November 2021

Part 1 of 7

Questions to consider when reading a primary source:

  1. When and by whom was this particular document written? What is the format of the document? Has the document been edited? Was the document published? If so, when and where and how? How do the layout, typographical details, and accompanying illustrations inform you about the purpose of the document, the author’s historical and cultural position, and that of the intended audience?

(Courtesy of University of Toronto)

October 2021

What is a primary source? A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event or subject you’ve chosen to study or by people who were observers of or participants in that event or topic.

If, for example, your topic is the experience of workers in the Chicago packinghouses during the first decades of the twentieth century, your primary sources might be:

  • Chicago newspapers, c. 1900-1920, in a variety of languages.
  • A short film, such as an actualité, made during the period that shows the yards.
  • Settlement house records and manuscripts.
  • Novels about the packing yards, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).
  • U.S. census records concerning neighborhood residents for 1900 and 1910.
  • A mechanical conveyor system, used to move carcasses from one room to another at the time and place you are researching.
  • Autobiographies of meat packing executives, workers, etc., published even many years later.
  • Maps that show the location of the packing house plants, made during the period you are studying.
  • Music, such as work songs or blues ballads, made or adapted during the time you are researching.
  • oral histories of packing house employees’ experiences, though a historian’s comments on those oral histories would be a secondary source.

The medium of the primary source can be anything, including written texts, objects, buildings, films, paintings, cartoons, etc. What makes the source a “primary” source is when it was made, not what it is.

(Courtesy of University of Toronto)

September 2021

Ask the right questions. To get into the complexities (and fun!) of historical thinking, come up with questions including “why” and “how.” It can also be helpful to think in terms of change and continuity: how is an event different from what came before? What patterns or developments does it continue?

(Courtesy of Southwestern University)

August 2021

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.

(Courtesy of Hamilton College)

July 2021

What makes good historical writing?

Good historical writers carefully evaluate and interpret their sources; they link causes and effects; they assign significance to actors, ideas, and events; and they weigh competing explanations for all of these.

(Courtesy of Writer Mag)

June 2021

When writing your first draft: 

This step can feel overwhelming, but remember that you have already done a lot of work and--armed with your working thesis, source annotations, and outline--have all the tools needed.  Do not feel that you have to work through your outline from beginning to end.  Some writers find it helpful to begin with the section in which they feel most confident.  Look at your outline and see if there is one part that is particularly fleshed out; you may want to begin there.  Your goal in the draft is to articulate your argument as clearly as you can, and to marshal your evidence in support of your argument.  Do not get too caught up in grammar or stylistic issues at this point, as you are more concerned now with the big-picture task of expressing your ideas in writing.

(Courtesy of UCLA History)

May 2021

A succesful thesis statement takes a position that requires defending. Your argument should not be an obvious or irrefutable assertion. Rather, make a claim that requires supporting evidence.

Weak Thesis: The Revolutionary War caused great upheaval in the lives of American women.

Few would argue with the idea that war brings upheaval. Your thesis needs to be debatable: it needs to make a claim against which someone could argue. Your job throughout the paper is to provide evidence in support of your own case. Here is a revised version:

Strong Thesis: The Revolution caused particular upheaval in the lives of women. With men away at war, women took on full responsibility for running households, farms, and businesses. As a result of their increased involvement during the war, many women were reluctant to give up their new-found responsibilities after the fighting ended.

(Courtesy of UCLA History)

April 2021

A successful thesis statement:

  • makes an historical argument
  • takes a position that requires defending
  • is historically specific
  • is focused and precise
  • answers the question, "so what?"

(Courtesy of UCLA History)

March 2021

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.

(Courtesy of UCLA History)

February 2021

Essays also attempt to persuade. Having posed a question or problem in the first paragraph of your essay, and having stated your thesis, you then need to convince your reader of the validity of your position. In order to persuade, you need to argue in a logical fashion.

4. To convince your reader that your thesis is correct, you must support your point of view with evidence. Use quotations and examples from your readings and from lectures to prove your points.

#4 of of #4 in a series. 

(Courtesy of Morissey College of Arts & Sciences at Boston College)

January 2021

Essays also attempt to persuade. Having posed a question or problem in the first paragraph of your essay, and having stated your thesis, you then need to convince your reader of the validity of your position. In order to persuade, you need to argue in a logical fashion.

3. Your essay should take your reader by the hand (so to speak) and guide him or her through the process of thought leading to the conclusions you want your reader to draw. You should assume that your reader is intelligent but does not necessarily know the material you are presenting. Thus, if certain facts are critical to an essay, you must present them as such, and you cannot assume that the reader already knows them.

#3 of of #4 in a series. Stay tuned!

(Courtesy of Morissey College of Arts & Sciences at Boston College)

December 2020

Essays also attempt to persuade. Having posed a question or problem in the first paragraph of your essay, and having stated your thesis, you then need to convince your reader of the validity of your position. In order to persuade, you need to argue in a logical fashion.

2. You should include only the information in your essay that is relevant to the question you are addressing. Other information, whether factually correct or not, is irrelevant. It confuses your reader and obscures the point you are trying to argue.

#2 of of #4 in a series. Stay tuned!

(Courtesy of Morissey College of Arts & Sciences at Boston College)

November 2020

Essays also attempt to persuade. Having posed a question or problem in the first paragraph of your essay, and having stated your thesis, you then need to convince your reader of the validity of your position. In order to persuade, you need to argue in a logical fashion.

