The Writing of a Historical Essay or Research Paper
Whether you are writing an in-class essay exam or a 20-page research paper, there
are some basic guidelines which you should keep in mind. The first part of this
handout gives general information which is relevant to the writing of any historical
essay. The second part gives tips which you should utilize in writing take-home
essays, exams, and research papers.
Writing an Essay
An essay is not simply a list of facts. You must organize the facts into themes
which support a central argument or thesis. This thesis should be introduced in
the beginning of the paper and developed throughout the paper one step at a time.
The stronger your thesis, the easier it will be for you to develop a strong argument.
Use an outline to organize your thoughts in a clear, coherent and logical manner
and to guide you in writing the essay. Organizationally, the essay has three main
- Introduction. Use the introduction to state your thesis, outline
the main points you will make in the essay, and describe the conclusions which
you will draw in the essay. History essays are not mystery papers; the reader
should know from the beginning what your conclusions are. Use the introduction
to draw the reader into the essay. Often it is easier to write your introduction
last, after you clearly know what arguments you develop in the essay.
- Body. The body is the bulk of your paper, the place where you present
your facts and develop your thoughts and arguments. The body can be developed
chronologically, thematically, geographically, or in any number of ways, but
you must make it clear how you are approaching and organizing the material.
While you write the essay, keep in mind the following points:
- Write in paragraphs. Each paragraph is a unit of thought limited to
one major idea. Each paragraph should relate to and support your thesis
or central argument. Use specific and concrete examples to support your
general statements. Be sure your facts are correct and that they support
- Use good grammar. This includes writing in complete sentences, using
past tense instead of present tense when appropriate, using active verbs
instead of passive ones, varying your vocabulary, and avoiding sexist language
(i.e.--don't use the generic "he" or talk about the history of man
when you mean the history of humans or people). Avoid first person and redundant
phrases such as "in my opinion" or "I believe that." Be direct in your writing.
If you have taken an English composition class, bring those skills into
- Write analytically, not descriptively. Do not just explain what
happened, but also try to explain why it happened and why it is
significant. Facts are important, but without interpretation they become
- Rarely are there any "correct" answers. Rather, it is more important
that you are able to use the material to develop an argument which supports
your point of view.
- You will be rewarded for independent and original thought. Don't be
afraid to give your opinions and interpretations of the material (this is
your thesis!). Be critical of your readings and the lectures. Look for new
ways of approaching the material. When you disagree with an author's views,
- Be creative. Make your essay interesting to read. Don't assume that
I as the instructor know everything that there is to know on your topic.
Write as if you are teaching someone something that is new and interesting.
This will automatically make your paper a better one.
- Conclusion. The conclusion can be as simple as a restatement of your
introduction. It should emphasize your thesis, and briefly summarize how you
have proven it in the body of the paper. In this way, your paper is cyclical--you
end up where you started. You can also use the conclusion to state your own
interpretations, to assess and argue with the material you have read, and to
point to gaps in our historical knowledge.
If your assignment is to write a three-page paper, you may find it most useful
to follow the five-paragraph model where the first paragraph is the introduction,
the next three form the body, and the final paragraph is the conclusion. The introduction
and conclusion frame your essay, and the body presents the information necessary
to support your thesis. Each of the three paragraphs should concern one specific
issue which supports your main argument. For example, if your assignment is to write
a paper on the consequences of Independence in Latin America, these three paragraphs
might touch on social, economic, and political aspects which demonstrate that Independence
resulted in either profound or minimal changes (your thesis). This format, of course,
can be modified as necessary to meet the specific needs of your topic. If you are
writing a 20-page research paper, the introduction might be several paragraphs long.
The Form of the Research Paper
The physical form and appearance of a research paper is important. In historical
studies, a standard guide is Kate L. Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term
Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. This guide is available in the reference
section of the library or in most good bookstores. Briefly, the following are important
elements you should keep in mind when writing a research paper:
- The Title Page. The first page of the paper should contain the title
of your paper, your name, the name and/or number of this class, and the date
(see example title page).
- The Text. The text should contain an Introduction, Body, and Conclusion
(as laid out above), and the pages should be numbered.
- References In any formal essay or research paper (including three-page
papers) you must document the information you use in the writing of the paper.
This is to let the reader know the sources of the information you use and is
accomplished through a system of citations and a bibliography. You must include
both; failure to do so will result in a lower grade for your paper.
Citations document material which you use in your paper. You must use
a citation to give the source of a direct quotation or paraphrase of someone
else's writings or ideas, statistical information, historical descriptions
and events, or a date. Any information which is not general knowledge must
carry a citation. Failure to do so is plagiarism, which is cheating and
can result not only in an "F" for the paper but also a failing grade for
the course and ultimately expulsion from the university.
Citations should be in the form of either a footnote or endnote that
use a system of corresponding numbers to give the source of information.
Footnotes appear at the bottom of the page (separated from the text with
a one and a half inch line) and endnotes appear on a separate page (entitled
"Endnotes") at the end of the text. Most computer word processing programs
allow for easy and automatic placement of footnotes on the bottom of pages.
The form which footnotes or endnotes for books and journal articles should
take is as follows:
1. James Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532-1560: A Colonial Society
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), 110.
2. Richard Alan White, "The Political Economy of Paraguay and the
Impoverishment of the Missions," The Americas 31, no. 4 (April 1975): 425.
