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Write a History Paper

Writing in history

There is no single method for writing a history paper; however, there are certain strategies that can be employed to make the whole process less daunting. Ultimately that is the purpose of the present guide – to introduce general strategies and guidelines for writing history papers.

Further instruction on how to write a history paper can be found in a number of comprehensive guides, including:

For the purposes of the present guide, however, consideration will primarily be given to research, writing, referencing, style, and common mistakes to avoid.

Creating an outline

When beginning to write it is useful to refer back to your research notes to remind yourself of the questions you asked, the ideas you generated, and insights you made. In the early stages of writing it is also beneficial to create an outline; this will give your paper structure, create smooth transitions among supporting arguments, and help avoid repetition of ideas. An outline can also help you decide whether you will structure your paper chronologically or thematically.


In the introduction you should identify the topic that is to be discussed, as well as the time period, main themes and, if applicable, key figures. Ideally the introduction will lead logically toward one's thesis.

Students often have difficulty coming up with an argumentative, clearly defined thesis. Sometimes they think they have nothing "new" to say, or state something that is too vague or simplistic. A good thesis often emerges from good research questions – ask yourself why something happened, why it was significant, or offer different interpretations. If you find yourself struggling with the exact wording of the thesis, allow yourself to return to it after you have written the rest of the draft. Often your conclusion can provide insight into what you were really arguing throughout your paper, and it may be worth revisiting your introduction and thesis to ensure that it reflects the conclusions that were made.


The body of the paper is where evidence and analysis is presented, ultimately creating a narrative in support of the paper's thesis. Keep in mind that the study of history is concerned with why and how past events took place and for understanding the actions and motivations of persons involved in said events.

Effective analysis includes comparing and contrasting information, consideration of primary sources, thoughtful inferences, and recognition of alternate interpretations or theories. For instance, you could compare American and Canadian propaganda produced during the First World War. Were there significant differences between the two? What were the similarities? Or, you could examine different types of propaganda, such as posters encouraging volunteerism or the purchase of war bonds. Alternately, you could examine visual representations of nationalism or gender from propaganda posters and make arguments based on such inferences.


While the conclusion should relate back to the thesis, it does not need to reiterate the entire introduction or thesis. Rather it should bring loose ends together, indicate the significance of the issue, and generally bring the essay to a close.

Considering Style

While history papers are primarily assessed for content and analysis, a poor style can negatively influence evaluation of the final product. There are several easy steps, however, that, if followed, will make your essay seem more polished and professional.

Keep in mind some simple formatting basics. These include creating a title page, which includes the title of the paper, your name and student number, the course number, and date; double-spacing the text and using a clear 12-point font; numbering pages; and stapling the pages together.

Try to make the text as interesting as possible for the reader. This can be achieved by using sentences of varying lengths, while fluidity can be enhanced by using transition words like "consequently," "arguably," "alternatively," etc. It is also best to avoid words such as "felt" or "believed" since it may be difficult to prove that the persons in question actually did feel a certain way. Similarly, avoid the use of "I." While you may want to identify that an idea is your own, this can be implied in how and what you are arguing.

Since history papers rely extensively on primary sources, effective quoting is integral to good essays. However, it is important not to quote for the simple sake of doing so. Rather, one should consider what the quote actually adds to the paper. Does it simply reiterate what has already been said in the text? Or does it provide additional information? Do not let the quotes "write" the paper for you – and keep in mind that readers can be wary of multiple, lengthy quotes!

Avoid quoting extensively from secondary documents, as paraphrasing can be much more effective. For instance, while the following examples provide the same information, the information is better paraphrased, evident in Example B.

Example A: According to Ede and Cormack, Vesalius "began with humanism, since he compared alternate texts of Galen in order to find the purest and least corrupted."1

Example B: Vesalius adhered to humanistic principles, comparing different texts of Galen to find the purest and least corrupt information.1

Furthermore, quotes need to be "anchored" and context should be provided to show how it relates to the text. Essentially, the existence of quotes – however lengthy – should add to the overall narrative and not detract from it.

Examples of effective quoting:

Poor: In 1857, the Royal Commission published findings that generated a public outcry, as illustrated in this quote from the June 3, 1857 issue of the Scotsman, ". . . such treatment is utterly disgraceful . . . ."2 Clearly, these findings upset many people in Scotland.

Fair: The publication of the findings by the Royal Commission in 1857 generated a public outcry. The treatment of lunacy in Scotland was felt to be "utterly disgraceful . . . The humanity of the country, upon knowing this information, would be moved to insist on legislation if this had been known."2

Good: The Royal Commission to examine Scottish asylums and lunacy laws published its findings in 1857, the results of which generated a public outcry. The treatment of lunacy in Scotland was deemed "utterly disgraceful," and it was claimed by some that the "humanity of the country" would have been roused "to insist on legislation" had this information been made available to the public earlier. 2

Poor: Vesalius prescribed first-hand dissection for all would-be anatomists since, as illustrated in a quote from The Surgical Art, "Galen hardly noticed anything except the fingers and the bend of the knee – which he would certainly have passed over with the rest if they had not been obvious to him without dissection."3 This is why he criticized Galen because he did not do his own dissections.

Good: Vesalius criticized Galen's methods, commenting that Galen only understood the underlying structure of "the fingers and the bend of the knee" and nothing else since he did not conduct dissections on humans.3

Avoiding common mistakes

There are a number of common mistakes that students sometimes make when writing history papers – especially if they have little experience doing so.

  1. Avoid wide-sweeping or generalized statements, including "since the beginning of time" or "throughout history," or general terms such as "society," unless you have already established what society you are discussing. Such statements are impossible to prove and immediately suggest that the paper may be approaching a topic too simplistically.
  2. Confusing chronology can also be a problem, and can be a particular problem when discussing different time periods. Stick to simple past tense. With the exception of historiographical papers - when the present tense can occasionally be utilized – it makes sense to use the past tense when discussing history.
  3. Avoid the passive voice, which can make text seem overly long, and instead use an active voice. This makes the narrative more engaging for the reader. For instance "John read the book" is considered active, while "The book was read by John" is considered passive. More examples of active and passive voice can be located at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
  4. With respect to general tone, avoid slang and colloquial language. Remember that you are writing for an academic audience.
  5. In your analysis, be careful when distinguishing between causation and correlation. While it may be tempting to argue that a particular event or action directly influenced a later event or action, it can be difficult to make links between events that were many years apart. Similarly, it is not necessary to link historical events to contemporary concerns.
  6. Avoid overly long paragraphs; essays do not have to follow the "five paragraph model" and new paragraphs should be used when needed – i.e., when a new thought is being introduced. Also avoid overly long sentences that try to deal with multiple ideas.
  7. Be careful of explicit or implicit judgment about certain events or actions. Recognize that events happen in a specific context, and that moral attitudes and social mores constantly change and evolve.
  8. Lastly, print your paper and proof-read, proof-read, proof-read! This will help catch some obvious errors, including grammatical missteps, poor word choice, and strange transitions between ideas.

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