Start off with a positive start.

Avoid arrogant, vapid beginnings. Write a paper about, for example, British responses in India to the rebellion of 1857. Don’t start with this statement: “Throughout human existence people from all cultures have engaged in many and ongoing conflicts about various aspects of government policy, diplomatic issues, which have greatly interested historians and generated historical theories and many theories.” This statement is rubbish and bores the reader and is a sign that you don’t have anything to add. Let’s get to the point. Let’s get to the point. You might argue, for example, that greater British sensibility to Indian customs is hypocritical.

Make a clear thesis.

A thesis is essential for any type of writing, including senior thesis or exam essays. Do not just go through the assignment and start writing about it. Ask yourself “What am I trying to prove?” Your thesis represents your view on the subject, your explanation, and your point of view. It is the argument that you are going to make. While “Famine hit Ireland in 1840s” may be true, it is not a thesis. The thesis “The English caused the famine in Ireland during 1840s” can be defensible, but it is not a thesis. A thesis is a research question that answers a key question about the causes or how something happened. “Who was responsible for the Irish famine of 1840s?” From paragraph to paragraph, develop your thesis logically. Your reader must always be able to see where your argument came from, where it is at the moment, and where it is headed.

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Make sure you analyze.

Many students are puzzled by professors who mark them down for summarizing, narrating or analyzing. What does it really mean to analyze? Analyzing is the act of breaking down parts into smaller pieces and studying the interrelationships between them. Analyzing water means that you can break it down into hydrogen or oxygen. Historical analysis, in a wider sense, explains the significance and origins of events. Historical analysis is a deeper dive into the past to uncover connections and distinctions that may not be immediately apparent. Historical analysis is crucial. It evaluates sources and assigns significance to causes. You don’t have to make too much distinction, but summary and analysis can be thought of this way: Who? What? When? and Where are the stuff that comprise summary. Analysis consists of how, why and to what extent. Students often think they must give a lengthy summary to show their professors they are aware of the facts before they can get to the analysis. Instead, you should start your analysis as soon and as quickly as possible. Sometimes, this is better than having a summary. A good analysis will show the facts clearly. An analysis is only possible if you have the facts. However, you can sum up the facts without knowing the details. Summary is simpler and more straightforward than analysis. That’s why summary alone doesn’t earn an “A”.

Take care to use evidence.

History experts are just like good detectives. They scrutinize their sources and verify them for accuracy. A detective who relied on the archenemy of a suspect to verify an alibi would be regarded as a bad detective. You wouldn’t trust a historian who only relied on the French to explain World War I’s origins. The following statements are about the origin of World War I. …” This statement would be denied by a professional liar. It is false thatGermany was responsible for causing this war. The Kaiser, the people and the government did not want war ….”. They cannot both be right so it is necessary to do some detectivework. The best way to find out is: Who created the source? Why? When? In what situations? Whom? This first statement is from Georges Clemenceau’s 1929 book, “For whom?” Clemenceau had in 1871 vowed to vengeance against Germany for France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. He was the premier of France between 1917 and 1920. In 1919, he represented France in the Paris Peace Conference. Evidently, he was not an impartial observer. This second statement is taken from a manifesto that ninety-three prominent German intellectuals published in the fall 1914. They were standing up for Germany against brutality and aggression. They were also clearly not uninterested observers. Although you may not encounter extreme bias or passionate disagreements very often, the principle of critical thinking and cross-checking sources is always applicable. The more sources and varied ones you have, the better your historical judgement will be, especially when you are influenced by passions or self-interests. While you don’t have to be cynical (self-interest doesn’t explain everything), it is important to be skeptical and critical as historian. Competent historians might offer different interpretations or emphasize different evidence. There will not be a single historical Truth that is all-encompassing on every matter of importance. However, you can learn to distinguish between conflicting interpretations. Not all interpretations are equal. (See also Analyzing Historical Document).

Be precise.

