How to write, and not write, a history paper

A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of the Venerable Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

Trolling through some old material from my days as a Duke preceptor (teaching assistant), I find the following advice on papers I gave to Susan Keefe’s CH13 one year. Re-reading it now, some 15 years later, I find that students still have much the same issues when writing history papers, and I still recommend the same solutions. Some of these problems and solutions apply to any humanities paper, or any paper at all. Some are more specific to history.

[Point 1 of my notes had to do with a specific paper they were working on, so I’ve deleted it]:

2.  Key issues in papers.

a.  A certain distractedness; a tendency to drift from the question asked, or the topic at hand.  Given an assigned question—or in the case of your research paper, once you have established your own topic, question or thesis statement, make sure that everything you write relates to that question.  Cut everything out that doesn’t.  Don’t worry about running out of things to say; any given historical question—at least at the level we’re working—has had countless books written about it. There’s far more than enough material for a single paper.

—Watch out for getting caught up in the vivid details about the lives of those you write about; details that are compelling and fascinating, but don’t relate to the question.

—Look with particular suspicion at your first page.  Often “huffing and puffing,” getting the engine going, giving background material that only vaguely relates to the topic.

—A related point: If the paper is coming up short, resist the temptation to “pad” by adding less relevant material or repeating yourself.  Go back and see if you’ve let some interesting, relevant point slip through the net; perhaps a sub-point or counter-argument to an argument you have already made.

—Resist the temptation to inject your modern, twentieth-century, American opinion into the paper, unless it is specifically asked for in the assignment. It’s OK to take a stab at modern relevance in the context of your conclusion, or in a sort of brief epilogue.  But don’t let this kind of explicit, modern evaluation creep into the descriptive work of a historical paper.

—Of course, you are evaluating as you write, simply by what you choose to put in and what you choose to leave out.  But the goal of these papers, like the lectures, is to work towards a clearer and more accurate, factual understanding of history, so that in discussions like our precepts, and in your own ministries, you can move to applying that understanding.

b.  A meandering use of quotations—Not relating them closely to what you are trying to prove.

—A related problem is over-quoting: giving a long, rambling quotation four or more lines in length, that says four or five different things. Sharpen your quoting habits to a fine point by using only a sentence or two in each case, and if necessary paraphrasing another couple of sentences.  Choose to quote only the few words that most powerfully support your point.

— DO NOT END your paper or paragraph with quotation.  It shows that the paper or subject is in charge of you, not vice versa.

c.  Lack of a clear, structured argument.  The time-honored way of avoiding this problem is to work up an outline before you begin.

—For the main body of your paper, set up a few topical or thematic headings: maybe 2, 3, or 4.

—Under each of those, follow a process like this:  Make a point, then support it.  Then make a second point, then support it.  Then conclude that section and write a transition to the next section.

—When you are done with the meat of the paper, THEN go back and write an introduction, and a conclusion.

—A final note here: just because you have written an outline does NOT mean you must stick to that outline.  In fact, if your outline looks the same at the end as it does when you started writing, it may indicate that you haven’t thought carefully about your arguments or read the source material very closely.  You ought to have one or two “aha moments” while you write, that will force you to change your categories, modify your arguments, or move points around in your outline.  A morphing outline is prophetic of a thoughtful, engaged paper.

d.  Treating interpretative questions as if there were only one right answer, and thus overgeneralizing.

—History is an interpretive or hermeneutic discipline.  That just means that although you have a body of evidence that you start with—usually, primary documents like the ones we’ve been discussing every week—there are no absolute, “right interpretations” of that data.  When you read primary documents and then discuss them at preceptorial sessions, and write papers about them, you are your own historian.

—This is a scary thing.  Many of you have probably not had history courses since high school, and even then you may not have been very fond of the subject.

—So, what does it mean to be your own historian?  How do you do that?

—Basically, you do it by applying to your reading the categories, themes, questions, or problems that you think make the best sense out of the biggest chunk of the data.  Just like theological heresy, historical heresy crops up when you base interpretations on one smaller chunk of the evidence while ignoring other chunks that contradict your interpretation.  Only in history writing, your evidence comes not from the Bible and the tradition of past interpretation, but rather from documents like Benedict’s Rule, Athanasius’s Life of Antony, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

—So, frighteningly enough, you have to create your own categories, themes, questions, or problems, to use in interpreting what you are reading. This is true even when you are given a theme ready-made, in an assignment—because you will still have to structure arguments about that theme, which means breaking it down to sub-themes and sub-arguments.

