It is no surprise that college writing differs from writing in high school, but many students who take history courses find that writing for history is difficult. Professors often see many mistakes in student writing, and here are a few of the most common to consider first:
Not answering the specific question being asked
Offering generalities and platitudes, saying very big, broad statements
Narration or description without analysis
Not using primary and secondary sources to understand change over time
However, these mistakes can be easily fixed if a student knows what they are and understands how to avoid them. Here are interviews with University of Richmond History Professor Dr. Nicole Sackley that help to explain the most common mistakes in students' writing, how to write well for history, tips for beginning historical writers, professor "pet peeves," how to think like a historian, and what historiographical writing entails. Key points from each interview follow the video.
Common Mistakes History Professors See in Student Writing
"The professor provides a paper assignment topic, and students sometimes see that as kind of a suggestion, as opposed to focusing on the question being asked."
Always make sure to answer the Professor's prompt.
Avoid generalities and narration.
"History is an interpretive discipline, and it's one in which... the job of students in history is to explain."
History is not merely chronological; it needs to be interpreted, so make sure to provide your own interpretation.
If you are able, try to explain how and why ideas and events changed over time.
Don't forget to ask yourself: "Why did this happen?"
Writing for History
"Historians are often required to take account of a huge amount of evidence."
Make sure to "weave together" the many kinds of primary documents and points of view you encounter.
"Historians assume that nothing is universal or constant."
When writing, assume that all beliefs, actions, and values occur in a certain place and time.
In your paper, it is not your job to come to conclusions about how to make social or policy changes in the present. Also, do not decide if the people you research are good or evil; it is not your job.
Work to understand WHY things happened and WHY what happened mattered.
Tips for Beginning Students
"Read and re-read the assignment question closely."
Know what's being asked of you before you begin writing.
Specifically for history, you want to know which people or institutions the paper focuses on, and in what time frame.
If you're not sure what the assignment is asking of you, ASK your professor; that's why they have office hours.
"Be skeptical of universal statements, because most historians are."
Look over your first draft for any generalizations or universal statements. Are there exceptions to your statements?
Historians are focused on time and context, so make sure to incorporate those into your argument.
"You should proofread to see whether, in fact, your paper, the sentences that you're writing, are actually answering the question that was originally posed to you."
Proofread and edit ruthlessly. Don't get attached to your sentences. Detach yourself from your paper and edit it. You will have a better paper.
Try to use the topic sentences of your paragraphs to lay out your argument.
History Professor "Pet Peeves"
"One of the biggest pet peeves is not having an argument."
Do not simply summarize the readings from class. Come up with your own interpretation and analysis.
Do not wait to present your argument; present it in the introduction to your paper.
"A second pet peeve, I think particular to history professors, would be not using the past tense, and so describing events that take place in the past using the present tense."
Do not use the present tense when talking about past events.
"If the student has read scholarship by other historians, they should call them history books, or monographs. They are not novels."
Just because books are all lengthy, not all books are novels. Novels are works of fiction, don't confuse them with scholarly history books.
Make sure to refer accurately to the texts that you use in your paper.
"A personal pet peeve... is papers that have no titles."
Not all history professors expect titles, but most do. Give your paper a title unless your professor requests for you not to.
Thinking Like a Historian and Historiography
Thinking Like a Historian
"One of the ways in which students get into history and into thinking more like a historian is to really understand the specific context in which they are investigating any particular problem."
Understand the people, values, beliefs, and institutions of the time period you are studying. This is the context.
Recognize how these things change over time.
Specifically, think about the people that you are writing about. Every person has the ability to impact history, not just leaders and well-known historical figures. Understanding the points of view, the lives, and the beliefs of the people you study will help you to develop a better argument.
"Historiography is essentially the study of what other people have written about one particular topic."
This provides a good definition of historiography.
Make sure to understand what a historiographical paper is asking of you before you begin writing it.
"[Be] able to not only summarize another scholar's arguments, but to place them in the context of a debate that is occurring."
You must acquire the skill to understand another person's argument, and then summarize it in a couple of sentences.
Do not heavily quote other historians in your paper, even though they are eloquent and authoritative. Part of being a history student requires you to learn how to paraphrase and to write arguments in your own words.
Do not forget to look at the debate that surrounds the topic you are researching and writing about. This debate places the works that you are studying in a specific context, which you can find by looking at the simple questions (principle two) and more complex questions historians are asking about your topic.
If you would like to see the full transcript of Dr. Sackley's interview, click here.