UCLA History Department

Steps for Writing a History Paper

Writing a history paper is a process.  Successful papers are not completed in a single moment of genius or inspiration, but are developed over a series of steps.  When you first read a paper prompt, you might feel overwhelmed or intimidated.  If you think of writing as a process and break it down into smaller steps, you will find that paper-writing is manageable, less daunting, and even enjoyable.  Writing a history paper is your opportunity to do the real work of historians, to roll up your sleeves and dig deep into the past.

What is a History paper?

History papers are driven by arguments.  In a history class, even if you are not writing a paper based on outside research, you are still writing a paper that requires some form of argument.  For example, suppose your professor has asked you to write a paper discussing the differences between colonial New England and colonial Virginia.  It might seem like this paper is straightforward and does not require an argument, that it is simply a matter of finding the “right answer.”  However, even here you need to construct a paper guided by a larger argument.  You might argue that the main differences between colonial New England and Virginia were grounded in contrasting visions of colonization.  Or you might argue that the differences resulted from accidents of geography or from extant alliances between regional Indian groups.  Or you might make an argument that draws on all of these factors.  Regardless, when you make these types of assertions, you are making an argument that requires historical evidence.  Any history paper you write will be driven by an argument demanding evidence from sources.

History writing assignments can vary widely–and you should always follow your professor’s specific instructions–but the following steps are designed to help no matter what kind of history paper you are writing.  Remember that the staff of the History Writing Center is here to assist you at any stage of the writing process.

  • Sometimes professors distribute prompts with several sub-questions surrounding the main question they want you to write about.  The sub-questions are designed to help you think about the topic.  They offer ideas you might consider, but they are not, usually, the key question or questions you need to answer in your paper.  Make sure you distinguish the key questions from the sub-questions.  Otherwise, your paper may sound like a laundry list of short-answer essays rather than a cohesive argument. A helpful way to hone in on the key question is to look for action verbs, such as “analyze” or “investigate” or “formulate.”  Find such words in the paper prompt and circle them.  Then, carefully consider what you are being asked to do.  Write out the key question at the top of your draft and return to it often, using it to guide you in the writing process.  Also, be sure that you are responding to every part of the prompt.  Prompts will often have several questions you need to address in your paper.  If you do not cover all aspects, then you are not responding fully to the assignment.  For more information, visit our section, “Understanding Paper Prompts.”
  • Before you even start researching or drafting, take a few minutes to consider what you already know about the topic.  Make a list of ideas or draw a cluster diagram, using circles and arrows to connect ideas–whatever method works for you.  At this point in the process, it is helpful to write down all of your ideas without stopping to judge or analyze each one in depth.  You want to think big and bring in everything you know or suspect about the topic.  After you have finished, read over what you have created.  Look for patterns or trends or questions that keep coming up.  Based on what you have brainstormed, what do you still need to learn about the topic?  Do you have a tentative argument or response to the paper prompt?  Use this information to guide you as you start your research and develop a thesis.
  • Depending on the paper prompt, you may be required to do outside research or you may be using only the readings you have done in class.  Either way, start by rereading the relevant materials from class.  Find the parts from the textbook, from the primary source readings, and from your notes that relate to the prompt. If you need to do outside research, the UCLA library system offers plenty of resources.  You can begin by plugging key words into the online library catalog.  This process will likely involve some trial and error.  You will want to use search terms that are specific enough to address your topic without being so narrow that you get no results.  If your keywords are too general, you may receive thousands of results and feel overwhelmed.  To help you narrow your search, go back to the key questions in the essay prompt that you wrote down in Step 1.  Think about which terms would help you respond to the prompt.  Also, look at the language your professor used in the prompt.  You might be able to use some of those same words as search terms. Notice that the library website has different databases you can search depending on what type of material you need (such as scholarly articles, newspapers, books) and what subject and time period you are researching (such as eighteenth-century England or ancient Rome).  Searching the database most relevant to your topic will yield the best results.  Visit the library’s History Research Guide for tips on the research process and on using library resources.  You can also schedule an appointment with a librarian to talk specifically about your research project.  Or, make an appointment with staff at the History Writing Center for research help.  Visit our section about using electronic resources as well.
  • By this point, you know what the prompt is asking, you have brainstormed possible responses, and you have done some research.  Now you need to step back, look at the material you have, and develop your argument.  Based on the reading and research you have done, how might you answer the question(s) in the prompt?  What arguments do your sources allow you to make?  Draft a thesis statement in which you clearly and succinctly make an argument that addresses the prompt. If you find writing a thesis daunting, remember that whatever you draft now is not set in stone.  Your thesis will change.  As you do more research, reread your sources, and write your paper, you will learn more about the topic and your argument.  For now, produce a “working thesis,” meaning, a thesis that represents your thinking up to this point.  Remember it will almost certainly change as you move through the writing process.  For more information, visit our section about thesis statements.  Once you have a thesis, you may find that you need to do more research targeted to your specific argument.  Revisit some of the tips from Step 3.
  • Now that you have a working thesis, look back over your sources and identify which ones are most critical to you–the ones you will be grappling with most directly in order to make your argument.  Then, annotate them.  Annotating sources means writing a paragraph that summarizes the main idea of the source as well as shows how you will use the source in your paper.  Think about what the source does for you.  Does it provide evidence in support of your argument?  Does it offer a counterpoint that you can then refute, based on your research?  Does it provide critical historical background that you need in order to make a point?  For more information about annotating sources, visit our section on annotated bibliographies. While it might seem like this step creates more work for you by having to do more writing, it in fact serves two critical purposes: it helps you refine your working thesis by distilling exactly what your sources are saying, and it helps smooth your writing process.  Having dissected your sources and articulated your ideas about them, you can more easily draw upon them when constructing your paper.  Even if you do not have to do outside research and are limited to working with the readings you have done in class, annotating sources is still very useful.  Write down exactly how a particular section in the textbook or in a primary source reader will contribute to your paper.
  • An outline is helpful in giving you a sense of the overall structure of your paper and how best to organize your ideas.  You need to decide how to arrange your argument in a way that will make the most sense to your reader.  Perhaps you decide that your argument is most clear when presented chronologically, or perhaps you find that it works best with a thematic approach.  There is no one right way to organize a history paper; it depends entirely on the prompt, on your sources, and on what you think would be most clear to someone reading it. An effective outline includes the following components: the research question from the prompt (that you wrote down in Step 1), your working thesis, the main idea of each body paragraph, and the evidence (from both primary and secondary sources) you will use to support each body paragraph.  Be as detailed as you can when putting together your outline.

If you have trouble getting started or are feeling overwhelmed, try free writing.  Free writing is a low-stakes writing exercise to help you get past the blank page.  Set a timer for five or ten minutes and write down everything you know about your paper: your argument, your sources, counterarguments, everything.  Do not edit or judge what you are writing as you write; just keep writing until the timer goes off.  You may be surprised to find out how much you knew about your topic.  Of course, this writing will not be polished, so do not be tempted to leave it as it is.  Remember that this draft is your first one, and you will be revising it.

A particularly helpful exercise for global-level revision is to make a reverse outline, which will help you look at your paper as a whole and strengthen the way you have organized and substantiated your argument.  Print out your draft and number each of the paragraphs.  Then, on a separate piece of paper, write down each paragraph number and, next to it, summarize in a phrase or a sentence the main idea of that paragraph.  As you produce this list, notice if any paragraphs attempt to make more than one point: mark those for revision.  Once you have compiled the list, read it over carefully.  Study the order in which you have sequenced your ideas.  Notice if there are ideas that seem out of order or repetitive.  Look for any gaps in your logic.  Does the argument flow and make sense?

When revising at the local level, check that you are using strong topic sentences and transitions, that you have adequately integrated and analyzed quotations, and that your paper is free from grammar and spelling errors that might distract the reader or even impede your ability to communicate your point.  One helpful exercise for revising on the local level is to read your paper out loud.  Hearing your paper will help you catch grammatical errors and awkward sentences.

Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself while revising on both the global and local levels:

– Does my thesis clearly state my argument and its significance?

– Does the main argument in each body paragraph support my thesis?

– Do I have enough evidence within each body paragraph to make my point?

– Have I properly introduced, analyzed, and cited every quotation I use?

– Do my topic sentences effectively introduce the main point of each paragraph?

– Do I have transitions between paragraphs?

– Is my paper free of grammar and spelling errors?

  • Congratulate yourself. You have written a history paper!

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Writing a Good History Paper

  • Top Ten Reasons for Negative Comments
  • Making Sure your Paper has Substance

Common Marginal Remarks on Style, Clarity, Grammar, and Syntax

Word and phrase usage problems, analyzing a historical document, writing a book review, writing a term paper or senior thesis, top ten reasons for negative comments on history papers.

(Drawn from a survey of the History Department ) 10. You engage in cheap, anachronistic moralizing .  9. You are sloppy with the chronology .  8. You quote excessively or improperly .  7. You have written a careless “one-draft wonder.” (See revise and proofread)  6. You are vague or have empty, unsupported generalizations .  5. You write too much in the passive voice.  4. You use inappropriate sources .  3. You use evidence uncritically.  2. You are wordy .  1. You have no clear thesis and little analysis.

Making Sure your History Paper has Substance

Get off to a good start..

Avoid pretentious, vapid beginnings. If you are writing a paper on, say, British responses to the rebellion in India in 1857, don't open with a statement like this: “Throughout human history people in all cultures everywhere in the world have engaged in many and long-running conflicts about numerous aspects of government policy and diplomatic issues, which have much interested historians and generated historical theories in many areas.” This is pure garbage, bores the reader, and is a sure sign that you have nothing substantive to say. Get to the point. Here’s a better start: “The rebellion in 1857 compelled the British to rethink their colonial administration in India.” This sentence tells the reader what your paper is actually about and clears the way for you to state your thesis in the rest of the opening paragraph. For example, you might go on to argue that greater British sensitivity to Indian customs was hypocritical.

State a clear thesis.

Whether you are writing an exam essay or a senior thesis, you need to have a thesis. Don’t just repeat the assignment or start writing down everything that you know about the subject. Ask yourself, “What exactly am I trying to prove?” Your thesis is your take on the subject, your perspective, your explanation—that is, the case that you’re going to argue. “Famine struck Ireland in the 1840s” is a true statement, but it is not a thesis. “The English were responsible for famine in Ireland in the 1840s” is a thesis (whether defensible or not is another matter). A good thesis answers an important research question about how or why something happened. (“Who was responsible for the famine in Ireland in the 1840s?”) Once you have laid out your thesis, don’t forget about it. Develop your thesis logically from paragraph to paragraph. Your reader should always know where your argument has come from, where it is now, and where it is going.

Be sure to analyze.

Students are often puzzled when their professors mark them down for summarizing or merely narrating rather than analyzing. What does it mean to analyze? In the narrow sense, to analyze means to break down into parts and to study the interrelationships of those parts. If you analyze water, you break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. In a broader sense, historical analysis explains the origins and significance of events. Historical analysis digs beneath the surface to see relationships or distinctions that are not immediately obvious. Historical analysis is critical; it evaluates sources, assigns significance to causes, and weighs competing explanations. Don’t push the distinction too far, but you might think of summary and analysis this way: Who, what, when, and where are the stuff of summary; how, why, and to what effect are the stuff of analysis. Many students think that they have to give a long summary (to show the professor that they know the facts) before they get to their analysis. Try instead to begin your analysis as soon as possible, sometimes without any summary at all. The facts will “shine through” a good analysis. You can't do an analysis unless you know the facts, but you can summarize the facts without being able to do an analysis. Summary is easier and less sophisticated than analysis—that’s why summary alone never earns an “A.”

Use evidence critically.

Like good detectives, historians are critical of their sources and cross-check them for reliability. You wouldn't think much of a detective who relied solely on a suspect’s archenemy to check an alibi. Likewise, you wouldn't think much of a historian who relied solely on the French to explain the origins of World War I. Consider the following two statements on the origin of World War I: 1) “For the catastrophe of 1914 the Germans are responsible. Only a professional liar would deny this...” 2) “It is not true that Germany is guilty of having caused this war. Neither the people, the government, nor the Kaiser wanted war....”  They can’t both be right, so you have to do some detective work. As always, the best approach is to ask: Who wrote the source? Why? When? Under what circumstances? For whom? The first statement comes from a book by the French politician Georges Clemenceau, which he wrote in 1929 at the very end of his life. In 1871, Clemenceau had vowed revenge against Germany for its defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. As premier of France from 1917 to 1920, he represented France at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He was obviously not a disinterested observer. The second statement comes from a manifesto published by ninety-three prominent German intellectuals in the fall of 1914. They were defending Germany against charges of aggression and brutality. They too were obviously not disinterested observers. Now, rarely do you encounter such extreme bias and passionate disagreement, but the principle of criticizing and cross-checking sources always applies. In general, the more sources you can use, and the more varied they are, the more likely you are to make a sound historical judgment, especially when passions and self-interests are engaged. You don’t need to be cynical as a historian (self-interest does not explain everything), but you do need to be critical and skeptical. Competent historians may offer different interpretations of the same evidence or choose to stress different evidence. You will not find a single historical Truth with a capital “T” on any matter of significance. You can, however, learn to discriminate among conflicting interpretations, not all of which are created equal. (See also: Analyzing a Historical Document )

Be precise.

Vague statements and empty generalizations suggest that you haven't put in the time to learn the material. Consider these two sentences: “During the French Revolution, the government was overthrown by the people. The Revolution is important because it shows that people need freedom.” What people? Landless peasants? Urban journeymen? Wealthy lawyers? Which government? When? How? Who exactly needed freedom, and what did they mean by freedom? Here is a more precise statement about the French Revolution: “Threatened by rising prices and food shortages in 1793, the Parisian sans-culottes pressured the Convention to institute price controls.” This statement is more limited than the grandiose generalizations about the Revolution, but unlike them, it can open the door to a real analysis of the Revolution. Be careful when you use grand abstractions like people, society, freedom, and government, especially when you further distance yourself from the concrete by using these words as the apparent antecedents for the pronouns they and it. Always pay attention to cause and effect. Abstractions do not cause or need anything; particular people or particular groups of people cause or need things. Avoid grandiose trans-historical generalizations that you can’t support. When in doubt about the appropriate level of precision or detail, err on the side of adding “too much” precision and detail.

Watch the chronology.

Anchor your thesis in a clear chronological framework and don't jump around confusingly. Take care to avoid both anachronisms and vagueness about dates. If you write, “Napoleon abandoned his Grand Army in Russia and caught the redeye back to Paris,” the problem is obvious. If you write, “Despite the Watergate scandal, Nixon easily won reelection in 1972,” the problem is more subtle, but still serious. (The scandal did not become public until after the election.) If you write, “The revolution in China finally succeeded in the twentieth century,” your professor may suspect that you haven’t studied. Which revolution? When in the twentieth century? Remember that chronology is the backbone of history. What would you think of a biographer who wrote that you graduated from Hamilton in the 1950s?

Cite sources carefully.

Your professor may allow parenthetical citations in a short paper with one or two sources, but you should use footnotes for any research paper in history. Parenthetical citations are unaesthetic; they scar the text and break the flow of reading. Worse still, they are simply inadequate to capture the richness of historical sources. Historians take justifiable pride in the immense variety of their sources. Parenthetical citations such as (Jones 1994) may be fine for most of the social sciences and humanities, where the source base is usually limited to recent books and articles in English. Historians, however, need the flexibility of the full footnote. Try to imagine this typical footnote (pulled at random from a classic work of German history) squeezed into parentheses in the body of the text: DZA Potsdam, RdI, Frieden 5, Erzgebiet von Longwy-Briey, Bd. I, Nr. 19305, gedruckte Denkschrift für OHL und Reichsleitung, Dezember 1917, und in RWA, Frieden Frankreich Nr. 1883. The abbreviations are already in this footnote; its information cannot be further reduced. For footnotes and bibliography, historians usually use Chicago style. (The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.) On the Writing Center’s website you can find a useful summary of Chicago citation style prepared by a former history major, Elizabeth Rabe ’04 ( Footnotes ). RefWorks (on the library’s website) will convert your citations to Chicago style. Don’t hesitate to ask one of the reference librarians for help if you have trouble getting started on RefWorks.

