thesis can often be treated in footnotes, so as not to interfere with your main argument.
- Short sentences are often easier to control. This helps you to make your points clearly and forcefully. Frequent paragraph divisions may also help to maintain interest and to separate thoughts from each other. How you handle sentence and paragraph divisions is naturally a matter of taste. But keeping things short will usually at least ensure that your points come over clearly, your first responsibility. You can go after elegance at a later stage.
- A couple of minor points for medieval history papers.
Each paragraph should contain one major point with advances your argument. Use about 3 or 4 paragraphs to a page. Don't write the paper as a "stream of consciousness" with the stages of the argument undifferentiated.
Keep all quotes short: I am more interested in what you have to say than in anyone else's words. All quotes must fit smoothly into the text. Any quotation longer than 3 lines should be indented and single-spaced. Acknowledge the source of all direct quotations in a footnote -- author, work, page etc.
Use either footnotes or endnotes, but not both! A first reference (even to a textbook) should contain certain details.
- For the correct format, see Footnote 1. Abbreviate subsequent references as in Footnote 2. Use "Ibid." only where the context is absolutely clear. If you need more than this (which you do not, in my classes), check out one of the standard guides for the M.L.A. Rules or the Chicago Style.
- It does not (in my opinion) matter much which set of conventions you use; it matters a good deal that you follow your chosen set carefully and stay consistent. Try and ensure that you spell the authors and titles correctly. Copying errors of this kind scream out the message that you are so slapdash that sensible people do not need to listen carefully to what you say!
- For citations of material on the : Give the full URL,
But always date your citation. Websites are much less stable than publicly printed books and articles. They change as their "authors" develop them. Sometimes they disappear. (The Falcon server through whose good graces you read this crashed over the summer, and was not backed up! so the same URL someone keyed in last Spring may bring him the same now, or something very different, or nothing at all where I have yet to replace the files! "Falcon" is after all just one more box under a desk in a campus office.) Always consider too how far and why you should trust the information offered, just as you would a book or a con artist. See further below under "Source Criticism".
Once you have written the paper, read it through again. And again.
- Read it aloud! You may be surprised to discover that your ear catches infelicities, such as simple grammatical errors, that "look" fine on paper, and so escape your eyes. You will also be so pleased when it sounds good, euphonious, persuasive, clear.
- Get someone else to read it. Does it flow easily? Does it make sense? Can they follow your argument?
- Please, please proof your work carefully. Check your spelling. Remember that Spell-Checker software will not tell you if you are usiong a word correctly or in the right place, only that it exists in its dictionary. Have both a Dictionary and a Thesaurus of your ownto hand. If certain phrases are repeated often enough to seem boring, seek out accurate synonyms in the Thesaurus.
- Vary your sentence structure from the usual Subject-Verb-Object, to make your paper more effective and to stimulate your reader's interest. (Variations in sentence structure can effectively indicate the relative importance of certain parts of your argument, too.)
Provide a cover sheet with the course number and title, as well as your name and the date. Number the pages and staple them together. You are expected to include an accurate bibliography in one of the accepted formats at the end. (Accurate: It looks bad to mispell the title of a book you have used all the time!)
Everybody has his and her own favorites. My suggestions should not put you off those of others.
- Many students in my former life found that Tony Buzan, Use Your Head (BBC Books: London, 1982) helped them to organize their notes (ie thoughts) on the sources they read.
- No work on Source Criticism (see below) matches Mary McCarthy's autobiographical Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New York 1946) for enjoyment.
- If you are really serious about improving your ability to write persuasively, The Broadview Book of Common Errors in English, ed. Don Le Pan (Peterborough, Ont., 1988) is much more helpful than the usual books.
- John Whale, Put it in Writing (J.M. Dent: London, 1984) advises on style with lively (if British) illustrations.
1. Paul R. Hyams, King Lords and Peasants in Medieval England: The Common Law of Villeinage in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1980); Idem, "The Strange Story of Thomas of Elderfield", History Today (1986), 9-15.
2. Idem, King Lords and Peasants, pp. 5-15 and cap. 4.
1. How do I pick a topic?
2. But I can't find any material...
3. Help! How do I put this together? Research Guide and Writing Guide
See also Robert Pearce's How to Write a Good History Essay
1. How do I pick a topic?
Picking a topic is perhaps the most important step in writing a research paper. To do it well requires several steps of refinement. First you have to determine a general area in which you have an interest (if you aren't interested, your readers won't be either). You do not write a paper "about the Civil War," however, for that is such a large and vague concept that the paper will be too shallow or you will be swamped with information. The next step is to narrow your topic. Are you interested in comparison? battles? social change? politics? causes? biography? Once you reach this stage try to formulate your research topic as a question. For example, suppose that you decide to write a paper on the use of the films of the 1930's and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression. You might turn that into the following question: "What are the primary values expressed in films of the 1930's?" Or you might ask a quite different question, "What is the standard of living portrayed in films of the 1930's?" There are other questions, of course, which you could have asked, but these two clearly illustrate how different two papers on the same general subject might be. By asking yourself a question as a means of starting research on a topic you will help yourself find the answers. You also open the door to loading the evidence one way or another. It will help you decide what kinds of evidence might be pertinent to your question, and it can also twist perceptions of a topic. For example, if you ask a question about economics as motivation, you are not likely to learn much about ideals, and vice versa.
