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Handbook for Historians

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❶A thesis is indeed a "point of view," or "perspective," but of a particular sort: Establish your thesis and see how it looks in writing.

Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates

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Now you have completed your draft. Return to your introduction. Is the thesis clearly stated? Have you established the argument and evidence you will present? Rephrase your thesis if necessary.

You may not even be clear about the final thesis until you have written much of the paper itself and seen how the argument holds together. Add examples or delete non-relevant materials and make sure paragraphs connect with transitions and topic sentences. Some classes, such as the History Seminar, have students critique each others' research drafts, often several times.

Such exercises are invaluable opportunities to learn how other people read you, and how to be fair, judicious, and helpful in your own critiques. Whenever possible try to have someone else read your work and comment on it.

Finally, check for sense, grammar, spelling, and mechanical and typographical errors. Show respect for your reader by not making him or her wade through a sloppy manuscript. Details may not make or break a work, but they make a definite impression about how much you care.

Every professor or instructor has his or her own standards for excellent, good, average, and unacceptable work. A common grading misunderstanding arises from a student belief that answering a question "correctly" in essay form means an automatic "A.

This is only "competent" work. How well you write is what makes the difference. Do you detail your arguments, define terms, make logical connections, expand points, develop ideas, read sources in original and imaginative ways? The difference between competent and excellent work is difficult to define.

Read your own work critically. Are you making the easy points most students would make? Are you really citing and examining the texts? Have you developed original interpretations? Have you given careful thought to argument and presentation, and the logic of your conclusions? Excellent work begins when you challenge yourself. Students are sometimes overwhelmed when asked to produce original, critical work.

What could they say which has not already been said by an expert? No one asks you to be an expert. Your originality lies in your talent as a critical reader and a thoughtful writer. Whether you are studying many sources for a research paper or a few passages from one text for a book review, what matters is how you select, present, and interpret materials. You must at all costs avoid plagiarism, which is a crime and means automatic failure. Plagiarism means taking credit for work which is not your own, and can involve: Pay attention to point 1: Points are obvious cases of cheating.

A strict definition of plagiarism is as follows:. Although it is generally recognized that everything an individual has thought has probably been influenced to some degree by the previously expressed thoughts and actions of others, such influences are general. Plagiarism involves the deliberate taking of specific words and ideas of others without proper acknowledgment. Butters and George D.

Duke University Department of English, , p. Avoid plagiarism by preparing well, relying on your own words and judgments, and—when citing evidence—using proper bibliographic and footnote forms.

Attention to plagiarism should not discourage you from using sources to the fullest; on the contrary it should challenge you to think critically about how you make ideas your own, what debts you owe to others, and how you put the two together to do intellectually honest and original writing. When turning in papers, always keep a copy for yourself; papers do on occasion disappear. Standard format is double-spaced with wide enough margins for reader's comments.

Don't forget to put your name, the class name, and the title of the paper on the first page. Always number the pages for easy reference.

For questions on the stylistic, grammatical, or technical points of preparation, familiarize yourself with the standard reference guides used by all professional writers, such as The Chicago Manual of Style now in a 14th edition , or Kate L.

There you will find information on such topics as proper footnote style. We have included some of the standard forms below:. Princeton University Press, , pp. Mary Contrary, "How Gardens Grow: As noted in the introduction, this guide is a very general formula for writing essays. The goal—and the goal of university education in general—is for you to develop your own methods, strategies, and style.

In writing, follow the guidelines, but do not be formulaic. Originality, creativity, and personal style are not crimes if done well. Make use of this guide, but remember that your greatest resources will be your teachers, fellow students, and the other academic programs of the university. Division of Life Sciences. Foreign Relations Women's and Gender History. Articles Writing Historical Essays: Duke University Department of English, Organize your ideas on paper.

Order your arguments and connect them to the relevant supporting evidence. If the evidence contradicts your thesis, you will have to rethink your thesis.

Obviously you must not alter the evidence, but always look for some citation or text which makes your point better, clearer, more precise, more persuasive. Avoid needlessly long quotes which only fill up space, and be sure what you select actually makes the point you think it does.

All citations must be integrated logically and systematically into your argument. Remember that no quote "speaks for itself. Be attentive to paragraph construction and order. Paragraphs should have strong topic sentences and be several sentences long.

You do not write a paper "about the Civil War," however, for that is such a large and vague concept that the paper will be too shallow or you will be swamped with information.

The next step is to narrow your topic. Are you interested in comparison? Once you reach this stage try to formulate your research topic as a question.

For example, suppose that you decide to write a paper on the use of the films of the 's and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression. You might turn that into the following question: By asking yourself a question as a means of starting research on a topic you will help yourself find the answers. You also open the door to loading the evidence one way or another.

It will help you decide what kinds of evidence might be pertinent to your question, and it can also twist perceptions of a topic. For example, if you ask a question about economics as motivation, you are not likely to learn much about ideals, and vice versa. No one should pick a topic without trying to figure out how one could discover pertinent information, nor should anyone settle on a topic before getting some background information about the general area.

These two checks should make sure your paper is in the realm of the possible. The trick of good research is detective work and imaginative thinking on how one can find information. First try to figure out what kinds of things you should know about a topic to answer your research question.

Do you need personal letters? What background information should be included? Then if you do not know how to find that particular kind of information, ASK. A reference librarian or professor is much more likely to be able to steer you to the right sources if you can ask a specific question such as "Where can I find statistics on the number of interracial marriages?

Use the footnotes and bibliographies of general background books as well as reference aids to lead you to special studies. If Carleton does not have the books or sources you need, try ordering through the library minitex. Many sources are also available on-line. As your research paper takes shape you will find that you need background on people, places, events, etc.

Do not just rely on some general survey for all of your background. Check the several good dictionaries of biography for background on people, or see if there is a standard book-length biography.

If you are dealing with a legal matter check into the background of the judges who make the court decision and the circumstances surrounding the original incident or law.

Try looking for public opinions in newspapers of the time. In other words, each bit of information you find should open the possibility of other research paths. Learn to use several research techniques. You cannot count on a good research paper coming from browsing on one shelf at the library. A really pertinent book may be hidden in another section of the library due to classification quirks. The Readers' Guide Ref. R4 is not the only source for magazine articles, nor the card catalog for books.

There are whole books which are listings of other books on particular topics. There are specialized indexes of magazine articles. S62 and the Humanities Index Ref. See also Historical Abstracts Ref. Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves. It also pays to browse the Internet.

If you do not already have a general background on your topic, get the most recent good general source on the topic and read it for general orientation. On the basis of that reading formulate as clearly focused question as you can.

You should generally discuss with your professor at that point whether your question is a feasible one. Building a Basic Bibliography: If there is a specialized bibliography on your topic, you will certainly want to consult that as well, but these are often a bit dated.

Building a Full Bibliography: Read the recent articles or chapters that seem to focus on your topic best. This will allow you to focus your research question quite a bit. Use such tools as Historical Abstracts or, depending on your topic, the abstracts from a different field and a large, convenient computer-based national library catalog e. For specific article searches "Uncover" press returns for the "open access" or possibly less likely for history "First Search" through "Connect to Other Resources" in MUSE can also be useful.


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For specific article searches "Uncover" (press returns for the "open access") or possibly (less likely for history) "First Search" through "Connect to Other Resources" in MUSE can also be useful. D. Major Research: Now do the bulk of your research. But do not overdo it.

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Guide to writing research papers for the History Department at Le Moyne College.

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