Use primary sources.

Use as many primary sources as possible in your paper. A primary source is one produced by a participant in or witness of the events you are writing about. A primary source allows the historian to see the past through the eyes of direct participants. Some common primary sources are letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, church records, newspaper articles, and government documents of all kinds. The capacious genre “government records” is probably the single richest trove for the historian and includes everything from criminal court records, to tax lists, to census data, to parliamentary debates, to international treaties—indeed, any records generated by governments. If you’re writing about culture, primary sources may include works of art or literature, as well as philosophical tracts or scientific treatises—anything that comes under the broad rubric of culture. Not all primary sources are written. Buildings, monuments, clothes, home furnishings, photographs, religious relics, musical recordings, or oral reminiscences can all be primary sources if you use them as historical clues. The interests of historians are so broad that virtually anything can be a primary source. (See also: Analyzing a Historical Document )

Use scholarly secondary sources.

A secondary source is one written by a later historian who had no part in what he or she is writing about. (In the rare cases when the historian was a participant in the events, then the work—or at least part of it—is a primary source.) Historians read secondary sources to learn about how scholars have interpreted the past. Just as you must be critical of primary sources, so too you must be critical of secondary sources. You must be especially careful to distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly secondary sources. Unlike, say, nuclear physics, history attracts many amateurs. Books and articles about war, great individuals, and everyday material life dominate popular history. Some professional historians disparage popular history and may even discourage their colleagues from trying their hand at it. You need not share their snobbishness; some popular history is excellent. But—and this is a big but—as a rule, you should avoid popular works in your research, because they are usually not scholarly. Popular history seeks to inform and entertain a large general audience. In popular history, dramatic storytelling often prevails over analysis, style over substance, simplicity over complexity, and grand generalization over careful qualification. Popular history is usually based largely or exclusively on secondary sources. Strictly speaking, most popular histories might better be called tertiary, not secondary, sources. Scholarly history, in contrast, seeks to discover new knowledge or to reinterpret existing knowledge. Good scholars wish to write clearly and simply, and they may spin a compelling yarn, but they do not shun depth, analysis, complexity, or qualification. Scholarly history draws on as many primary sources as practical. Now, your goal as a student is to come as close as possible to the scholarly ideal, so you need to develop a nose for distinguishing the scholarly from the non-scholarly. Here are a few questions you might ask of your secondary sources (bear in mind that the popular/scholarly distinction is not absolute, and that some scholarly work may be poor scholarship). Who is the author? Most scholarly works are written by professional historians (usually professors) who have advanced training in the area they are writing about. If the author is a journalist or someone with no special historical training, be careful. Who publishes the work? Scholarly books come from university presses and from a handful of commercial presses (for example, Norton, Routledge, Palgrave, Penguin, Rowman & Littlefield, Knopf, and HarperCollins). If it’s an article, where does it appear? Is it in a journal subscribed to by our library, listed on JSTOR , or published by a university press? Is the editorial board staffed by professors? Oddly enough, the word journal in the title is usually a sign that the periodical is scholarly. What do the notes and bibliography look like? If they are thin or nonexistent, be careful. If they are all secondary sources, be careful. If the work is about a non-English-speaking area, and all the sources are in English, then it's almost by definition not scholarly. Can you find reviews of the book in the data base Academic Search Premier? If the book was published within the last few decades, and it’s not in there, that’s a bad sign. With a little practice, you can develop confidence in your judgment—and you’re on your way to being a historian. If you are unsure whether a work qualifies as scholarly, ask your professor. (See also: Writing a Book Review )

Avoid abusing your sources.

Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses: Web abuse. The Web is a wonderful and improving resource for indexes and catalogs. But as a source for primary and secondary material for the historian, the Web is of limited value. Anyone with the right software can post something on the Web without having to get past trained editors, peer reviewers, or librarians. As a result, there is a great deal of garbage on the Web. If you use a primary source from the Web, make sure that a respected intellectual institution stands behind the site. Be especially wary of secondary articles on the Web, unless they appear in electronic versions of established print journals (e.g., The Journal of Asian Studies in JSTOR). Many articles on the Web are little more than third-rate encyclopedia entries. When in doubt, check with your professor. With a few rare exceptions, you will not find scholarly monographs in history (even recent ones) on the Web. You may have heard of Google’s plans to digitize the entire collections of some of the world’s major libraries and to make those collections available on the Web. Don’t hold your breath. Your days at Hamilton will be long over by the time the project is finished. Besides, your training as a historian should give you a healthy skepticism of the giddy claims of technophiles. Most of the time and effort of doing history goes into reading, note-taking, pondering, and writing. Finding a chapter of a book on the Web (as opposed to getting the physical book through interlibrary loan) might be a convenience, but it doesn’t change the basics for the historian. Moreover, there is a subtle, but serious, drawback with digitized old books: They break the historian’s sensual link to the past. And of course, virtually none of the literally trillions of pages of archival material is available on the Web. For the foreseeable future, the library and the archive will remain the natural habitats of the historian. Thesaurus abuse. How tempting it is to ask your computer’s thesaurus to suggest a more erudite-sounding word for the common one that popped into your mind! Resist the temptation. Consider this example (admittedly, a bit heavy-handed, but it drives the point home): You’re writing about the EPA’s programs to clean up impure water supplies. Impure seems too simple and boring a word, so you bring up your thesaurus, which offers you everything from incontinent to meretricious. “How about meretricious water?” you think to yourself. “That will impress the professor.” The problem is that you don’t know exactly what meretricious means, so you don’t realize that meretricious is absurdly inappropriate in this context and makes you look foolish and immature. Use only those words that come to you naturally. Don’t try to write beyond your vocabulary. Don’t try to impress with big words. Use a thesaurus only for those annoying tip-of-the-tongue problems (you know the word and will recognize it instantly when you see it, but at the moment you just can’t think of it).  Quotation book abuse. This is similar to thesaurus abuse. Let’s say you are writing a paper on Alexander Hamilton’s banking policies, and you want to get off to a snappy start that will make you seem effortlessly learned. How about a quotation on money? You click on the index of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations , and before you know it, you’ve begun your paper with, “As Samuel Butler wrote in Hudibras ,  ‘For what is worth in anything/ But so much money as ’t will bring?’” Face it, you’re faking it. You don’t know who Samuel Butler is, and you’ve certainly never heard of Hudibras , let alone read it. Your professor is not fooled. You sound like an insecure after-dinner speaker. Forget Bartlett’s, unless you're confirming the wording of a quotation that came to you spontaneously and relates to your paper.  Encyclopedia abuse. General encyclopedias like Britannica are useful for checking facts (“Wait a sec, am I right about which countries sent troops to crush the Boxer Rebellion in China? Better check.”). But if you are footnoting encyclopedias in your papers, you are not doing college-level research.

Dictionary Abuse. The dictionary is your friend. Keep it by your side as you write, but do not abuse it by starting papers with a definition. You may be most tempted to start this way when you are writing on a complex, controversial, or elusive subject. (“According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary , liberalism is defined as...”). Actually, the dictionary does you little good in such cases and makes you sound like a conscientious but dull high-school student. Save in the rare case that competing dictionary definitions are the subject at hand, keep dictionary quotations out of your paper.

Quote sparingly

Avoid quoting a secondary source and then simply rewording or summarizing the quotation, either above or below the quotation. It is rarely necessary to quote secondary sources at length, unless your essay focuses on a critical analysis of the author’s argument. (See also: Writing a Book Review ) Your professor wants to see your ability to analyze and to understand the secondary sources. Do not quote unless the quotation clarifies or enriches your analysis. When in doubt, do not quote; instead, integrate the author’s argument into your own (though be sure to acknowledge ideas from your sources, even when you are paraphrasing). If you use a lot of quotations from secondary sources, you are probably writing a poor paper. An analysis of a primary source, such as a political tract or philosophical essay, might require lengthy quotations, often in block format. In such cases, you might need to briefly repeat key points or passages as a means to introduce the author’s ideas, but your analysis and interpretation of the text’s meaning should remain the most important aim. (See also: Using primary sources and Use scholarly secondary sources .)

Know your audience

Unless instructed otherwise, you should assume that your audience consists of educated, intelligent, nonspecialists. In fact, your professor will usually be your only reader, but if you write directly to your professor, you may become cryptic or sloppy (oh well, she’ll know what I’m talking about). Explaining your ideas to someone who doesn't know what you mean forces you to be clear and complete. Now, finding the right amount of detail can, admittedly, be tricky (how much do I put in about the Edict of Nantes, the Embargo Act, or President Wilson’s background?). When in doubt, err on the side of putting in extra details. You’ll get some leeway here if you avoid the extremes (my reader’s an ignoramus/my reader knows everything).

Avoid cheap, anachronistic moralizing

Many of the people and institutions of the past appear unenlightened, ignorant, misguided, or bigoted by today’s values. Resist the temptation to condemn or to get self-righteous. (“Martin Luther was blind to the sexism and class prejudice of sixteenth-century German society.”) Like you, people in the past were creatures of their time; like you, they deserve to be judged by the standards of their time. If you judge the past by today’s standards (an error historians call “presentism”), you will never understand why people thought or acted as they did. Yes, Hitler was a bad guy, but he was bad not only by today’s standards, but also by the commonly accepted standards of his own time. Someday you’re going to look pretty foolish and ignorant yourself. (“Early twenty-first century Hamilton students failed to see the shocking inderdosherism [that’s right, you don’t recognize the concept because it doesn’t yet exist] implicit in their career plans.”)

Have a strong conclusion

Obviously, you should not just stop abruptly as though you have run out of time or ideas. Your conclusion should conclude something. If you merely restate briefly what you have said in your paper, you give the impression that you are unsure of the significance of what you have written. A weak conclusion leaves the reader unsatisfied and bewildered, wondering why your paper was worth reading. A strong conclusion adds something to what you said in your introduction. A strong conclusion explains the importance and significance of what you have written. A strong conclusion leaves your reader caring about what you have said and pondering the larger implications of your thesis. Don’t leave your reader asking, “So what?”

Revise and proofread

Your professor can spot a “one-draft wonder,” so don't try to do your paper at the last moment. Leave plenty of time for revising and proofreading. Show your draft to a writing tutor or other good writer. Reading the draft aloud may also help. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and a few may slip through no matter how meticulous you are. But beware of lots of mistakes. The failure to proofread carefully suggests that you devoted little time and effort to the assignment. Tip: Proofread your text both on the screen and on a printed copy. Your eyes see the two differently. Don’t rely on your spell checker to catch all of your misspellings. (If ewe ken reed this ewe kin sea that a computer wood nut all ways help ewe spill or rite reel good.)

Note: The Writing Center suggests standard abbreviations for noting some of these problems. You should familiarize yourself with those abbreviations, but your professor may not use them.  

Remarks on Style and Clarity

Wordy/verbose/repetitive..

Try your hand at fixing this sentence: “Due to the fact that these aspects of the issue of personal survival have been raised by recently transpired problematic conflicts, it is at the present time paramount that the ultimate psychological end of suicide be contemplated by this individual.” If you get it down to “To be or not to be, that is the question,” you’ve done well. You may not match Shakespeare, but you can learn to cut the fat out of your prose. The chances are that the five pages you’ve written for your history paper do not really contain five pages’ worth of ideas.

Misuse of the passive voice.

Write in the active voice. The passive voice encourages vagueness and dullness; it enfeebles verbs; and it conceals agency, which is the very stuff of history. You know all of this almost instinctively. What would you think of a lover who sighed in your ear, “My darling, you are loved by me!”? At its worst, the passive voice—like its kin, bureaucratic language and jargon—is a medium for the dishonesty and evasion of responsibility that pervade contemporary American culture. (“Mistakes were made; I was given false information.” Now notice the difference: “I screwed up; Smith and Jones lied to me; I neglected to check the facts.”) On history papers the passive voice usually signals a less toxic version of the same unwillingness to take charge, to commit yourself, and to say forthrightly what is really going on, and who is doing what to whom. Suppose you write, “In 1935 Ethiopia was invaded.” This sentence is a disaster. Who invaded? Your professor will assume that you don't know. Adding “by Italy” to the end of the sentence helps a bit, but the sentence is still flat and misleading. Italy was an aggressive actor, and your passive construction conceals that salient fact by putting the actor in the syntactically weakest position—at the end of the sentence as the object of a preposition. Notice how you add vigor and clarity to the sentence when you recast it in the active voice: "In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia." I n a few cases , you may violate the no-passive-voice rule. The passive voice may be preferable if the agent is either obvious (“Kennedy was elected in 1960”), irrelevant (“Theodore Roosevelt became president when McKinley was assassinated”), or unknown (“King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings”). Note that in all three of these sample sentences the passive voice focuses the reader on the receiver of the action rather than on the doer (on Kennedy, not on American voters; on McKinley, not on his assassin; on King Harold, not on the unknown Norman archer). Historians usually wish to focus on the doer, so you should stay with the active voice—unless you can make a compelling case for an exception.

Abuse of the verb to be.

The verb to be is the most common and most important verb in English, but too many verbs to be suck the life out of your prose and lead to wordiness. Enliven your prose with as many action verbs as possible. ( “In Brown v. Board of Education it was the opinion of the Supreme Court that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”) Rewrite as “ In Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ violated the Fourteenth ”

Explain/what’s your point?/unclear/huh?

You may (or may not) know what you’re talking about, but if you see these marginal comments, you have confused your reader. You may have introduced a non sequitur ; gotten off the subject; drifted into abstraction; assumed something that you have not told the reader; failed to explain how the material relates to your argument; garbled your syntax; or simply failed to proofread carefully.  If possible, have a good writer read your paper and point out the muddled parts. Reading your paper aloud may help too.

Paragraph goes nowhere/has no point or unity.

Paragraphs are the building blocks of your paper. If your paragraphs are weak, your paper cannot be strong. Try underlining the topic sentence of every paragraph. If your topic sentences are vague, strength and precision—the hallmarks of good writing—are unlikely to follow. Consider this topic sentence (from a paper on Ivan the Terrible): “From 1538 to 1547, there are many different arguments about the nature of what happened.”  Disaster looms. The reader has no way of knowing when the arguing takes place, who’s arguing, or even what the arguing is about. And how does the “nature of what happened” differ from plain “what happened”? Perhaps the writer means the following: “The childhood of Ivan the Terrible has provoked controversy among scholars of Russian history.” That's hardly deathless prose, but it does orient the reader and make the writer accountable for what follows in the paragraph. Once you have a good topic sentence, make sure that everything in the paragraph supports that sentence, and that cumulatively the support is persuasive. Make sure that each sentence follows logically from the previous one, adding detail in a coherent order. Move, delete, or add material as appropriate. To avoid confusing the reader, limit each paragraph to one central idea. (If you have a series of supporting points starting with first, you must follow with a second, third , etc.) A paragraph that runs more than a printed page is probably too long. Err on the side of shorter paragraphs.

Inappropriate use of first person.

Most historians write in the third person, which focuses the reader on the subject. If you write in the first person singular, you shift the focus to yourself. You give the impression that you want to break in and say, “Enough about the Haitian revolution [or whatever], now let’s talk about me!” Also avoid the first person plural (“We believe...”). It suggests committees, editorial boards, or royalty. None of those should have had a hand in writing your paper. And don’t refer to yourself lamely as “this writer.” Who else could possibly be writing the paper?