Vague statements and vague generalizations indicate that you don’t have the time or motivation to study the material. These are two sentences to consider: “During France’s Revolution, the government was overthrown” It is important because the Revolution shows that people require freedom. What about landless peasants Urban journeymen? Wealthy lawyers? Which government? When? How? What did freedom really mean to them? Here’s a more specific statement on the French Revolution: “Threatened in rising prices and food scarcity in 1793, Parisian pressured Convention to institute price controls.” Although this statement is less general than those about the Revolution, it opens the door to an actual analysis of the Revolution. Be cautious when using grand abstractions such as peoples, society, freedom and government,, especially when you are using these words to delineate the concrete. Always be aware of cause and effect. Abstractions don’t cause or require anything. However, certain people or groups of people can cause or require things. Don’t make grandiose transhistorical generalizations you don’t believe. Don’t make grandiose trans-historical generalizations that you don’t support.

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Check out the chronology.

Don’t confuse your readers by jumping around. Avoid anachronisms, as well as vagueness regarding dates. The problem is obvious if you write “Napoleon abandoned Russia’s Grand Army and took the redeye to Paris.” The problem is subtler, but still grave, if you write “Despite the Watergate scandal Nixon easily won the reelection election in 1972.” (The scandal was not made public until after the election. Your professor might suspect you haven’t done any research if you write “The revolution in China finally succeeded” in the twenty-first century. Which revolution? Which revolution? Chronology is the backbone to history. What would you think if a biographer wrote that Hamilton was your graduation year in the 1950s

Be sure to cite your sources.

While your professor may allow you to use parenthetical references in a paper that only has one or two sources, footnotes are required for all historical research papers. Parenthetical citations can be distracting and disrupt the flow of the reading. They are also not able to capture the richness and diversity of historical sources. Historians are proud of the variety of sources they have access to. For most social sciences and humanities, parenthetical citations like Jones 1994 are acceptable. However, the source base is typically limited to English-language articles and books. However, historians need to be able to use the entire footnote. Imagine this typical footnote, pulled randomly from a classic German work of history, squeezed into the body of text in parentheses: DZA Potsdam. RdI. Frieden 5. Erzgebiet von Longwy­Briey. Bd. I, Nr. 19305, gedruckte Denkschrift fur OHL und Reichsleitung, Dezember 1917, und in RWA, Frieden Frankreich Nr. 1883. These abbreviations are already in the footnote. Chicago style is used most often by historians for footnotes and bibliography. (The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2003. The Writing Center’s website contains a helpful summary of Chicago citation styles prepared by Elizabeth Rabe, a former history major ( Footnotes). RefWorks (on library’s website), will convert your citations into Chicago style. If you need assistance with RefWorks, don’t hesitate asking one of our reference librarians.

Make sure to use primary sources.

Your paper should include as many primary sources possible. Primary sources are those that were created by participants or witnesses to the events you are writing about. The historian can see the past through the eyes and experiences of the participants. Common primary sources include letters, diaries and memoirs, speeches as well as church records, newspaper articles, government documents, and all other types of government documents. The vast and extensive genre of “government records” contains everything, from criminal court records to tax lists to census data to parliamentary debates to international treaties. Primary sources can include literature or art, but also philosophical tracts and scientific treatises. These are all examples of what you might use to write about culture. Not all primary sources can be written. If you use them as historical clues, buildings, monuments and clothes can all be considered primary sources. History historians have broad interests that can include almost any type of primary source. (See also Analyzing Historical Document).

Make sure to use secondary, scholarly sources.

Secondary sources are those that were written by later historians who did not have any involvement in the subject matter. In rare instances where the historian participated in the events, the work or at least part of the work is a secondary source. To learn how scholars have interpreted history, historians will read secondary sources. You must be skeptical of primary sources as well as secondary sources. It is important to be able to tell the difference between non-scholarly and scholarly secondary sources. History attracts many amateurs, unlike, for example, nuclear physics. Popular history is dominated by books and articles about war, great people, and daily material life. Professional historians may denigrate popular history and discourage colleagues from learning how to do it. It is not necessary to share their arrogance. Some popular history can be very good. Popular works are often not scholarly, so avoid them. Popular history aims to entertain and inform a broad audience. Popular history is often characterized by dramatic storytelling over analysis. It favors simplicity over complexity. Grand generalizations over detailed qualification. Popular history is often based on secondary sources, or largely so. Most popular histories can be described as tertiary sources. Scholarly history, on the other hand, seeks new knowledge and reinterprets existing knowledge. While good scholars may write clear and concisely, they also have the ability to weave compelling stories. However, they are not afraid of analysis, complexity, depth, qualification, and complex writing. Scholarly history uses as many primary sources possible.

