Personal tools
You are here: Home > Student Information > History Style Guide > Part 1: Kinds of History Assignments

Part 1: Kinds of History Assignments

Book Reviews

The purpose of a book review is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a particular book. It is different from a book report, which simply summarizes the content of a book. In a book review, you also report on the content of the book, in addition to explaining to your readers what you found to be its most valuable contributions or shortcomings. (Preferably you can do this without resorting to the first person [“I”]. Since readers assume that as a reviewer you are expressing your own opinions, it is unnecessary to preface your statements with “I think,” or “in my opinion...”)

To understand your own reaction to a history book, you must first read it carefully and critically. As a critical reader, you should ask questions of the book and note your reactions to it as you read. Your book review should then discuss those questions and reactions.

A standard structure for a book review includes:

  • relating the author’s main point – or thesis – at the beginning.
  • describing the author’s viewpoint and purpose for writing the book, noting any aspects of the author’s background that are important for understanding his or her perspective.
  • noting the most important evidence the author presents to support his or her thesis and evaluating its persuasiveness.
  • concluding with a final evaluation of the book, possibly discussing who would find this book useful and why.

Maintain the same attention to structure and grammar that you would in any history paper – i.e. your review must have an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. Your introduction should discuss your thesis, and the conclusion should summarize your argument. The body should develop your thoughts and support your thesis with specific examples from the text.


Book Review Dos

Tell the reader which book you are reviewing

Place the complete publication data at the top of the review: author, title, edition (if applicable), place of publication, publisher, date of publication.

Determine the thesis of the book

What is the major thesis, or argument, the book makes?
What is the author trying to prove?
Are there any more “narrow” sub-arguments that support the overall thesis?

Determine the book’s evidence

What evidence does the author use?
On what sources and secondary literature is the book based? How are they used?

Analyze the book critically

What are its strengths and weaknesses?
What was good about it?
Be fair to the book and its author(s), but be honest to yourself as well. If you feel that the book is biased, say so and why. The reader of the review wants to know whether the book is worth reading!

Read Book reviews before you write your own

Consult published book reviews in academic journals, such as the American Historical Review or the Journal of Modern History. Other sources for book reviews are the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books.

Think about history and politics

History writing can be, and has been, highly political and partisan. In many cases, a history book has “an axe to grind.” Can you detect one in the book you are reviewing?

Use direct quotations sparingly

One or two quotations should suffice to emphasize a particular point, or argument you are making in your review

Familiarize yourself with the University’s plagiarism policies

Ask your professor if you are not sure what constitutes plagiarism.

Use either footnotes or endnotes

See Part III: “Guide to Writing Footnotes and Bibliographies” below, or consult the Chicago Manual of Style if you are in doubt about the format of footnotes or endnotes.

Revise your review

Leave your review aside for a day, and then get back to it and read it with a fresh eye. Aim for clarity and concision as you make your first revisions. No history paper – whether a book review, a short essay, or a research paper – is “finished” after the first draft!

Proofread your final draft

Do not trust the spell check to do it for you. There is nothing like the critical and attentive human eye and intellect in a computer.


Book Review Do Nots

Do not merely summarize the book

Chapter by chapter summary is not a book review; it is a summary of a book.

Do not use the passive voice

The reader wants to hear your opinion about the book.

Do not neglect punctuation

When in doubt, consult the Chicago Manual of Style or an English grammar book for proper punctuation.

Do not overuse such phrases as

I thought it was interesting,” “In my opinion”, “The author says/argues….”.

Do not use “this” to refer to the previous paragraph, sentence or word

Always avoid using “this” without the “thing” it modifies.

Do not write wordy or long sentences

Would you like to read such sentences?


Historical Papers

The purpose of history papers is for you to interpret sources and arrive at a conclusion about the significance of your subject. It is not merely a description of “what happened”; rather, history papers must take the form of an argument in support of a thesis explaining how and why something happened and why it is important.