Tense inconsistency.

Stay consistently in the past tense when you are writing about what took place in the past. (“Truman’s defeat of Dewey in 1948 caught the pollsters by surprise.”) Note that the context may require a shift into the past perfect. (“The pollsters had not realized [past perfect] that voter opinion had been [past perfect] changing rapidly in the days before the election.”) Unfortunately, the tense problem can get a bit more complicated. Most historians shift into the present tense when describing or commenting on a book, document, or evidence that still exists and is in front of them (or in their mind) as they write.  (“de Beauvoir published [past tense] The Second Sex in 1949. In the book she contends [present tense] that woman....”) If you’re confused, think of it this way: History is about the past, so historians write in the past tense, unless they are discussing effects of the past that still exist and thus are in the present. When in doubt, use the past tense and stay consistent.

Ill-fitted quotation.

This is a common problem, though not noted in stylebooks. When you quote someone, make sure that the quotation fits grammatically into your sentence.  Note carefully the mismatch between the start of the following sentence and the quotation that follows:  “In order to understand the Vikings, writes Marc Bloch, it is necessary, ‘To conceive of the Viking expeditions as religious warfare inspired by the ardour of an implacable pagan fanaticism—an explanation that has sometimes been at least suggested—conflicts too much with what we know of minds disposed to respect magic of every kind.’” At first, the transition into the quotation from Bloch seems fine. The infinitive (to conceive) fits. But then the reader comes to the verb (conflicts) in Bloch’s sentence, and things no longer make sense. The writer is saying, in effect, “it is necessary conflicts.” The wordy lead-in and the complex syntax of the quotation have tripped the writer and confused the reader. If you wish to use the whole sentence, rewrite as “Marc Bloch writes in Feudal Society , ‘To conceive of...’” Better yet, use your own words or only part of the quotation in your sentence. Remember that good writers quote infrequently, but when they do need to quote, they use carefully phrased lead-ins that fit the grammatical construction of the quotation.

Free-floating quotation.

Do not suddenly drop quotations into your prose. (“The spirit of the Progressive era is best understood if one remembers that the United States is ‘the only country in the world that began with perfection and aspired to progress.’”) You have probably chosen the quotation because it is finely wrought and says exactly what you want to say. Fine, but first you inconvenience the reader, who must go to the footnote to learn that the quotation comes from The Age of Reform by historian Richard Hofstadter. And then you puzzle the reader. Did Hofstadter write the line about perfection and progress, or is he quoting someone from the Progressive era? If, as you claim, you are going to help the reader to judge the “spirit of the Progressive era,” you need to clarify. Rewrite as “As historian Richard Hofstadter writes in the Age of Reform , the United States is ‘the only country in the world...’” Now the reader knows immediately that the line is Hofstadter’s.

Who’s speaking here?/your view?

Always be clear about whether you’re giving your opinion or that of the author or historical actor you are discussing. Let’s say that your essay is about Martin Luther’s social views. You write, “The German peasants who revolted in 1525 were brutes and deserved to be crushed mercilessly.” That’s what Luther thought, but do you agree?  You may know, but your reader is not a mind reader. When in doubt, err on the side of being overly clear.

Jargon/pretentious theory.

Historians value plain English. Academic jargon and pretentious theory will make your prose turgid, ridiculous, and downright irritating. Your professor will suspect that you are trying to conceal that you have little to say. Of course, historians can’t get along without some theory; even those who profess to have no theory actually do—it’s called naïve realism. And sometimes you need a technical term, be it ontological argument or ecological fallacy. When you use theory or technical terms, make sure that they are intelligible and do real intellectual lifting.  Please, no sentences like this: “By means of a neo-Althusserian, post-feminist hermeneutics, this essay will de/construct the logo/phallo/centrism imbricated in the marginalizing post-colonial gendered gaze, thereby proliferating the subjectivities that will re/present the de/stabilization of the essentializing habitus of post-Fordist capitalism.”

Informal language/slang.

You don’t need to be stuffy, but stay with formal English prose of the kind that will still be comprehensible to future generations. Columbus did not “push the envelope in the Atlantic.” Henry VIII was not “looking for his inner child when he broke with the Church.” Prime Minister Cavour of Piedmont was not “trying to play in the major leagues diplomatic wise.” Wilson did not “almost veg out” at the end of his second term. President Hindenburg did not appoint Hitler in a “senior moment.” Prime Minister Chamberlain did not tell the Czechs to “chill out” after the Munich Conference, and Gandhi was not an “awesome dude.”

Try to keep your prose fresh. Avoid cliches. When you proofread, watch out for sentences like these: “Voltaire always gave 110 percent and thought outside the box. His bottom line was that as people went forward into the future, they would, at the end of the day, step up to the plate and realize that the Jesuits were conniving perverts.” Ugh. Rewrite as “Voltaire tried to persuade people that the Jesuits were cony, step up to the plate and realize that the Jesuits were conniving perverts.” Ugh. Rewrite as “Voltaire tried to persuade people that the Jesuits were conniving perverts.”

Intensifier abuse/exaggeration.

Avoid inflating your prose with unsustainable claims of size, importance, uniqueness, certainty, or intensity. Such claims mark you as an inexperienced writer trying to impress the reader. Your statement is probably not certain ; your subject probably not unique , the biggest, the best, or the most important. Also, the adverb very will rarely strengthen your sentence. Strike it. (“President Truman was very determined to stop the spread of communism in Greece.”) Rewrite as “President Truman resolved to stop the spread of communism in Greece.”

Mixed image.

Once you have chosen an image, you must stay with language compatible with that image. In the following example, note that the chain, the boiling, and the igniting are all incompatible with the image of the cold, rolling, enlarging snowball: “A snowballing chain of events boiled over, igniting the powder keg of war in 1914.” Well chosen images can enliven your prose, but if you catch yourself mixing images a lot, you're probably trying to write beyond your ability. Pull back. Be more literal.

Clumsy transition.

If your reader feels a jolt or gets disoriented at the beginning of a new paragraph, your paper probably lacks unity. In a good paper, each paragraph is woven seamlessly into the next. If you find yourself beginning your paragraphs with phrases such as “Another aspect of this problem...,” then you are probably “stacking note cards” rather than developing a thesis.

Unnecessary relative clause.

If you don’t need to restrict the meaning of your sentence’s subject, then don’t. (“Napoleon was a man who tried to conquer Europe.”) Here the relative clause adds nothing. Rewrite as “Napoleon tried to conquer Europe.” Unnecessary relative clauses are a classic form of wordiness.

Distancing or demeaning quotation marks.

If you believe that a frequently used word or phrase distorts historical reality, don’t put it in dismissive, sneering quotation marks to make your point (“the communist ‘threat’ to the ‘free’ world during the Cold War”). Many readers find this practice arrogant, obnoxious, and precious, and they may dismiss your arguments out of hand. If you believe that the communist threat was bogus or exaggerated, or that the free world was not really free, then simply explain what you mean.

Remarks on Grammar and Syntax

Ideally, your professor will help you to improve your writing by specifying exactly what is wrong with a particular passage, but  sometimes you may find a simple awk in the margin. This all-purpose negative comment usually suggests that the sentence is clumsy because you have misused words or compounded several errors. Consider this sentence from a book review:

“However, many falsehoods lie in Goldhagen’s claims and these will be explored.”

What is your long-suffering professor to do with this sentence? The however contributes nothing; the phrase falsehoods lie is an unintended pun that distracts the reader; the comma is missing between the independent clauses; the these has no clear antecedent ( falsehoods? claims? ); the second clause is in the passive voice and contributes nothing anyway; the whole sentence is wordy and screams hasty, last-minute composition. In weary frustration, your professor scrawls awk in the margin and moves on. Buried under the twelve-word sentence lies a three-word idea: “Goldhagen often errs.” When you see awk, check for the common errors in this list. If you don’t understand what’s wrong, ask.

Unclear antecedent.

All pronouns must refer clearly to antecedents and must agree with them in number. The reader usually assumes that the antecedent is the immediately preceding noun. Do not confuse the reader by having several possible antecedents. Consider these two sentences:

“Pope Gregory VII forced Emperor Henry IV to wait three days in the snow at Canossa before granting him an audience. It was a symbolic act.”

To what does the it refer? Forcing the Emperor to wait? The waiting itself? The granting of the audience? The audience itself? The whole previous sentence? You are most likely to get into antecedent trouble when you begin a paragraph with this or it , referring vaguely back to the general import of the previous paragraph. When in doubt, take this test: Circle the pronoun and the antecedent and connect the two with a line. Then ask yourself if your reader could instantly make the same diagram without your help. If the line is long, or if the circle around the antecedent is large, encompassing huge gobs of text, then your reader probably will be confused.  Rewrite. Repetition is better than ambiguity and confusion.

Faulty parallelism.

You confuse your reader if you change the grammatical construction from one element to the next in a series. Consider this sentence:

“King Frederick the Great sought to expand Prussia, to rationalize agriculture, and that the state support education.”

The reader expects another infinitive, but instead trips over the that . Rewrite the last clause as “and to promote state-supported education.” Sentences using neither/nor frequently present parallelism problems. Note the two parts of this sentence:

“After 1870 the cavalry charge was neither an effective tactic, nor did armies use it frequently.”

The sentence jars because the neither is followed by a noun, the nor by a verb. Keep the parts parallel.

Rewrite as “After 1870 the cavalry charge was neither effective nor frequently used.”

Sentences with not only/but also are another pitfall for many students. (“Mussolini attacked not only liberalism, but he also advocated militarism.”) Here the reader is set up to expect a noun in the second clause, but stumbles over a verb. Make the parts parallel by putting the verb attacked after the not only .

Misplaced modifier/dangling element.

Do not confuse the reader with a phrase or clause that refers illogically or absurdly to other words in the sentence. (“Summarized on the back cover of the American paperback edition, the publishers claim that...”) The publishers are not summarized on the back cover. (“Upon finishing the book, many questions remain.”) Who finished the book? Questions can’t read. Avoid following an introductory participial clause with the expletives it or there . Expletives are by definition filler words; they can’t be agents. (“Having examined the origins of the Meiji Restoration in Japan, it is apparent that...”) Apparent to whom?  The expletive it didn’t do the examining. (“After going on the Long March, there was greater support for the Communists in China.”) Who went on the Long March? There didn’t go on the Long March. Always pay attention to who’s doing what in your sentences.

Run-on sentence.

Run-on sentences string together improperly joined independent clauses. Consider these three sentences:

“Galileo recanted his teaching that the earth moved privately he maintained his convictions.” “Galileo recanted his teaching that the earth moved, privately he maintained his convictions.” “Galileo recanted his teaching that the earth moved, however, privately he maintained his convictions.”

The first fuses two independent clauses with neither a comma nor a coordinating conjunction; the second uses a comma but omits the coordinating conjunction; and the third also omits the coordinating conjunction (however is not a coordinating conjunction). To solve the problem, separate the two clauses with a comma and the coordinating conjunction but. You could also divide the clauses with a semicolon or make separate sentences. Remember that there are only seven coordinating conjunctions ( and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet ).

Sentence fragment.

Write in sentences. A sentence has to have a subject and a predicate. If you string together a lot of words, you may lose control of the syntax and end up with a sentence fragment. Note that the following is not a sentence:

“While in Western Europe railroad building proceeded rapidly in the nineteenth century, and in Russia there was less progress.”

Here you have a long compound introductory clause followed by no subject and no verb, and thus you have a fragment. You may have noticed exceptions to the no-fragments rule. Skilful writers do sometimes intentionally use a fragment to achieve a certain effect. Leave the rule-breaking to the experts.

Confusion of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

Consider these two versions of the same sentence:

1. “World War I, which raged from 1914-1918, killed millions of Europeans.” 2. “World War I that raged from 1914-1918 killed millions of Europeans.”

The first sentence has a nonrestrictive relative clause; the dates are included almost as parenthetical information. But something seems amiss with the second sentence. It has a restrictive relative clause that limits the subject (World War I) to the World War I fought between 1914 and 1918, thus implying that there were other wars called World War I, and that we need to distinguish among them. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the writer of the second sentence appears foolish.  Note carefully the distinction between that (for use in restrictive clauses, with no comma) and which (for use in nonrestrictive clauses, with a comma).

Confusion about who’s doing what.

Remember—history is about what people do, so you need to be vigilant about agency. Proofread your sentences carefully, asking yourself, “Have I said exactly who is doing or thinking what, or have I inadvertently attributed an action or belief to the wrong person or group?” Unfortunately, there are many ways to go wrong here, but faulty punctuation is among the most common. Here’s a sentence about Frantz Fanon, the great critic of European imperialism. Focus on the punctuation and its effect on agency: “Instead of a hierarchy based on class, Fanon suggests the imperialists establish a hierarchy based on race.” As punctuated, the sentence says something absurd: that Fanon is advising the imperialists about the proper kind of hierarchy to establish in the colonies. Surely, the writer meant to say that, in his analysis of imperialism, Fanon distinguishes between two kinds of hierarchy. A comma after suggests fixes the immediate problem. Now look at the revised sentence. It still needs work. Better diction and syntax would sharpen it.  Fanon does not suggest (with connotations of both hinting and advocating); he states outright. What’s more, the comparison of the two kinds of hierarchy gets blurred by too many intervening words. The key point of the sentence is, in effect, “instead of A, we have B.” Clarity demands that B follow A as closely as possible, and that the two elements be grammatically parallel. But between the elements A and B, the writer inserts Fanon (a proper noun), suggests (a verb), imperialists (a noun), and establish (a verb). Try the sentence this way: “Fanon says that the imperialists establish a hierarchy based on race rather than class.” Now the agency is clear: We know what Fanon does, and we know what the imperialists do. Notice that errors and infelicities have a way of clustering. If you find one problem in a sentence, look for others.

Confusion about the objects of prepositions.

Here’s another one of those common problems that does not receive the attention it merits. Discipline your prepositional phrases; make sure you know where they end. Notice the mess in this sentence: “Hitler accused Jewish people of engaging in incest and stating that Vienna was the ‘personification of incest.’” The reader thinks that both engaging and stating are objects of the preposition of. Yet the writer intends only the first to be the object of the preposition. Hitler is accusing the Jews of engaging , but not of stating ; he is the one doing the stating . Rewrite as “Hitler accused the Jews of incest; he stated that Vienna was the ‘personification of incest.’” Note that the wordiness of the original encouraged the syntactical mess. Simplify. It can’t be said too many times: Always pay attention to who’s doing what in your sentences.

Misuse of the comparative.

There are two common problems here. The first might be called the “floating comparative.” You use the comparative, but you don’t say what you are comparing. (“Lincoln was more upset by the dissolution of the union.”) More upset than by what? More upset than who? The other problem, which is more common and takes many forms, is the unintended (and sometimes comical) comparison of unlike elements. Consider these attempts to compare President Clinton to President George H. W. Bush. Often the trouble starts with a possessive:

“President Clinton’s sexual appetite was more voracious than President Bush.”

You mean to compare appetites, but you've forgotten about your possessive, so you absurdly compare an appetite to a man. Rewrite as “more voracious than President Bush’s.” A variation of this problem is the unintended comparison resulting from the omission of a verb:

“President Clinton liked women more than President Bush.”
Re-write as “more than did President Bush.”

A misplaced modifier may also cause comparison trouble: “Unlike the Bush administration, sexual scandal nearly destroyed the Clinton administration.” Rewrite as  “Unlike the Bush administration, the Clinton administration was nearly destroyed by sexual scandal.” Here the passive voice is better than the misplaced modifier, but you could rewrite as “The Bush administration had been free of sexual scandal, which nearly destroyed the Clinton administration.”

