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Why Writing Matters

Why Writing Matters in History

"History is an interpretive discipline that requires precise and careful writing to advance and deepen our understanding of the past."

~Melissa Teed, Department of History


Why Writing Matters in History

Writing is a fundamental part of what historians do.  Historians use two forms of writing, sometimes independently of one another and sometimes in the same work.  The first is the classical narrative form of history in which the writer is primarily leading the reader through an account of an historical event or period.  The second is analytical or interpretive writing which seeks to delineate causes, effects, consequences, contexts, or structures.  These forms of historical writing are not mutually exclusive and are commonly used in the same book or article.

Typical Writing Assignments

Students will be given many different types of writing assignments including exams (both in class and take home), and papers. Typical writing assignments in history courses include research papers, book reviews or critical analyses of a particular topic.

Qualities of Good Writing

All historical essays must have arguments.  Your argument is your reason for writing the essay.  It is the thesis of the paper, the proposition that the writer wants readers to accept.

Effective writing must be clear, concise and free of grammatical and typographical errors.

A good essay interprets evidence - the information or data from historical sources.  

History essays document their sources by means of footnotes, endnotes or attributions in the text.  Readers need to know where your evidence comes from.

Historical essays must analyze and not simply describe a topic.  They should include original interpretations of the author and should not simply rehash the thoughts of others. 

Revising is an essential element of good writing.  Revisions should focus on organization, content, argument, clarity of expression, grammar and proper word choice.

Appropriate Types of Evidence & Support

Writing about history requires the use of both primary and secondary sources.  A primary source is evidence created in the time period under investigation.  Primary sources may be written, oral, visual, or physical.  Secondary sources are written by historians and use evidence to interpret a past event or time period.  Secondary sources may include monographs, biographies, and scholarly articles.  These types of sources have been peer reviewed and should be considered reputable.  

Internet sources must be used with care.  Do not assume that the information is reliable simply because it is accessible.

Citation Conventions

Historians typically follow the Chicago Manual of Style.  Please consult individual instructors to determine the precise form preferred in a particular course.

Special Comments

In upper-division history courses, students will be asked to evaluate and not simply identify historical interpretations.  Evaluating historical interpretations is NOT a subjective assessment of whether or not a student finds a book "a good read."  It is not sufficient to state that a book is "interesting," "good" or "boring."  Instead, the merits or limitations of a particular argument need to be evaluated.  

When writing about a particular historian or historical person, it is not appropriate to refer to the individual by his or her first name.  For the first reference, use the individual's full name and for all subsequent references, the last name alone should be used.  For instance:  "In Reconstruction, Eric Foner argues that ...."

A common problem in student writing is the misidentification of historical works as "novels."  Novels are fictional, most historical works assigned in universities are non-fiction. Please do not confuse the two.

References and Resources

There are a number of works that focus on historical writing.  See for example, Michael J. Galgano et al.Doing History: Research and Writing in the Digital Age (2008)

A number of databases are available through the SVSU library to help students locate scholarly articles.  See Project Muse, JStor, ProQuest, & America: History & Life.

See also Writing in Your Major @ 
See "Handouts - Writing in Your Major":
           - Document-Based Essay
           - Research Paper 

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