Writer's WebInterview with Dr. Sydney Watts


Interview by Amanda Haislip


Q: What do you see as the most common mistakes that beginning history students make when writing history papers?

A: Well, one of the mistakes I see a lot is description over analysis, which you probably see in other disciplines. And, the trick about writing history, often we do descriptions of what happened, or who it was, biographical descriptions. And, the analysis is really answering questions of why and how. So, 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.


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 for history?

A: Well, history differs from something like English in that we use primary sources and secondary sources. And so, a lot of the things we’re asking students to do, often first with primary sources, is to put them into context. And so, that means thinking about how the primary source was produced and who was the audience, and how we think about the ways in which the author intended it to be read, and in what context, is it a public document, is it a private document? Those kinds of questions, you always need to ask. And, secondary sources help give you broader context. So, 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 scene. You see, in many ways, the whole setting in which this document is situated. So, you’re really trying to do that all the time, going in and out, going into the narrow, close readings and descriptions and analysis, and then pulling back and saying “this is how it fits into the bigger picture.”


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

A: One of them is, really, answering the question. Make sure you direct your answer in the first paragraph. In fact, you set out to describe and state really clearly in the first paragraph what you intend to do in the paper. Most history papers, 5 to 7 pages, really demand a very strong introduction, so outlining your main points in your first paragraph, and really thinking about what your argument is in your first paragraph.

The other things that you have to do are with mechanics, spending time on proofreading, and looking for mistakes there. Often I tell students to read it out loud, and that is a good way to catch mistakes that your might make: spelling, capitalization, punctuation- all those kinds of little things. Certainly, things that you want to allow time to correct.


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

A: Well, for history majors, certainly the 200 level, and even those in the Introduction to Historical Thinking, those courses will ask you to plan a, perhaps, a research project of some sort, and that’s where historical writing really begins with the questions you’re asking of your sources. So having a good research question in mind, giving yourself enough time to read through your sources, primary and secondary, with an eye to specific terms. And, those terms become really important when you’re doing research, as you’re doing key word searches, and other things. But most importantly in writing, is to define those terms. And so, when you’re defining a historical term, you want to think about how it’s used in the period in which you’re writing. So, if it’s and 18th century term, like philosophe, right, it’s not a philosopher, it’s an 18th century thinker like Voltaire or Rousseau, and it means something very specific. So defining your terms, using the sources you have, is something that happens early on in historical writing. And it’s a really important skill to have for historical research as well.


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 would say thinking like a historian is definitely a skill that you want to build early on. As you advance in historical writing and research, you begin to see how historians actually work with their own set of questions, their own primary sources, like we’ve been asking you to do in other courses. And you see some of the different interpretations of history. And that’s where we get into historiography. So, a lot of these 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. So, a question like, “What were the causes of the French Revolution?” That’s a huge question, and it’s a historical problem, because no one has a definitive answer. And so, there are a lot of different ways to approach that question. And that’s where historiography comes in. You see differing interpretations, you see different traditions, you see certainly the kinds of revisions of history that come into play, and as generation of historians go back and question some of the findings of previous historians, and offer new ways to approach a question like that, with different sources, and with really, different points of view. So there is an array of different interpretations. That’s really what historiography is about--- the history of historical writing and how generations might change their interpretations, how there might be debates over particular interpretations, and really to see that as a historical process in itself.


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