Misuse of apostrophe.

Get control of your apostrophes. Use the apostrophe to form singular or plural possessives (Washington’s soldiers; the colonies’ soldiers) or to form contractions (don’t; it’s). Do not use the apostrophe to form plurals. (“The communists [not communists’] defeated the nationalists [not nationalists’] in China.”)

Comma after although.

This is a new error, probably a carryover from the common conversational habit of pausing dramatically after although . ( “Although , coffee consumption rose in eighteenth-century Europe, tea remained far more popular.”) Delete the comma after although . Remember that although is not a synonym for the word however , so you cannot solve the problem in the sentence by putting a period after Europe . A clause beginning with although cannot stand alone as a sentence.

Comma between subject and verb.

This is a strange new error. (“Hitler and Stalin, agreed to a pact in August 1939.”) Delete the comma after Stalin. Finally, two hints: If your word-processing program underlines something and suggests changes, be careful. When it comes to grammar and syntax, your computer is a moron. Not only does it fail to recognize some gross errors, it also falsely identifies some correct passages as errors. Do not cede control of your writing decisions to your computer. Make the suggested changes only if you are positive that they are correct. If you are having trouble with your writing, try simplifying. Write short sentences and read them aloud to test for clarity. Start with the subject and follow it quickly with an active verb. Limit the number of relative clauses, participial phrases, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. You will win no prizes for eloquence, but at least you will be clear. Add complexity only when you have learned to handle it.

An historical/an historian.

The consonant “H” is not silent in historical and historian , so the proper form of the indefinite article is “A.”

Avoid the common solecism of using feel as a synonym for think, believe, say, state, assert, contend, argue, conclude, or write. (“Marx felt that the bourgeoisie exploited the proletariat.” “Emmeline Pankhurst felt that British women should be able to vote.”) The use of feel in these sentences demeans the agents by suggesting undisciplined sentiment rather than carefully formulated conviction. Concentrate on what your historical actors said and did; leave their feelings to speculative chapters of their biographies. As for your own feelings, keep them out of your papers. (“I feel that Lincoln should have freed the slaves earlier.”) Your professor will be delighted that the material engages both your head and your heart, but your feelings cannot be graded. If you believe that Lincoln should have acted earlier, then explain, giving cogent historical reasons.

The fact that.

This is a clumsy, unnecessary construction. ( “The fact that Nixon resigned in disgrace damaged the Republican Party.”) Re-word as “Nixon resigned in disgrace, damaging the Republican Party.” Never use the hideous phrase due to the fact that.

In terms of.

This phrase is filler. Get rid of it. (“Bismarck was a success in terms of uniting Germany.) Rewrite as “Bismarck successfully united Germany.”

Attend carefully to the placement of this limiting word. Note, for example, these three sentences:

“The government only interred Japanese Americans during World War II.” “The government interred only Japanese Americans during World War II.” “The government interred Japanese Americans only during World War II.”

The first limits the action to interring (as opposed to, say, killing); the second limits the group interred (i.e., not Italian Americans); the third limits the time of interring (i.e., not during other wars).

Thus and therefore.

More than likely, you have not earned these words and are implying that you have said more than you actually have. Use them sparingly, only when you are concluding a substantial argument with a significant conclusion.

Misuse of instead.

Instead is an adverb, not a conjunction. Consider this sentence: “Charles Beard argued that the framers of the constitution were not idealists, instead they promoted their economic interests.” Revise as “The framers of the constitution, Charles Beard argued, did not uphold ideals; instead , they promoted their economic interests.” Now the instead appears properly as an adverb. (Note also that the two clauses are now parallel—both contain transitive verbs.)

Essentially and basically.

These are usually either filler words (the written equivalent of “uh” or “um”) or weasel words that merely call attention to your vagueness, lack of conviction, or lazy unwillingness to qualify precisely. (“ Essentially , Churchill believed that Nazi Germany presented a grave danger to Britain.”) Delete essentially and basically unless you are writing about essences or bases.

Both share or both agree.

These are redundant. If two people share or agree , they are both involved by definition. (“Stalin and Mao both agreed that capitalism belonged in the dustbin of history.”) Delete both .

This word means one of a kind. It is an absolute. Something cannot be very unique, more unique, or somewhat unique.

Incredible.

In casual conversation incredible often means extraordinary, astonishing, or impressive (“Yesterday’s storm was incredible.”). To avoid confusion in historical prose, you should stick with the original meaning of incredible : not believable. If you write that “William Jennings Bryan gave incredible speeches,” you’re saying that you don’t believe his speeches, or that his audiences didn’t believe them at the time—in other words, that he appeared to be lying or mistaken. You probably mean that he gave great speeches. If you write that “It’s incredible that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor,” you’re calling into question the very existence of a historical event. You probably mean that the Japanese attack was unwise or reckless. English is rich with adjectives. Finding the best one forces you to think about what you really mean.

As a synonym for subject matter, bone of contention, reservation, or almost anything else vaguely associated with what you are discussing, the word issue has lost its meaning through overuse. (“There were many issues involved with Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb, and some historians have issues with his decision.”) Stop talking about issues and get to the point.

Beware of the word literally . It’s commonly misused, and you almost never need it in historical prose. Literally means actually, factually, exactly, directly, without metaphor. The careful writer would never say, “Roosevelt literally swamped Landon in the election of 1936.” One imagines Roosevelt (in his wheelchair no less!) dumping the hapless Landon off a pier in the Everglades on election night. The swamping was figurative, strictly a figure of speech. The adverb literally may also cause you trouble by falsely generalizing the coverage of your verb. “London was literally destroyed by the blitz.” This suggests that the whole city was destroyed, when, in fact, only parts were destroyed. Rewrite as “The blitz destroyed parts of London.” Now you’ve qualified properly (and gotten rid of the passive).

When you’re tempted to use this word, resist. Like issue , involve tells the reader too little. (“Erasmus was involved in the Renaissance.”) This statement could mean virtually anything. Delete it and discuss specifically what Erasmus said or did.

This is a fine old word with many precise meanings, but as an overused synonym for feature, side, or part, it is usually a sign of insipid prose (“Another aspect of the issues in this area is the fact that...”). Just get directly to the point.

Most good writers frown on the use of this word as a verb.(“Eisenhower’s military background impacted his foreign policy.”) Affected, influenced, or shaped would be better here. Impacted suggests painfully blocked wisdom teeth or feces. Had an impact is better than impacted , but is still awkward because impact implies a collision.

Here is another beloved but vapid word. (“Many factors led to the Reformation.”) Such a sentence usually opens a vague, boring, weaseling paragraph. If you believe (quite reasonably) that the Reformation had many causes, then start evaluating them.

Meaningful.

Overuse has drained the meaning from meaningful . (“Peter the Great took meaningful steps to westernize Russia.”) Just get to the point.

Interesting.

The adjective interesting is vague, overused, and does not earn its keep. (“Burckhardt had an interesting perspective on the Renaissance.”) This sentence is filler. Delete it and explain and analyze his perspective.

The events that transpired.

Your professor will gag on this one. Events take place or happen by definition, so the relative clause is redundant. Furthermore, most good writers do not accept transpire as a synonym for happen. Again, follow the old rule of thumb: Get right to the point, say what happened, and explain its significance. You don’t need any filler about events and transpiring .

The reason is because.

This phrase is awkward and redundant. Replace it with the reason is, or better still, simply delete it and get right to your reason.

For all intensive purposes.

The phrase is for all intents and purposes , and few good writers use it in formal prose anyway.

Take for granite.

This is an illiteracy. The phrase is “ take for granted .”

Should of/could of.

You mean should have or could have .

Center around.

Good writers frown on this phrase because it’s illogical and jarring. Use center on or center in. Attention to a small detail like this indicates that you’re thinking carefully about what you’re saying, so when the big problems confront you, you’ll be disciplined and ready.

Begs the question.

Recently, many people have started to use this phrase to mean raises, invites, or brings up the question. (“Stalin’s purges beg the question of whether he was paranoid.”) Actually, begging the question is the common logical fallacy of assuming your conclusion as part of your argument. (“In the late nineteenth century, many Americans moved to the cities because of urbanization.”) Note that the use of abstractions (e.g., urbanization) encourages begging the question . Understanding this fallacy is central to your education. The formal Latin term, petitio principii, is too fancy to catch on, so you need to preserve the simple English phrase. If something raises a question, just say so.

Historic/historical confusion.

Everything in the past or relating to the past is historical. Resist the media-driven hype that elevates the ordinary to the historic . (“A three-alarm fire last night destroyed the historic site of the first Portuguese-owned dry cleaners in Cleveland.”) Reserve the word historic for the genuinely important events, persons, or objects of the past. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 was indeed historic . Historically , historians have gathered annually for a historical convention; so far, none of the conventions has been historic .

Affect/effect confusion.

The chances are that the verb you want is affect , which means to have an influence on (“The Iranian hostage crisis affected [not effected] the presidential election of 1980”). Effect as a verb means to bring about or cause to exist ( effect change). Effect as a noun means result or consequence (“The effect of the Iranian hostage crisis on the election...”).

While/whereas confusion.

If you’re stressing contrast, the word you want is whereas . While stresses simultaneity. “Hobbes had a dismal view of human nature, whereas [not while] Rousseau believed that man had a natural sense of pity.”

It’s/its confusion.

This is the classic bonehead error. Note that the spell checker won’t help you. And remember— its’ is not a word at all.

Reign/rein confusion.

A queen reigns during her reign. You rein in a horse with reins.

Their/there/they’re confusion.

You do know the difference. Pay attention.

Everyday/every day confusion.

As an adjective, everyday (one word) means routine. If you wish to say that something happened on every successive day, then you need two words, the adjective every and the noun day . Note the difference in these two sentences: “Kant was famous for going on the same constitutional at the same time every day . For Kant, exercise and thinking were everyday activities.”

Refer/allude confusion.

To allude means to refer to indirectly or to hint at. The word you probably want in historical prose is refer , which means to mention or call direct attention to. “In the first sentence of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ Lincoln refers [not alludes ] to the fathers of the nation [he mentions them directly]; he alludes to the ‘Declaration of Independence’ [the document of four score and seven years earlier that comes to the reader’s mind, but that Lincoln doesn’t directly mention].”

Novel/book confusion.

Novel is not a synonym for book. A novel is a long work of fiction in prose. A historical monograph is not a novel —unless the historian is making everything up.

Than/then confusion.

This is an appalling new error. If you are making a comparison, you use the conjunction than . (“President Kennedy’s health was worse than [not then ] the public realized.”)

Lead/led confusion.

The past tense of the verb to lead is led (not lead ). “Sherman led [not lead ] a march to the sea.”

Lose/loose confusion.

The opposite of win is lose , not loose . “Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment suspected that they would lose [not loose ] the battle to amend the constitution.”

However/but confusion.

However may not substitute for the coordinating conjunction but. (“Mussolini began his career as a socialist, but [not however ] he later abandoned socialism for fascism.”) The word however has many proper uses; however , [note the semicolon and comma] graceful writers use it sparingly.

Cite/site/sight confusion.

You cited a source for your paper; ancient Britons sited Stonehenge on a plain; Columbus’s lookout sighted land.

Conscience/conscious confusion.

When you wake up in the morning you are conscious , though your conscience may bother you if you’ve neglected to write your history paper.

Tenet/tenant confusion.

Your religion, ideology, or worldview all have tenets —propositions you hold or believe in. Tenants rent from landlords.

All are not/not all are confusion.

If you write, “ All the colonists did not want to break with Britain in 1776,” the chances are you really mean, “ Not all the colonists wanted to break with Britain in 1776.” The first sentence is a clumsy way of saying that no colonists wanted to break with Britain (and is clearly false). The second sentence says that some colonists did not want to break with Britain (and is clearly true, though you should go on to be more precise).

Nineteenth-century/nineteenth century confusion.

Historians talk a lot about centuries, so you need to know when to hyphenate them. Follow the standard rule: If you combine two words to form a compound adjective, use a hyphen, unless the first word ends in ly. (“ Nineteenth-century [hyphenated] steamships cut the travel time across the Atlantic.”) Leave out the hyphen if you’re just using the ordinal number to modify the noun century. (“In the nineteenth century [no hyphen] steamships cut the travel time across the Atlantic.”) By the way, while you have centuries in mind, don’t forget that the nineteenth century is the 1800s, not the 1900s. The same rule for hyphenating applies to middle-class and middle class —a group that historians like to talk about.

Bourgeois/bourgeoisie confusion.

Bourgeois is usually an adjective, meaning characteristic of the middle class and its values or habits. Occasionally, bourgeois is a noun, meaning a single member of the middle class. Bourgeoisie is a noun, meaning the middle class collectively. (“Marx believed that the bourgeoisie oppressed the proletariat; he argued that bourgeois values like freedom and individualism were hypocritical.”)

Your professor may ask you to analyze a primary document. Here are some questions you might ask of your document. You will note a common theme—read critically with sensitivity to the context. This list is not a suggested outline for a paper; the wording of the assignment and the nature of the document itself should determine your organization and which of the questions are most relevant. Of course, you can ask these same questions of any document you encounter in your research.

  • What exactly is the document (e.g., diary, king’s decree, opera score, bureaucratic memorandum, parliamentary minutes, newspaper article, peace treaty)?
  • Are you dealing with the original or with a copy? If it is a copy, how remote is it from the original (e.g., photocopy of the original, reformatted version in a book, translation)? How might deviations from the original affect your interpretation?
  • What is the date of the document?
  • Is there any reason to believe that the document is not genuine or not exactly what it appears to be?
  • Who is the author, and what stake does the author have in the matters discussed? If the document is unsigned, what can you infer about the author or authors?
  • What sort of biases or blind spots might the author have? For example, is an educated bureaucrat writing with third-hand knowledge of rural hunger riots?
  • Where, why, and under what circumstances did the author write the document?
  • How might the circumstances (e.g., fear of censorship, the desire to curry favor or evade blame) have influenced the content, style, or tone of the document?
  • Has the document been published? If so, did the author intend it to be published?
  • If the document was not published, how has it been preserved? In a public archive? In a private collection? Can you learn anything from the way it has been preserved? For example, has it been treated as important or as a minor scrap of paper?
  • Does the document have a boilerplate format or style, suggesting that it is a routine sample of a standardized genre, or does it appear out of the ordinary, even unique?
  • Who is the intended audience for the document?
  • What exactly does the document say? Does it imply something different?
  • If the document represents more than one viewpoint, have you carefully distinguished between the author’s viewpoint and those viewpoints the author presents only to criticize or refute?
  • In what ways are you, the historian, reading the document differently than its intended audience would have read it (assuming that future historians were not the intended audience)?
  • What does the document leave out that you might have expected it to discuss?
  • What does the document assume that the reader already knows about the subject (e.g., personal conflicts among the Bolsheviks in 1910, the details of tax farming in eighteenth-century Normandy, secret negotiations to end the Vietnam war)?
  • What additional information might help you better interpret the document?
  • Do you know (or are you able to infer) the effects or influences, if any, of the document?
  • What does the document tell you about the period you are studying?
  • If your document is part of an edited collection, why do you suppose the editor chose it? How might the editing have changed the way you perceive the document? For example, have parts been omitted? Has it been translated? (If so, when, by whom, and in what style?) Has the editor placed the document in a suggestive context among other documents, or in some other way led you to a particular interpretation?

Your professor may ask you to write a book review, probably of a scholarly historical monograph. Here are some questions you might ask of the book. Remember that a good review is critical, but critical does not necessarily mean negative. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it a suggested outline. Of course, you can ask these same questions of any secondary historical work, even if you’re not writing a review.