2. But I can't find any material...
No one should pick a topic without trying to figure out how one could discover pertinent information, nor should anyone settle on a topic before getting some background information about the general area. These two checks should make sure your paper is in the realm of the possible. The trick of good research is detective work and imaginative thinking on how one can find information. First try to figure out what kinds of things you should know about a topic to answer your research question. Are there statistics? Do you need personal letters? What background information should be included? Then if you do not know how to find that particular kind of information, ASK. A reference librarian or professor is much more likely to be able to steer you to the right sources if you can ask a specific question such as "Where can I find statistics on the number of interracial marriages?" than if you say "What can you find on racial attitudes?"
Use the footnotes and bibliographies of general background books as well as reference aids to lead you to special studies. If Carleton does not have the books or sources you need, try ordering through the library minitex. Many sources are also available on-line.
As your research paper takes shape you will find that you need background on people, places, events, etc. Do not just rely on some general survey for all of your background. Check the several good dictionaries of biography for background on people, or see if there is a standard book-length biography. If you are dealing with a legal matter check into the background of the judges who make the court decision and the circumstances surrounding the original incident or law. Try looking for public opinions in newspapers of the time. In other words, each bit of information you find should open the possibility of other research paths.
Learn to use several research techniques. You cannot count on a good research paper coming from browsing on one shelf at the library. A really pertinent book may be hidden in another section of the library due to classification quirks. The Readers' Guide (Ref. A13 .R4) is not the only source for magazine articles, nor the card catalog for books. There are whole books which are listings of other books on particular topics. There are specialized indexes of magazine articles. Modern History Journals are indexed in the Social Studies and Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .R282) before 1976 After 1976 use the Social Sciences Index (REF A13 .S62) and the Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .H85). See also Historical Abstracts (Ref. D1 .H5). Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves. It also pays to browse the Internet.
3. Help! How do I put this together?
A. Research Guide
B. Writing Guide
A. Preliminary Research:
If you do not already have a general background on your topic, get the most recent good general source on the topic and read it for general orientation. On the basis of that reading formulate as clearly focused question as you can. You should generally discuss with your professor at that point whether your question is a feasible one.
B. Building a Basic Bibliography:
Use the bibliography/notes in your first general source, MUSE, and especially Historical Abstracts on cd-rom in the Library Reading Room (the computer farthest to the left in the front row as you walk past the Reference Desk - or ask there). If there is a specialized bibliography on your topic, you will certainly want to consult that as well, but these are often a bit dated.
C. Building a Full Bibliography:
Read the recent articles or chapters that seem to focus on your topic best. This will allow you to focus your research question quite a bit. Use the sources cited and/or discussed in this reading to build a full bibliography. Use such tools as Historical Abstracts (or, depending on your topic, the abstracts from a different field) and a large, convenient computer-based national library catalog (e.g. the University of California system from the "Libs" command in your VAX account or the smaller University of Minnesota library through MUSE) to check out your sources fully. For specific article searches "Uncover" (press returns for the "open access") or possibly (less likely for history) "First Search" through "Connect to Other Resources" in MUSE can also be useful.
D. Major Research:
Now do the bulk of your research. But do not overdo it. Do not fall into the trap of reading and reading to avoid getting started on the writing. After you have the bulk of information you might need, start writing. You can fill in the smaller gaps of your research more effectively later.
Write a preliminary thesis statement, expressing what you believe your major argument(s) will be. Sketch out a broad outline that indicates the structure - main points and subpoints or your argument as it seems at this time. Do not get too detailed at this point.
B. The First Draft:
On the basis of this thesis statement and outline, start writing, even pieces, as soon as you have enough information to start. Do not wait until you have filled all the research gaps. Keep on writing. If you run into smaller research questions just mark the text with a searchable symbol. It is important that you try to get to the end point of this writing as soon as possible, even if you leave pieces still in outline form at first and then fill the gaps after you get to the end.
Critical advice for larger papers:
It is often more effective not to start at the point where the beginning of your paper will be. Especially the introductory paragraph is often best left until later, when you feel ready and inspired.
C. The Second Draft:
The "second draft" is a fully re-thought and rewritten version of your paper. It is at the heart of the writing process.
First, lay your first draft aside for a day or so to gain distance from it. After that break, read it over with a critical eye as you would somebody else's paper (well, almost!). You will probably find that your first draft is still quite descriptive, rather than argumentative. It is likely to wander; your perspective and usually even the thesis seemed to change/develop as you wrote. Don't despair. That is perfectly normal even for experienced writers (even after 40 years and a good deal of published work!). You will be frustrated. But keep questioning your paper along the following lines: What precisely are my key questions? What parts of my evidence here are really pertinent to those questions (that is, does it help me answer them)? How or in what order can I structure my paper most effectively to answer those questions most clearly and efficiently for my reader?
At this point you must outline your paper freshly. Mark up your first draft, ask tough questions whether your argument is clear and whether the order in which you present your points is effective! You must write conceptually a new paper at this point, even if you can use paragraphs and especially quotes, factual data in the new draft.
It is critical that in your new draft your paragraphs start with topic sentences that identify the argument you will be making in the particular paragraph (sometimes this can be strings of two or three paragraphs). The individual steps in your argument must be clearly reflected in the topic sentences of your paragraphs (or a couple of them linked).
D. The Third or Final Draft:
You are now ready to check for basic rules of good writing. This is when you need to check the diction, that is, the accuracy and suitability of words. Eliminate unnecessary passive or awkward noun constructions (active-voice, verbal constructions are usually more effective); improve the flow of your transitions; avoid repetitions or split infinitives; correct apostrophes in possessives and such. Make the style clear and smooth. Check that the start of your paper is interesting for the reader. Last but not least, cut out unnecessary verbiage and wordiness. Spell-check and proof-read.
--Diethelm Prowe, 1998