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As a student, your goal is to achieve the ideal of the scholarly scholar. To do this, you will need to be able to distinguish the scholarly and the unscholarly. These are some questions that you can ask your secondary sources. Keep in mind, however, that the popular/scholarly distinction may not be absolute and that not all scholarly works are good scholarship.

Who is it? The majority of scholarly works are written and edited by historians, usually professors, who have received advanced training in the subject area they are writing about. Be cautious if the author is not a historian but a journalist.

Who publishes it? Scholarly books are published by university presses as well as a few commercial presses (for instance, Norton, Routledge and Palgrave), Rowman & Littlefield and Knopf).

Is it an article? Are you able to find it in a journal that is subscribed to by the library, listed on JSTOR or published by a university presses? Are professors on the editorial board? The word journal is often a sign that the periodical has scholarly content, as it is in most titles.

What does the bibliography and notes look like? Be careful. Be careful if they are all secondary sources. If the work concerns a non-English speaking area and all of the sources are in English then it is almost certainly not scholarly.

Are there any reviews for the book that you can find in Academic Search Premier? It’s bad news if the book was not published in the past few decades. You can improve your judgement with a lot of practice. Then you will be able to become a historian. Ask your professor if you’re unsure if a work is scholarly. (See also Writing a Book Review).

Avoid abusing your sources.

It is easy to misuse many potentially valuable resources. These five abuses are especially important to be aware of:

Web abuse. The Web can be a great and growing resource for indexes, catalogs, and other information. The Web is not a good source of primary and secondary information for historians. Anyone can post anything on the Web with the right software, without needing to go through trained editors, peer reviewers or librarians. There is a lot of garbage online. You should ensure that the primary source you are using is backed by an intellectual institution. Avoid secondary articles found on the Web unless they are published in electronic versions of well-respected print journals (e.g. The Journal of Asian Studies, JSTOR). Many articles found on the Web can be described as third-rate encyclopaedia entries. If in doubt, consult your professor. Except for a few exceptions, there will not be any scholarly monographs on history (even recent) online. Google plans to digitize all collections from some of the largest libraries around the world and make them available online. Do not expect to see the project completed. When the project is completed, your days at Hamilton will be over. Your training as a historian should help you to be sceptical about the exaggerated claims made by technophiles. The majority of history research is done by reading, writing, and taking notes. Although it is convenient to find a chapter from a book online (in contrast to interlibrary loan), it does not change the fundamentals for historians. Digitized books have a subtle but important drawback: They destroy the historian’s sense of the past. Virtually all of the literally trillions upon trillions of pages worth of archive material are not available online. The library and archive will continue to be the natural habitats for historians in the future.

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Thesaurus abuse. It’s tempting to ask your computer to suggest a more erudite word to replace the one you have in your head. Refrain from falling prey to this temptation. This example is a little too heavy handed, but it makes the point. You are writing about the EPA programs to purify water supplies. Impure sounds too boring and simple, so you pull up your thesaurus. It has everything you need, from simple to complex. You think, “How about meretricious waters?” That will impress the professor. The problem is that you don’t understand meretricious, so you don’t realize meretricious is ridiculously inappropriate in this context. It makes you appear foolish and immature. Only use the words that naturally come to your mind. Do not try to expand your vocabulary. Do not try to impress people with large words. For those annoying tip-of the-tongue issues, a thesaurus is the only you need. You know the word and can recognize it immediately when you see it. But at the moment, you don’t have the ability to think of the word.

