Writing is the craft of history.
Identifying themes, trends or causality from masses of historical documentation, artifacts, works and other evidence takes patience and intellect. But all that work is lost if nothing is ever made of it.
Presenting historical information in a way that is logical, organized and forms a cohesive contribution to knowledge takes practice. But there are some things to keep in mind which makes the process easier.
Whether you are writing a history paper for a class, a thesis, a book or an article, here are some tips:
- Provide a good introduction. Most historical writings are arguments - suggesting reasons for how something happened, why it happened, or the impact it had. Arguments are great ways of proving points, but if you have ever walked into an argument halfway through you know how confusing it can be. A good introduction sets the stage
for the points and evidence that follows. Even someone with no knowledge of your topic should be able to understand the context of your work. A good introduction, whether to a paper, article, or longer work, provides that context succinctly and clearly.
- State a clear argument. This is the "thesis" of your work and combined with a good, contextual introduction will draw in and engage the reader. This will clearly lay out your perspective and will make presenting your evidence easier. It will also strengthen your overall point.
- Use clear, easy to understand language. Academics, and especially historians, have often been accused of being wordy, imprecise, and difficult to read. Even the most brilliant analysis will be lost if people need to read your sentences twice to understand what you are saying. Keep things simple and short.
- End with a summarizing conclusion. Your conclusion should outline your key points and evidence and reinforce the message laid out in your introduction. It should "bookend" your work with the introduction.
Quotes are often used in history books, essays and papers. They are often a good way of reinforcing an argument. Quoting primary sources gives the historical actors a voice of their own which makes history much more engaging, while quoting secondary sources can be an expedient way of paraphrasing a perspective on events.
Quotes should be handled judiciously. Too many quotes, or quotations which are far too long, will distract the reader and detract from what you are trying to say.
Editing is important in any piece of writing. Having someone take a fresh look at your logic, at the organization of your work, or even to simply find spelling and grammar mistakes will improve your writing.
Many universities have writing help centers where students can have a peer edit their papers. If you are not a student, it is important to have a colleague or editor examine your work and to listen to their advice carefully.
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