  • Who is the author, and what are his or her qualifications? Has the author written other books on the subject?
  • When was the book written, and how does it fit into the scholarly debate on the subject? For example, is Smith writing to refute that idiot Jones; to qualify the work of the competent but unimaginative Johnson; or to add humbly to the evidence presented by the redoubtable Brown’s classic study? Be sure not to confuse the author’s argument with those arguments he or she presents only to criticize later.
  • What is the book’s basic argument? (Getting this right is the foundation of your review.)
  • What is the author’s method? For example, does the author rely strictly on narrative and anecdotes, or is the book analytical in some way?
  • What kinds of evidence does the author use? For example, what is the balance of primary and secondary sources? Has the author done archival work? Is the source base substantial, or does it look thin? Is the author up-to-date in the scholarly literature?
  • How skillfully and imaginatively has the author used the evidence?
  • Does the author actually use all of the material in the bibliography, or is some of it there for display?
  • What sorts of explicit or implicit ideological or methodological assumptions does the author bring to the study? For example, does he or she profess bland objectivity? A Whig view of history? Marxism?
  • How persuasive is the author’s argument?
  • Is the argument new, or is it old wine in new bottles?
  • Is the argument important, with wide-ranging implications, or is it narrow and trivial?
  • Is the book well organized and skillfully written?
  • What is your overall critical assessment of the book?
  • What is the general significance, if any, of the book? (Make sure that you are judging the book that the author actually wrote, not complaining that the author should have written a different book.)

Here are some tips for those long, intimidating term papers or senior theses:

  • Start early. If you don’t, none of these tips will matter. Big trouble is looming if you don’t have a specific topic by the end of the first week. You should be delving into the sources during the second week.
  • Keep in mind all of the dos and don’ts in this booklet.
  • Work closely with your professor to assure that your topic is neither too broad nor too narrow.
  • Set up a schedule with your professor and check his or her policy about reading rough drafts or parts of rough drafts. Then keep your professor informed about what you’re doing. You don’t want any unpleasant surprises. You certainly don’t want to hear, “I haven’t seen you for weeks, and it sounds like you’re way off base. How can you possibly get this done with only two weeks left in the semester?”
  • Make an appointment with Kristin Strohmeyer, the history reference librarian in Burke Library. She will help you to find and use the appropriate catalogs and indexes.
  • Use your imagination in compiling a bibliography. Think of all of the possible key words and subjects that may lead you to material. If you find something really good, check the subjects under which it is cataloged. Comb the notes and bibliographies of books and articles you’ve already found.
  • Much of what you need will not be in our library, so get to know the friendly folks in the Interlibrary Loan department.
  • Start early. This can’t be said too often.
  • Use as many primary sources as you can.
  • Jot down your ideas as they come to you. You may not remember them later.
  • Take careful notes on your reading. Label your notes completely and precisely. Distinguish meticulously and systematically between what you are directly quoting and what you are summarizing in your own words. Unintended plagiarism is still plagiarism. Stay clean as a hound’s tooth. Write down not just the page of the quotation or idea, but also the whole run of pages where the matter is discussed. Reread all of your notes periodically to make sure that you still understand them and are compiling what you will need to write your paper. Err on the side of writing down more than you think you will need. Copious, precise notes won’t come back to haunt you; skimpy, vague notes will. Just accept that there is something anal about good note-taking.
  • If you take notes directly into your computer, they will be easy to index and pull up, but there are a couple of downsides. You will not be able to see all of them simultaneously, as you can note cards laid out on a big table. What you gain in ease of access may come at the price of losing the big picture. Also, if your notes are in your computer, you may be tempted to save time and thought by pasting many of them directly into your paper. Note cards encourage you to rethink and to rework your ideas into a unified whole.
  • Don’t start to write until you have a good outline.
  • Make sure that your paper has a thesis. (See the entry State a clear thesis. )
  • Check and recheck your facts.
  • Footnote properly. (See the entry Cite sources carefully .)
  • Save plenty of time to proofread.
  • Start early.

Top Ten Signs that you may be Writing a Weak History Paper

10. You’re overjoyed to find that you can fill the required pages by widening all margins.

9. You haven’t mentioned any facts or cited any sources for several paragraphs.

8. You find yourself using the phrase “throughout history mankind has...”

7. You just pasted in another 100 words of quotations.

6. You haven’t a clue about the content of your next paragraph.

5. You’re constantly clicking on The Britannica, Webster’s, and Bartlett’s.

4. Your writing tutor sneaks another look at her watch as she reminds you for the third time to clarify your thesis.

3. Your main historical actors are this, it, they, the people, and society, and they are all involved with factors, aspects, impacts, and issues.

2. You just realize that you don’t understand the assignment, but it’s 3:00 A.M, the paper is due at 9:00, and you don’t dare call your professor.

1. You’re relieved that the paper counts for only 20 percent of the course grade.

Final Advice

You guessed it — start early.

Studying History at Hamilton

Students will learn to use interdisciplinary methods from the humanities and social sciences to probe the sources of the past for answers to present questions. They will learn to draw comparisons and connections among diverse societies across a range of historical eras. They will further learn to convey their findings through writing that is clearly structured, precise, and persuasive.

Tutor Appointments

Peer tutor and consultant appointments are managed through TracCloud (login required). Find resources and more information about the ALEX centers using the following links.

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Contact Name

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Writing Center Director

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How to Write a History Research Paper

  • How do I pick a topic?
  • But I can’t find any material…

Research Guide

Writing guide.

See also: How to Write a Good History Essay

1. How do I pick a topic?

Picking a topic is perhaps the most important step in writing a research paper. To do it well requires several steps of refinement. First you have to determine a general area in which you have an interest (if you aren’t interested, your readers won’t be either). 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? battles? social change? politics? causes? biography? 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 1930’s and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression. You might turn that into the following question: “What are the primary values expressed in films of the 1930’s?” Or you might ask a quite different question, “What is the standard of living portrayed in films of the 1930’s?” There are other questions, of course, which you could have asked, but these two clearly illustrate how different two papers on the same general subject might be. 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.

2. But I can’t find any material…

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. Are there statistics? 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?” than if you say “What can you find on racial attitudes?”

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. A13 .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. Modern History Journals are indexed in the Social Studies and Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .R282) before 1976 After 1976 use the Social Sciences Index (REF A13 .S62) and the Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .H85). See also Historical Abstracts (Ref. D1 .H5). 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.

3. Help! How do I put this together?

A. preliminary research:.

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.

B. Building a Basic Bibliography:

Use the bibliography/notes in your first general source, MUSE, and especially Historical Abstracts on cd-rom in the Library Reading Room (the computer farthest to the left in the front row as you walk past the Reference Desk — or ask there). 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.

C. 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 the sources cited and/or discussed in this reading to build a full bibliography. 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.g. the University of California system from the “Libs” command in your VAX account or the smaller University of Minnesota library through MUSE) to check out your sources fully. 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. 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.

A. Outline:

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.

B. The First Draft:

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. Keep on writing. 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.

C. The Second Draft:

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. It is likely to wander; your perspective and usually even the thesis seemed to change/develop as you wrote. Don’t despair. 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).

D. 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. Spell-check and proof-read.

– Diethelm Prowe, 1998

  • What is a database
  • The Information Cycle Video
  • Primary & Secondary Sources This link opens in a new window
  • Journals and Conference Proceedings
  • Books, eBooks, and Handbooks
  • Careers in History
  • Historical News Sources

Books on Writing History

How to write a literature review in history, guides and samples.

  • New Jersey History
  • The New York Times This link opens in a new window
  • Chicago Manual of Style

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Goals of a Literature Review

Before doing work in primary sources, historians must know what has been written on their topic. They must be familiar with theories and arguments–as well as facts–that appear in secondary sources.

Before you proceed with your research project, you too must be familiar with the literature: you do not want to waste time on theories that others have disproved and you want to take full advantage of what others have argued.  You want to be able to discuss and analyze your topic.

Your literature review will demonstrate your familiarity with your topic’s secondary literature.

More . . . 

  • How to Write a Literature Review tips in a 3-page pdf
  • Harvard guide to writing a history paper
  • Sample paper in APA style
  • Sample paper in Chicago style
  • Sample paper in MLA style
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how to write a history paper 2

Princeton Correspondents on Undergraduate Research

How to Write a History Research Paper

how to write a history paper 2

In my last post, I shared some tips on how to conduct research in history and emphasized that researchers should keep in mind a source’s category (transcript, court document, speech, etc.). This post is something of a sequel to that, as I will share some thoughts on what often follows primary-source research: a history research paper. 

1. Background Reading   The first step to a history research paper is of course, background reading and research. In the context of a class assignment, “background reading” might simply be course readings or lectures, but for independent work, this step will likely involve some quality time on your own in the library. During the background reading phase of your project, keep an eye out for intriguing angles to approach your topic from and any trends that you see across sources (both primary and secondary).

2. T hemes and Context Recounting the simple facts about your topic alone will not make for a successful research paper. One must grasp both the details of events as well as the larger, thematic context of the time period in which they occurred. What’s the scholarly consensus about these themes? Does that consensus seem right to you, after having done primary and secondary research of your own?

3. Develop an Argument  Grappling with answers to the above questions will get you thinking about your emerging argument. For shorter papers, you might identify a gap in the scholarship or come up with an argumentative response to a class prompt rather quickly. Remember: as an undergraduate, you don’t have to come up with (to borrow Philosophy Professor Gideon Rosen’s phrase) ‘a blindingly original theory of everything.’ In other words, finding a nuanced thesis does not mean you have to disprove some famous scholar’s work in its entirety. But, if you’re having trouble defining your thesis, I encourage you not to worry; talk to your professor, preceptor, or, if appropriate, a friend. These people can listen to your ideas, and the simple act of talking about your paper can often go a long way in helping you realize what you want to write about.

4. Outline Your Argument  With a history paper specifically, one is often writing about a sequence of events and trying to tell a story about what happened. Roughly speaking, your thesis is your interpretation of these events, or your take on some aspect of them (i.e. the role of women in New Deal programs). Before opening up Word, I suggest writing down the stages of your argument. Then, outline or organize your notes to know what evidence you’ll use in each of these various stages. If you think your evidence is solid, then you’re probably ready to start writing—and you now have a solid roadmap to work from! But, if this step is proving difficult, you might want to gather more evidence or go back to the thesis drawing board and look for a better angle. I often find myself somewhere between these two extremes (being 100% ready to write or staring at a sparse outline), but that’s also helpful, because it gives me a better idea of where my argument needs strengthening.

5. Prepare Yourself   Once you have some sort of direction for the paper (i.e. a working thesis), you’re getting close to the fun part—the writing itself. Gather your laptop, your research materials/notes, and some snacks, and get ready to settle in to write your paper, following your argument outline. As mentioned in the photo caption, I suggest utilizing large library tables to spread out your notes. This way, you don’t have to constantly flip through binders, notebooks, and printed drafts.

In addition to this step by step approach, I’ll leave you with a few last general tips for approaching a history research paper. Overall, set reasonable goals for your project, and remember that a seemingly daunting task can be broken down into the above constituent phases. And, if nothing else, know that you’ll end up with a nice Word document full of aesthetically pleasing footnotes!

— Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent

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how to write a history paper 2

how to write a history paper 2

How to write an introduction for a history essay

Facade of the Ara Pacis

Every essay needs to begin with an introductory paragraph. It needs to be the first paragraph the marker reads.

While your introduction paragraph might be the first of the paragraphs you write, this is not the only way to do it.

You can choose to write your introduction after you have written the rest of your essay.

This way, you will know what you have argued, and this might make writing the introduction easier.

Either approach is fine. If you do write your introduction first, ensure that you go back and refine it once you have completed your essay. 

What is an ‘introduction paragraph’?

An introductory paragraph is a single paragraph at the start of your essay that prepares your reader for the argument you are going to make in your body paragraphs .

It should provide all of the necessary historical information about your topic and clearly state your argument so that by the end of the paragraph, the marker knows how you are going to structure the rest of your essay.

In general, you should never use quotes from sources in your introduction.

Introduction paragraph structure

While your introduction paragraph does not have to be as long as your body paragraphs , it does have a specific purpose, which you must fulfil.

A well-written introduction paragraph has the following four-part structure (summarised by the acronym BHES).

B – Background sentences

H – Hypothesis

E – Elaboration sentences

S - Signpost sentence

Each of these elements are explained in further detail, with examples, below:

1. Background sentences

The first two or three sentences of your introduction should provide a general introduction to the historical topic which your essay is about. This is done so that when you state your hypothesis , your reader understands the specific point you are arguing about.

Background sentences explain the important historical period, dates, people, places, events and concepts that will be mentioned later in your essay. This information should be drawn from your background research . 

Example background sentences:

Middle Ages (Year 8 Level)

Castles were an important component of Medieval Britain from the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 until they were phased out in the 15 th and 16 th centuries. Initially introduced as wooden motte and bailey structures on geographical strongpoints, they were rapidly replaced by stone fortresses which incorporated sophisticated defensive designs to improve the defenders’ chances of surviving prolonged sieges.

WWI (Year 9 Level)

The First World War began in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The subsequent declarations of war from most of Europe drew other countries into the conflict, including Australia. The Australian Imperial Force joined the war as part of Britain’s armed forces and were dispatched to locations in the Middle East and Western Europe.

Civil Rights (Year 10 Level)

The 1967 Referendum sought to amend the Australian Constitution in order to change the legal standing of the indigenous people in Australia. The fact that 90% of Australians voted in favour of the proposed amendments has been attributed to a series of significant events and people who were dedicated to the referendum’s success.

Ancient Rome (Year 11/12 Level)  

In the late second century BC, the Roman novus homo Gaius Marius became one of the most influential men in the Roman Republic. Marius gained this authority through his victory in the Jugurthine War, with his defeat of Jugurtha in 106 BC, and his triumph over the invading Germanic tribes in 101 BC, when he crushed the Teutones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (102 BC) and the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae (101 BC). Marius also gained great fame through his election to the consulship seven times.

2. Hypothesis

Once you have provided historical context for your essay in your background sentences, you need to state your hypothesis .

A hypothesis is a single sentence that clearly states the argument that your essay will be proving in your body paragraphs .

A good hypothesis contains both the argument and the reasons in support of your argument. 

Example hypotheses:

Medieval castles were designed with features that nullified the superior numbers of besieging armies but were ultimately made obsolete by the development of gunpowder artillery.

Australian soldiers’ opinion of the First World War changed from naïve enthusiasm to pessimistic realism as a result of the harsh realities of modern industrial warfare.

The success of the 1967 Referendum was a direct result of the efforts of First Nations leaders such as Charles Perkins, Faith Bandler and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Gaius Marius was the most one of the most significant personalities in the 1 st century BC due to his effect on the political, military and social structures of the Roman state.

3. Elaboration sentences

Once you have stated your argument in your hypothesis , you need to provide particular information about how you’re going to prove your argument.

Your elaboration sentences should be one or two sentences that provide specific details about how you’re going to cover the argument in your three body paragraphs.

You might also briefly summarise two or three of your main points.

Finally, explain any important key words, phrases or concepts that you’ve used in your hypothesis, you’ll need to do this in your elaboration sentences.

Example elaboration sentences:

By the height of the Middle Ages, feudal lords were investing significant sums of money by incorporating concentric walls and guard towers to maximise their defensive potential. These developments were so successful that many medieval armies avoided sieges in the late period.

Following Britain's official declaration of war on Germany, young Australian men voluntarily enlisted into the army, which was further encouraged by government propaganda about the moral justifications for the conflict. However, following the initial engagements on the Gallipoli peninsula, enthusiasm declined.

The political activity of key indigenous figures and the formation of activism organisations focused on indigenous resulted in a wider spread of messages to the general Australian public. The generation of powerful images and speeches has been frequently cited by modern historians as crucial to the referendum results.