Quotation books abuse. This is very similar to thesaurus misuse. Let’s suppose you’re writing a paper about Alexander Hamilton’s bank policies. You want to start quickly and make it seem effortless learned. What about a quote on money? Click on the index of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotes and you have your paper. Before you know it, it’s “As Samuel Butler wrote Hudibras: ‘For what it is worth/ But as much money as it will bring?'” You’re not realizing it. You don’t even know the name Samuel Butler. Your professor will not be fooled. You sound like an anxious after-dinner speaker. Bartlett’s is not your friend unless you are confirming the words of a quote that you received spontaneously and which relates to your paper.

Encyclopaedia misuse. General Encyclopaedias such as Britannica can be used to verify facts. (“Wait, am I correct about which countries sent troops in China to crush the Boxer Rebellion? Better check.”). However, if you’re footnoting encyclopaedias to your papers, it is not college-level research.

Dictionary abuse. The dictionary can be your friend. It is your friend. However, you should not use it to create papers without a definition. This is a temptation to make when writing about a complicated, controversial or elusive topic. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines liberalism as …”). In such situations, the dictionary is useless and you will sound like a dull high school student who was conscientious but not bright. Except in rare cases where competing dictionary definitions are relevant, you should keep dictionary quotations from your paper.

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Do not quote secondary sources. Instead, reword or summarize the quotation. If your essay is focused on the critical analysis of an author’s argument, it is not necessary to quote secondary sources in great detail. (See also Writing a Book Review). Your professor will want to see how you can analyze secondary sources and understand them. If the quote clarifies or enriches you analysis, do not quote. If in doubt, don’t quote. Instead, incorporate the author’s argument into you own. But remember to credit ideas from your sources even if paraphrasing. You are likely to write a poor paper if you use too many quotations from secondary sources. Long quotations are often required for an analysis of a primary resource, such as a philosophical essay or political tract. You might have to briefly repeat key points and passages in order to introduce the author’s ideas. However, your analysis of the text’s meaning must remain the main goal. (See also: Using primary resources and Using scholarly second sources.


Unless otherwise instructed, assume your audience is educated, intelligent, and non-specialists. Your professor will be your only reader. However, if you write to your professor directly, you might become cryptic and sloppy. If you want to explain your ideas to someone who isn’t familiar with them, you need to be clear and concise. It can be difficult to find the right amount of detail. (How much information do I need about President Wilson’s background, the Embargo Act, and the Edict of Nantes? If in doubt, add more details. This will allow you to avoid extremes like “my reader is an ignoramus/my readers knows everything”.


Many people and institutions from the past seem unenlightened, ignorant or misguided by today’s values. Refrain from judging or becoming self-righteous. “Martin Luther was blinded to the sexism of sixteenth-century German society.”) People in the past were creatures of their times; they, like you, deserve to be judged according to their time. You will never be able to understand the motivations behind people’s actions and thoughts if you compare the past with today’s standards. Hitler was a bad person, but not just by modern standards but by the accepted standards of his time. You’ll be quite foolish and ignorant one day. “Early twenty-first-century Hamilton students didn’t see the shocking inderdosherism [that is, the concept doesn’t yet exist] embedded in their career plans.


You should not stop abruptly, as if you are running out of ideas or time. The conclusion should be something. You give the impression you don’t understand the meaning of your paper if you just repeat what you said. The reader will be left unsatisfied with your conclusion and confused as to why it was worth reading. Strong conclusions add something to the introduction. Strong conclusions explain the significance and importance of what you have written. Strong conclusions leave your reader thinking about your words and contemplating the implications. Your reader should not be left asking “So what?”

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A professor will be able to spot a “one draft wonder”, so don’t rush to finish your paper. You should allow plenty of time to revise and proofread. Send your draft to a tutor in writing or another professional writer. It may be helpful to read the draft aloud. Everyone makes mistakes. Some may not make it through, no matter how careful you are. Be aware of many mistakes. If you fail to proofread your assignment carefully, it is likely that you have not put in a lot of effort and time. Tip: Make sure to proofread both the printed and screen versions of your text. Your eyes will see them differently. Your spell-checker may not catch all your mistakes. (If ewe is ken reed this sea that an ewe computer wood nut always help ewe spill it or rite reel it good.