The Writing of a Historical Essay or Research Paper

Whether you are writing an in-class essay exam or a 20-page research paper, there are some basic guidelines which you should keep in mind. The first part of this handout gives general information which is relevant to the writing of any historical essay. The second part gives tips which you should utilize in writing take-home essays, exams, and research papers.

Writing an Essay

An essay is not simply a list of facts. You must organize the facts into themes which support a central argument or thesis. This thesis should be introduced in the beginning of the paper and developed throughout the paper one step at a time. The stronger your thesis, the easier it will be for you to develop a strong argument. Use an outline to organize your thoughts in a clear, coherent and logical manner and to guide you in writing the essay. Organizationally, the essay has three main parts:

  1. Introduction. Use the introduction to state your thesis, outline the main points you will make in the essay, and describe the conclusions which you will draw in the essay. History essays are not mystery papers; the reader should know from the beginning what your conclusions are. Use the introduction to draw the reader into the essay. Often it is easier to write your introduction last, after you clearly know what arguments you develop in the essay.

  2. Body. The body is the bulk of your paper, the place where you present your facts and develop your thoughts and arguments. The body can be developed chronologically, thematically, geographically, or in any number of ways, but you must make it clear how you are approaching and organizing the material. While you write the essay, keep in mind the following points:
    • Write in paragraphs. Each paragraph is a unit of thought limited to one major idea. Each paragraph should relate to and support your thesis or central argument. Use specific and concrete examples to support your general statements. Be sure your facts are correct and that they support your argument.
    • Use good grammar. This includes writing in complete sentences, using past tense instead of present tense when appropriate, using active verbs instead of passive ones, varying your vocabulary, and avoiding sexist language (i.e.--don't use the generic "he" or talk about the history of man when you mean the history of humans or people). If you have taken an English composition class, bring those skills into your essay.
    • Write analytically, not descriptively. Do not just explain what happened, but also try to explain why it happened and why it is significant. Facts are important, but without interpretation they become meaningless.
    • I am not looking for any "correct" answers. Rather, it is more important that you are able to use the material to develop an argument which supports your point of view.
    • You will be rewarded for independent and original thought. Don't be afraid to give your opinions and interpretations of the material (this is your thesis!). Be critical of your readings and the lectures. Look for new ways of approaching the material. When you disagree with an author's views, say so.
    • Be creative. Make your essay interesting to read. Don't assume that I as the instructor know everything that there is to know on your topic. Write as if you are teaching someone something that is new and interesting. This will automatically make your paper a better one.

  3. Conclusion. The conclusion can be as simple as a restatement of your introduction. It should emphasize your thesis, and briefly summarize how you have proven it in the body of the paper. In this way, your paper is cyclical--you end up where you started. You can also use the conclusion to state your own interpretations, to assess and argue with the material you have read, and to point to gaps in our historical knowledge.


If your assignment is to write a three-page paper, you may find it most useful to follow the five-paragraph model where the first paragraph is the introduction, the next three form the body, and the final paragraph is the conclusion. The introduction and conclusion frame your essay, and the body presents the information necessary to support your thesis. Each of the three paragraphs should concern one specific issue which supports your main argument. For example, if your assignment is to write a paper on the consequences of Independence in Latin America, these three paragraphs might touch on social, economic, and political aspects which demonstrate that Independence resulted in either profound or minimal changes (your thesis). This format, of course, can be modified as necessary to meet the specific needs of your topic. If you are writing a 20-page research paper, the introduction might be several paragraphs long.

The Form of the Research Paper

The physical form and appearance of a research paper is important. In historical studies, a standard guide is Kate L. Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. This guide is available in the reference section of the library or in most good bookstores. Briefly, the following are important elements you should keep in mind when writing a research paper:

  1. The Title Page. The first page of the paper should contain only the title of your paper, your name, the name and/or number of this class, and the date.

  2. The Text. The text should contain an Introduction, Body, and Conclusion (as laid out above), and the pages should be numbered.

  3. References In any formal essay or research paper (including three-page papers) you must document the information you use in the writing of the paper. This is to let the reader know the sources of the information you use and is accomplished through a system of citations and a bibliography. You must include both; failure to do so will result in a lower grade for your paper.

    • Citations.

    • Citations document material which you use in your paper. You must use a citation to give the source of a direct quotation or paraphrase of someone else's writings or ideas, statistical information, historical descriptions and events, or a date. Any information which is not general knowledge must carry a citation. Failure to do so is plagiarism, which is cheating and can result not only in an "F" for the paper but also a failing grade for the course and ultimately expulsion from the university.

      According to the sixth edition of the Turabian manual, a citation can take three forms: a footnote, an endnote, or a parenthetical reference. Footnotes and endnotes use a system of corresponding numbers or symbols to give the source of information, and parenthetical references are imbedded in the text. Select one of these forms and use it consistently throughout the paper.

