Tips For History Research Papers

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.

    In the body of the paper, argue your case for your answers to the questions you have set youself. Do not write a simple narrative, or just tell a story, or try to include everything (no matter how little) you know about a subject.

    Of course, in making your argument, you will need to give examples that support the thesis, and these examples may well include narrative. But you should try to persuade the reader of the validity of your argument. So aim to write an analytical paper in which you discuss the thesis, and then draw a conclusion for the preceding debate. By the end the reader should be able to state your point of view clearly, and to summarize the evidence of which you base that argument.

    Take a position; don't waffle. Say what you think, and why. In history, although certain facts are indisputable, there are few "right" or "wrong" answers; usually it is a matter of a "good", i.e. persuasive, argument, or a "bad" one, i.e. an unpersuasive, poorly planned one.

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.


    • Consult one of them for broad suggestions on manageability of the topic, which directions might be most promising, etc.
    • Ask for pointers on bibliography.
    • Come to Office Hours ahead of deadlines!

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.

    An outline will also help you gauge your time. Start working on the paper well in advance of the due date. It is highly recommended that you meet the specified due date. Notify your instructor as soon as possible if it seems that, for some legitimate reason, you may need an extension. A paper simply turned in late, without prior negotiation, will usually draw a penalty

    You may need to go through multiple plans before writing the paper, to clarify your questions and their ordering (crucial) and to gradually sort out the argument with which you bring together the different questions you have set yourself. .

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

  • Always write in the past tense: this is, after all, history. The events have occurred already and should be treated as such. Do not use colloquial or abbreviated English.
  • Complex points of debate or material which is necessary for background but somewhat tangential to your thesis can often be treated in footnotes, so as not to interfere with your main argument.
  • Short sentences are often easier to control. This helps you to make your points clearly and forcefully. Frequent paragraph divisions may also help to maintain interest and to separate thoughts from each other. How you handle sentence and paragraph divisions is naturally a matter of taste. But keeping things short will usually at least ensure that your points come over clearly, your first responsibility. You can go after elegance at a later stage.
  • A couple of minor points for medieval history papers.

    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.

    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.

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

    • For the correct format, see Footnote 1.[1] Abbreviate subsequent references as in Footnote 2.[2] Use "Ibid." only where the context is absolutely clear. If you need more than this (which you do not, in my classes), check out one of the standard guides for the M.L.A. Rules or the Chicago Style.
    • It does not (in my opinion) matter much which set of conventions you use; it matters a good deal that you follow your chosen set carefully and stay consistent. Try and ensure that you spell the authors and titles correctly. Copying errors of this kind scream out the message that you are so slapdash that sensible people do not need to listen carefully to what you say!
    • For citations of material on the : Give the full URL,

      But always date your citation. Websites are much less stable than publicly printed books and articles. They change as their "authors" develop them. Sometimes they disappear. (The Falcon server through whose good graces you read this crashed over the summer, and was not backed up! so the same URL someone keyed in last Spring may bring him the same now, or something very different, or nothing at all where I have yet to replace the files! "Falcon" is after all just one more box under a desk in a campus office.) Always consider too how far and why you should trust the information offered, just as you would a book or a con artist. See further below under "Source Criticism".

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

      • Read it aloud! You may be surprised to discover that your ear catches infelicities, such as simple grammatical errors, that "look" fine on paper, and so escape your eyes. You will also be so pleased when it sounds good, euphonious, persuasive, clear.
      • Get someone else to read it. Does it flow easily? Does it make sense? Can they follow your argument?
      • Please, please proof your work carefully. Check your spelling. Remember that Spell-Checker software will not tell you if you are usiong a word correctly or in the right place, only that it exists in its dictionary. Have both a Dictionary and a Thesaurus of your ownto hand. If certain phrases are repeated often enough to seem boring, seek out accurate synonyms in the Thesaurus.
      • Vary your sentence structure from the usual Subject-Verb-Object, to make your paper more effective and to stimulate your reader's interest. (Variations in sentence structure can effectively indicate the relative importance of certain parts of your argument, too.)

    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!)

