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Writing the History Paper

The Challenges of Writing History

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.

Kinds of History Papers

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:

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.

Prewriting Strategies

Writing Tips

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:

The above advice was informed in part by Writing History, a document that William K. Storey wrote for Harvard University.

Sample Paper

Research Links

Written by Karen Gocsik
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:30:13 EDT
Copyright 2004 Dartmouth College
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