Part 2: Writing Style
History is a written discipline. In order to learn it, we read. In order to express what we know about it, we write. Writing allows us to make our assertions clearly and to persuade our readers that our interpretation of the past is convincing.
Effective writing requires that one observe the common conventions of grammar: attention to structure, spelling, punctuation, syntax, and so on. If one were to use a sports analogy, one might assert that writing is like baseball – there are specific rules by which to play, and if the rules are broken, the game is compromised. Similarly, writing has rules for clarity of expression, and if writers disregard them, they compromise the meaning they want their work to communicate.
When writing a paper, follow these basic steps – and never hand it in without proofreading it carefully:
- Write an outline. This will prevent you from wandering aimlessly once you begin writing the text.
- Develop a thesis statement. Your thesis is a clear point of view (one sentence) that you want to demonstrate to the reader. A strong thesis statement is key to a well-structured paper. Avoid over-generalized theses like: “things changed from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries” or “the peasantry were always important in Europe.” Be specific, interesting, and clear. Remember: your thesis is the idea that you want your reader to learn from your paper. It is what the paper teaches your reader and what all the evidence/information you present in your paper should prove.
- Find evidence in the primary sources, articles or books you are using that will support your thesis. An analytic historical essay should use primary sources or other books as evidence in the bulk of the paper. Textbooks should be used only to fill in historical detail or background where appropriate. They are never the main source of your analysis. Use specific examples from the texts to support your points. You may use short quotes or describe the examples you are using. If you use a quote, be sure to explain to the reader why the quote illustrates your point.
- Write a conclusion. Most student papers end with a simple summary of the paper. A genuine conclusion pushes the paper further toward a final, broad analytical point. Tell your reader something they did not know based on the materials you have collected and analyzed.
Some of the keys to a good thesis are:
- It will take some sort of stand.
- It will justify discussion.
- It will express one main idea.
- It will be specific.
The classic structure for a student essay is:
- Introductory Paragraph
- Problem or Question
- Thesis Statement
- Use the paragraph as the main unit of composition. Just as the structure of your essay is important, so to is the structure of each paragraph. Each paragraph should express a clear idea that leads to the next paragraph. This means that each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, indicating how the paragraph fits into your larger thesis. Follow this topic sentence with about 3-5 sentences that offer evidence to support your topic sentence. If you have a paragraph that goes on for much more than half a page (eight sentences), you probably have too many different ideas in one paragraph. Similarly, a paragraph of only one or two sentences is an undeveloped thought that needs support. Finally, end the paragraph with a sentence that sums it up and links to the next paragraph.
- Make your transitions clear. Papers that shift abruptly from one thought to the next are usually using ‘implied transitions’. The reader shouldn’t have to read the writer’s mind and fill in the blanks; state clearly the links that you are making between ideas. The use of the words ‘thus,’ ‘therefore’, or ‘however,’ to start a paragraph is usually a sign that the writer hasn’t really thought up a transition, and is trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes.
Some types of writing are less effective than others. In general, in a student essay you should avoid:
- Use of the passive voice
Instead of saying “Many laws were passed by the Hitler,” write “Hitler passed many laws.”
- Use of the First-person (“I”)
Instead of saying “I think that the Second World War was very destructive,” write “The Second World War was very destructive."
- Use of Second-person (“you”)
Instead of saying “During the Nazi regime, you had to be careful with whom you shared your political views,” write “During the Nazi regimes, Germans had to be careful with whom they shared their political views.”
- Present tense
Instead of saying “Hitler is a very good leader,” write “Hitler was a very good leader.”
- Unsubstantiated value judgments
Peasants are always rebellious, so their rebellion after Luther’s Reformation in 1525 was no exception.
- Use of fluff and fillers
- Be aware of your own judgments.
“The middle ages was an age of faith.”
- Statements of the obvious, platitudes and cliches
- Avoid questions.
In some kinds of writing, rhetorical questions can be very useful. In general in historical writing it is better to make a statement than to ask a question.
- Conclusions that bring things up to the present
“Life for women was harder in the nineteenth century than it is today.”
There are a number of writing manuals geared specifically to history students that you may consult in addition to this web page. Among the recommended are:
- J. Benjamin, A Student’s Guide to History (Bedford/St. Martin’s)
- M. Hellstern, G. Scott, and S. Garrison, The History Student Writer’s Manual (Prentice Hall)
- R. Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History (Harper Collins)
- M. L. Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing History (Bedford)
- W. K. Storey, Writing History: A Guide for Students (Oxford)
If you have specific questions about the rules of grammar, a few of the most common general writing guides include:
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago)
- D. Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual (Bedford Books)
- D. Hacker, Rules for Writers (Bedford Books)
- D. Rodrigues and M. Tuman, Writing Essentials: A Norton Pocket Guide (W.W. Norton)
- W. Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style (MacMillan)
Primary sources are documents that originate in the period you are studying.
If you are studying the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence is an important primary source. If you are studying nineteenth-century family life, the diaries or letters of family members can provide first-hand information about people’s thoughts, feelings, and daily rituals. Works of literature can be used as primary sources, as can tax records, peace treaties, law codes, birth and death certificates, political or religious treatises, photographs, songs, political speeches, pamphlets, newspaper articles – anything that was written at the time you are studying.
In general, when assessing primary sources, whether textual or visual, you should always ask the following questions of them:
- who is the author?
- when was the source composed?
- why did the author write it?
- who was the intended audience?
- what is the historical context in which the source was written and read?
A more sophisticated reading of the source will also include an assessment of any unspoken assumptions in it. Can you detect any implicit biases in the source?
Primary sources form the basic building blocks of historical writing. Because the discipline of history is based on interpretation, however, historians do not take the evidence provided by primary sources at face value. Different historians often arrive at very different conclusions about the meaning of the same source. In her guide to historical writing, M. L. Rampolla warns students against the common tendency to assume primary sources are “true” because they were written by eyewitnesses. She reminds us, as any police investigator could tell you, that eyewitnesses sometimes see the same things and remember them in different ways. Like good detectives, you should evaluate the evidence by approaching your sources analytically and critically.
Secondary sources are “history books” or “history articles” – that is, published works containing modern historians’ interpretations of primary sources often centuries after those sources were written.
As with primary sources, secondary sources must be read critically and analytically to determine the historian’s particular point of view. This means that you should approach your secondary sources with the same questions you asked of your primary sources:
- who is the author?
- why did he or she write the book or article?
- who was the intended audience?
In addition to these questions, however, you have to identify the point the historian is making in writing the book or article. What is his or her argument? You can generally find the thesis at the beginning of the text. Once you have identified the thesis, you should be prepared to address the following:
- with what primary sources does the author support his or her thesis?
- what unspoken assumptions does the author make in arguing his or her point?
- are there detectable biases in his or her approach?
Pay special attention to when the source was published and consider the historical context of its publication. An article reviewing U.S. involvement in Russia in 2000 – after the end of the Cold War – may contain very different ideas from a review published in 1957, at the height of the conflict. At the same time, be on critical alert: you should not assume that newer interpretations are always better. Your analysis will depend on an informed reading of your subject.
Writing a history paper is always a balancing act between primary sources, secondary sources, and a discussion of the relation between the two. First you must examine your primary source material critically. Only then should you read around your subject in the secondary material by other historians. This way your conclusions will be based on your own evaluation of both your primary and secondary evidence.