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

    • Many students in my former life found that Tony Buzan, Use Your Head (BBC Books: London, 1982) helped them to organize their notes (ie thoughts) on the sources they read.
    • No work on Source Criticism (see below) matches Mary McCarthy's autobiographical Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New York 1946) for enjoyment.
    • If you are really serious about improving your ability to write persuasively, The Broadview Book of Common Errors in English, ed. Don Le Pan (Peterborough, Ont., 1988) is much more helpful than the usual books.
    • John Whale, Put it in Writing (J.M. Dent: London, 1984) advises on style with lively (if British) illustrations.

    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.

    I remember my first semester of college when my psychology professor gave us a five-page paper…I thought I was going to die. I went back to my dorm and tossed the assignment on my bed and headed out that night to hang out with friends and watch the game. I completely forgot about the paper until three days before it was due and began to work on it. I can remember how laborious it seemed to crank out five pages of content about schizophrenia and how proud I was when I turned the paper in. It was my first college paper and I could not wait until my psychology teacher saw how good of a writer I was. She gave me a 64% and underneath the grade she wrote, “You have sixth grade thinking and fourth grade grammar”…wow what an initiation. I knew I could not repeat that performance again.

    I was a Government major with a concentration in Pre-law and a minor in history. My major and minor required three things of me that I became excellent at:

    1. Research – This was necessary for argumentation, essays, and reports.
    2. Public Speaking – I probably had close to 100 oral presentations.
    3. Logic – The most influential course I ever took in college was Logic because it taught me how to organize my thoughts.

    As you can probably see, I am not the best writer. I have a tendency for comma splices, passive language, and misspelled words but after my freshman year I did not get lower than an B on any of my papers. (Dr. Blass docked me a grade point because I turned in my topic late…garbage) I managed to do this by living by these five quick tips on writing a research paper. Hopefully they help you in your quest to write a solid research paper.

    1. Find an English Major to Proofread Your Paper.

    My rooommate Matt was dating a girl by the name of Sarah (who he later married) and she was an english major. I do not remember one paper that I gave to her that she did not return to me with red marks scribbled all over it and paragraphs written in the margins. I violated so many different laws of grammar that I never knew existed and she helped me see them. I wanted my grade to be dependent on my thesis and how well I supported it and not about my poor grammar. After my freshman year I saw too many papers get docked points because of my sucky grammar and I was determined to not have that happen to me again. So I gave every paper I wrote to Sarah and told her to be as hard as possible and she was and my grade reflected her critiques. I never lost points for my grammar.

    2. Use Wikipedia to Find References

    If you cite Wikipedia in a college history research paper, then you will end up failing that paper. Wikipedia changes daily and while it is a great source for information it is not a reliable source for a history project, but it is not useless. I would always scroll down to the references and there was a gold mine of books, essays, and articles about the topic I was writing about and the exact page number that the information could be found on. It was an excellent way to quicken the research process.

    3. Start Early

    Listen you can’t write a good paper 2 days before it is due. I know some of the people reading this will tell me, “I work best under pressure” and my response is that you are an idiot. Sure you may work well under pressure, but if you have not done any research, then how does working under pressure mean anything? You need to have a variety of sources and you cannot gather those resources two days before it is due. I would always begin my paper the first day I received my assignment. When I say begin I simply mean that I would pick my topic. Once I had my topic I would start developing my thesis the week after. After I developed my thesis I would begin to collect resources and take notes and write a rough draft. You don’t get A’s without working for it. However, you will work too much if you don’t organize it.

    4. Learn How to Skim

    History books are always large and if you are taking 15 credit hours than you do not have time to weed through 500 pages of information. It is important that you look at that table of contents and search out the information you need for your paper and not get distracted in every chapter of the book. This is why Wikipedia is a great resource for finding sources. When you skim make sure you take good notes. I used note cards, but those are probably outdated with the invention of the iPad and iPhone.

    5. Pick a Unique Topic That You are Interested in.

    If you are taking a survey class and decide to write about George Washington, then it better be good because there will be 10 other people writing about the same topic. If you write a paper on a topic that many are writing on, then your paper will be compared to the others. If you are confident you have the best paper, then by all means write it. However, it is best to steer clear of that. I always chose unique topics and when I say unique I am not talking about obscure topics. For example, instead of writing about George Washington write about The Death of George Washington. Drilling down on a topic will help narrow your competition and make a much better thesis statement.

    Also make sure you are interested in the topic. If you enjoy military history, then write your paper about a battle and save the paper on Millard Filmore for someone else.


    Filed Under: MiscellaneousTagged With: History Paper, Research, Research Paper, Writing A Good Paper

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