Writer's WebInterview with Dr. Nicole Sackley


Interview by Amanda Haislip


Q: Dr. Sackley, what do you see as the most common mistakes that beginning history students make when writing history papers?

A: I would say probably one of the first ones, and the most important one, would be just simply not answering the specific question being asked. 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. I think a second mistake that beginning students make is offering, instead of focusing on that question, offering generalities and platitudes, saying very big, broad statements. If a question is about US foreign policy in the 1940’s, students will make big claims about American power throughout the centuries. Generally, historians are very interested in time and place, and they want you, we want students to get to the point, to talk about a specific time and place. So, dispense with the generalities, dispense with general platitudes, and connected to that, I think, is the tendency for students to narrate without analysis. I think, particularly with history, students have a tendency to see history as a kind of, the chronological subject, the subject that is about names and dates. And that leas many beginning students to think that what is being asked of them is a simple sequential accounting of what happened, so first this happened, and then this happened. When in fact, history is an interpretive discipline, and it’s one in which, students of history are, the job of students in history is, to explain. The student of history is to explain how and why things happened, and how and why ideas, events, policies, what have you, changed over time. And so, that when students are writing, they should think about always analysis: Why did this happen? How can I read these primary documents to understand change over time? So, I would say the three big mistakes here would be not answering the specific question, focusing on generalities, non-specifics, and narrating rather than analyzing.


Q: How do you think that historical writing differs from writing in other disciplines, such as English? What are the most important things to consider when writing specifically for history?

A: Sure. I think in terms of how history differs from other disciplines, and history writing differs, I would say that, first of all, historians are often required to take account of a huge amount of evidence. And so, one of the tasks of history is actually to weave together a lot of different kinds of primary documents and points of view. In an English class, you might be focusing on, you might say, one text, and analyzing that text very closely. For a history paper, you might have six or seven primary documents, or very different kinds, and trying to put all those pieces of evidence together is one of the challenges.

I would say another big difference in history writing is that historians assume that nothing is universal or constant. And so, when writing for history, one of the challenges is always to assume that all beliefs and actions, and values and beliefs, are, happen in time. And so, for example, in a philosophy class, you might talk about “the good” or the problem of freedom. And philosophers may take, for example, Socrates, and talk about Socrates’ problem of good, and imagine that his, apply that to contemporary problems. For historians, they would want to look at Socrates’ own time and place, and look at the context of what Socrates meant, about freedom, in the terms of the place he lived and the time that he lived. And so, I would say that that is one of the things that historians would keep in mind.

A third suggestion that I would have for students in thinking about history writing, is that by and large, history is not a normative discipline. And we mean by that, is it’s not a discipline in which the job of the historian is to come to conclusions at the end about how to change public policy, how to change, how to make social changes, how to, and whether in fact the people that you study are good or evil. The focus of a history paper is to understand how and why things happened, and why that it mattered, why that was important.


Q: What do you consider to be the most common "pet peeves" that history professors have about student writing?

A: I would say that probably one of the biggest pet peeves is not having an argument. So, writing a paper that simply summarizes the reading from the class, and does not some up with… the student does not come up with their own interpretation of the reading, their own analysis.

I would say, related to that, another pet peeve is not presenting their argument in the introduction to the paper, and so that finally the argument emerges in the conclusion. And, often, that tends to be because a student has not revised their paper, has not written a second draft, and so, they’ve actually written the paper, and by the end, they’ve come to their argument.

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. So, talking about George Washington as if he is still living and walking among us. So, use the past tense for the past. Also, referring accurately to the texts that are being discussed. If the student has read scholarship by other historians, they should call them history books, or monographs. They are not novels. Novels are works of fiction, and there’s a tendency, I think, for students to see, some students to see, all long-form books as novels.

A personal pet peeve, but I have heard other of my colleagues talk about this one, is papers that have no titles. So, beginning, just simply beginning with the introduction. And, in that case, it’s hard to know from the beginning what this paper is about. Moreover, for the student, a good title often suggests not only the topic, but the argument of the paper.


Q: What are some tips for students beginning to do specifically historical writing?

A: I would say that my first tip is one that actually is important for historical writing, but frankly for your other classes too, which is simply to read and re-read the assignment question closely. Know what’s being asked of you before you begin writing; and if you’re not sure at all, check with your professor, clarify. That’s what meeting with them is for.

A place where I see beginning students going astray is often that they were confused about what their paper was about. Specifically for history, you want to know which people the paper focuses on, which people or institutions. Students should have a clear grasp about what time frame is being covered by the paper. Is the paper asking for the entire 18th century, or just two decades in it?

… Well I think a very useful tip for beginning students is to look over their first drafts for any kind of universal statements they’re making, statements in which they write “people have always believed,” or “throughout time it has been the case.” Historians are very much focused on time and context. So, if you find yourself making that statement, consider if there are exceptions: Did all people at this time believe this? If you’re looking at a group, a nationality, were there debates within the country, were there dissenters? If you are looking at a particular belief, look at the time before or afterwards, whether perhaps it’s changed. So, be skeptical of universal statements, because most historians are.

Another tip I would offer is probably one that applies to a lot of writing, but it is to proofread and edit ruthlessly, so that your first draft, you should proofread for things that are typos and grammatical errors. But moreover, 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. Sometimes we write sentences and we get very attached to them, because it’s difficult to cut things that we’ve written, and it’s taken a lot of time to write. And, in fact, you should know that your professors have the same sort of feeling about their writing. But, if you can be detached, and edit ruthlessly, you will come out in the end with a better paper.

Another tip I would have for beginning students is to really try to use the topic sentences of your paper to lay our your argument. Every paragraph should have a topic sentence that begins with the point of the paragraph. And this will help you construct your argument.


Q: In regards to more advanced students, how do they effectively "think like a historian"? And what are some guidelines for writing good historiography?

A: I think in terms of more advanced students, 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. And so, once they begin a research paper, and to be able to really understand the world about which they’re writing, to understand the people, to understand the values, beliefs, and institutions of that time period, and to recognize slowly and carefully the ways in which those change. And so, more advanced students really begin to understand context much more clearly.

The other way in which students can become more advanced in thinking about history, and thinking like an historian, is really thinking about the people that they write about, and recognizing that the people that they, ever person that they write about, has agency. So it’s not only the presidents, the leaders of countries, it’s not only kings and emperors, who make decisions, but in fact, there are many kinds of people that they could write about, and understanding the points of view of those people, and the ways in which their lives were both, and their beliefs were circumscribed, but also, the places in which they tried to voice their opinions, and make changes.

As far as writing good historiography, I don’t think there’s actually much magic to it. I would offer three points. Historiography is essentially the study of what other people have written about one particular topic. If you’re going to write good historiography, you first have to be able to understand and summarize another historian’s argument. To be able to take, for example a 30 page article, or a 200 page book, and say in a couple of sentences, this is the argument of the article, this is the argument of the book. This book is about X. Secondly, is to be able to do that in your own words. Many beginning students tend to want to quote other historians, because other professional scholars can say it better. But in fact, one of the skills that we’re tying to teach is to be able to paraphrase, to say it in your own words. And finally, historiography is recognizing the debates that scholars have had about any particular topic. So, being able to not only summarize another scholar’s argument, but to place them in the context of a debate that is occurring in a field about how slavery happened, or why the king was deposed, or why Rome fell, or the many kinds of questions that historians ask.


Back to Professors' Advice: Nicole Sackley or the History main page.
Copyright Info