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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).

Purpose

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?

Elements

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.

Thesis

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.

Historical Writing

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.

Practical Notes

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

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