Every history paper, whether long or short, must be a work of persuasive writing. Based on your sources, you must provide a thesis statement at the beginning of your paper that reflects what you have concluded about your topic after a critical analysis of your materials (see FOCUS ON SOURCES below). The thesis statement is always an arguable or debatable point, so that your history paper becomes your own argument in favor of a particular historical explanation. Instead of merely summarizing material, you persuade your reader with enough evidence to convince him or her that your thesis is correct.

The body of your paper must support your thesis, paragraph by paragraph, by presenting evidence from your sources. You should also respond to counter evidence (information that seems to contradict or weaken your thesis) to persuade your reader that your original position is the more compelling argument.


Short Essays

As their name implies, short essays are relatively brief assignments for papers roughly 4 to 7 pages in length. The topic and texts for short essays are usually assigned by your professor and can be framed in a number of different ways. You might be asked, for example, to analyze a source or group of sources and respond to a specific question about them. Or you might be asked to compare the views of two modern historians on a given problem or document. Whatever form your short essay assignment takes, it will require the same type of historical analysis.

To begin with, you should confront your sources directly, without being unduly influenced by the opinions of others. The purpose of writing history papers is for you to work with original materials and consider them critically in light of further reading. You will want to read the source more than once, making notes whenever you find it appropriate in order to illustrate the aspect or aspects you will discuss in the essay. In substantiating your argument, you should be able to include an illustration, quotation, or other direct reference to the source under examination to prove every assertion you make. Your conclusions should be based on your own evaluation of your evidence. In this way, you refrain from turning your paper into a page-by-page commentary or paraphrase of your sources. Under no circumstances should it be a summary of another historian’s work. Rather, your paper should be a logical and coherent explanation of your response to the assigned essay on the basis of your reading, with illustrations drawn from your sources for evidence.

To complete such an assignment successfully, you must

  1. Understand the assignment. Make sure you read the assignment carefully and limit yourself to the topic provided by your professor. Believe it or not, failure to write about the topic that has actually been assigned is one of the most common problems with short history essays! If the assignment asks you to compare two views on a particular document, you must understand both the similarities and the differences of the two views and give approximately equal weight to each of them in your discussion. If the assignment asks you questions about a specific text, you must explore the issues raised by the question and present your analysis based on a close, critical reading.
  2. Consider the significance of the material. It is not enough to summarize the content of the texts (documents or books) you have read. Your essay must consider the significance of the issue you are examining. In a compare/contrast essay, your professor will expect that you examine not only the ways the two points of view are similar and different but the meaning of those similarities and differences. In writing the essay, you would be expected to discuss why a given similarity, or a difference, is important. You should also think about the historical context of your sources, using it as a way to explore the broader historical issues underlying the assignment.
  3. Construct an argument in support of a thesis. Like any history paper, a short essay must have a thesis that is supported by evidence presented in the body of the paper. Your thesis reflects what you have concluded about the issue after careful reflection on the assignment and any reading you have done for it. After stating it clearly in the introductory paragraph, you must be able to support your thesis with evidence taken from the texts under examination in the body of your essay.
  4. Document your paper. Even short essays require that you cite and document the sources of your information. (See Part III: Guide to Writing Footnotes and Bibliographies, below)


Research Papers

The purpose of a research paper is to allow students to practice the craft of history writing at a more sophisticated level than is possible in other history assignments. Like shorter history papers, a research paper takes the form of argument supported by evidence. Unlike other assignments, however, a research paper requires that you find material about your topic outside of the course’s assigned readings.

Choose a topic that can actually be researched by an undergraduate whose main reading language is English. You can start with a fairly broad area, but you will need to focus your topic as your research progresses.


How do I locate books that pertain to my subject?

