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Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates

As you read the important point is to identify critical arguments in the texts. Don't just read for "information. What is the author saying? What are his or her stated and unstated assumptions? What kind of evidence supports the arguments and how is it used? What do particular documents or texts tell you about the time in which they were written? Your questions will be the beginning of your own thesis.

As noted above, all serious writing is done in drafts, and not the night before. Even if you are pressed for time as, of course, you will be give yourself enough time to review and revise your own writing. Students will sometimes turn in papers they have never actually read themselves; this is a mistake which shows.

Think of the first or "preliminary" draft as a detailed outline. Establish your thesis and see how it looks in writing. Is it too general or specific? Does it address the questions asked by the instructor?

Because the thesis is so critical, small changes in it will have a big impact. Don't be afraid to refine it as often as necessary as you continue reading and writing. 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.

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. Now do the bulk of your research.

But do not overdo it. Do not fall into the trap of reading and reading to avoid getting started on the writing. After you have the bulk of information you might need, start writing. You can fill in the smaller gaps of your research more effectively later. Write a preliminary thesis statement, expressing what you believe your major argument s will be. Sketch out a broad outline that indicates the structure - main points and subpoints or your argument as it seems at this time.

Do not get too detailed at this point. On the basis of this thesis statement and outline, start writing, even pieces, as soon as you have enough information to start. Do not wait until you have filled all the research gaps. If you run into smaller research questions just mark the text with a searchable symbol. It is important that you try to get to the end point of this writing as soon as possible, even if you leave pieces still in outline form at first and then fill the gaps after you get to the end.

Critical advice for larger papers: It is often more effective not to start at the point where the beginning of your paper will be. Especially the introductory paragraph is often best left until later, when you feel ready and inspired. The "second draft" is a fully re-thought and rewritten version of your paper.

It is at the heart of the writing process. First, lay your first draft aside for a day or so to gain distance from it. After that break, read it over with a critical eye as you would somebody else's paper well, almost! You will probably find that your first draft is still quite descriptive, rather than argumentative. That is perfectly normal even for experienced writers even after 40 years and a good deal of published work!

You will be frustrated. But keep questioning your paper along the following lines: What precisely are my key questions? What parts of my evidence here are really pertinent to those questions that is, does it help me answer them?

How or in what order can I structure my paper most effectively to answer those questions most clearly and efficiently for my reader? At this point you must outline your paper freshly. Mark up your first draft, ask tough questions whether your argument is clear and whether the order in which you present your points is effective!

You must write conceptually a new paper at this point, even if you can use paragraphs and especially quotes, factual data in the new draft. It is critical that in your new draft your paragraphs start with topic sentences that identify the argument you will be making in the particular paragraph sometimes this can be strings of two or three paragraphs. The individual steps in your argument must be clearly reflected in the topic sentences of your paragraphs or a couple of them linked.

The Third or Final Draft: You are now ready to check for basic rules of good writing. This is when you need to check the diction, that is, the accuracy and suitability of words. Eliminate unnecessary passive or awkward noun constructions active-voice, verbal constructions are usually more effective ; improve the flow of your transitions; avoid repetitions or split infinitives; correct apostrophes in possessives and such. Make the style clear and smooth.

Check that the start of your paper is interesting for the reader. Last but not least, cut out unnecessary verbiage and wordiness. What Should Be Searched? Search all of Carleton. Campus Directory A-Z Guide. How to Write a History Research Paper.


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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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