Paper-Writing Guide

These are some of the things that I look at when evaluating your work

1. Introductory paragraph. This is not the only way to write an introduction to a history paper, but it's a good basic model. The main point of any introductory paragraph is to make the reader want to read the rest of the paper. Try to start with a "hook" that grabs the reader's attention right away.

a. Set the scene. History happens in a particular time and place. Let your reader know very quickly and concisely what you are talking about. What happened? When* and where is the action taking place? Who is involved? etc. Do not begin with a grand generalization about history. If you find yourself writing: "Throughout history . . . ", stop and hit the delete key immediately!

b. Many papers address a question or a problem. Make sure you give a sense to the reader of what that question is. One way is to give a sense of one or more alternative interpretations (what my retired colleague Kwasi Boadi calls the anti-thesis) before you explain your different and better answer (1-c, below). Are there any premises or assumptions underlying the question? (For more on premises or "givens," go here). Make those clear. Try to make your reader want to read on by introducing tension and uncertainty. If you give the sense that yours is the only one possible way of answering the question, the reader won't be very interested in reading further. Read more about the role of questions in the study of history.

c. Finally, provide a focus for the essay. If you are writing in the academic idiom, this means writing a thesis statement, which is answer to the question or solution to the problem. This is the most important part of the paper. Spend some time clarifying and sharpening the thesis. Write it in a way that is easy to understand and also captures the complexity of your thinking about the topic; it should not be a simple yes-or-no answer to the question and might include an acknowledgement of the opposing view. A well developed thesis should be concise (one or two sentences); arguable (it's not an obvious point but one that requires support and could be argued against); and specific (it should provide some specific reasons why this is the right way to think about your topic). A thesis that includes complexity might look something like this: "Although . . . , it is true that . . . , because . . . ." For more on writing a well developed thesis, follow this link.

Note: Always spend a little extra time revising and editing the introductory paragraph before handing in your paper. You can win over or lose a reader in that one brief paragraph.

Note 2: Do not weigh your introductory paragraph down with background. Just tell us enough about the time and place and context so that the question and the thesis make sense. You can provide more details later in the paper, on in a background section after the thesis. Research papers usually have a background paragraph or two before the argument begins in earnest.

2. Writing quality. You really should spend time revising and polishing the whole paper. The freer the paper is of typographical errors, awkward or unclear sentences, passive voice, and inappropriate word choices, the easier it is for your reader to understand and agree with your argument.

Try this: instead of going over your paper one more time late at night, put it away before you go to bed and then wake up a little early the next day and read a hard copy of the paper, making corrections, fixing awkward sentences, and filling holes in the logic. I often find that ideas I had a difficult time expressing at 11 p.m. flow out effortlessly after a good night's sleep.

Some abbreviations you might encounter on your paper:

    • awk: awkward or unclear sentence or phrase.

    • v.t.: verb tense is wrong (in general, use the past tense--see item IX at this link--consistently in history papers).

    • w.c.: word choice. You could have found a better word to express your meaning. See Strunk & White on "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused."

    • p/a: pronoun/antecedent. You have a pronoun that does not agree with its antecedent (e.g. the nation increased their immigration requirements. The nation takes the pronoun "it").

Other common writing problems include parallel construction, possessive v. plural, misplaced modifiers, proper use of commas, run-on sentences/comma splices/incomplete sentences, active v. passive voice, based on v. based off of. Most of these links send you to an online copy of the classic writing guide, Elements of Style by Strunk & White.

3. Paragraph structure and organization. Think of paragraphs as the building blocks of your argument. Each paragraph takes the reader forward another step in your argument. A paragraph can be like a microcosm of the whole paper: the topic sentence is a mini thesis that explains the point of the evidence and analysis contained in the paragraph and helps prove the thesis. Each paragraph contains one fully developed idea that flows smoothly into the next fully developed idea/paragraph.

a. Transitions: each paragraph should be linked somehow to the next. If you have an abrupt shift without a link, you can lose your reader. Connecting words ("In addition," "another reason," "however," "meanwhile," "second") in the first sentence of the paragraph can help show the link, but they are not always necessary and are never a substitute for a logical connection between ideas. The link can also take place in the last sentence of a paragraph.

b. Topic sentences: usually the first sentence makes a generalization that the rest of the paragraph supports through evidence and your analysis of that evidence while at the same time linking the paragraph to the thesis. Clear topic sentences help to guide the reader through your argument. Someone reading just the topic sentences should get a sense of the main points of your argument. Remember, evidence alone is not enough. You need generalization too. A good first sentence of a paragraph can provide both a transition and serve as topic sentence. On the other hand, it may take you two sentences to do these two things.

c. Organization of ideas: are the paragraphs in the most logical order? Do you have some system of organizing or do you just put one fact after another? Is the narrative sequence clear? Most history papers are part argument, part narrative. You need dates and it's often most effective to organize a history paper chronologically. Read my little essay on the importance of frequently answering the question When? in a history paper. Also, does each paragraph have internal coherence? Does it develop one idea fully?

