Rules of the historian's workshop for writing a coherent and well-argued essay

1. You must realize that a full development of the subject, a proper balance between stating your thesis and documenting it adequately, will be possible only after writing several drafts, which will allow you to eliminate all unnecessary material.


2. If you're trying to prove a point, you should state it as a contention, a firm statement of truth. By repeatedly using contentions, you will be able to provide the reader with a clear outline with which to understand the steps of your argument and thereby judge whether you successfully supported your thesis.


3. Your writing should reflect a constant balance between primary fact, modern historians' interpretations, and the inferences and judgments you make yourself. Of these, primary fact and your own inferences are the most important. You must use primary fact to justify your views without, however, neglecting the opinions of scholars. It is not required that you agree with previous works, only that you acknowledge their existence and explain the difference of opinion between your own and past works, if one exists.


4. It is important to remember that you are writing a work of history, not publishing a collection of sources. Your paraphrases and quotations of materials from your sources must be explained to the reader. You should present your understanding of every quotation or paraphrase in your paper. Unnecessary quoting should be avoided.


5. After you're finished, your text should come together to form a well-organized and synthetic whole. A history paper should be as coherent and consistent as a Mozart symphony. If this is not the result, there is likely some inadequacy in your technique. Your assumptions may not be relevant, further sources may be needed, or your hypothesis is incorrect and will need to be revised in the face of the evidence. This possibility is the primary reason for starting your paper well in advance instead of waiting until the last moment.


The preceding list was paraphrased and edited for length. The original version can be found in How to Study History (Cantor & Schneider, 174-76).

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