      Footnotes and endnotes are similar except that footnotes appear at the bottom of the page (separated from the text with a one and a half inch line) and endnotes appear on a separate page (entitled "Endnotes") at the end of the text. Normally it is easier to type endnotes on a separate page, but some computer word processing programs allow for easy placement of footnotes on the bottom of pages. The form which footnotes or endnotes for books and journal articles should take is as follows:

      1. James Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532-1560: A Colonial Society (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), 110.

      2. Richard Alan White, "The Political Economy of Paraguay and the Impoverishment of the Missions," The Americas 31:4 (April 1975), 425.


      Parenthetical references appear in the body of the text and take the following form: (author year, page). Hence, our examples would be listed as (Lockhart 1968, 110) and (White 1975, 425).

    • Bibliography

    • All materials which you use in the writing and research of your paper must be listed in your bibliography in alphabetical order according to the author's last name. The page should carry the title "Bibliography" at the top of the page. Sample bibliographic references are as follows:

      1. Lockhart, James. Spanish Peru, 1532-1560: A Colonial Society. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

      2. White, Richard Alan. "The Political Economy of Paraguay and the Impoverishment of the Missions." The Americas 31:4 (April 1975): 417-433.


    • Internet Sources.

    • Internet sources must be analyzed and documented the same as any other sources you utilize in the writing of a paper. Be careful that the material you are using is from a legitimate source; just because it is written does not make it true. No standard method for documenting Internet sources has emerged, but the citations should include the name of the author and title of the item the same information as any other source you might use. In addition, you must give the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) or web address for the item you are using. Finally, give the date that the item was written. If that information is not available, list the date on which you accessed the page. For example, a footnote for this page would look like this:

      3. Marc Becker, "The Writing of a Historical Essay or Research Paper," http://www.gettysburg.edu/~mbecker/resources/guide.html, August 1998.

      A bibliographic entry would look like:

      Becker, Marc. "The Writing of a Historical Essay or Research Paper." http://www.gettysburg.edu/~mbecker/resources/guide.html, August 1998.


      For a parenthetical citation, simply use (Becker 1997). For more information on how to cite Internet sources, see the Internet Citation Guide.

    Citations and bibliographies are always single-spaced. Place titles of books and journals in italics, and the titles of articles in journals and books in "quotations marks." Consult with me or the Turabian manual for more examples or occurrences which do not conform with the examples. You are not required to use this form; if you are more comfortable with another style (such as MLA), use it. But you must be consistent with whatever style you choose.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is "the use of the writing and/or ideas of another without proper acknowledgment." If you use the exact words of another person (no matter what the length), you must put those words in quotation marks and include a citation to indicate their source. If you use someone else's ideas or paraphrase someone's words, you must also cite that. You must also indicate the source of specific facts you use in a paper. Failure to do so is plagiarism and will result in an Honor Code violation.

The Modern Language Association's MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers defines plagiarism as follows:

  • repeating another's sentences as your own,
  • adopting a particularly apt phrase as your own,
  • paraphrasing someone else's argument as your own,
  • presenting someone else's line of thinking in the development of a thesis as though it were your own.


In short, to plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought something that you have in fact borrowed from another. Writers may use another person's words and thoughts but must acknowledge them. You are bound by the Virginia Tech Honor System; be sure you are familiar with it.


Appearance

All take-home essays, exams, and research papers should follow these standards:

  1. The paper must be neatly typed, double-spaced on white paper with a one-inch margin on the top, bottom, and sides of each page. Be sure to use a dark, clear ink (no worn-out dot-matrix ribbons run on draft quality). If it is hard to read your essay, it will also be hard to follow your argument.
  2. Please number the pages of your essay (except for the title page). If you can not figure out how to make your word processor do this automatically, add the numbers by hand.
  3. You must proofread your paper. Use your computer's spell-checker and grammar-checker; failure to do so indicates a lack of effort on your part and you can expect your grade to suffer accordingly. Papers with numerous misspelled words and grammatical mistakes will be penalized. Read over your paper before handing it in and make corrections as necessary. Often it is advantageous to have a friend proofread your paper for obvious errors. Handwritten corrections are preferable to uncorrected mistakes.
  4. Use a standard 10 to 12 point (10 to 12 characters per inch) typeface. Smaller or compressed type and papers with small margins or single-spacing are hard to read. It is better to let your essay run over the recommended number of pages than to try to compress it into fewer pages. Likewise, large type, large margins, large indentations, triple-spacing, increased leading (space between lines), increased kerning (space between letters), and any other such attempts at "padding" to increase the length of a paper are unacceptable, wasteful of trees, and will not fool your professor.
  5. Rather than stapling your paper together, use a paper clip to attach the pages. Please do not put your essay in a special folder or plastic binder as these make it more difficult to read and grade your paper and will be confiscated.

Final check list

Before handing in your paper, please check the following items:
        The pages are attached together with a paper clip or staple.
        The pages are numbered.
        The paper includes citations and a bibliography.
        You have spell-checked, grammar-checked, and proofread the paper.


Common correction abbreviations and symbols

Other resources for writing papers


Adapted with permission from http://www2.truman.edu/~marc/resources/guide.html