1. To do this, you should first write an outline before you begin to draft your essay. An outline will help you organize your argument, and it will, in the end, produce a more cogently argued paper.

#1 of of #4 in a series. Stay tuned!

(Courtesy of Morissey College of Arts & Sciences at Boston College)

October 2020

Use formal written English.

1. Avoid colloquialisms (e.g., coolkind oftotallyhung up onOKsort of, etc.). They are fine in speech, but they should never be used in formal written English.

2. On the other hand, do not use antiquated or obscure words that have been suggested to you by your computer's thesaurus, especially if you are not sure what these words mean.

(Courtesy of Morissey College of Arts & Sciences at Boston College)

September 2020

Do not write two- or three-page paragraphs. A paragraph generally explores a single idea, rather than a dozen.

(Courtesy of Morissey College of Arts & Sciences at Boston College)

August 2020

Adjectives make for interesting writing, but they should be used sparingly. The Communist Manifesto was really, truly very much a work of ground-breaking importance is not as good as The Communist Manifesto was ground breaking.

(Courtesy of Morissey College of Arts & Sciences at Boston College)

July 2020

Start with your sources. Historians rely on inductive reasoning, so build your argument from the ground up. Take a close look at some of your sources to see what jumps out at you: what’s intriguing? What’s weird? What seems to be inconsistent?

(Courtesy of Southwestern University)

June 2020

Avoid abusing your sources. Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses:

#5 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. Save in the rare case that competing dictionary definitions are the subject at hand, keep dictionary quotations out of your paper.

(Courtesy of Hamilton College History Department)

#5 of 5 in a series. 

May 2020

Avoid abusing your sources. Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses:

#4 Encyclopedia abuse. General encyclopedias like Britannica are useful for checking facts, but if you are footnoting encyclopedias in your papers, you are not doing academic-level research.

(Courtesy of Hamilton College History Department)

#4 of 5 in a series. Stay tuned for more tips!

April 2020

Avoid abusing your sources. Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses:

#3 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. Forget Bartlett’s, unless you're confirming the wording of a quotation that came to you spontaneously and relates to your paper. 

(Courtesy of Hamilton College History Department)

#3 of 5 in a series. Stay tuned for more tips!

March 2020

Avoid abusing your sources. Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses:

#2 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.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). 

(Courtesy of Hamilton College History Department)

#2 of 5 in a series. Stay tuned for more tips!


February 2020

Avoid abusing your sources. Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses:

#1 Web Abuse:Anyone can post something on the web without having to get past trained editors, peer reviewers, or librarians. 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.

(Courtesy of Hamilton College History Department)

#1 of 5 in a series. Stay tuned for more tips!

January 2020

Be careful with your 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, “The revolution in China finally succeeded in the twentieth century,” your reader may suspect that you haven’t studied. Which revolution? When in the twentieth century? Remember that chronology is the backbone of history.

(Courtesy of Hamilton College History Department)

December 2019

Be sure to use the full name of organizations, companies, acts, etc. before using their acronym or abbreviation. Introduce the full name, then the abbreviation in parentheses. After that, you can refer to the organization or company by its acronym.

First mention: "The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established by the New Deal."
Second mention: "The CCC employed young men from around the country."

November 2019

The correct balance is vital. Give most space to the most important issues – importance being assessed in relation to the question set. Remember that it is all too easy to spend a disproportionate amount of time/space on the first issue you deal with, so that others have to be dealt with hurriedly. For this reason, it is probably best not to leave your most important ideas to the end of an essay. Also, be careful not to get distracted by other ideas that distract from your main argument.

(Courtesy of History Today)

October 2019

Avoid the use of qualifying terms. Terms such as "possibly," "probably," "seems," "may," and "might" indicate weaknessed in your argument. When the preponderance of evidenc epoints in one direction, do not use qualifiers. 
Correct: The "Bank Holiday" restored public confidence in the financial system.
Incorrect: The "Bank Holiday" probably restoried public confidence in the financial system.
(Courtesy of College of William & Mary)

September 2019

Be sure and connect your interpretation to previous work by other historians. Once you have a topic in mind, you need to find out what other scholars have written about your topic.You’ll find that other scholars have used different sources and/or asked different questions, and that reading their work will help you place your own paper in perspective. (Courtesy of University of Ontario)

August 2019

Remember, an NHD project requires that you make and defend an argument. If you find yourself just describing events instead of asking yourself why they happened or how they happened, you're probably on the wrong track. (Courtesy of University of Richmond Writing Center)

July 2019

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.

June 2019

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."

May 2019

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)

April 2019

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)

March 2019

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."

February 2019

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)

January 2019

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)

December 2018

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)

November 2018

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)

October 2018

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)

September 2018

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)

August 2018

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..."

July 2018

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.

June 2018

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)

May 2018

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.

April 2018

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!

March 2018

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!

February 2018

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.

January 2018

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.

December 2017

When referring to an historical actor, Benjamin Franklin, for example, never refer to them by first name alone. Introduce the historical actor by using their full name (Benjamin Franklin), and then refer to the historical actor by last name thereafter (Franklin). NEVER refer to someone by first name only (Benjamin), as you would a personal aquaintance. This is the best way to maintain respect and professionalism in your writing. Judges will look for this during the contests.