For subsequent citations from the same work, use only the last name of
the author, shortened title, and page number. For example,
3. Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 32.
4. White, "The Political Economy of Paraguay," 425.
All materials which you use in the writing and research of your paper
must be listed in your bibliography in alphabetical order according to the
author's last name. The page should carry the title "Bibliography" at the
top of the page. Sample bibliographic references are as follows:
Lockhart, James. Spanish Peru, 1532-1560: A Colonial Society.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.
White, Richard Alan. "The Political Economy of Paraguay and the
Impoverishment of the Missions." The Americas.
31, no. 4 (April 1975): 417-33.
- Internet Sources.
Internet sources must be analyzed and documented the same as any other
sources you utilize in the writing of a paper. Be careful that the material
you are using is from a legitimate source; just because it is written does
not make it true. No standard method for documenting Internet sources has
emerged, but the citations should include the name of the author and title
of the item the same information as any other source you might use. In addition,
you must give the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) or web address for the
item you are using. Finally, give the date that the item was written. If
that information is not available, list the date on which you accessed the
page. For example, a footnote for this page would look like this:
3. Marc Becker, "The Writing of a Historical Essay or Research Paper,"
http://history.truman.edu/guide.asp, December 2007.
A bibliographic entry would look like:
Becker, Marc. "The Writing of a Historical Essay or Research Paper."
http://history.truman.edu/guide.asp, December 2007.
Citations and bibliographies are always single-spaced. Place titles of books
and journals in italics, and the titles of articles in journals and
books in "quotations marks." Consult the Turabian manual for more examples or
occurrences which do not conform with the examples.
Plagiarism is the use of someone else's ideas without giving proper acknowledgment.
The Truman State University Student Affairs Code of Policies states:
The term “plagiarism” includes, but is not limited to, the use, by paraphrase
or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work of another person
without full and clear acknowledgment. It also includes the unacknowledged use
of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the furnishing
or selling of term papers or other academic materials.
The Modern Language Association's MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
defines plagiarism as follows:
- repeating another's sentences as your own,
- adopting a particularly apt phrase as your own,
- paraphrasing someone else's argument as your own,
- presenting someone else's line of thinking in the development of a thesis
as though it were your own.
In short, to plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought
something that you have in fact borrowed from another. Writers may use another person's
words and thoughts but must acknowledge them. If you use the exact words of another
person (no matter what the length), you must put those words in quotation
marks and include a citation to indicate their source. If you use someone else's
ideas or paraphrase someone's words, you must also cite that. You must also indicate
the source of specific facts you use in a paper. Failure to do so is plagiarism
and will result in an automatic F for the assignment and, under the Student Affairs
Code of Policies, may result in permanent expulsion from the University. Also see
the Student Conduct Code.
All take-home essays, exams, and research papers should follow these standards:
- The paper must be neatly typed, double-spaced on white paper with a one-inch
margin on the top, bottom, and sides of each page. Be sure to use a dark, clear
ink. If it is hard to read your essay, it will also be hard to follow your argument.
- Please number the pages of your essay (except for the title page). If you
can not figure out how to make your word processor do this automatically, add
the numbers by hand.
- You must proofread your paper. Use your computer's spell-checker
and grammar-checker; failure to do so indicates a lack of effort on your part
and you can expect your grade to suffer accordingly. Papers with numerous misspelled
words and grammatical mistakes will be penalized. Read over your paper before
handing it in and make corrections as necessary. Often it is advantageous to
have a friend proofread your paper for obvious errors. Handwritten corrections
are preferable to uncorrected mistakes.
- Use a standard 10 to 12 point (10 to 12 characters per inch) typeface. Smaller
or compressed type and papers with small margins or single-spacing are hard
to read. It is better to let your essay run over the recommended number of pages
than to try to compress it into fewer pages. Likewise, large type, large margins,
large indentations, triple-spacing, increased leading (space between lines),
increased kerning (space between letters), and any other such attempts at "padding"
to increase the length of a paper are unacceptable, wasteful of trees, and will
not fool your professor.
- Attach your pages with a staple or paper clip. With longer research papers,
it may be preferable to use a binder clip.
Please note that Word 2007 has a default setting for spacing between paragraphs
that is unacceptable for the papers written for history and probably other majors
at Truman. If you use Word 2007, this is how to change that setting: First, open
your most recent essay and highlight all of the text (control/A). Then go to the
"Home" tab at the top, find the "Paragraph" section of that ribbon at the top, and
click on the little square in the lower right hand corner of that section. The "paragraph"
box will open. The third section down is "Spacing," and the first set of options
is "Before" and "After" with pull down numbers for each. Those should both be set
for "0" (zero). Then click the "Default" button at the bottom of the box.
Final check list
Before handing in your paper, please check the following items:
- The pages are numbered.
- The paper includes citations and a bibliography.
- You have spell-checked, grammar-checked, and proofread the paper.
Common correction abbreviations and symbols
Following are some common abbreviations and symbols used in grading your paper:
awk = awkward expression or sentence construction
frag = sentence fragment
ital = italicize
lc = use lowercase letter
no cap = unnecessary capital letter
para, ¶ = start new paragraph
sp = misspelled word
# = separate with a space
^ = something missing
= close up space
= transpose letters
See The Chicago
Manual of Style Online for more common proofreaders' marks.
Please send any suggestions, comments, corrections, additions, etc. to
Marc Becker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
11/01/91; Last updated: March 2008