History writing guidelines

E. Curtis

Fall 2006


Rules for writing good essays in History:


Abstract: The best papers have perfect grammar, spelling and punctuation; a clear, argumentative thesis, probably stated in the first paragraph; exactly one main idea per paragraph; transition sentences between paragraphs; and a thoughtful, elegant conclusion that gives the reader an entirely new idea.


1. Read; think about what you read; write about what you think.


2. The most important goal of good writing is clarity. When you read, whether a novel or a story or a poem or the Declaration of Independence, you will form ideas based upon what you have read; writing is the process of putting words together to describe those ideas clearly. If the sentences and paragraphs you write do not describe your ideas clearly, revise your writing until they do.


3. Omit needless words! If you can eliminate a word from a sentence without changing the sentence's meaning, always do so. Strunk and White express this rule memorably in Elements of Style:


        "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."


If you do not own a copy of Elements of Style by Strunk and White, get one.


4. Avoid the use of the second person (you) and of the first person (I, we).


5. Be careful of pronouns! Always make clear the antecedent of any pronoun – the failure to do so is the clearest sign of sloppy thinking. Avoid use of the pronoun it altogether. The word this should be used only as an adjective, not as a pronoun.


6. Avoid contractions. Use could not, not couldn't; should have, not should've; was not, not wasn't.


7. Avoid use of the verb prove. History isn’t physics; we can’t actually prove very much. Instead consider using (in ascending order of firmness) suggest, indicate, demonstrate, or (riskiest) establish.


8. By all means use quotations to add support to your argument, or to capture a meaning that is so close to the meaning you wish to convey that quoting is wiser than paraphrasing. But in general, be sparing in your use of direct quotations. The presence of lengthy quotations, which lend the appearance of padding, is suspect. It is best to use a quotation to illustrate a point you, the writer, have made, not just to include the quote for its own sake. “A quotation of less than two lines should be in the main text of your paper, set off by quotation marks.”



A lengthier quotation should be set off from the text of the paper with a double break, and the entire quotation indented at the right and left margins. This lengthier quotation is not set off by quotation marks. Be careful that a lengthy quotation does not lend the appearance of padding.




Remember that a period or comma appear inside the quotation marks; a semicolon appears outside.



9. In writing about American politics especially, avoid use of the words liberal and conservative. These terms, whether as adjectives or nouns, are generally employed to avoid actually explaining something, and their definitions tend to be ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness.


10. The best essays always have smooth transitions between paragraphs. Refer to the main idea of paragraph 4 in the last sentence of paragraph 3, or make reference to the main idea of paragraph 3 in the first sentence of paragraph 4 (which may also be your topic sentence – this device is very elegant when done skillfully). See here and here for some ideas about transition sentences.


11. Read your paper aloud! Reading your paper aloud – exactly as it is written, word for word and comma for comma – is the best way to discover where revisions for clarity are necessary.


12. Here is a list of subordinating conjunctions.


13. For help on conclusions see this excellent guide from Harvard.


14. Here are some ideas about thesis statements.


15. Here’s a piece about writing openers.


And a guide to some more practical matters:


16. Double-space your essays.


17. Italicize or underline titles of books (The Guns of August, or The Guns of August). Put titles of articles or book chapters in quotation marks ("The Flames of Louvain").


18. If your essay is a revised version of an earlier draft that has my comments on it, include the early draft with the revised draft. Label and date your drafts carefully. (NB: Revisions are allowed only in Seventh grade, or by special arrangement.)


19. Staple your papers; please do not use paper clips.