Guidelines for Writing a Paper in History
Writing is the foremost goal of history, since it is the medium through which the writer communicates the sum of his or her historical knowledge (Cantor & Schneider, 241). In order to accomplish that goal, historical writing demands a strong thesis. The thesis should express a contention about some aspect of the subject, such as "there was a CIA conspiracy to kill JFK". In the introduction, the writer should relate how the implications of the thesis will be handled in the paper. In the body, the writer will engage in a well organized critical discussion of different aspects of the thesis. Many students find that outlining the form of their paper helps to improve their organization (Cantor & Schneider, 205-09).
Historical writing requires a combination of attention to structural considerations along with the finding and assessing of facts. Therefore, it is not sufficient to write well grammatically and stylistically. A writer of history must answer a variety of questions in his or her writing. These questions are not limited solely to what happened; they include why and how. The writer must also address the background of the event, the principals involved, significant dates, and the influence of the event upon future developments. This combination of structure and detailed factual analysis is what makes historical writing difficult, both for novices and even experienced writers (Lottinville, 3).
Three Basic Processes
In order to produce a historical work, the writer must master three basic processes: gathering data; criticism of that data; and the presentation of his or her facts, interpretations, and conclusions, based upon the data, in an accurate and readable form (Hockett, 9-10). Before beginning the writing process, the writer should have an understanding of: the data that has been gathered, the writer's objectives, the conclusions reached from the research, and a clear perception of the relationships existing between the individual parts of the paper and the whole (Hockett, 143). In addition, the hypothesis should be selected on the basis of whether or not it is verifiable from the sources available (Hexter, 24). Through preparing in this manner, the writer is better able to handle the other two processes: data criticism and the presentation of his or her own ideas.
Objectivity is an essential aspect of historical writing. A writer should not let his or her biases cloud a paper. Writers must avoid placing value judgments upon the events of the past. They should carefully analyze their conclusions for possible prejudice. If the evidence seems to call for only one conclusion, the writer should ask: "Is it in the material or is it me?" (Kent, 9). There are, however, two nearly unavoidable limits to historical objectivity: documentation and the diversity of the writer's personal experiences. Documentation limits objectivity since a paper is only as unbiased as the documents used to produce it. For example, if evidence was only available from Allied archives on the causes of World War I, the paper would be entirely different than if the writer also had access to the Central Powers' archives. The writer's personal experiences can affect objectivity through the books that he or she has studied or the places the writer has traveled. Such things can unconsciously cause one to think differently and pursue a different path in writing and research (Veyne, 157-59).
Synthesis vs. Analysis
There really is not a conflict between these two methods. Both are essential in order for writers of history to realize the uniqueness of each historical episode and impart this understanding to the reader. Both synthesis and analysis of the events are required for good historical writing. It is impossible to have one without the other. Analysis is necessary to produce good synthesis, and it should be the primary focus of writing. This is because analysis allows the reader to understand the whole without becoming distracted by the details (Lottinville, 12-18).
It is important to remember that historical writing should not be dull and uninteresting to the reader. Just as in a novel, the background, that is the scene and characters, should be described in detail, provided of course that sufficient historical evidence exists to back up the description (Lottinville, 95). Although the historical writer should try to take a page from the novelist and write in an engaging manner, historical writing and the novel differ in that historical writing is based upon fact, whereas the novel is a work of fiction. The historian's first duty is to the facts, then to the literary style of the paper. Despite the fact that historians have written upon almost all topics, each writer should write his or her paper as though no one had ever explored that topic before. That way, although past research can be utilized, the current writer is not as encumbered by the feeling that whatever he or she produces will be inferior to the work of some past historian (Lottinville, 119-20).
A work of history should be closely tied to place and chronology and supported by meticulous documentation. However, techniques of writing do not stem solely from the historical process. Instead, their origin is in all the works produced by humanity since the dawn of time. At some point, historical writing will employ nearly all of the literary devices from the past. For that reason, reading a variety of books will be invaluable in building up a mental reservoir of literary techniques (Lottinville, 28).
All talk of documentation aside, historical writing is not merely cobbling together notes taken from various sources. The writer must add analysis and his or her own thoughts on the subject. Often a writer can produce such material during a break in the writing process, which allows other activities besides staring at a page filled with notes. Inspiration can strike at such times. In addition, the finished product should flow well, which is nearly impossible with a paper that is cut and pasted together, and avoid the use of trite phrases, the passive voice, and cliches (Kent, 55-57).
Cantor, Norman F., and Schneider, Richard I. How to Study History. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967.
Hexter, J. H. Doing History. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press, 1971.
Hockett, Homer Carey. The Critical Method in Historical Research and Writing. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955.
Kent, Sherman. Writing History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1941.
Lottinville, Savoie. The Rhetoric of History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.
Veyne, Paul. Writing History. Trans. Mina Moore-Rinvolucri. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.