While Marius is best known for his military reforms, it is the subsequent impacts of this reform on the way other Romans approached the attainment of magistracies and how public expectations of military leaders changed that had the longest impacts on the late republican period.

4. Signpost sentence

The final sentence of your introduction should prepare the reader for the topic of your first body paragraph. The main purpose of this sentence is to provide cohesion between your introductory paragraph and you first body paragraph .

Therefore, a signpost sentence indicates where you will begin proving the argument that you set out in your hypothesis and usually states the importance of the first point that you’re about to make. 

Example signpost sentences:

The early development of castles is best understood when examining their military purpose.

The naïve attitudes of those who volunteered in 1914 can be clearly seen in the personal letters and diaries that they themselves wrote.

The significance of these people is evident when examining the lack of political representation the indigenous people experience in the early half of the 20 th century.

The origin of Marius’ later achievements was his military reform in 107 BC, which occurred when he was first elected as consul.

Putting it all together

Once you have written all four parts of the BHES structure, you should have a completed introduction paragraph. In the examples above, we have shown each part separately. Below you will see the completed paragraphs so that you can appreciate what an introduction should look like.

Example introduction paragraphs: 

Castles were an important component of Medieval Britain from the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 until they were phased out in the 15th and 16th centuries. Initially introduced as wooden motte and bailey structures on geographical strongpoints, they were rapidly replaced by stone fortresses which incorporated sophisticated defensive designs to improve the defenders’ chances of surviving prolonged sieges. Medieval castles were designed with features that nullified the superior numbers of besieging armies, but were ultimately made obsolete by the development of gunpowder artillery. By the height of the Middle Ages, feudal lords were investing significant sums of money by incorporating concentric walls and guard towers to maximise their defensive potential. These developments were so successful that many medieval armies avoided sieges in the late period. The early development of castles is best understood when examining their military purpose.

The First World War began in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The subsequent declarations of war from most of Europe drew other countries into the conflict, including Australia. The Australian Imperial Force joined the war as part of Britain’s armed forces and were dispatched to locations in the Middle East and Western Europe. Australian soldiers’ opinion of the First World War changed from naïve enthusiasm to pessimistic realism as a result of the harsh realities of modern industrial warfare. Following Britain's official declaration of war on Germany, young Australian men voluntarily enlisted into the army, which was further encouraged by government propaganda about the moral justifications for the conflict. However, following the initial engagements on the Gallipoli peninsula, enthusiasm declined. The naïve attitudes of those who volunteered in 1914 can be clearly seen in the personal letters and diaries that they themselves wrote.

The 1967 Referendum sought to amend the Australian Constitution in order to change the legal standing of the indigenous people in Australia. The fact that 90% of Australians voted in favour of the proposed amendments has been attributed to a series of significant events and people who were dedicated to the referendum’s success. The success of the 1967 Referendum was a direct result of the efforts of First Nations leaders such as Charles Perkins, Faith Bandler and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The political activity of key indigenous figures and the formation of activism organisations focused on indigenous resulted in a wider spread of messages to the general Australian public. The generation of powerful images and speeches has been frequently cited by modern historians as crucial to the referendum results. The significance of these people is evident when examining the lack of political representation the indigenous people experience in the early half of the 20th century.

In the late second century BC, the Roman novus homo Gaius Marius became one of the most influential men in the Roman Republic. Marius gained this authority through his victory in the Jugurthine War, with his defeat of Jugurtha in 106 BC, and his triumph over the invading Germanic tribes in 101 BC, when he crushed the Teutones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (102 BC) and the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae (101 BC). Marius also gained great fame through his election to the consulship seven times. Gaius Marius was the most one of the most significant personalities in the 1st century BC due to his effect on the political, military and social structures of the Roman state. While Marius is best known for his military reforms, it is the subsequent impacts of this reform on the way other Romans approached the attainment of magistracies and how public expectations of military leaders changed that had the longest impacts on the late republican period. The origin of Marius’ later achievements was his military reform in 107 BC, which occurred when he was first elected as consul.

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Reading, Writing, and Researching for History:

A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College

The Three Parts of a History Paper

I. THE INTRODUCTION: The introduction is usually one paragraph, or perhaps two in a paper of eight pages or more. Its purpose is to: (1) set out the problem to be discussed; (2) define key terms that will be used in that discussion; (3) outline the structure of the argument; (4) CLEARLY STATE THE THESIS.

A. Suggestions for the introduction:

Establish the problem: Quickly established the issue your paper confronts. Where and when are we? What are we examining? It is especially important to clearly define the limits of your exploration. If you are discussing the life of Frederick Douglass, it will not suffice to establish the setting by referring to the “days of slavery,” since slavery has existed in all times all over the world. Frederick Douglass was a slave in Maryland in the decades before the Civil War. Do not begin a history paper with absurdly general phrases like, “since the beginning of time,” or “humans have always. . . .” Get as specific as necessary as early as possible.

Set the tone, voice, and style of your paper. (See other guidelines for how this is done.) Make sure you convey that the topic is of vital concern, and that you are interested in it.

Catch the reader’s attention. You might start with an example, a quotation, a statistic, or a complaint. Be sure that this opening theme runs through your paper. Do not abandon this theme. You can use it again later to help unify your paper.

Provide a subtle blueprint (or “road map”) for the paper . Let your reader know where you are headed (how you plan to tackle the subject) without giving away your best ideas. If, for instance, your paper breaks down into political, social, and cultural components, telegraph this to your reader so she will know what to expect.

B. The thesis:

The last function of the introduction is to present your thesis. This is so important to your paper that it merits lengthy consideration — please see my handout on this topic. The biggest problem with student papers is that they contain no true thesis. The second biggest problem with student papers is that the thesis is vague and ill-defined.

How the thesis fits in the introductory paragraph: The thesis statement is the one-sentence version of your argument. The thesis thus presents your reader with new information. But a good thesis will require you to introduce the concepts in it before presenting the thesis itself. That is the task of the introductory paragraph. The following introductory paragraph presents a thesis that relies on concepts which have not been properly defined and clarified:

Since the beginning of time humans have owned one another in slavery. This brutal institution was carried to its fullest extent in the United States in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Slaveholders treated their slaves as chattel, brutalizing them with the whip and the lash. The law never recognized the humanity of the slave, and similarly regarded him as property. Consequently, there was a big disparity between private and public rights of slaves.

This thesis presents two words — “private” and “public” rights — that are not even mentioned earlier in the paragraph. What are these things? This paragraph does nothing to establish the distinction. Instead, it is a bland statement of theme which provides little background for the thesis. Thus, when we do read the thesis, it seems to float — the premises underlying it have not been established. Compare the last introductory paragraph with this one:

To many supporters of slavery, the nature of slave rights had a dual character. On the one hand, in order to maintain the total dominance of the white master class, the law denied any rights to slaves. Publicly, the slave was merely property, and not human at all. Yet the personal records of many planters suggest that slaves often proved able to demand customary “rights” from their masters. In the privacy of the master-slave relationship, the black man did indeed have rights which the white man was bound to respect, on pain of losing his labor or subjecting himself to violence. This conflict between slaves’ lack of “public” rights and masters’ “private” acknowledgment of slaves’ rights undermined planters’ hegemony and permitted slaves to exert a degree of autonomy and freedom within an oppressive institution.

Note how quickly this paragraph lays the groundwork for the thesis. It is clearly structured around two competing concepts — public and private rights — which are then incorporated into the thesis. Nearly every element of the thesis is established in the preceding paragraph, yet the thesis itself is not a restatement of the paragraph. This paragraph even tells the reader what sources will be consulted: planters’ personal records. Note finally that, in contrast to the previous paragraph, the reader now has a strong sense of what the paper will need to argue to prove its thesis.

II. THE BODY: This takes up several pages, and constitutes the bulk of your paper. Here is where you argue your thesis. The content of this section largely will depend on your thesis, and what it requires you to argue. Think to yourself, “what do I need to support this argument?” If you find yourself unable to answer, you may need a more interesting thesis.

A. Structure of the body: You need an organizing scheme for your paper, which most often will be suggested by your thesis. Let’s take this thesis: “In the 1950s, American auto workers developed their identities as laborers in the home as well as the workplace.” This thesis suggests a structure: at the very least, you will have to divide things up into “home” and “workplace.”

B. Logic and flow: The general movement in the body is from the general to the specific. Start with general statements, such as “Federal policy towards native peoples aimed at either assimilating Indians or exterminating them.” Then move on to specific statements which support your general statement, such as “The origins of the policy of assimilation can be traced back to Puritan missionaries of the 1650s.”

C. Paragraphs: Your paper is built on paragraphs. Each paragraph should be minimum of four (sometimes three) sentences. The first sentence of each paragraph is called the “topic sentence.”

D. Topic sentences: The topic sentence should tell the reader what the paragraph will be about. In essence, it is a “mini-thesis” — a small argument you will support in the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph will be support for this mini-argument. For example, the topic sentence for a paragraph may be the general statement:

Federal policy towards native peoples aimed at either assimilating Indians or exterminating them. (Note that you are including no specific facts in this sentence, you are merely making an argument which must be supported with facts and evidence.)

E. Support: Two kinds of support should appear in your paragraphs:

Source evidence and quotations: Taken from primary (sometimes secondary) sources. Can be quoted material, but not always — you can always paraphrase (put in your own words) this material, as long as you acknowledge the source. This is the “raw data” that supports the mini-thesis of your paragraph. In the case above (federal policy towards Indians), you could, for instance, quote portions of this letter from Thomas Jefferson, in which he advocates to the Mohicans private ownership of land to Indians as a means of assimilating them:

When once you have property, you will want laws and magistrates to protect your property and persons, and to punish those among you who commit crimes. You will find that our laws are good for this purpose; you will wish to live under them, you will unite yourselves with us, join in our Great Councils and form one people with us, and we shall be Americans. (1)

Analysis: Raw data can never, ever stand alone to support your mini-thesis. It must always be interpreted and analyzed. This is especially true of quotes. Never just plop a quote in and expect it to be clear to the reader how it supports the mini-thesis. Following each citation of raw data, you must analyze and interpret it — tell me how it supports the point. In the case above, you must supply the connection between the primary source evidence (the quotation above) and your “mini-thesis” (that assimilation was one of the goals of federal policy):

Jefferson had little interest in understanding Native American culture and society on its own terms. To him, “assimilation” meant encompassing natives in a web of obligations and institutional arrangements which utterly departed from the anarchy he alleged characterized their societies, and rendered them dependent upon the “civilized” society he represented. (Note that these are my thoughts, my words, and my analysis of the material. I am not permitting the material to speak for itself, because it cannot.)

F. Transitions: The body of the paper must flow from one idea to the next. This linking of ideas is accomplished through transitional phrases. There are transitions between paragraphs, and transitions within paragraphs. Often, but not always, the last sentence of a paragraph begins to guide the reader to the next idea. (For this reason, it is often a good idea to end paragraphs with a sentence summing-up their findings.) Or the topic sentence of the next paragraph may accomplish this. In the current example, this topic sentence for the next paragraph not only introduces a new mini-thesis, it serves as a transition from the preceding paragraph:

If Jefferson embodied a policy of assimilation, President Andrew Jackson represented the ambivalence of a nation enamored with both assimilation and extermination of Native Americans. (The key to the transition is the phrase “If Jefferson embodied a policy of assimilation.” This phrase bridges the last paragraph by summarizing its findings. As you can tell, the paragraph(s) must deal with the ways Jackson represented the embodiment of both policies towards Native Americans.)

Here is another example of a clear transition:

. . . Sailors in the merchant marine faced a troublesome labor picture. Seasonal fluctuations and the unpredictability of the economy of the shipping industry contributed to instability in employment relations. These in turn led to a decline in workers’s loyalty and their sense of job stability. Instability and insecurity also characterized the wage and employment conditions of longshore work. . . . (The transition here is built on the use of “also” in this topic sentence, which links the “instability and insecurity” of the longshoremen in this paragraph with the “instability and insecurity” of the sailors in the previous paragraph.)

G. Arguing in the body: The body is where you will flex your rhetorical muscle. Scholarly argument is not necessarily rancorous; it does not rely upon heated emotions, raised voices, and passionate appeals to the heart. Rather, scholarly arguments marshall facts — and analyze those facts — in a fashion intended to persuade the reader through reason rather than emotion. The most important technique for doing this is to anticipate the counter-arguments your argument is likely to receive. You must constantly ask yourself, what arguments which counter my thesis make sense? You may do this one of two ways:

(1) you may refute an anticipated counter-argument by proving that it is untrue (sort of a preemptive strike), as in, “While the federal census of 1890 seems to suggest an increase in black mortality, that census was infamous for recording specious data.”

(2) you may concede certain points: accept the truth of statements which seem to refute your argument, but explain why they actually do not harm your argument (sort of a strategic retreat), as in “It was indeed true that Latino youth were incarcerated at a rate three to four times greater than Anglo youth, yet this may suggest the iniquitous workings of the local justice system rather than a Latino propensity towards crime.”

In history, these strategies often mean dealing with evidence that seems to undermine the point you are trying to make. It is crucial that you not ignore this evidence; after all, the reader will not. Selectively invoking evidence while ignoring counter-arguments undermines your credibility, and hence the force of your argument. Consider the following paragraph:

White Southerners were concerned only with re-imposing a kind of slavery on the freedpeople. They voted the straight Democratic ticket, which sought to overturn “Negro rule,” and they supported secret organizations like the Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia. In short, their regard for the civil rights of the newly-freed slaves was almost non-existent. (The fallacy here is one of over-generalization. The author claims that all southern whites supported the move to return freedpeople to a kind of slavery. But we know that some southern whites did support black rights in the era, and voted Republican. By refusing to consider countervailing evidence, the author undermines what is a generally sound point: most southern whites supported the Democracy, but not all. By anticipating and countering these criticisms, this author would enhance her credibility and make a good argument more persuasive.)

III. CONCLUSION: This is usually one paragraph long, and briefly recapitulates your thesis, pulling all your arguments together. The first sentence of the concluding paragraph is a clear, specific re-statement of thesis. The conclusion should do more than simply re-state the argument. It also suggests why the argument is important in the bigger scheme of things, or suggests avenues for further research, or raises a bigger question.

1. Jefferson to Delawares, Mohicans, and Munries, December 21, 1808, in Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, eds., Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, DC, 1904), vol. 16, p. 452.

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how to write a history paper 2

IB History: Paper 2 Essay Writing and Analysis

how to write a history paper 2

The International Baccalaureate (IB) History program challenges students to develop a deep understanding of historical events, themes, and interpretations. One of the key assessment components is the Paper 2 essay, which requires students to analyze and write about historical sources. In this article, we will explore the structure of the IB History Paper 2 essay and provide you with valuable tips and strategies to excel in this challenging task.

 Understanding the IB History Paper 2 Essay

The Paper 2 essay in IB History is often referred to as the "Document-Based Question" (DBQ). It is a timed assessment in which you are provided with a set of historical sources and must craft an essay based on your analysis of these sources. The sources may include primary and secondary documents, images, maps, or texts.

The key components of the IB History Paper 2 essay include:

 1. Source Analysis:

- You are required to analyze the provided sources critically. Consider the origin, purpose, context, and content of each source. Pay attention to biases, perspectives, and limitations of the sources.

 2. Historical Context:

- Understanding the historical context is crucial. You need to place the sources within the broader historical narrative, identifying the events, themes, and time period relevant to the sources.

 3. Essay Prompt:

- The essay prompt will ask you to construct an argument or response based on your analysis of the sources and your knowledge of the historical context. You must address the specific question posed in the prompt.

 4. Essay Structure:

- Your essay should have a clear and organized structure. It typically includes an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

 5. Use of Evidence:

- You should support your argument with evidence from the sources and your historical knowledge. Effective use of source evidence is essential.

