Research and Writing Resources
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We've put these pages together to help you research and write history papers and make the most of the wonderful resources available here at Indiana University.  This website will provide you with information about how to do certain tasks in the process of researching and writing rather than about the content of history as a discipline, even though they are difficult to separate!  You will not find a magic formula that will work for every paper here, but rather the idea that writing a history paper is a long process that takes time.  You can't sit down at your computer at the end of the semester and simply write a history paper.

But before we get into the research process, it may be useful to lay out the common expectations that readers (and professors!) have when reading books and articles about history.   If you review the editorial policies of the American Historical Association and major historical journals such as the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History you can corroborate that these standards are common to the discipline as a whole, so why not guide your own work by them?

A Good History Essay [1]:

1. Has an argument
2. Has a manageable, focused, and limited topic
3. Is based on primary sources
4. Is written “in the same spirit that you would tell a good story”
5. Gets to the point quickly
6. Has a title that defines the subject clearly
7. Carries the reader step-by-step through the evidence
8. Documents its sources
9. Is written dispassionately
10. Is an original contribution to the subject
11. Considers its audience
12. Takes contrary evidence into account
13. Uses grammatically correct English and is written in an appropriate academic style
14. Has a conclusion that mirrors its introduction.

1.  Has an argument

•  When writing a research paper, the most important part is not the compilation of names, numbers, and events but rather the formulation of a problem that will give meaning and structure to those facts.  That is, the researcher transforms a topic into a problem and suggests solutions/answers to that problem as arguments that the paper will then seek to sustain.

• How can I find a question/controversy/problem of study.  What is this and why it is useful?

•  How do I identify a research question or controversy?

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2.  Has a manageable, focused, and limited topic

•  Taking into consideration the specific requirements of the paper assigned by your professor, you should find a topic that you can adequately work given the time frame available.  If you have to write a 20-page paper, be careful to not think that you need a big issue to cover that many pages; instead, you'll want a well-focused topic that would allow you to study and think about your sources in a careful way.  As Richard Marius advises: “If you try to do too much, you will not do anything.  To write a good essay in history, you must be sure that evidence is available, that you have the time to study it carefully and repeatedly, and that you choose a topic you can write a worthwhile paper on.” [2]

•  How can I make sure my topic is manageable?

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3.  Is based on primary sources

•  Primary sources are the closest texts/evidence available about the problem that the essay seeks to investigate, preferably those produced by the subjects who participated in the events/issues studied.  A good historical essay preferably uses more than one primary source, although of course there can be exceptions and limitations to this expectation depending on the subject matter.

•  How do I find sources for my paper?         

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4.  Is written “in the same spirit that you would tell a good story”

•  A good story usually begins by posing a problem that attracts the attention of the reader and lets him/her know what the story is about and why it is worth reading.  Then, it takes the reader through the process of discovery, providing information and critically evaluating it, and then to the climax, wrapping everything up in the conclusion.

•  How do I get started on the writing process?

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5.  Gets to the point quickly

•  A good paper does not lose the reader's interest by taking too long to introduce its problem of study.  A good rule is to address the general subject in the first paragraph; in addition, by no later than the second page, your readers should know why you have written your essay and why your topic is important.

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6.  Has a title that defines the subject clearly

•  The title does a number of things: it grabs the readers' attention, reflects the content of the essay and helps keep track of what you're writing about.

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7.  Carries the reader step-by-step through theevidence

•  Keep in mind that you need to convince your audience that your argument is valid.  Therefore, you need to guide readers through your evidence, clearly demonstrating that you have a good handle on it and have considered  why it is or not reliable and what can we learn from it.  As you take the reader through your supporting evidence, make sure that you are explaining why it is important and how it connects to your argument.

•  How do I get started on the writing process?

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8.  Documents its sources

A serious writer and researcher always documents where his/her ideas have come from.  While there is an ethical issue that we should all respect, readers might also want to go look up the sources we used, and that would be impossible if they are not cited properly.  This is where reference notes come in handy; use either footnotes at the bottom of the page or endnotes on a separate page at the end of the paper.  

•  How do I cite properly and avoid plagiarism?

•  How do I cite a source following the Chicago Manual of Style documentation?

•  What happens if I plagiarize?

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9.  Is written dispassionately

•  When you write a history essay, you should not overwhelm the prose with your own emotions or sermonize about an issue.  You do not need to tell the reader that a certain person or issue is evil; instead, give readers the evidence and detail and let the reader understand and judge without any insistence on your part.

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10.  Is an original contribution to the subject

•  A good history essay brings an original, fresh contribution to a topic, even if the contribution is small.  We should not repeat what has already been done or said.  Readers may want to read an essay either because they will learn something new or because the writer will evaluate an old issue in new light. That is going to be your contribution; that is how you will add your own voice and arguments about a historical issue.  This is the reason why historians research what has been done and what needs to be done. Reading a good general book(s) on the subject and doing a bibliographic search will help you identify areas that need to be further investigated.

•  How do I find sources for my paper?

•  What do I do after I've found some sources ?

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11.  Considers its audience

•  Always keep in mind that you will be writing for your instructor and other students who may not be specialists in the field.  This means that you will need to define important terms and provide a context for the problem, place and time you are writing about. Yet be careful to only provide the background information that the readers will need to understand the problem you are investigating.

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12.  Takes contrary evidence into account

•  A good history essay is honest; it attempts to be truthful about what happened and considers contrary evidence and arguments.  Not only can you strengthen your case by considering contradictory evidence and critically evaluating it, but your readers will also trust your work as a historian more if you consider all sides rather than pretending that other views do not exist.

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13.  Uses grammatically correct English and is written in an appropriate academic style

•  Sometime students believe that instructors are being too picky when they correct grammar and punctuation.  The truth is, however, that a worthwhile paper may not be appreciated if the reader is constantly being distracted with bad grammar and misspelled words.  While the spell checker in your word processing program may take care of misspelling, be careful; it doesn't know when you wrote “there” for “their,” “capitol” for “capital,” "it’s" for" its" or “then” for “than.” Carefully reread and revise your paper drafts.

•  What do I do after I've written a draft?

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14.  Has a conclusion that mirrors its introduction

•  Instead of summing up what you did in the essay, always try to end your essay with an interesting statement.  It is a common practice to connect the ideas and words used in the beginning paragraph with those at the end of the essay.  Think of where and how you launched the reader on a journey in your essay and then land him or her where the journey began.

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Keep these suggestions in mind as you write your history paper.

[1] The following criteria were borrowed from Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing about History. 3 rd Ed.   (New York: Longman, 1999) 13-28.

[2] Marius , Short Guide , 14.