Writing for History

Historical writing is quite different from many other kinds of writing you will encounter in your college career. Therefore, the history faculty at Columbia College has provided an introduction to the kinds of writing assignments you may encounter in your history courses. The following topics are addressed:

What is the purpose of historical writing?

Historical writing increases knowledge about and understanding of the past. Note that these are two different things. Part of the job of a historian is to tell stories. In telling these stories, the historian increases readers’ knowledge about people and events in the past; this component of a work of history is called “narrative.” The other part of the historian’s task is to explain the stories by revealing the motivations of historical actors, the purposes behind their actions, and the reasons for and importance of events; this part of a work of history is called “analysis.” Good writing in history combines narrative and analysis into a seamless whole, telling interesting stories and explaining their importance.

A happy medium between the two is the goal for which historians strive. Narrative without analysis seems pointless; such history leads some people to believe that history is just a bunch of names and dates. On the other hand, analysis without narrative can be both abstruse and tendentious. (In other words, most people wouldn’t understand it and wouldn’t agree with it if they did.) The ideal, then, in any historical writing—including the writing you will be asked to do in your history courses at Columbia College—is to tell stories and explain them in a way that makes them seem both comprehensible and important to your audience.

How do historians know things?

All writing about history contains a level of uncertainty. Historians write about past events that they themselves did not witness. (Even if they had, there would still be uncertainty; eyewitnesses to crimes often make serious mistakes in their accounts, or “histories,” of what they saw.) How, then, do historians know things? The short answer is that they don’t; a piece of historical writing is not a list of indisputable facts. But it is extremely important that you realize that a piece of historical writing is not simply an opinion piece, either. Historical writing uses evidence to support an argument.

Every piece of historical writing has an argument or thesis; this thesis is the main point the historian is trying to prove. No matter what kinds of writing assignments you get in your history classes, every paper you write should have a thesis. Sometimes your professor will ask you a direct question to answer with your paper; in that case, the answer to that question (shortened to a sentence) is your thesis. Other times, you will have considerable freedom to formulate a thesis on your own. Different kinds of assignments will be discussed below; for now, though, the point is that every history paper has a thesis.

The rest of the paper exists in order to prove that thesis. The word “prove” here is not used in the sense of a mathematical proof—a conclusive demonstration that something is inarguably true—but rather in the sense in which a lawyer “proves” that a defendant is guilty or innocent. Truthfully, no one except the defendant knows whether he committed the crime or not; but the lawyer has “proved” her case if she accumulates enough evidence and presents it in a convincing enough way that her audience (the jury) is satisfied that she is right. The historian proves a thesis in a very similar way—by amassing enough evidence, and presenting it convincingly enough, that her audience (the reader) is satisfied she is right.

For whom is history written?

Undoubtedly you have been told that all writing (or speaking) has in mind a particular audience, and when you write a paper you should write one that is appropriate to your audience. By common convention, the audience for a work of history is a person called “the intelligent layman.” That is, your writing should be understandable and compelling to someone who is smart, but who has no specialized knowledge in history. In other words, you are not writing for your history professor; your writing should not assume that the reader has been studying history for a lifetime and finds it endlessly fascinating. Rather, you should imagine that you are writing for someone who will understand your paper only if you explain your terms and the context of your topic, and who will care about your paper only if you make an effort to be engaging.

For example, if you write a paper about a politician in South Carolina during the Reconstruction era, you should understand that your target audience is someone who may not necessarily know what the Reconstruction era was, much less who your politician was. Furthermore, your target audience is someone who devotes little if any time to thinking about such matters and must be convinced that your paper deserves reading. Therefore, your opening paragraph is the most important of the paper. It should not only explain the purpose of the paper; it should also be immediately engaging and interesting.

What constitutes evidence in historical writing?

Historians speak of two kinds of evidence: primary source evidence and secondary literature evidence. Primary sources are documents or other records created at the time of the events under analysis; for example, primary sources about the French Revolution would include any documents created in the late 1780s and early 1790s that shed light on the French Revolution. Secondary literature includes everything written about the French Revolution by other historians, right up to today.

