Supplemental Guide to Writing Research Papers

Students writing research papers in the Department of History should start with the Basic Guide to Writing Research Papers (a shortened version of an earlier Department Guide) for questions of format and style. However, there are questions and preferences that are often particular to a specific professor and are not addressed in the Basic Guide. This document is my attempt to address shortcomings which regularly appear in the research papers turned in for my upper division and graduate courses. It will be amended as needed.

Here then, in no particular order, are things to keep in mind when writing papers.

  • Research papers should contain a clearly identified organizing thesis. It is not enough to merely track down the facts and present them. A thesis does not have to be extraordinarily complicated -- sometimes a simple thesis is best -- but it does have to be there. Present your thesis in your introduction (which is often the last thing you write) and then make sure that the rest of your argument fits. It's not a bad idea to periodically refer back to the thesis during the course of your argument. In your conclusion, show how the body of your paper worked to prove your thesis.
  • Range broadly in your search for source materials. Often, students get so engrossed in their topic that they fail to establish a broad research base. Just because you have tracked down a substantial body of relevant primary material does not mean that your paper has a complete bibliography. What is often missing is the supporting secondary literature to show that you haven't written your paper in a vacuum and that you understand the basic historical issues connected to your topic.
  • Be creative in building both a primary and secondary bibliography. Many students limit themselves to materials on the immediate topic at hand. That should not be the case. For example, if you were writing a paper on Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, you could easily include broader works about Progressivism, diaries, letters, or memoirs of prominent public figures, and monographs/journal articles about larger issues of the time like the environment, labor, or specific reforms.
  • Block quotations should be indented one half inch on the left margin, but never on the right margin. They should also be used sparingly -- you're usually better off putting the idea into your own words or using smaller segments of the quotation. Any quotation longer than five lines should be put into a block.
  • Avoid short paragraphs that are only two or three sentences in length. In some cases this works well for effect, but more often than not it makes your writing sound choppy.
  • When citing letters from personal paper collections (both published and unpublished), specific documents reprinted in books, or any similar source, provide specific information that lets your reader know what the material is. For example, when citing a letter, include the name of the writer, the name of the recipient, and the date of the letter. It's not enough to give only the page number from a published source-- your reader has no sense of what it all means.
  • Bibliographies can be organized any number of ways, but I think it is easier for a reader to evaluate the depth of your research if you split it into primary and secondary sources, and then into government documents, diaries & memoirs, books, articles, theses, etc.
  • Be careful when using phrases like "many scholars agree..." or "Historians argue...." If you do, then be prepared to show the reader who those "many scholars" or "historians" are in your notes.
  • When using shortened footnote form after the first full citation, include the author's last name, a shortened version of the title, and the page number.
  • Be very careful about drawing conclusions based entirely on one source. There are times when you have to work with what is available, but all sources have their biases. Events rarely happen in a vacuum and relying on one type of record is dangerous, potentially ignoring the complexities of any given topic. In drawing significant conclusions, augment your notes with other sources if possible.
  • When writing your paper, never place all of your faith in one source for an extended period of time. You need to integrate multiple sources into your narrative and notes. Everyone has their biases and flaws, so you need to rely on multiple sources to get as balanced of a perspective as possible.
  • Context is critical both in setting the stage for your paper and in presenting your arguments. If you can't tie what you are writing in to the big picture, then you have not fully succeeded in explaining the importance of your topic. This applies to both your narrative and your sources.
  • Graduate-level papers DO NOT contain basic grammatical or spelling errors of any kind, nor do undergraduate papers that expect to earn a high grade!
  • When you refer to little-known events, you should provide some explanation, either in your narrative or in the accompanying footnote.
  • Be careful about the extent to which you use block quotations in your paper. They should be reserved for situations where every nuance of the passage is needed to provide impact for your narrative. In my experience, the essence of most quotations can be woven into your existing narrative. The end result is a much easier flowing paper.
  • Make sure that your sentence constructions are logical and flow well. The natural tendency is to string clauses together without really crafting them into good solid sentences. Often, what you are writing is not necessarily incorrect from a grammatical standpoint, but it does not have the precision required of a good paper. Agonize over things like word choice and phrasing.
  • There are times where you may find it advantageous to combine some of your endnotes. If you do that, separate each reference with a semi-colon. This is especially true when you cite the same source 2-3 times in one paragraph. Just put one note at the end of the paragraph that refers to all of the relevant pages.
  • Be careful about using web sites in your citations. They are not subject to the peer review process and are thus not as thoroughly evaluated as most of the print sources you are likely to use. That being said, there are a number of very good sources available online that are not otherwise accessible to you. I have compiled two lists, one of digitized sources and one of non-digitized sources, that are good starting points.
  • Be careful about using books that are self-published or produced in-house by an organization.
  • Avoid the repeated use of phrases like "one wonders if..." or "which may have been one reason" or "it is quite probably" when you try and explain your subject. While history is not an exact science and you cannot know everything, you need to make informed judgments based on the evidence. Too much guessing will not take you very far.
  • Once you have established a solid thesis early in your paper, make sure that you reiterate it throughout your narrative. Fixing this problem in a draft does not require a massive rewrite, only the periodic insertion of phrases/sentences in the existing narrative that continually drive your central point home to your reader.
  • Avoid the use of first person (especially "I") in formal papers. Those kinds of sentences should be reworked.
  • Do not include information merely because you have it. In the interest of maintaining your focus for the paper, you have to recognize that there is good material that you may have collected that simply will not make it in to the paper. Sadly, that is one of the curses of primary/archival research: not all of the good stuff makes it into print.