Some TIPS for WRITING HISTORY PAPERS

Thesis: A good historian does not adopt a thesis until quite late on in the process of preparing a paper. First, find good questions to ask yourself, questions that deserve and actually call for an answer, real world questions even if the paper is about a remote period of the past. Only at the almost-final stage of preparation will you know at last more or less exactly what you want to argue, what your line of argument (thesis if you will) is to be. You can then make sure that we readers know too, by signalling to us both questions and thesis in the introduction.

Bibliography: A research paper requires research, i.e. finding the relevant primary sources, secondary literature, etc, and evaluating all this material. Skim through the secondary sources and see what general lines of argument develop that relate to your topic.


Question:- Are you sure you understand the difference between "primary" and "secondary" materials, and why they matter? If not, ask! and see below.

Use your professor (and/or the nice, friendly T. A.) as a resource.


Outline: After you have done your research, plan in advance what line of argument you will take. Depending on the complexity of your subject and on your own study habits, the outline may be anything from a broad general guide to a very detailed plan. The outline should enable you to check easily on the development of the argument, and to re-order it in the most effective, logical order.

Title: Choose a title which suggests a question or debate you will address. Print it at the top of the first page, and on the cover sheet. Bear it in mind while you are writing the paper. Don't let yourself stray from the subject as you have framed it. Subtle suggestion: If you have something nifty you badly want to include, you should arrange the initial presentation (title and introduction) to make it relevant -- Right from the start.

Introduction: Start strongly. This is where you manage (or fail) to capture interest and thereby improve your grade. Usually the first paragraph should introduce the argument. Sometimes a short opening paragraph is also needed to set the historical context.

Argument: Marshall evidence to support your thesis. This does not mean that you simply pile up facts. If others take different lines of argument on your topic, indicate why you agree or disagree with them.

Conclusion: Finish with a bang not a whimper. Summarize the debate neatly in a paragraph or two. Save a point of interest to end on -- a comment on the significance of the subject, what is original about your argument, etc. The conclusion should reinforce, in the reader's mind, the persuasiveness of your whole argument.

Style: Write in clear, concise English. Use the least number of words possible to make your point.

Paragraphs: Each paragraph should contain one major point with advances your argument. Use about 3 or 4 paragraphs to a page. Don't write the paper as a "stream of consciousness" with the stages of the argument undifferentiated.

Quotations: Keep all quotes short: I am more interested in what you have to say than in anyone else's words. All quotes must fit smoothly into the text. Any quotation longer than 3 lines should be indented and single-spaced. Acknowledge the source of all direct quotations in a footnote -- author, work, page etc.

Annotation: Use either footnotes or endnotes, but not both! A first reference (even to a textbook) should contain certain details.

eg <falcon.arts.cornell.edu/~prh3/disclaimer.html>.

Why bother with citations anyway? Good question. In my former life, I never expected students to provide footnotes and bibliographies. In North America they are, however, required, and we too must follow local rules. One quite common rationale says that you cite sources to establish that your work is your own, that you are not plagiarizing. I do not myself see the force of that. I know from experience (other people's!) that one can easily use the system to cheat. Ask me, and I just might teach you some of the tricks! No, technicalities do not keep people honest. But anyway, we are not like that, are we? Please cite your sources for more positive reasons. I cite mine so that a reader can if he or she chooses follow my footsteps and check my argument. Footnotes trace a kind of paper trail for future hunters to follow. Hopefully those who follow will feel that our work is solid enough for them to build on to it, for that is how knowledge advances.

Revisions: Once you have written the paper, read it through again. And again.

Technical Desiderata: Provide a cover sheet with the course number and title, as well as your name and the date. Number the pages and staple them together. You are expected to include an accurate bibliography in one of the accepted formats at the end. (Accurate: It looks bad to mispell the title of a book you have used all the time!)

Some Reading about Reading (& Writing)

Everybody has his and her own favorites. My suggestions should not put you off those of others.

Rules of Evidence (including "source criticism")

Source criticism ("Quellenkritik" in German) is a forbidding title for old skills that have gained a new and greater importance with the arrival of the Web. I have frequently heard impassioned discussion on TV in shows like "Sixty Minutes" and especially on National Public Radio of whether and how one (read: the U.S.) should regulate the Web. Many decent people are horrified at what they consider to be the side-effects of the explosion of information on the Web. They point to the vast amount of doubtful information which students like you can reach quickly and insert into your papers all to easily. But they tend to be rather less perturbed about the kind of data on medieval history which enhance courses like mine. Their wories focus on unauthorised statements about recent air crashes and conspiracy theories about current political events and the like. Good liberals foam at the mouth when they describe hate sites, putting out in writing and graphics obscene and obnoxious pseudo-facts (read: Lies) about Child Pornography, the Holocaust, the private lives of the rich and famous, and so on.

The counter argument in this country is of course the First Amendment. But it is unnecessary to invoke the U.S. Constitution, which in any case does not bind men and women outside this country. There is no conceivable way to police the Web; the damn thing is far too big.

So we all have to beware. ("Caveat reticulator", as we say.) If you find a site offering you the Brooklyn Bridge at a very cheap price, do not send money! Statements made in pretty writing on the Web are no more authoritative there than if mouthed off in front of the Straight through a megaphone, or scrawled as graffiti on a wall. We accept all information at our own risk. Even when it comes routed through our professor or the President of the United States. This must not mean absolute scepticism in which we reject everything we do not like. It should mean proper scrutiny of all witnesses. Those old rules of Evidence and Source Criticism like the ones I set out below are the bare bones of a critical procedure to check out incoming data. It is up to each of us to take personal responsibility for what we write and utter. That is to me much more important in the medium to long term than originality and the real reason for citing sources in the approved manner.

This is pretty important stuff then. It is also much harder work than simply sweeping any material that looks usable into your skirts and then pouring the catch out into your paper. Like the defense of liberty, source criticism takes unceasing vigilance and a great deal of effort. Actually the two are very nearly the same thing. These skills are an important tool for the defense of liberty. Give them your best shot.

1. Is your evidence a primary source or secondary source?

2. What are the author's sources? That is, what does he/she know, and how does he/she know it? If a primary source, was he/she an eyewitness?

3. Does your author acknowledge his/her sources?

4. Is the chronology accurate?

5. Is there evidence of bias in your author?

6. What assumptions does he/she make about the subject?

7. On what premises does he/she base the argument? Are they logical and consistent?

8. Is the information in your source corroborated elsewhere? Can you check the facts easily?

9. Why is your author writing -- ie, to inform, to persuade, to make an apologia?

10. Is your author aware of other viewpoints?


Back to Class Prospectus?

Footnotes (actually Endnotes)

1. Paul R. Hyams, King Lords and Peasants in Medieval England: The Common Law of Villeinage in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1980); Idem, "The Strange Story of Thomas of Elderfield", History Today (1986), 9-15.

2. Idem, King Lords and Peasants, pp. 5-15 and cap. 4.