Writing the History Paper
What distinguishes History papers from the papers you might write in other courses? Perhaps the most difficult thing is the process of transforming facts into evidence, and evidence into argument.
To the novice, facts will simply seem to be facts. But facts do not exist in a vacuum. One does not gather facts and expect them to speak for themselves. Rather, facts create different meanings depending upon what we do with them.
For example, President X is assassinated. Fact A comes from an eyewitness who saw a man running away with a gun in his hand. Fact B comes from the autopsy, which says that President X did indeed die from a bullet wound to the head. From these facts we might conclude that the running man is the assassin. However, fact C from the ballistic report shows that the bullet that killed the president did not come from the running man's gun. Clearly we need more facts before we can determine our argument. Was there more than one gunman? Or have we simply identified the wrong man as the assassin?
Clearly, the challenges that you are going to face when you write papers for your History courses are going to be more complex than the scenario we've provided above. But the principles are the same. One must gather one's facts and then go through the process of interpreting them. Once interpreted, facts begin to suggest patterns of evidence that will eventually lead the astute writer to her argument.
In your History classes at Dartmouth, you'll most often be asked to write two different kinds of essays: essays that work with primary sources, and essays that work with secondary sources.
Primary sources are materials that are from the time period that you are discussing. Essays that work with primary sources often attempt to reconstruct an historical event, using various sources to argue for a particular interpretation or understanding of that event. We italicize the phrase "to argue" because it is important to understand that these kinds of essays - which are often narrative in approach - do not simply recreate an event. Nor are they an objective rendering of available facts. Rather, primary source essays are the result of a painstaking process of gathering, selecting, interpreting, and arranging evidence in order to produce an essay that argues a particular point of view.
When writing primary source essays, you'll want to be sure to:
- Select your evidence carefully
- Double-check your facts.
- Structure your essay chronologically.
- Make a point.
The second type of essay you'll be asked to write in your History courses are essays that analyze and/or synthesize secondary sources. Secondary sources are those that were written after the time period that you are studying and attempt to analyze that time period in some way. When writing an analysis (or a synthesis) using secondary sources, you will sort through various historical sources, compare their differences, and then write an essay that supports or challenges these interpretations of past events.
Analyses and syntheses are typically not structured in the way that narratives are structured - that is, they are not structured chronologically. Rather, they are organized according to the principles of logic and rhetoric.
Note that a source can be either primary or secondary, depending upon how you intend to use it. For example, Lytton Strachey's, Eminent Victorians might be used as a secondary source if your subject is, indeed, the Victorians; however, if you are interested in exploring the attitudes of the Bloomsbury group towards their Victorian predecessors, then this text would be a primary source.
Occasionally you might be asked to write in a particular genre - like biography, intellectual history, political history, and so on. Although the boundaries of historical genre are not always rigid, it's important to understand genre conventions if you are asked to do this kind of writing. If your professor makes such an assignment, be sure to ask her to clarify her expectations for you.
- Consider carefully the validity of your sources. It's important, when you use sources, to consider where they came from. Is your source a government agency, a published book by a reputable scholar, or a site on the Internet? Remember: even facts you get from a government agency may not be reliable. You should cross check sources, whenever possible.
- Compare sources. Comparing sources not only helps you to test their validity, it also helps you to understand your sources in context. One observer of the 1939 invasion of Poland is good; two (or three or four) are even better. Each will contribute something new to your understanding of the event, and to your sense of how you might best represent or analyze it.
- Be concerned about the biases of your sources. All writers have biases. It's important to understand and to interpret them. Consider how a Polish observer's report on the German invasion might differ from a German's report. Often, the history of a source's biases is as significant to interpret as the narrative itself.
- When reading, pay attention to footnotes. Students who are new to History sometimes don't understand that good historical writing depends on its sources. A look at the footnotes and bibliography can give you a wealth of information: Did the writer use an adequate number of sources? Is she over-reliant on one? Has the writer used books that are all Marxist? Also take the time to read the substantive footnotes or endnotes. Here, you may find information that is important to understanding the larger argument, or you may find information buried there that brings you to question the validity of the author's premises.
- When you are ready to develop your own argument, you need to position yourself within the debates that you are reading. For a list of questions that will help you to position yourself within this scholarly debate see Bowdoin's "Making Historical Arguments."
In many ways, writing a History paper is no different from writing other kinds of papers. You need to focus your topic, write a strong thesis sentence, settle on a structure, write clear and coherent paragraphs, and tend to matters of grammar and style.
In other ways, however, writing a History paper requires some understanding of the conventions of the discipline. We've collected a few tips here:
- Be sure to argue as you narrate. Whenever you relate an historical event, be sure that there is a purpose to your story. What point are you trying to make, for example, regarding Stalin's rise to power? The details of your narrative should support that argument. Details that are irrelevant need to be omitted. Details that distract attention from your main point need to be dealt with in another paragraph.
- Don't ignore evidence that runs counter to your argument. While this principle is important in all disciplines, it is particularly important in History. You will need either to acknowledge, concede, or refute that evidence.
- Be sure to provide your reader with an adequate sense of context. Considering context is more than simply answering questions of what, who, when, and where (though you must do this as well). When setting the context of your argument, you must announce your scholarly position to your reader. Is the essay about countering a feminist argument? Then you need to say so. Accordingly, you must consider carefully the introductions to your papers. Opening sentences such as "Since the beginning of time..." or "Humans have always..." do nothing to provide your reader with an historical context for your argument. (For more information about writing introductions that provide context for your reader see: "Introductions and Conclusions.")
- Do your best to understand and respect the integrity of the culture and time period that you are discussing. Many times our position of hindsight has provided us with information that was not available to the inhabitants of the culture or time period that we are studying. For example, you cannot evaluate Victorian society's approach to "fallen women" using modern legal definitions of rape. Understand that "common knowledge" or "common values" in any given time period are influenced by numerous factors and are never absolute.
- Consider suitable organizational strategies. For example, if your paper is an historical narrative, you should choose a structure that is chronological. Any deviation from chronology in a narrative will have to be marked with transitions like, "Prior to," "Many years later," and so on. If, on the other hand, you are comparing two historical events or figures, you will first want to determine the basis of your comparison, and then organize your points so that they follow the typical compare/contrast pattern: aaabbb or ababab. (For more information about structure, see "Writing: Considering Structure and Organization.")
- Use the past tense. Those of you who have taken Writing 5 as your introduction to college writing will no doubt have been told that, when writing about literature, one should use the present tense. In History, the past tense is the tense of choice - it permits you to place a person or event at a particular point in a chronology.
- Avoid the subjective "I." You want your reader to feel that your point of view about a particular subject comes from the available evidence, and not from your own personal response. This is not to say that your personal response is irrelevant; rather, it is your job as a scholar to figure out what evidence led to your position on a subject, and then to explain fully why it led you there.
- Watch your biases. Think about the argument you are making, and why you are making it. How does your upbringing/class/nationality/culture contribute to your point of view? Also, write from evidence, not from emotion. Write as dispassionately as you can.
The above advice was informed in part by Writing History, a document that William K. Storey wrote for Harvard University.
- History eResources folder from the Digital Library at Dartmouth
- History Central Catalogue
- History 53: "Europe in the 20th Century" Links
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:30:13 EDT
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