HISTORY WRITING TIPS
1) Make your main point (also known as a “thesis statement” or “argument”) clear in your introduction to your paper, and support it throughout the paper’s body into the conclusion.
2) If you are writing about the past, use the past tense! Avoid unnecessary shifts in tense.
3) Use the active, not the passive voice.
example: The paper was written by the student. (passive voice; weak)
correction: The student wrote the paper. (active voice; strong)
4) When discussing causes of events, remember that “affect” is a verb, while “effect” is a noun.
example: The Taiping Rebellion affected the course of Chinese history.
One effect of the Black Death in Europe was that people fled to the countryside.
5) Be aware that “primary sources” are original documents written during a time period one is studying; “secondary sources” are later discussions of what happened during that time period.
example: the Declaration of Independence; a bill for flour and sugar (primary sources)
a textbook or recent article on a given topic (secondary sources)
6) Make verbs agree with their subjects.
example: Many staple crops in Latin America, like sugar, was labor-intensive.
correction: Many staple crops in Latin America, like sugar, were labor-intensive.
7) Avoid incomplete sentences (also known as “fragments”).
example: A swamp that was full of crocodiles. (incomplete sentence)
correction: The swamp was full of crocodiles.
8) Avoid run-on sentences (also known as “comma splices”).
example: The caliph was very powerful, his officials ruled a large empire.
correction: The caliph was very powerful. His officials ruled a large empire.
or: The caliph was very powerful; his officials ruled a large empire.
or: The caliph was very powerful, and his officials ruled a large empire.
or: The caliph was very powerful, since his officials ruled a large empire.
or: Because his officials ruled a large empire, the caliph was very powerful.
or: His officials ruled a large empire, so the caliph was very powerful.
9) Note the difference between “its” and “it’s”; the former is the possessive of “it”, while the latter is a contraction of “it is”, and should therefore never be used in a paper anyway, since contractions are too colloquial for college papers. For the same reason avoid “they’re”, and watch out for the difference between “there” and “their”!
10) Book and film titles need to be italicized (i.e. Hiroshima or JFK); put the titles of articles, book chapters, or excerpts from primary sources, on the other hand, in quotation marks (i.e. “Interpretations of the American Revolution” or “Hymn to the Pharaoh”).
11) Don’t trust your spell- and grammar-checks on your computer to leave your paper mistake-free, because they won’t, and they may lead you to accidentally create new mistakes; nothing beats a pair of eyes for proofreading. Try reading your paper out loud to yourself.
Note: these tips were developed by the Undergraduate Committee of the Department of History at Stony Brook University. Many thanks to the faculty and graduate students who offered tips.
WEBSITES ON HISTORY WRITING
There are a lot of great online resources out there! Here are some of the best.
“How to Write a Good History Paper” (Emory University)
Around two pages on how to read effectively, organize a paper, and avoid common mistakes.
“Writing the History Paper” (Dartmouth College)
About five pages on how to write about both primary and secondary sources, with lots of helpful tips. As a bonus, there are links to short handouts on picking topics, writing strong thesis statements, creating coherent paragraphs, and working on grammar and style.
“Writing a History Paper: The Basics” (William and Mary)
Around six pages, following the paper-writing process from identifying the goals of an assignment, beginning work on the assignment, formulating a thesis, finding supporting evidence for the thesis, writing an outline, and actually writing the paper.
“Guide to Writing History Papers” (Todd F. Carney, Southern Oregon University)
An excellent guide of around a dozen pages. Of these, the first page tackles the question of “What is a history paper”, the next two pages discuss the basic structure of a history essay, and the rest discuss proper writing style and how to avoid common mistakes.
“Department of History Writing Guide” (Boston University)
Around twenty pages in all, very coherent and rich in examples. Topics include primary vs. secondary sources, thesis statements, book reviews (“critical essays”), research papers, topic-finding, the various stages of the writing process, plagiarism, style issues (with a focus on clarity and simplicity), and citation.
Collections of useful handouts:
“Reading, Writing, and Researching for History” (Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College)
A collection of excellent materials, many on individual stages of the writing process, such as “Preparing History Papers”, “Avoid Common Mistakes in Your History Paper”, “How to Read a Secondary Source”, “How to Read a Primary Source”, “Structuring Your Essay”, “Presenting Primary Sources in Your Paper”, “Paper-Writing Checklist”, and many, many more.
“History Study Guides” (Carleton College)
Materials discuss many different kinds of history assignments, including “How to Write a Critical Book Review”, “How to Write a History Research Paper”, “How to Analyze a Primary Source”, “How to Give a Twenty Minute Oral Presentation”, “How to Lead a Class Discussion”, etc.
“History” (University of North Carolina)
Provides dozens of handouts on the writing process, grouped into categories like “Writing the Paper” (including individual materials on topics like “Argument”, “Evidence”, “Introductions”, “Revising Drafts”, etc.); “Citation, Style, and Sentence-Level Concerns” (including materials on “Commas”, “Quotations”, etc.); and “Specific Writing Assignments” (including “Essay Exams”, “Comparing/Contrasting”, etc.)
General resources on writing:
Writing Center (Stony Brook)
This is the main website for the Writing Center, with information about peer tutoring for students. Clicking on “Online Writing Resources”, and then choosing topics and subtopics within the list provided, rapidly leads to extremely useful handouts on almost any aspect of writing.
“5 Most Common Grammatical Errors” (yourdictionary.com)
Extremely useful two-page handout, with excellent examples. Has link to various other writing and grammar materials, including an extremely entertaining handout on “Problems Caused by Incorrect Grammar”, which offers a wide range of reasons why correct writing is important. (Warning: there are some extremely annoying ads provided by Google, including ones to custom paper-writing sites. However, printouts do not include these ads.)
Online Writing Lab (OWL) (Purdue University)
Has all sorts of handouts on all sorts of writing issues. Also has lots of great exercises for students on particular writing problems; unfortunately, the website seems to be in transition, so these are difficult to find directly from the website, but just search on the web for “exercises” plus the name of the writing problem, i.e. googling “comma exercises” gets you directly to the relevant pages.
“Top Ten Reasons for Negative Comments on History Papers” and “Top Ten Signs that you may be Writing a Weak History Paper”, both in “Writing a Good History Paper” (Hamilton College)
http://www.hamilton.edu/academics/resource/wc/WritingGoodHistoryPaper.pdf (link opens PDF file)
These two “Top Ten” lists found at the beginning and end of this 40-page writing guide say it all, as does the cartoon on the very first page.
“Writing Tips” (Mark A. Whatley, Valdosta State University)
The first page isn’t so interesting, but just take a look at the actual writing tips, plus the poem “The Spelling Chequer”, which should remove any remaining illusions one may have about spell check!