  1. Read what your textbook and other course books have to say about the topic. Your textbook can lay out the broad outlines of the material so you will have a better idea of terms to use when searching through databases.
    • Locate general texts about the period or subject you are studying and check those texts’ footnotes or bibliography. Look also at bibliographical essays at the end of books or at the end of chapters to the course’s textbooks. Remember that your textbook may have the most useful bibliographies you can find.
  2. Go to the library to consult scholarly encyclopedias and dictionaries. World Book, Colliers, Encyclopedia Britannica and the like are not appropriate sources. Instead consult reference books written by specialists in the field. The entries that you find in these sources can expand on the general knowledge you have already learned from your course books. They can also give you some initial bibliography and point you toward related topics. Here are some examples for the Middle Ages:
    • The Dictionary of the Middle Ages (13 volumes) Ref. D 114 .D5 1982
    • The Cambridge Medieval History (8 volumes) Ref D 117.C32
    • The New Cambridge Medieval History (Ref)
    • The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Ref)
    • The Encyclopedia of Islam (ref)
    • The Oxford Dictionary of the Catholic Church (ref)
    • The Encyclopedia Judaica (ref)
  3. Examine Polk Library’s Online Catalog. ( Use either a keyword or subject search for your topic. If you have little luck with Polk’s collections, expand your search to UW Madison’s library catalog. ( Use WorldCat ( then select WorldCat from list at the left) to expand your search further. Remember: Polk’s collection is good, but it is limited. Other, larger libraries may contain books that are relevant to your topic. Interlibrary loan allows you to order books from virtually any library in the United States. (The interlibrary loan order form is available on-line at the Polk Library website.)
  4. Remember always to look through the bibliographies of all the books and articles that you find. This can be the very best way to find sources.
  5. Ask your instructor for sources. Most instructors are quite willing to assist your search for good books.


Where do I find primary sources?

Remember, primary sources are those original sources that date from the period you are studying: songs, movies, diaries, interviews, letters of correspondence, written works, etc. Often, you can find primary sources in the same ways that you find secondary sources.

  • Look first in the bibliographies of course books and general texts on your subject. Usually the bibliographies will contain a separate section listing primary sources.
  • Remember, too, that primary sources often come in collections of sources. i.e. a book edited by a modern historian containing extracts or whole sources from the period under consideration.
  • Check the library catalogue and other databases for your topic plus the word “sources.” This search strategy will often turn up primary source collections.
  • Despite the warning about using the internet for research below, it is possible to find primary sources on the web. Some useful examples include:


May I use information from the web as primary and secondary sources?

Many professors discourage the use of the web for information about historical subjects. The internet is a great tool for research, but it is also a storehouse of misinformation. As a tool, the internet can help you locate information. Unfortunately, relying on the web as a source of information carries hazards. Generally speaking, it is safest to consult published journals and books—particularly journals and books published by prestigious organizations or publishers. In sum, then: Determining whether a source available over the internet is reliable or not is tricky. Err on the careful side and don’t hesitate to consult the instructor for advice. [But see notice above on primary source collections on the Internet]


Where can I find recently-written journal, magazine, and newspaper articles about my topic?

To find both journal/periodical articles and books, you should make use of on-line indices and some book indices.

For Periodicals alone, you can consult these paper volumes located on the index tables in the reference room.

  • International Index to Periodicals 1907-1965
  • Social Science and Humanities Index 1965-1973
  • Humanities Index

For items published after 1973, see the on-line versions of these last two indices listed under Wilson Journal Indexes on the library’s web page.

See Polk Library’s web page ( for indexed articles. Hit “articles & more by subject.” Good online indexes include:

  • Ebsco Academic Elite
  • Wilson Journal Indexes
  • Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe
  • First Search


What if I cannot find the journal/magazine/newspaper I need?

  1. Try getting the article from the full-text databases we have available online. Hit “articles & more by subject.” Choose “Ebsco Online articles.” To see which full-text journals are available, hit “Journals with some Full Text online!”
  2. Order it through interlibrary loan (the order form is available on-line at the Polk Library website (


Where do I find old journal/magazine/newspaper articles?