—But how can you hold a whole book-length primary source in front of you and see the big picture well enough to write a convincing interpretation of it?  In order to do this, you need to work on your reading habits.  WHILE you are reading, you should be writing a few headings once in a while in the margin or on a sheet of paper, with page numbers.

—These are “big picture” sorts of headings.  Say, for Benedict’s Rule, words like “obedience,” or “punishment,” or “discipline”; or even better, phrases like “the abbot as a stand-in for Christ,” or “moderation in punishment,” or “the Opus Dei as a framework for spiritual discipline.”

—For one thing, this helps you to process the material—it keeps the mind from going into neutral.

—But even more importantly, if you do this sort of brief note-taking, pretty soon you’ll start to see patterns emerge that give you a solid overview of the main characteristics of what you’re reading.

—Then, when faced with writing a paper, you’ll be able to work with these patterns in forming a “big picture” kind of historical argument, with ready-made quotations based on the parts of the text that your brief notes are attached to.

e.  To insure a clear writing style and good word choice, assume when you are writing scholarly papers that your reader knows nothing about the topic but is twice as smart as you are.  What is useful about that is the way in which it encourages you to explain everything, assume nothing, but don’t condescend or patronize your reader.  One way Grant tries to achieve this is that he has a target person:  his grandmother.  She didn’t know anything about this stuff, but was twice as smart as Grant, easily.  And often he would send his stuff to her, and she was always proud when she read and understood those things—doesn’t bore her.  Another professor I once had kept a picture of an aunt at his desk, and he would look up once in a while and read something aloud, then ask her, “Does this make sense to you?”

f.  One further note on historical writing:  Use the past tense consistently, even when speaking of issues with ongoing relevance:  “John Calvin felt that human beings were (not are) sinful.”  We want to keep it clear that we are talking about Calvin’s view in 1500s.  Use “so and so WROTE,” not “so and so WRITES.”  All references even to what an author does in a particular document…  And always watch that you keep tense consistent within a paragraph.

5 responses to “How to write, and not write, a history paper

  1. I suppose you mean “trawling” rather than “trolling” but you may be wiritng snarky notes to self in the margins.

    Brief addition from my years as a theology student: It’s a paper, not a sermon.

    • I do sometimes get snarky with myself in the margins, but here’s what “trolling” USED to mean before internet chat groups: “Trolling is a method of fishing where one or more fishing lines, baited with lures or bait fish, are drawn through the water.” And yes, so many sem students want to write sermons when they’re writing papers! And those sermons are often SO heavy on rhetoric and light on facts! I find myself hoping that’s not the way they’ll preach “in real life” 🙂 .

  2. Thanks, Chris,
    I am often curious how notable scholars like yourself store and retrieve notes from their extensive reading. Thanks for sharing about your system.

    Aside from physical folders, I use Evernotes.

    Shalom, Alex

  3. Hi Chris,

    I have enjoyed this post. However I am intrigued by reading habits:
    ‘work on your reading habits. WHILE you are reading, you should be writing a few headings once in a while in the margin or on a sheet of paper, with page numbers.’

    I wonder if you will consider writing a post on developing a good reading habits in the academia especially note keeping and how to retrieve your quotations and references (filing)?

    • Alex,

      Just a word on retrieving quotations and references. My office has four tall filing cabinets in it, comprising (if I’m visualizing them correctly) 17 deep file drawers completely filled with folders containing, for the most part, notes on things I have read. Among these folders are many drawers-full that are numbered. All of those numbers are referenced in a Filemaker database on my laptop, with records indicating the author and title of the work I’ve read, plus topical keys (there are several dozen of these that appear in drop-down menus when I click on the “topic” fields, and I can assign several keys to any given reading) indicating the subjects the reading treats.

      Inside the folders are a variety of things: word-processed files of a page or several pages of notes on a reading; photocopies of articles with my own marginal notes and underlinings visible; little piles of sticky notes with numbers in the corners (from library books I read and could not mark in). I also mark in my own books, then on occasion ask a teaching assistant to cull those notes into electronic files, which are also recorded in that database.

      It was either Dr. Gwenfair Walters or Dr. Garth Rosell, both of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who recommended the use of the electronic database, and I have been grateful for it many times, as I have been able to track down my thoughts on things I read decades ago.

      Peace, Chris

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