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This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Historical Writing

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.


Initial Steps

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.

Primary sources:

  • Sources produced during the time period you are investigating. 
  • Examples may include newspapers, letters, diary entries, artwork, etc. 

Secondary sources:

  • 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:

  • Was slavery the main cause of the American Civil War?
  • Was Martin Luther a failure or a success?
  • What was the primary cause of WWI?

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.

Ask yourself:

  • Where do arguments seem weak?
  • How does it make you react? What questions does it leave you with?
  • Can you see another conclusion in the evidence?


Argument Checklist

  • State your thesis quickly and concisely.

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.

  • When making an assertion, provide examples as evidence.

If you make a general statement, be sure to back it up with textual evidence. Doing so adds validity to the statement.

  • Offer counterarguments.

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:

  • A clear introduction. Your introduction will also include your thesis, or the main argument you will make.
  • A systematic development of that argument, including your evidence and analysis of your position.
  • A concise conclusion that neatly ties together your ideas outlined in the paper. 

Don’t forget to check your organization, grammar, and overall content when you have completed your first draft.


Citing Sources

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?

  • For response papers, you will need to reflect on a reading or theme regarding the course and evaluate a certain aspect of it. Although this may seem like something that can easily be accomplished last minute, response papers are not a free-for-all type of assignment. You must be prepared to address a question and support your opinion.
  • Similar to response papers, exam essays require you to grapple with a certain question and provide evidence for your claims. Your evidence will be drawn from class discussions and readings.
  • Common in upper-division and graduate courses, historiographical essays center on how previous scholars interpreted various events, rather than the events themselves. These assignments are essentially “histories of history” that involve explaining different interpretations of a topic.

Things to Avoid

When writing history papers, you must try to avoid certain mistakes including:

  • Anachronisms:  putting events in an incorrect order, or having historical characters speak, think, and act in ways inappropriate for the time in which they were living (i.e. using resources that were not available in that time [electricity, certain weapons, etc.] or using words that were not part of the typical vernacular)
  • Analogies to the Present:  avoid comparing the past to the present unless specifically asked to do so. Instead, recognize the intrinsic value of the past rather than seeing it as only important in the ways it is similar to the present.
  • Broad Generalizations: avoid grand statements about humanity in general, and be careful of theories that fit all cases. Make a point of using evidence with attention to specificity of time and place. Context is key.


Research Tools

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.

Links to other resources