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. Continue reading