 6. Historical Thinking Skills:

- Demonstrating historical thinking skills such as causation, continuity and change, comparison, and evaluation is essential for a successful essay.

 Essay Writing Tips and Strategies

Writing an effective Paper 2 essay requires a structured approach and attention to detail. Here are some tips and strategies to help you excel:

 1. Begin with Source Analysis:

- Start by thoroughly analyzing each source. Identify the author's perspective, any potential biases, and the context in which the source was created.

 2. Organize Your Thoughts:

- Before you begin writing, outline your essay. Organize your argument, main points, and supporting evidence. A clear structure will make your essay more coherent.

 3. Address the Prompt:

- Ensure that your essay directly responds to the essay prompt. Don't deviate from the question, and make it clear from the beginning how you intend to answer it.

 4. Use Source Evidence:

- Integrate source evidence into your essay. Cite the sources when referencing them. This not only supports your argument but also shows your ability to engage with historical documents.

 5. Provide Historical Context:

- Offer historical context for the sources. Explain how they relate to the broader historical events and themes of the time period.

 6. Develop a Clear Thesis:

- Your thesis statement should provide a concise overview of your argument. It should address the prompt and guide the reader on what to expect in the essay.

 7. Support with Specifics:

- Use specific examples and details from the sources and your historical knowledge. Avoid vague statements and generalizations.

 8. Compare and Contrast:

- If the prompt calls for it, compare and contrast the sources. Analyze similarities and differences among the sources to support your argument.

 9. Engage with Historiography:

- When relevant, engage with historical interpretations or the work of historians. Discuss different viewpoints and their implications for your argument.

 10. Conclude Effectively:

- Your conclusion should summarize your main points and restate your thesis. It's also an opportunity to provide a broader perspective on the topic.

 11. Edit and Proofread:

- After writing your essay, take time to edit and proofread. Check for clarity, grammar, and organization.

 Sample IB History Paper 2 Essay Prompt

Here is a sample Paper 2 essay prompt to give you an idea of what to expect:

"Evaluate the impact of World War I on the emergence of new nation-states in Europe. Using the provided sources and your own knowledge, assess the extent to which the war contributed to the dissolution of empires and the creation of new states."

In response to this prompt, you would need to analyze the provided sources and your historical knowledge to construct an essay that evaluates the impact of World War I on the emergence of new nation-states in Europe.

 Conclusion

The IB History Paper 2 essay is a challenging but rewarding assessment that tests your ability to analyze historical sources and construct well-argued essays. By developing strong source analysis skills, crafting clear and structured essays, and providing evidence to support your arguments, you can excel in this component of the IB History program. Remember to practice writing essays and seek feedback from your teachers or peers to further improve your skills. Good luck with your IB History studies and exams!

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International Baccalaureate (IB)

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If you want to do well on the IB History exam, you'll need to have a solid set of notes to study from. This can be difficult though if you're missing notes or feel like some of your own notes don't cover certain topics in enough depth. Luckily, we're here to help! We've assembled the best FREE online IB History notes into this complete study guide.

feature image source: Mount Rushmore Monument America /Pixabay

What's the Format of the IB History Exam?

There are five prescribed subjects for IB History SL and HL:

  • Military leaders
  • Conquest and its impact
  • The move to global war
  • Rights and protest
  • Conflict and intervention

Your teacher will choose one that you'll cover, and you'll be tested on this for paper 1 (one hour in length).

There is also a list of twelve world history topics. For paper 2 (1.5 hours), you'll cover two of these:

  • Society and economy (750-1400)
  • Causes and effects of wars (750-1500)
  • Dynasties and rulers (750-1500)
  • Societies in transition (1400-1700)
  • Early Modern states (1450-1789)
  • Causes and effects of Early Modern wars (1500-1750)
  • Origins, development and impact of industrialization (1750-2005)
  • Independence movements (1800-2000)
  • Emergence and development of democratic states (1848-2000)
  • Authoritarian states (20 th century)
  • Causes and effects of 20 th -century wars
  • The Cold War: superpower tensions and rivalries (20 th century)

If you're taking IB History HL, you'll also have a final paper (Paper 3) that is 2.5 hours and will cover one of the four Depth Studies:

  • History of Africa and the Middle East
  • History of the Americas
  • History of Asia and Oceania
  • History of Europe

If you're interested in taking a look at the entire IBO IB History Guide , you can find it as a .pdf here.

How to Use This IB History Study Guide

If you're hoping for help on one subject, use Command + F to search this guide for specific IB History notes about that subject. As an example, if you want to read about the Cold War, use Command + F to cue the search function. Then type "Cold War," and it'll bring up all of the study materials for the Cold War.

The resource is separated into:

  • Quick reference: one-page summary of material if you just need a quick refresher.
  • Longer notes: notes (generally 3-10 pages) if you need more of an in-depth explanation.
  • Flashcards: online quizzes of key terms.

Common Study Mistakes for IB History SL/HL

Two common mistakes are:

  • Trying to ignore the topics you didn't comprehend from your teacher's lesson. If you didn't understand it in class, you need to find additional assistance through this IB History study guide or tutoring. You're still going to be tested over this material whether you understood it in class or not!
  • Only trying to learn the material a week or two before the IB papers. There is too much history to learn—one or two weeks will not be enough time to learn it (that's why IB History SL/HL is spread over a year or two). The best solution is keeping up in class and studying the material throughout the year.

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Current IB History Guides

Because IB History was recently updated, there aren't that many current notes and study guides, but we've found the best available. These guides follow the syllabus of the current version of IB History. If you are studying the same topics these notes cover, they are a great resource to use because they hit all or most of the main topics you need to know to be well prepared for the IB History exam. There are guides that cover multiple topics as well as guides that cover a single topic.

Multi-Topic Guides and Overviews

IB History Duck covers similar topics. This guide focuses primarily on authoritarian leaders such as Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, as well as the Cold War, histories of China, the USSR, and Imperial Japan.

The Student Room has a plethora of resources for you. Just keep in mind that notes for the 2017 syllabus are mixed in with information from earlier exams , so make sure you're accessing and studying the correct material.

Single Topic Guides

These are notes on single topics that you'll cover on the IB syllabus.

Prescribed Topics: Military Leaders

  • Military leaders overview
  • Ghenghis Khan (c1200-1227) unit
  • Richard I of England (1173-1199) unit

Prescribed Topics: Conquest and Its Impacts

  • General overview of ideas you should know
  • The final stages of Muslim rule in Spain 
  • The conquest of Mexico and Peru (1519-1551)

  Prescribed Topics: Move to Global War

  • Move to global war Prezi notes
  • Move to global war longer notes
  • Japanese expansion in East Asia (1931-1941)  
  • German expansion (1933-1940) unit
  • Italian expansion (1933-1940)

Prescribed Topics: Rights and Protest

  • Rights and protest US Civil Rights overview
  • Rights and protest Apartheid South Africa overview
  • Rights and protest complete unit

Prescribed Topics: Conflict and Intervention

  • Conflict and Intervention general overview
  • Conflict and Intervention workbook
  • Conflict and Intervention Rwanda flash cards

World History Topics: Society and Economy

  • Standard level economics brief
  • Higher level economics brief

World History Topics: Causes and Effects of Wars (750-1500)

  • Causes and effects of Medieval wars unit

World History Topics: Dynasties and Rulers (750-1500)

Dynasties and rulers (750-1500) unit, world history topics: societies in transition.

  • Societies in transition Prezi

World History Topics: Early Modern States (1450-1789)

  • Ferdinand/Isabella
  • Charles I/Phillip II
  • Henry VII (1485-1509)
  • Henry VIII (1509-1529)
  • Henry VIII (1529-1547)
  • Edward VI (1547-1553)
  • Mary I (1553-1558)
  • Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

World History Topics: Causes and Effects of Modern Wars (1500-1750)

  • Causes and effects of modern wars unit

World History Topics: Origins, Development and Impact of Industrialization (1750-2005)

  • Origins, development, and impact of industrialization notes

World History Topics: Independence Movements   

  • Independence movements longer notes
  • Independence movements flashcards
  • Independence movements  

World History Topics: Emergence and Development of Democratic States

  • Evolution and development of democratic states overview

World History Topics: Authoritarian States (20th Century)

  • Authoritarian states longer notes
  • Authoritarian states (20th century)

World History Topics: Causes and Effects of 20th Century Wars

  • Causes and effects of 20th Century wars general overview
  • Causes and effects of 20th Century wars unit

World History Topics: The Cold War — Superpower Tensions and Rivalries (20th Century)

  • Origins of the Cold War unit outline
  • Origins of the Cold War event overview
  • Origins of the Cold War longer notes

HL Depth Studies: History of Africa and the Middle East

  • Africa and the Middle East unit

HL Depth Studies: History of the Americas

  • History of the Americas longer notes
  • History of the Americas unit

HL Depth Studies: History of Asia and Oceania

  • History of China and Oceania longer notes
  • History of China and Oceania unit

HL Depth Studies: History of Europe

  • History of Europe longer notes
  • History of Europe unit

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Past IB History Guides

These notes are based on the older (pre-2017) version of IB History. They won't fit the syllabus you're currently following in class, but since the two versions cover many similar concepts, they can still be useful for learning more about a specific topic. Just be sure not to use them as your main study resource because they may not focus on the exact same areas you're expected to know.

Peacemaking, Peacekeeping - International Relations 1918-36

  • 1.1 Aims of the participants and peacemakers: Wilson and the fourteen points
  • 1.2 Terms of the Paris Peace Treaties 1919-20: Versailles, St Germain, Trianon, Neuilly, Sevre
  • 1.3 The geopolitical and economic impact of the treaties on Europe and the mandate system
  • 1.4 Enforcement of the provisions of the treaties: US isolationism, the retreat from the Anglo-American Guarantee, Disarmament-Washington, London and Geneva Conferences
  • 1.5 The League of Nations: effects of the absence of major powers, the principles of collective responsibility, and early attempts at peacekeeping (1920-25)
  • 1.6 The Ruhr Crisis (1923), Locarno and the Locarno Spring
  • 1.7 Depression and threats to international peace and collective security, Manchuria (1931 to 1933) and Abyssinia (1935 to 1936)
  • The Peace Treaties after World War One
  • The League of Nations in the 1920s
  • The Wall St. Crash / Depression
  • The League of Nations in the 1930s

Communism in Crisis 1976–89

  • 2.1 The struggle for power following the death of Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, the reemergence of Deng Xiaoping and the defeat of the Gang of Four
  • 2.2 China under Deng Xiaoping, economic policies and the Four Modernizations
  • 2.3 China Under Deng Xiaoping, Political Changes And Their Limits, Culminating In The Demonstrations In Tiananmen Square
  • 2.4 Domestic and foreign problems of the Brezhnev era, economic and political stagnation, Afghanistan
  • The Cold War c.1945-55
  • The Cold War c.1955-91
  • The Korean War c.1950-53

Causes, Practices and Effects of Wars

  • World War One
  • Causes of WW1
  • Course / Effects WW1
  • The Peace Treaties
  • German Involvement in Spanish Civil War
  • Causes of the Chinese Civil War
  • Causes of WW2

The Cold War

Democratic states—challenges and responses.

  • Weimar Germany

Origins and Development of Authoritarian and Single-Party States

  • Tsarist / Revolutionary Russia
  • Stalin's USSR
  • Additional Stalin's USSR materials
  • Hitler's Germany

body-cold-war-berlin-cc0

  • Cold War Origins 

Aspects of the History of the Americas

  • United States Civil War: Causes, Course and Effects 1840-1877
  • Emergence of the Americas in Global Affairs 1880-1929
  • Political Developments in the Americas after the Second World War 1945-79
  • The Cold War and the Americas
  • Civil Rights and Social Movements in America

Aspects of the History of Europe and the Middle East

#1: The French Revolution and Napoleon

  • Longer notes

#2: Unification and Consolidation of Germany and Italy

#3: The Ottoman Empire

#4: Western and Northern Europe 1848-1914

#5: Imperial Russia, Revolutions, Emergence of Soviet State 1853-1924

  • Longer notes: Tsarist and Revolutionary Russia to 1924
  • Longer notes: Alexander II
  • Longer notes: Alexander III
  • Longer notes: Nicholas II

#6: European Diplomacy and the First World War 1870-1923

  • Longer notes: Causes of WW1 , Course / Effects WW1 , the Peace Treaties

body-world-war-2-WWII-memorial-cc0

#7: War and Change in the Middle East 1914-49

  • Longer notes: The Peace Treaties after World War One
  • Longer notes: The League of Nations in the 1920s
  • Longer notes: The Wall St. Crash / Depression
  • Longer notes: The League of Nations in the 1930s
  • Khrushchev and Brezhnev
  • Causes for the Collapse of Communism in Europe

#10: The Second World War and Post-War Western Europe 1939-2000

#11: Post-War Developments in the Middle East 1945-2000

  • Longer notes: European Option

body-arrows-next-upward-cc0

What's Next?

Looking for more practice material for IB History? Then you'll definitely want to delve into our complete collection of free and official past IB history papers .

Interested in brushing up on some of your historical knowledge? Read about the Platt Amendment , checks and balances in the US government (as well as how the executive branch checks the judicial branch ), and lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis .

Alternatively, boost your esoteric knowledge by learning about the history of the three-hole punch and the real story of David Ghantt and the Loomis Fargo heist .

Finally, you can get practice materials for other IB classes on our blog:

  • Every IB Biology Past Paper Available: Free and Official
  • Every IB Business and Management Past Paper Available: FREE and Official
  • Where to Find IB Chemistry Past Papers - Free and Official
  • Every IB Economics Past Paper Available: Free and Official
  • Every IB English Past Paper: Free and Official
  • The Complete IB Extended Essay Guide: Examples, Topics, and Ideas
  • Every IB Geography Past Paper Available: Free and Official
  • Every IB Math Past Paper: Free and Official
  • Where to Find IB Physics Past Papers - Free and Official

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IBlieve

How to ace History Paper  2?

Zeynep Ambarci

Welcome again to trying to succeed in History exams together. In the previous article , we went through Paper 1 and now it is time for History Paper 2.

History Paper 2 (30 marks)

Recent changes stated that the History Paper 2 exam will last only for 45 minutes and students will be required to write for only one question (For those who don’t know, it used to be 90 minutes for two questions.) Questions are formulated in a way that you need to evaluate two separate historical backgrounds in the same context. Here are some examples from the last exam:

  • Evaluate the impact of population change on two societies , each from a different region.
  • “The most important causes of wars in the period 750–1500 were political.” With reference to two wars , to what extent do you agree with this statement?

The command term in the instruction is important since it gives a hint about how the student should proceed with their argumentation.:

  • Compare and Contrast : State differences and similarities in relation to a particular aspect or event.
  • Discuss : Make arguments with examples.
  • Evaluate : Weigh strengths and limitations. In this question, it is often asks if an event is a success or a failure. 
  • Examine : Consider an argument or conjecture and make a judgment with verification of validity.
  • To what extent : Often this refers to a quote or statement where you would have to agree or disagree with something.

We already discussed how we formulate a mini-essay for Paper 1, Paper 2 is also quite similar to that. My teacher says that it would be great if we can write 1000 words for the essay—but let’s face reality I’ll call myself lucky if I can write 800 meaningful words in 45 minutes.

Introduction

For introduction I use the method BOLT:

B – Background information to specify which historical context you’ll be talking about O – Opposing view to determine the counterarguments to your thesis L – List of evidence to specify the historical examples  T – Thesis

Here is an example text with the method:

“Economic aspects contributed to the rise of the Nazis from 1919 to 1934 and the rise of Communist China from 1921 to 1949 . Other factors that can be considered are the use of force by the Nazis and Communist Party of China and the personal abilities of the leaders , Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong . Finally, economic factors contributed to a greater extent to the emergence of both states, as the previous economic weakness led the population to support the Nazis and the Chinese Communist Party .”

