Before leaving K-State to teach Latin American history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Dr. Chris Boyer put together this excellent guide to writing history papers.

A Short Handbook for Writing College Papers

by Christopher R. Boyer

     This manual is intended to help college students write history papers. It briefly introduces some ideas about how to go about organizing papers and how to avoid some of the most common spelling and syntax errors. It covers three main subjects:

1.

How to structure a paper

2.

How to write a thesis and conclusion

3.

Some common questions about spelling and syntax

The handbook does not explain these issues in detail, though. Anyone wanting more in-depth discussions on grammar, written expression, and the research process should consult one of the books listed at the end of this document. First, here is one piece of general advice.


An Important Note about Writing College Papers on a Computer

     Most people prefer to write papers using computer word processing software. Writing papers on the computer is convenient because it makes revising, spell checking, and rewriting easier. But a number of unfortunate things can happen to computer files, so always make a backup of your work. Computer disks can be lost, demagnetized, dropped in cups of coffee, eaten by rabid dogs, infected by nasty software viruses, "borrowed" by forgetful roommates, or made unusable by any number of other means. Hard disk errors can erase hours of work. Do not let this happen to you! Every time you finish part of a project or get ready to turn off the computer for the day, make an extra copy of your work. One day you will be glad that you did.


How to Structure a Paper

     There are two typical types of college history papers. Research papers are one type. They involve original research and analysis of a historical event, person, text, or phenomenon. Review papers are another kind. They require an interpretation or critique of a particular book, article, film, museum display, or just about any other work of historical imagination. In practice, many history papers combine aspects of both of these modes of writing. Fortunately, nearly all papers share certain key components.

     The first paragraph of most papers will have two goals. First, it should clearly identify what the paper is about. Will it review a book? If so, the first paragraph should name the author and the book's title. Will it discuss a historical phenomenon, such as the role of women in the Mexican revolution? If so, it should identify what issue the paper will cover, including location and timeframe.

     Once the opening paragraph has identified the paper's subject, it can move on to its second key goal which is to present the paper's thesis -- in other words, its argument. The thesis explains what point the paper will make about the book or event that it covers. For more on this point, see the section below. For now, it is enough to note that the rest of the paper should function to illustrate, support, or explore the thesis.

     The paragraphs following the introduction are often referred to as the "body" of the paper. They present evidence and analysis to support and illustrate the point raised in the thesis paragraph. Each one may be composed of five to ten sentences, or around 100-200 words. It may be easiest to think of the body of the paper as the presentation of evidence in a criminal trial. Lawyers do not merely say, "my client is innocent because I feel she is innocent." Rather, lawyers present several interlocking pieces of evidence to convince the jury. Likewise, paragraphs in the body of a paper should persuade the reader that the thesis makes sense.

     If the paper is a book review, then each paragraph should deal with one aspect of the book. Each one should contain at least one brief (10-30 word maximum) quote to illustrate the paragraph's main point. For example, a paper's thesis paragraph might argue that Benjamin Franklin exaggerated his humble origins in parts of his autobiography. In that case, a paragraph in the body of the paper might begin something like:

One way that Franklin emphasized his humble background was by insisting that he grew up in nearly complete poverty. Even on the first page of the Autobiography he writes of having "emerged from the Poverty & Obscurity in which [he] was born and bred, to a State of Affluence & Some degree of Reputation in the WorldI"

After making this quotation from the book, a paper should explain where in the book the quote is located. One way to cite the quotation is by identifying the author of the book and the page in parentheses like this:

(Franklin, p. 23)

and then creating a bibliography at the end of the paper that contains the following listing:

Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, edited and with an introduction by Louis P. Masur. Boston: Bedford Books, 1993.

Another way to cite the quotation is by placing a footnote mark after the quotation and writing a footnote that looks like this:

1Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, edited and with an introduction by Louis P. Masur (Boston: Bedford Books, 1993), 23.

When using a footnote such as this, it is not necessary to create a bibliography at the end of the paper. Most historians prefer to use footnotes, but many college professors will accept either form of citation.

     If the paper is a work of original historical research, then each paragraph should present one specific event, issue, phenomenon, or argument. In this case, too, it is a good idea to quote directly from historical documents or the work of other historians. For help in citing historical documents, refer to one of the books listed below.

     Once the body of the paper has fully discussed all the issues that the paper needs to present, all that remains is the conclusion.


 How to Write a Thesis and Conclusion

     Formulating an introduction and conclusion can be the most difficult parts of writing. The frustration of writing these sections can make it seem like a good idea to throw the computer out the window, but this technique only feels good between the heave-ho and the crashing sound. A better way to deal with the problem of composing a good thesis and conclusion is to begin drafting a paper early enough that these sections can be rewritten before turning in the final draft.

     As noted above, the introduction should both identify the paper's subject and introduce its basic argument. In a review essay about a book, for example, the thesis should make some point about the way that the book has presented its subject. For example, in reviewing a book about slavery in Brazil, a thesis might argue that the book's author does not pay enough attention (or pays too much attention) to the plight of women slaves. Alternatively, a thesis might insist that the author does a good job (or a bad job) of placing Brazilian slavery into its international context. Thesis statements such as these make substantive points about the book's content, the quality of its analysis, or its overall structure.

     A thesis statement must be falsifiable, that is, someone could plausibly disagree with it. This is as true for historical research papers as for book reviews. So, a thesis that maintains that a book's author does a good job of placing Brazilian slavery into international context is falsifiable because someone else could reasonably disagree and contend that the author did not do a good job. For this reason, it is not enough to argue that a book's subject -- or for that matter any other historical subject -- is "interesting" or "important" and leave it at that. These are simple statements of fact. How is it possible to argue against them? In effect, one would have to say something like, "No, you do not find this subject interesting!" The real question is, in what way is a subject or book interesting? Why is it important? Answers to these questions will produce a good thesis statement.