4. Evidence and quotations.

a. Quotations: Incorporate quotations smoothly with your own words and in a way that makes their meaning clear (don't leave it to the reader to figure it out). Edit the quotes so they are concise and don't include irrelevant information. Make sure to attribute quotes to a speaker (first and last names on first reference, just last name thereafter), and don't worry about repeating the word "said." Synonyms like "retorted" sound contrived. Avoid long block quotes (more than three lines of text) except in rare instances. Boil the quotes down to the essential phrases; edit out irrelevant parts. Sentences that contain quotations should be as grammatically correct as any other sentence. Use ellipses to indicate where you've left out words in the middle of a quotation (you don't need to put them at the beginning or end of the quote). Always cite the source of quotations with a footnote (not parenthetical citations; usually, the author's last name and a page number suffices). For the most part, you should not quote the words of textbook authors or other secondary sources. Take the facts and quotes by historical participants out of their texts, but develop your own analysis of those facts and quotes. Most of your quotes should come from the primary documents we've read (i.e., the Declaration of Independence, a Supreme Court decision). For more on use of quotations, especially on how to weave quoted words in with your own prose, read the PDF attached to the bottom of this page. For more on how to use primary and secondary sources, please read my Primary v. Secondary Sources page.

b. Evidence: Do you present enough evidence to make a convincing case? Usually you need more than one fact from one source to support a claim. Provide some corroboration. You also need to present your evidence in enough detail to illustrate the point you want to make; but do it as concisely as possible. If it takes you a whole paragraph to present one example, you may be telling us more than we need to know about that one example. How much does the reader need to know to see how the information supports the claim? Remember, generalization alone is not enough. You need evidence too. Do not rely on generalizations from the textbook to prove your point. Develop your own generalizations based on facts.

c. Recognize and reconcile ambiguity and uncertainty: Human beings, and their history, are complicated. Acknowledge and take account of facts that get in the way of simplistic answers; and be honest about what you don't know. You make your case more convincing and more truthful if you don't simply ignore ambiguity or make assumptions to fill the gaps* in the historical record. Remember, I can only assign so much reading every night! Instead, humbly acknowledge your ignorance and render the past in all its complexity and uncertainty. We sometimes speak of "contrary evidence" or "contrary arguments." Sometimes you will need to explain why an alternative explanation is wrong, and yours is right and you will need to "respond" to such faulty viewpoints in your essay. But beware of dichotomous thinking. Sometimes you may synthesize two or more seemingly conflicting interpretations. Often (maybe always), you need to acknowledge the inconclusiveness of the available evidence or admit to a lack of total certainty (see epistemic humility and History is a Mystery; see also points 3 and 4 in Richard Marius's definition of an argument, here).

5. Analysis/interpretation/warrants. Just now I said that you shouldn't make assumptions to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Actually, there's no way around it. Historians must use their imaginations and intellect to connect the dots and fill in the the blank spaces, via analysis and interpretation. Do you explain how the evidence you present supports the generalizations you make? A statement that connects factual evidence to a claim is known as a warrant. Make sure you develop these explanations enough; draw out their full implications; avoid overstating the conclusiveness of your evidence; and avoid stating the obvious. When writing a warrant for a quotation, for example, do not simply repeat the obvious meaning of the quotation. Go deeper and contextualize the quote or consider the subtext. Help us see how it supports your argument. What are the author's hidden motives (for more on authorial intentions, read item #5 here)? Don't rely on generalizations from secondary sources to carry your argument; develop your own insights and analysis.

6. Conclusion. Don't introduce new evidence here. Do not just repeat and summarize. Here's a standard suggestion from a college website about how to write a concluding paragraph: "This is usually one paragraph long, and briefly recapitulates your thesis, pulling all your arguments together. The first sentence of the concluding paragraph is a clear, specific re-statement of thesis. The conclusion should do more than simply re-state the argument. It also suggests why the argument is important in the bigger scheme of things, or suggests avenues for further research, or raises a bigger question." Keep it short.

See also, my Research Paper Standards page and the assessment standards for papers on the Course Resources page.