Generally speaking, historical writing based on primary source evidence enjoys higher prestige than historical writing based on secondary literature. The preference of historians for primary sources makes sense; after all, we are more likely to believe something we hear about first hand than something we hear about at second or third hand. Reliance on primary sources alone, however, is often impossible; the relevant sources may be located in distant libraries, or they may be written in foreign languages, or they may require expert knowledge to understand properly. In such cases it is perfectly legitimate to rely on secondary literature.

How do historians cite their evidence?

The most important thing about evidence in history, no matter what kind of evidence it is, is that it should always be divulged. Unlike in journalism, in history there are no anonymous sources! In all of your historical writing, you will be expected to show exactly what evidence you are basing your arguments on, and you will be expected to do so in as much detail as you can provide. Do not just refer to a book; refer to a page number. Do not just cite a collection of letters; cite one or more particular letters. These references should be clearly visible in footnotes at the bottom of the pages of your paper, unless your professor has another preference. Guidelines for citing sources are found in style manuals for historical writing, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the Turabian style guide.

What kinds of papers will I be assigned in my history courses at Columbia College?

Just as there are two kinds of evidence that historians use in their writing—primary sources and secondary literature—so there are two basic kinds of tasks historians perform in their writing. Historians analyze primary sources, and they analyze secondary literature. Thus there are three kinds of papers you will be assigned: you may be asked to analyze primary documents, secondary literature, or both.

Document analysis assignments.
In a document analysis assignment, you will be given a set of primary source documents by your professor or asked to find one on your own, and you will be asked to answer a question based on these sources. For example, you might be assigned a volume of the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln and asked what his views were on religion. In such a case, you will be expected to read Lincoln’s writings, taking careful notes; think about common themes related to religion that you see again and again; think about what these common themes indicate about Lincoln’s religious views; condense your findings to a single argument; and prove that argument using specific quotations from the speeches and writings in the volume.

Alternatively, you might be assigned to find and explain a primary document relating to women in early America. This assignment differs in that you must find a document on your own instead of being given one; it also differs in that you have wide latitude in asking your own question, rather than being asked one by the professor. For example, you might find an eighteenth-century love letter and use it to answer the question, “How did women feel about love and relationships?” Or you might find a petition to a state legislature written by a woman and use it to answer the question, “What did early American women see as their political role and their political interest?”

In either case, you should base your paper on primary source evidence. The point of these assignments is to get you to read the writings of historical figures themselves and try to understand them. Of course you may have to read modern books or articles in order to understand the documents; nevertheless, you should base your arguments entirely on the information in the documents. Read them with an open mind, and be prepared to come to a conclusion different from that of previous writers.

Click here for a sample document analysis assignment written by an outstanding student. This essay was written in response to the following prompt: “Did westward migration in the 1840s and 1850s reveal the American character, or did it shape it? Base your response on the first-hand accounts in Oregon Trail Stories.”

Secondary literature assignments.
The main type of assignment that asks you to analyze secondary literature is the book review. Again, your professor may assign a book or article for you to review, or you may have freedom to choose your own book to review; and you may be asked a specific question or you may be allowed to ask your own. In either case, though, your review of any book or article should do two things: (1) it should clearly and accurately summarize the work’s argument, and (2) it should analyze the evidence on which that argument is based.

You may be asked whether you agree or disagree with the author; in that case, bear in mind that you are not being asked for a mere opinion. You are being asked to judge whether the author’s evidence is enough to convince a reasonable person (you) of the accuracy of the author’s argument. In order to do this well, you must understand both the argument and the nature of the evidence. In other words, if you misunderstand the author’s argument, there is no way you can determine whether the evidence proves it; and if you misunderstand the evidence, you cannot determine whether it is sufficient to prove the argument. If you doubt your understanding, ask your professor for assistance.

Click here for a sample book review written by an outstanding student. This essay was written in response to an assignment to summarize and evaluate the arguments presented in Margaret Jacob's Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West.

Research papers.
The two kinds of assignments described above, document assignments and book/article reviews, are designed to teach important skills; they are to history what drills and practice are to athletics. The purpose of learning such skills, though, is so that you can apply them—and the research paper is where you apply them. When you are assigned a research paper, you are expected to read and analyze both the primary documents and the secondary literature on your topic. You are expected, in short, to read just about everything there is on your topic, and you are expected to synthesize all that information in a way that makes a new contribution to historical knowledge. If that sounds intimidating, keep in mind that there are large research papers and small ones.