Body Paragraphs

In this part, you need to present opposing arguments and prove each of them in separate paragraphs. I usually try to write two supporting paragraphs with my thesis and one opposing. It is important that in the end, you prove the approach you claimed in the thesis. Rebut the counter-argument with examples and remember to stick to the question as you do so. PEEL method is a classic but efficient method for this:

P – Point: the first sentence that presents your argument E – Evidence: support your argument with facts E – Explain: analyze your evidence and explain how it supports the argument L – Link: connect the argument with the question

The conclusion is also the same with Paper 1, and these phrases can help you:

  • In summary, it can be said that….
  • The arguments presented justify the statement that….
  • To return to the question…

My advice to you is to find past paper questions and try to write as many as you can in 45 minutes. Timing yourself is important to prepare for the exam and with every try, you’ll notice you are able to write more words than the previous one. If your teacher is available try to show these writings to them as well, a little critique does more use than harm. Hope this helps you, good luck to everyone who has to read this because their exam is coming up!

You may also like…

  • Cynthia’s overview for History IA .
  • Priyasha’s tips for Global Politics EE .

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IB English Paper 2 Explained

Free introductory guide to IB English Paper 2 by IB45 and IB7 graduates.

This guide will explain IB English Paper 2 and what you need to ace the exam come May or November, when the IB Gods throw you this (seemingly) insurmountable task.

If you don't know all about Paper 1 already, do check out LitLearn's amazing guide  for IB English Paper 1. Paper 1 is all about on-the-spot thinking and  adrenaline-pumping analysis . What about Paper 2?

Well, IB English Paper 2 is  all of those things , plus extensive preparation . But don't fret! I survived Paper 2, and so have many others before you. All you need is a couple sprinkles of guidance from a seasoned Paper 2 veteran (ahem).

Meet your instructor Jackson Huang, Founder of LitLearn. His mission is to make IB English as pain-free as possible with fun, practical lessons. Jackson scored an IB45 and was accepted to Harvard, Amherst, Williams Colleges, and full scholarships to University of Melbourne & Queensland.

Photo of LitLearn instructor Jackson Huang

What is IB English Paper 2?

You're in the exam room. You stare at the page and wipe the sweat from your forehead and try to focus on the words on the page:

"We are all prisoners of ourselves.” Discuss how the sense of imprisonment shapes the meaning and the effect on the audience of at least two texts you have studied."

A Paper 2 exam consists of four of these prompts. From these options, you choose one prompt and write a 1000 to 1300-word essay on it.

How long do you get? 1 hour 45 minutes for both Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL) students.

In these 1000 to 1300 words, your task is to write a comparative essay , which — you guessed it — means comparing similarities and contrasting differences between the texts you've studied in class for Paper 2 (i.e., poems, novels, plays or short stories) .

Now that you understand what a Paper 2 essay involves, let's jump into how to properly answer one of these IB English Paper 2 prompts.

How to answer a Paper 2 Question

Let's stick with the above example about the theme of “imprisonment”.

First, see that philosophical quote at the start of the prompt? It's there to spark ideas, to get the juices flowing in your brain. You don't have to refer to it directly unless the questions explicitly asks you to do so. So the take-away message here is to not be ‘imprisoned' by the philosophical quotes at the start of the prompts.

Second, notice the command term “discuss”. This is usually replaced by words like “evaluate”, “analyse”, “examine”. Don't worry about it too much : it doesn't mean anything too important, because at the end of the day you still have to analyse, you still have to compare, and you still have to contrast.

The key of the prompt

The part after the command term is the most important part of the prompt:

"[…] how the sense of imprisonment shapes the meaning and the effect on the audience […]"

Here the “sense of imprisonment” — the key of the prompt — tells us exactly what we need to write about in the essay.

Can you find the key in this next prompt?

"Compare and contrast the effectiveness of the use of irony in two or more texts you have studied."

Notice the command term “compare and contrast” and the important part after it. The key of this prompt is “ the use of irony “.

Get comfy with morphing stuff

More often than not, our texts do not contain anything explicitly related to the prompt's key, say, the theme of “imprisonment”.

Pay attention to this next paragraph…

The secret to scoring a 7 in IB English Paper 2 is to get very comfortable with bending, morphing and twisting your texts and/or the prompt so that they are as compatible with each other as possible.

There are two ways that this can be achieved:

1. Morphing existing ideas in your own texts to fit the prompt

While Jane Sherwood's (some random character) nostalgia in your Incredible Text 1 may not directly relate to “imprisonment”, you could twist the character's nostalgia into the idea that emotions can trap or “imprison” an individual in a treasured memory or a past experience.

Nostalgia and imprisonment seem like unlikely brothers at first, but with a bit of justification they look almost like identical twins.

2. Redefining the prompt (reasonably)

The key of the prompt can often be vague . For example, there was a real IB exam prompt that asked whether “male characters were more interesting than female characters.” What does “interesting” even mean?

The IB Gods are inviting you to constrain the topic in a way that works for your texts specifically. You could write in the first sentence of your introduction:

"Interest, an important part of dramatic works, is often generated by emotional conflict and the subsequent creation of tension." "

Here I have restricted the broad topic of “interesting” to the more clearly-defined topic of “emotional conflict” because this redefinition works well for the texts I've studied for IB English Paper 2. You should do the same.

In reality, you have to morph both your texts and the prompt in order to reach a snug fit between the two. Getting to this point, which all happens during the planning stage, is the most difficult part of the Paper 2 process because it requires you to know your texts so well that you can apply the ideas in your texts to different situations.

How many texts to compare and contrast?

Before we continue with this introductory guide, we need to address the age-old question of how many texts should we compare and contrast in an IB English Paper 2 comparative essay?

In the old syllabus, you had the choice to compare and contrast up to three texts.

Luckily, in the new syllabus (First assessment 2021), you don't have to make a choice: the IB requires you to compare and contrast just two texts . One less decision for you to make!

However, you are still recommended to prepare three texts, so that you have 3 possible combinations of texts to answer your prompts (Texts 1 & 2, Texts 1 & 3 and Texts 2 & 3).

Now that we agree on how many texts to compare and contrast, let's see how we can make the texts work together.

Choosing the best points across your two texts

There's an easy way, and there's a hard way.

If you want a score of 5 or below , you can simply think of two points to answer the prompt for Text 1 and two other points to answer the prompt for Text 2. Then, slap them together into different paragraphs, regurgitate some shallow comparison and contrast, and call it a comparative essay. That doesn't sound very sophisticated, does it?

On the other hand, if you want a score of 6 or 7 , you'll need to use a lot more brainpower and insight. The points that you choose for your two texts are very important, in terms of how the points relate to each other and to the prompt. The points need to have enough overlaps that similarities can be analysed, but not too much similarity because you also want to contrast differences.

A graphical illustration of how IB English Paper 2 texts should relate to each other.

What ends up happening is you enter an algorithm — a set of steps, sort of like a recipe — where you repeatedly attempt to find good points for the prompt, gradually morphing them while re-defining the prompt itself, until you reach a good plan for your Paper 2 essay.

What does a good plan generally look like?

  • Your re-defined prompt has not strayed far, or at all, from the original prompt.
  • The points for Text 1 fit well with the prompt.
  • The points for Text 2 fit well with the prompt as well as the points your chose for Text 1.

The million dollar question is: How do we get to this optimum stage where the prompts and the texts and married so harmoniously ? The answer is brainstorming.

In these Pro lessons from our study guide, we go into detail about the exact strategies for brainstorming for Paper 2 under exam conditions, choosing the right Paper 2 essay structure, and writing a strong Paper 2 thesis.

Pro members only

How to best prepare for Paper 2

We've talked a lot about the skills and questions necessary to tackle an IB English Paper 2 prompt, but all of that happens during the exam itself. What can we do before Paper 2 to put ourselves in the best position?

  • (Really) understanding your text
  • Choosing great quotes for your Paper 2 (covered in a later lesson )
  • Practice past Paper 2 exams

Let's go through Steps 1 and 3.

Understanding your text

IB English Paper 2 tests skills that require a deep understanding . First, to compare and contrast effectively, you need to know your texts well enough that you can find similarities and differences in the micro-details and in the macro themes, in the characters and in the techniques. Second, in order to adapt the ideas in your text to the prompt , you need to know how far you can stretch those ideas while maintaining their validity.

Without a deep understanding, you're dead in the water.

In our Paper 2 Preparation guide, we tell you exactly how to prepare your Paper 2 knowledge and notes, down to the specific questions you should be able to answer. The preparation is organized into Level 1 to Level 4 to give you a structured study roadmap for Paper 2. That way you don't get overwhelmed.

No sign up or credit card required.

Practising Past Paper 2s

The most challenging part of Paper 2 is bringing together three aspects:

  • The quotes you've memorised
  • Your analysis skills
  • Your ability to adapt the quotes and ideas to a new prompt that you've never, ever encountered before

Grabbing that 7 in IB English Paper 2 requires that you are solid on all three fronts . You cannot just practice each of these aspects individually. Practising to plan and write Paper 2 responses ensures that you practise this core trifecta of skills together, all at once.

Practising past Paper 2s was the core of my IB English Paper 2 preparation schedule. It helped me to memorise quotes, learn which quotes are better than others, and learn certain pairs of themes, characters and techniques that work well in my texts for comparison and contrast.

By practising Paper 2s extensively, you increase your awareness of what works (and what doesn't) for your texts. Hence, the main thing you have to worry about on the day of your exam is the prompt itself--the only variable that you cannot control.

In the Paper 2 study guide, we have an exemplar IB English Paper 2 essay from a past exam: See the exemplar essay .

Question​bank

Paper 1 Practice Exams

Past Paper 1 Solutions

Paper 2 Guide

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Computer Science > Computation and Language

Title: simulating policy impacts: developing a generative scenario writing method to evaluate the perceived effects of regulation.

Abstract: The rapid advancement of AI technologies yields numerous future impacts on individuals and society. Policy-makers are therefore tasked to react quickly and establish policies that mitigate those impacts. However, anticipating the effectiveness of policies is a difficult task, as some impacts might only be observable in the future and respective policies might not be applicable to the future development of AI. In this work we develop a method for using large language models (LLMs) to evaluate the efficacy of a given piece of policy at mitigating specified negative impacts. We do so by using GPT-4 to generate scenarios both pre- and post-introduction of policy and translating these vivid stories into metrics based on human perceptions of impacts. We leverage an already established taxonomy of impacts of generative AI in the media environment to generate a set of scenario pairs both mitigated and non-mitigated by the transparency legislation of Article 50 of the EU AI Act. We then run a user study (n=234) to evaluate these scenarios across four risk-assessment dimensions: severity, plausibility, magnitude, and specificity to vulnerable populations. We find that this transparency legislation is perceived to be effective at mitigating harms in areas such as labor and well-being, but largely ineffective in areas such as social cohesion and security. Through this case study on generative AI harms we demonstrate the efficacy of our method as a tool to iterate on the effectiveness of policy on mitigating various negative impacts. We expect this method to be useful to researchers or other stakeholders who want to brainstorm the potential utility of different pieces of policy or other mitigation strategies.

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  1. PDF A Brief Guide to Writing the History Paper

    (a.k.a., Making) History At first glance, writing about history can seem like an overwhelming task. History's subject matter is immense, encompassing all of human affairs in the recorded past — up until the moment, that is, that you started reading this guide. Because no one person can possibly consult all of these records, no work of ...

  2. PDF Steps for Writing a History Paper REVISED

    Set a timer for five or ten minutes and write down everything you know about your paper: your argument, your sources, counterarguments, everything. Do not edit or judge what you are writing as you write; just keep writing until the timer goes off. You may be surprised to find out how much you knew about your topic.

  3. Steps for Writing a History Paper

    Once you are satisfied with your argument, move onto the local level. Put it all together: the final draft. After you have finished revising and have created a strong draft, set your paper aside for a few hours or overnight. When you revisit it, go over the checklist in Step 8 one more time.

  4. Writing Resources

    Paragraph goes nowhere/has no point or unity. Paragraphs are the building blocks of your paper. If your paragraphs are weak, your paper cannot be strong. Try underlining the topic sentence of every paragraph. If your topic sentences are vague, strength and precision—the hallmarks of good writing—are unlikely to follow.

  5. How to Write a History Research 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.

  6. PDF WRITING A GREAT HISTORY PAPER

    2 Part I: The Pre-Writing Process Writing a history paper requires much more than just sitting down at a computer. It involves a lot of early planning, detailed research, critical thinking, skilled organization, and careful writing and rewriting. The first rule of essay writing is to start early so that you have plenty of time to follow these ...

  7. Research Guides: History: How to Write a History paper

    A Short Guide to Writing about History by Richard Marius; Melvin E. Page. Call Number: D13 .M294 2005. ISBN: 0321227166. Publication Date: 2004-07-06. A must have for students taking any history course that requires writing, A Short Guide to Writing About History stresses thinking and writing like a historian.

  8. How to Write a History Research Paper

    1. Background Reading The first step to a history research paper is of course, background reading and research. In the context of a class assignment, "background reading" might simply be course readings or lectures, but for independent work, this step will likely involve some quality time on your own in the library.

  9. PDF WRITING HISTORY

    Thus when you write a history paper, you must make a claim about the past that is rooted in the sources. But at the same, you should recognize that this is merely your interpretation, and that there might be other ways of looking at the same set of historical facts. Your essays should consequently always be persuasive in tone.

  10. How to write an introduction for a history essay

    1. Background sentences. The first two or three sentences of your introduction should provide a general introduction to the historical topic which your essay is about. This is done so that when you state your hypothesis, your reader understands the specific point you are arguing about. Background sentences explain the important historical ...

  11. The Three Parts of a History Paper

    I. THE INTRODUCTION: The introduction is usually one paragraph, or perhaps two in a paper of eight pages or more. Its purpose is to: (1) set out the problem to be discussed; (2) define key terms that will be used in that discussion; (3) outline the structure of the argument; (4) CLEARLY STATE THE THESIS. A. Suggestions for the introduction:

  12. How to write an IB History Paper 2

    Link to the document in the video https://docs.google.com/document/d/19QNMhmj4M-Tokkd9mkDFC-CcXHMUcw28UxcCgqhV4vk/edit?usp=sharing

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    The International Baccalaureate (IB) History program challenges students to develop a deep understanding of historical events, themes, and interpretations. One of the key assessment components is the Paper 2 essay, which requires students to analyze and write about historical sources. In this article, we will explore the structure of the IB History Paper 2 essay and provide you with valuable ...

  15. The Best IB History Notes and Study Guide for SL/HL

    The Cold War: superpower tensions and rivalries (20 th century) If you're taking IB History HL, you'll also have a final paper (Paper 3) that is 2.5 hours and will cover one of the four Depth Studies: History of Africa and the Middle East. History of the Americas. History of Asia and Oceania. History of Europe.

  16. IB History Papers 2 & 3

    Higher and Standard Level IB History candidates tackling Paper 2 and Higher Level candidates writing essays for Paper 3 need to be able to show an awareness and evaluation of 'different perspectives' in order to access the second highest mark band (10-12 out of 15) and provide an evaluation of different perspectives integrated into the ...

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  19. PDF Tips on how to answer exam questions CIE IGCSE History

    Never write an answer to a question without mentioning the source/s that is/are being referred to. 'RULES' for Paper 2 Rule #1 - Thou shalt answer the question directly in your first sentence. No need for an introduction (use the keywords from the question). Rule #2 - Thou shalt not summarize.

  20. How to ace History Paper 2?

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