     Also, a good thesis for a book review will lead into a discussion about the book's structure and argument, not simply to a summary of its contents. Yes, a review should indicate what subjects the book discusses, but the reviewer must also analyze how convincingly the book presents them. In other words, the purpose of a book review is not to prove that you can outline 200 or 300 pages of text, but rather to demonstrate what you think about what you have read. Historical research papers are no different. A thesis for a research paper identifies what event the paper will discuss, of course, but more importantly it explains why a historical event is significant or what it teaches us about people in the past or even people in the present. Most of all, a thesis statement will structure the rest of the paper because each subsequent paragraph will function to support or elaborate upon the thesis statement.

     After the thesis has been fully explored in the body of the paper, the conclusion paragraph serves to wrap it all up. A conclusion does not just repeat the thesis or the contents of the paper. Rather, it explains the overall implications of the paper. Should historians pay more attention to women slaves in Brazil in the future? Does the international context of Brazilian slavery tell us anything about European culture in the nineteenth century? Does reading Benjamin Franklin's autobiography explain anything about the late colonial north America? A strong conclusion paragraph will explain how the paper illuminates some aspect of the study of history, or of the human condition, or both.


Some Common Questions about Spelling and Syntax

     Spelling, grammar, and punctuation may seem like minor issues in a paper meant to get across an original argument or present new information. However, minor writing errors have the effect of confusing and distracting the reader. They end up clouding the paper and undermining its punch. Here are a few rules to avoid three common writing errors.

1. Use an apostrophe (') to make a possessive and indicate ownership, not to make a plural. The apostrophe can also be used to make a contraction (for example, changing "she is" to "she's"), but contractions should be avoided in formal writing. For the difference between possessives and plurals, see the examples below.

 

Correct:

The professors drive their jalopy downtown.

 

Incorrect:

The professor's drive their jalopy downtown.

In this case, the sentence refers to more than one professor, so simply adding the "s" without the apostrophe makes a plural. The opposite is also true.

 

Correct:

Michael Jordan's head is bald.

 

Incorrect:

Michael Jordans head is bald.

In this case, the head in question belongs to Michael Jordan, so an apostrophe is used to form a possessive.

 2. Write in complete sentences. In some forms of writing, such as magazine articles, novels, and the like, it is perfectly acceptable to write using sentence fragments. In formal writing it is not. A complete sentence must have a verb as well as a subject (the person or thing that "does" the action described by the verb). Every complete sentence explains who or what did something ("she," "the professors," "Michael," or whomever) and what was done ("jogged," "drove," "dunked," or whatever). Here are two examples, with incomplete sentence fragments in red.

 

Incomplete:

The room was quiet. Too quiet.

Complete:

The room was quiet. It seemed too quiet.

 

Incomplete:

It was the loudest stereo. That Amy had ever heard.

 

Complete:

It was the loudest stereo that Amy had ever heard.
                                    -or-
The stereo blared a song by Ultimate Fakebook. It was the loudest Amy had ever heard.

The first example is incomplete because the phrase in red lacks a verb. The second example is incomplete because the phrase in red lacks a subject. The sentence fragment begins with the word "That" (technically, the object of a preposition) and therefore never explains precisely what it was that Amy had ever heard.

 3. Avoid common spelling errors. Computer spelling programs catch many misspelled words and can make checking a document much easier. Unfortunately, they cannot distinguish between two words that sound the same but have different spellings. As a result, the two most common spelling errors involve "their" and "its." Here is a guide:

 

its

"belonging to it" -- for example: The dog likes its bone.

it's

"it is" -- for example: It's a bad idea to use contractions in formal writing.

 

their

"belonging to them" -- for example: They cannot stand to hear Sufferbus on their radio.

 

they're

"they are" -- for example: They're mad that the professor told them not to use contractions.

 

there

It can be used to indicate location, as in, "The radio is over there."
                       -or-

It can be used as a pronoun, as in, "There is too much bad music on the radio."

     For anyone wishing a more detailed of these and other spelling questions, consider buying one of the books listed below. 


For Further Reading

     Several books are available that discuss questions of grammar, writing style, and research in history. Some of them, such as The Elements of Style, are available at the library or the bookstores. Otherwise, they can be ordered through the internet from a book retailer such as Amazon.com! I receive no commission from book orders.

Perhaps the best general resource for writers is

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 3rd edition. New York: MacMillan, 1979.

This is a short, easy-to-read book that explains basic grammar and sentence structure. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to brush up on basic principles.

Two books aimed specifically at history majors are

Mark Hellstern, Gregory M. Scott, and Stephen M. Garrison. The History Student Writer's Manual. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1998.

Jules R. Benjamin. A Student's Guide to History, 7th edition. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

These are good, concise books that explain how to research and write history papers. They also contain information on grammar and proper citation. Hellstern et al. doles out lots of useful nuts-and-bolts rules about research and writing. Benjamin is a bit more fun to read but concentrates primarily on the research process. Both of these books should help out anyone who writes research papers.

Finally, for the state-of-the-art discussions of research and style, there are the two classics

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, 2nd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Kate L. Turabian, John Grossman and Alice Bennett, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 6th edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Booth et al. presents a useful and philosophical discussion of research and writing in minute and erudite detail. Turabian et al. is the old standby for correctly formatting research papers.

     This manual was written by Christopher Boyer, Department of History, Kansas State University. All applicable rights reserved. Please feel free to forward any comments to cboyer@ksu.edu.