Large research papers: History majors at Columbia College are expected to choose a research topic in their junior year or earlier, and they spend their senior year writing an article-length (at least 25-page) research paper on their topic. Such a paper is certainly a major undertaking, and the senior thesis is the capstone to a history major’s career. If other types of papers are drills and practices, the senior thesis is the World Cup. After finishing it, a Columbia College graduate can legitimately call herself an expert on her topic.

Short research papers: Most research papers you will write, however, are much smaller and more manageable. The primary way in which your professor makes a research paper small and manageable is by allowing you to base your paper on a small subset of what exists about your topic. Typically, you might be expected to base your paper on a certain number of readings; for example, you might be asked to write a paper about race relations in 20th-century Brazil based on at least ten books, articles, and primary sources. Limited in such a way, your research paper might have an assigned length of ten pages or even fewer.

Click here for an example of a short research paper by an outstanding student. This essay was written in response to an assignment to write an 8-10 page research paper on the reactions of South Carolinians to a historical event. The event this student chose was the 1964 Columbia College fire.

How do I do well on my history papers?

Despite the differences among the various history papers you might be assigned, the secret to success in all of them is the same: start early. By starting early, you allow yourself more time to read material carefully rather than sloppily; you allow yourself time to think about what you have read; you allow yourself time to get help from your professor if necessary; you allow yourself enough time to write exactly what you think; and you allow yourself time to edit.

But if you’re reading this the night before your paper is due, here’s the short-cut version: Read, then think, then write, then edit.

Read: Make sure you understand the documents or books or articles your paper is based on. Take notes as you read (being careful to write page numbers). When you are done, outline the main point of the document, book, or article and its supporting evidence.

Think: This step may be the most crucial in the whole process, and it is certainly the most underrated. It looks to others like procrastination; after all, you’re not really doing anything. But it is absolutely essential that you take some time simply to digest all you have read. Take a walk, eat something, or just stare at a wall, and go over what you intend to write. What is your main point? How sure are you that you are right? What makes you so sure? [Write this down—these are your main arguments.] What qualms or uncertainties do you have about your main point? [Write these down—you will need to deal with them in your paper.] Why is your point important? Why is it interesting? [The answers to these questions may be good introduction or conclusion material.] What is the most effective way to present all these ideas?

Write: Despite the importance of reading carefully and taking time to think, most historians don’t really know what they think until they are forced to put it into words. The writing process is therefore much more than taking dictation; it will require rethinking and often rereading, as you figure out exactly what you think and precisely how to say it. A professor who grades you down on your writing is not being “picky.” If you can’t write what you think with specificity and precision, it is usually not because of a mere typo—it’s usually because your thoughts themselves are still too vague. Hint: If you ever find yourself writing a phrase like “had an effect,” it’s time to go back to staring at the wall until you figure out exactly what the effect was.

Edit: Always leave time to give your paper at least a quick read-through. If you can, leave time for yourself and someone else (a parent, a roommate, a writing center tutor) to go through the paper line by line to make sure it says what you intend it to say, and does so clearly and convincingly.

What will impress my professors?

Clarity. If the opening paragraph tells the reader exactly what the paper will argue, your professor is in a good mood before even lifting his red pen.

Nuance. If your argument is complex enough to demonstrate that you have thought deeply about the material, you are well on your way to a good grade.

Judiciousness. If you can see both sides of the story but choose the stronger side, your professor will see that you understand what history is all about: weighing evidence.

Transparency. If you show your entire thought process, including the doubts you have about your own thesis, your professor will respect you immensely. Incidentally, one of the best ways to do this is through an explanatory footnote. In such a footnote you cite your source, then express your reasons for having doubts about the accuracy of the source. Explanatory footnotes are guaranteed to impress even the strictest professor.

Style. Even an ordinary paper becomes an impressive paper if written stylishly. Parallelism, complex sentences, and semicolons all make a paper more stylish; but the most impressive of all elements of style is precision in word choice. For example, “She hinted that his motives were open to question” sounds much more stylish than “She said that his motives were open to question,” doesn’t it?

What if the above guidelines don’t fit my specific paper assignment?

Talk to your professor. He or she would much rather talk to you now, for however long it takes, than receive a bad paper.