If you are writing a historical biography about a speficic person, remember--you must connect their life and influence to the larger society and culture of the particular time. Use individuals as microcosms through which to explore a particular time period, point of view, argument, or historical event. Writing a narrative biography does not make for a successful NHDC project.
Remember to discuss any quotations that you use, do not leave your audience to guess at why you include these quotations. Follow this formula: introduce quote by identifying the author, write the quote, and then write your explanation and analysis. For example: "In his book, 1776, author David McCullough, quoting Thomas Paine, says 'The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth... Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation.' This quote from Paine's pamphlet 'Common Sense' demonstrates the language, accessible by those colonists not highly educated, that stirred people towards revolution."
The first paragraph is vital if you are to avoid the two commonest pitfalls, being irrelevant and writing a narrative. Try to do three things: a) analyse the question, defining its meaning and establishing its parameters; b) sub-divide the question into smaller areas (on each of which you will subsequently have a paragraph); and c) outline an argument or, perhaps, several alternative interpretations. By all means have a dramatic first sentence – to shock the reader from the stupor that prolonged marking invariably induces – but do not merely 'set the scene' or begin to 'tell a story'. There's no time for this. (Courtesy of Robert Pearce, History Today)
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? (Courtesy of Carleton)
Be sure to introduce your direct quotations with information about the source and author. Quotes should never float inbetween your own words without any attribution. For example: According to historican and author David McCullough in his work 1776, '"The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too they would never forget."
Give real facts and evidence, not just historians' opinions. Quote the evidence the historians quote, not the historians themselves (unless, that is, they have expressed themselves with real flair or unless you find it necessary to discuss their particular interpretations). Remember that history is the reconstruction of the past on the basis of the surviving evidence, it is not a just a collection of opinions. Also, give the evidence in the essay proper, don't hide it away in footnotes or appendices in a foolhardy attempt to make your essay seem "academic." (Courtesy of Robert Pearce, History Review)
The final paragraph is also vital. Do not bring in fresh factual material, and do not address the "next" topic (for instance, what Hitler did after 1933 once you've answered the question by explaining why he came to power). Instead, return to the actual wording of the question and answer it as directly and succinctly as possible--and make sure it's consistent with what you've written earlier. (Courtesy of Robert Pearce, History Review)
Be direct and explicit: don't leave it for the reader to puzzle out the relevance of what you are writing. That means giving a relevant argument: if you're not arguing a case, you're not answering the question. (Courtesy of Robert Pearce, History Review)
Proofread, proofread, proofread. Your readers will thank you! Read your paper out loud, have your teacher, parents, friends, and siblings read it. Be thorough! There is no excuse for typos!
(Courtesy of Harvard Writing Center)
When writing your conclusion, finish with a bang not a whimper. Summarize the debate neatly in a paragraph or two. Save a point of interest to end on -- a comment on the significance of the subject, what is original about your argument, etc. The conclusion should reinforce, in the reader's mind, the persuasiveness of your whole argument. (Courtesy of Cornell University)
Before you ever begin writing, start small. Read a few documents closely with an eye for patterns or common themes. Do you see a way to reconcile these initial perspectives? As you read additional documents, does your original thesis hold up? (Courtesy of Harvard Writing Center)
Avoid the use of first-person language and self-conscious discussions of your papers. For example, avoid statements like, "First, I will demonstrate...," "I think...," "My opinion is..."
Be objective. While everyone holds some sort of bias, good historians do not let bias cloud their research or conclusions. Be sure to acknowledge and discuss differing perspectives other than the particular argument your research supports.
Stick to the past tense as much as possible. Do not write about long-past events and long-dead people in the present tense. (Courtesy of Boston College History Department)
Avoid contractions in your academic writing. For example, use cannot instead of can't, will not instead of won't, do not instead of don't, etc. This makes your writing more formal and professional.
When writing an historical paper, remember that each body paragraph should focus on one idea or aspect of supporting your argument. For example, if discussing the women's suffrage movement in the United States, a body paragraph might focus on the Seneca Falls Convention using the Declaration of Sentiments as a piece of primary source evidence. This paragraph should introduce the paragraph's topic, provide evidence, provide a sentence analyzing that evidence, and then link that paragraph's arguement back to your thesis. Remember MEAL--Main Ideas, Evidence, Analysis, Link!
When in doubt, cite it! Remember that you must cite ideas that are not yours, not just direct quotations. If something is not considered "textbook knowledge," you must cite it. For example, "Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader during the Civil Rights Movement" is considered textbook knowledge. You cannot reword someone else's ideas and claim them as your own. If you are unsure about whether or not your should cite something, go ahead and cite it!
Avoid generalizations in your writing. Be precise and try not to assume things about large groups of people. For example, avoid statements like, "women in the 1920s became flappers who believed in liberating females." Not all women were flappers or approved of their lifestyle. A more precise statement might be, "many young women in urban centers adopted the flapper lifestyle with the goal of female liberation." This statement is true, and avoids classifying all women in the 1920s as flappers.
Use active voice in your historical writing, for example, "Van Gogh painted Starry Night." Avoid passive voice, for example, "Starry Night was painted by Van Gogh." When writing, it is important that you are clear and concise about who is performing the action of your sentence, and that the subject of your sentence comes before the verb.