  1. For old magazine and journal articles, there is really only one place to go, the venerable Readers Guide to Periodical Literature (Call no: Reference-Index Tables, 1st floor South AI3 .R48.) These volumes are located in the reference section of Polk Library. Consult the volume pertaining to the period(s) you are interested in, then look up your subject. You will there find references to articles published in various magazines.
  2. There is only one national newspaper that is well indexed, The New York Times. Consult the index for the relevant year, just as you would for the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature.


Where do I turn for help at the library?

Ask a reference librarian (and tell them I sent you.) Reference librarians are there to help you, and they all enjoy working with students who are engaged in research.


Historigraphical Essays

The purpose of a historiographical essay is for you to consider how different historians approach the same historical issues. Even when consulting the same body of information, historians do not necessarily reach the same the same conclusions. They are influenced by their personal backgrounds, by the times in which they live, and by their approaches to history, i.e. economic, intellectual, military, political, feminist, etc. The study of how historians write history is called historiography, and this assignment will give you some practice in the area.

Whatever the exact parameters of your assignment, your task is to compare the authors’ views of the works chosen, noting the points on which they agree and disagree.

To complete such an assignment successfully, you need to choose your authors carefully. Follow these instructions:

  1. Define your final topic. Once you have compiled your bibliography and done some reading, you should have a better sense of your final topic. It will be easier to write this paper if you set up your topic as a question, such as "Did the Venetians Deliberately Send the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople?"
  2. Then you should choose two or three of the secondary sources on your bibliography (or whatever the number required by your instructor). Select items that disagree with one another, at least in part. Works that were written some years apart in time often have differing viewpoints. For instance, many of the conclusions reached by Steven Runciman in A History of the Crusades have been modified by later historians.
  3. Read the works with a view to analyzing the authors' arguments and methodologies. It is not enough merely to recite the contents of the article. You must focus on why the author has written the article, what the peculiarities of his/her arguments are, what sources the author uses, etc. Give some thought to this part of the assignment and consult with the instructor if you are uncertain of how to proceed. Your analysis should consider these three elements:
      1. Understanding. In this assignment, your most important task is to understand the two (or more) authors and explain their central ideas and arguments to the reader. This should constitute the bulk of your paper. You should also comment on the authors’ approaches: are they interested most in political, economic, social, or intellectual questions? What type of sources do they use? In short, what are the authors’ methodologies, in as far as you can determine them? You should also consider each author's own cultural values and assumptions. Where these are apparent, they should be brought to the reader's attention and related to the author's approach to the subject. Contemporary Authors is a good source of information on many authors' backgrounds. [Available in the database section of Polk Library's website.]
      2. Context. Historians do not write in a vacuum; their ideas always have some relationship to those of other historians. Pay particular attention to prefaces and introductions, which generally offer reasons for writing the article, and to passages which mention opposing views. Try to relate your authors’ views to the general historiographical context of the subject, i.e. to the other books written on the topic.
      3. Criticism. Although you may not feel qualified to criticize your historians, do not hesitate to point out problems or inconsistencies where you see them to exist. Remember that the act of putting an author's ideas into historiographical context is also criticism.
  4. Compare the authors' ideas and construct an outline. Be sure that you indicate what the overall question is that each of your historians is trying to answer. Two pitfalls of historiographical writing should be avoided at all costs: first, do not write a narrative history of the events discussed in the articles; and second, do not write your own interpretation of events based on the articles. However, you should declare your opinion on the topic in the conclusion of the paper. Keep the focus of the essay on the articles themselves. There is no ‘right’ answer to any of these essays. However, that does not mean that one answer is as good as another. The best essay will be one that presents a clear thesis that is argued in a logical manner and supported by appropriate references to the texts.
  5. Write the essay. You may consult other works for the essay, including other items on your bibliography. Some terms or people may be unfamiliar to you, in which case, the textbook or a scholarly dictionary or encyclopedia might be useful to you. Should you use other works, you must acknowledge their use in a footnote or endnote. [See Footnote section below]
  6. Proofread the essay and compose a second draft.

You should include a bibliography of all of the sources that you have used in the paper at the end of the assignment.

by linnm37 — last modified Aug 22, 2012 03:55 PM