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Research papers are perhaps the most common form of writing you should expect in a history course. As the name suggests, these assignments require you to participate in historical research. After reading through primary and secondary sources, you will need to interpret them in a way that can answer some question about the past.
When writing a historical research paper, your goal is to choose a topic and write a paper that:
1) Asks a good historical question—your inquiry should capture the complexities of history, examining how certain factors contributed to an event or how an event could be examined or understood in a new light, apart from what previous historians have suggested.
2) Tells how your ideas connect to previous work by other historians, and
3) Offers a well-organized and persuasive thesis of your own.
Before beginning your paper, remember to:
1) Ensure you understand the prompt
Be sure to identify ALL aspects of what the prompt expects from you.
Warning: Even questions that seem straightforward require answers that are more in-depth than “yes” or “no.” Be sure to offer some background information, analyze your position, and provide textual support.
2) Gather proper evidence
You can use either primary or secondary sources as evidence.
- Sources produced during the time period you are investigating.
- Examples may include newspapers, letters, diary entries, artwork, etc.
- Works written about the past from the vantage point of another moment.
- Typically, these works will be written by an author who has already sifted through the primary materials and is now offering her or his own interpretation or analysis of an event.
- Ideally, the secondary sources you use will be academic works of professional historians.
- Other secondary sources can come from journalists who attempt to make an event more understandable for a popular audience.
Formulating an Argument
An essential component of any history essay is your thesis or argument. You may be required to come up with your own topic for a research paper, instead of answering a specific prompt. In order to create an interesting argument, begin by asking important questions about the material.
Some examples of such questions are:
These questions, as mentioned earlier, address the complexity of historical research and can be understood from various angles.
Writing about history involves arguments about what happened and why. When you read sources before choosing a topic or when narrowing your thesis, be sure to pay close attention to your own thoughts and assessment of the material.
If possible, get to the point in your first paragraph. Be sure your audience is clear on what claim you are making and why it is important.
If you make a general statement, be sure to back it up with textual evidence. Doing so adds validity to the statement.
If you do not address possible points of contention, readers may lose confidence in your argument.
Organization and Review
Be sure that your paper includes:
Don’t forget to check your organization, grammar, and overall content when you have completed your first draft.
When writing in this discipline, you must use the Chicago Manual of Style for citations. Be sure to use the Notes/Bibliography format.
What other types of writing are expected in history classes?
Things to Avoid
When writing history papers, you must try to avoid certain mistakes including:
Some places to begin your research are…
LMU Library Search
Marius, Richard. A Short Guide to Writing about History. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 1999.