Interview with Sydney Watts, Ph.D.Writer's Web

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:
  1. Not answering the specific question being asked
  2. Offering generalities and platitudes, saying very big, broad statements
  3. Narration or description without analysis
  4. 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. Sydney Watts 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

Key Points:

"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."

  • Be careful of using too much description instead of analysis.
  • Historians do use biographical descriptions, but there is always analysis answering WHY? and HOW?


Writing for History

Key Points:

"I often tell students, think about writing a paper where the primary source is like your telescope. You're going in very closely with a primary source, and then you pull back and you see the larger screen." 
  • History is different from other disciplines because it uses both primary and secondary sources.
  • A primary source must be put into context by thinking about things such as:
    • how it was produced
    • who the audience was
    • how the author intended the document to be read
    • what kind of document it is (public, private, another kind?)
  • Ask yourself: "How does this fit into the bigger picture?"


Tips for Beginning Students

Key Points:

"Historical writing really begins with the questions you're asking of your sources."

  • Have a good research question in mind.
  • Give yourself enough time to read through your sources.
  • Look out for specific terms in your sources that are important to the subject you're writing about, and define those terms by thinking about how they were used in the period that you're writing about. 


History Professor "Pet Peeves"

Key Points:

"Make sure you direct your answer in the first paragraph."
  • Again, have an argument, also known as your thesis, and put that argument in your introduction. 
  • Outline your main points in your first paragraph. 
"Often I tell students to read [their papers] out loud, and that is a good way to catch mistakes that you might make."


Thinking Like a Historian & Historiography

Key Points:

"Thinking like a historian is definitely a skill that you want to build early on." 

  • Look at the works of historians that you study, and try to see how they work with their own set of questions. Doing this will help you to develop your own sets of questions when writing your paper. 
  • Consider your primary sources to build an argument of your own. Don't be afraid to have your own interpretation. 
"[In historiography], a lot of questions have to do with historical problems that are really problems that can't be easily solved, that are constantly being discussed, reinterpreted, re-approached, or approached differently with different sources."
  • When writing historiography, take into account the different interpretations, points of view, traditions, and revisions of history that you see. 
  • Look for your own way to approach the sources that you have to construct your own interpretation of historical events. 



If you would like to see the full transcript of Dr. Watts' interview, click here. 

Other Disciplines | Writer's Web | Writing Center | Make an Appointment | Library | History Department
Copyright Info