best way to write a history essay

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Writing a history essay.

history essay

An essay is a piece of sustained writing in response to a question, topic or issue. Essays are commonly used for assessing and evaluating student progress in history. History essays test a range of skills including historical understanding, interpretation and analysis, planning, research and writing.

To write an effective essay, students should examine the question, understand its focus and requirements, acquire information and evidence through research, then construct a clear and well-organised response.

Writing a good history essay should be rigorous and challenging, even for stronger students. As with other skills, essay writing develops and improves over time. Each essay you complete helps you become more competent and confident in exercising these skills.

Study the question

This is an obvious tip but one sadly neglected by some students. The first step to writing a good essay, whatever the subject or topic, is to give plenty of thought to the question.

An essay question will set some kind of task or challenge. It might ask you to explain the causes and/or effects of a particular event or situation. It might ask if you agree or disagree with a statement. It might ask you to describe and analyse the causes and/or effects of a particular action or event. Or it might ask you to evaluate the relative significance of a person, group or event.

You should begin by reading the essay question several times. Underline, highlight or annotate keywords or terms in the text of the question. Think about what it requires you to do. Who or what does it want you to concentrate on? Does it state or imply a particular timeframe? What problem or issue does it want you to address?

Begin with a plan

Every essay should begin with a written plan. Start constructing a plan as soon as you have received your essay question and given it some thought.

Prepare for research by brainstorming and jotting down your thoughts and ideas. What are your initial responses or thoughts about the question? What topics, events, people or issues are connected with the question? Do any additional questions or issues flow from the question? What topics or events do you need to learn more about? What historians or sources might be useful?

If you encounter a mental ‘brick wall’ or are uncertain about how to approach the question, don’t hesitate to discuss it with someone else. Consult your teacher, a capable classmate or someone you trust. Bear in mind too that once you start researching, your plan may change as you locate new information.

Start researching

After studying the question and developing an initial plan, start to gather information and evidence.

Most will start by reading an overview of the topic or issue, usually in some reliable secondary sources. This will refresh or build your existing understanding of the topic and provide a basis for further questions or investigation.

Your research should take shape from here, guided by the essay question and your own planning. Identify terms or concepts you do not know and find out what they mean. As you locate information, ask yourself if it is relevant or useful for addressing the question. Be creative with your research , looking in a variety of places.

If you have difficulty locating information, seek advice from your teacher or someone you trust.

Develop a contention

All good history essays have a clear and strong contention. A contention is the main idea or argument of your essay. It serves both as an answer to the question and the focal point of your writing.

Ideally, you should be able to express your contention as a single sentence. For example, the following contention might form the basis of an essay question on the rise of the Nazis:

Q. Why did the Nazi Party win 37 per cent of the vote in July 1932? A. The Nazi Party’s electoral success of 1932 was a result of economic suffering caused by the Great Depression, public dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic’s democratic political system and mainstream parties, and Nazi propaganda that promised a return to traditional social, political and economic values.

An essay using this contention would then go on to explain and justify these statements in greater detail. It will also support the contention with argument and evidence.

At some point in your research, you should begin thinking about a contention for your essay. Remember, you should be able to express it briefly as if addressing the essay question in a single sentence, or summing up in a debate.

Try to frame your contention so that is strong, authoritative and convincing. It should sound like the voice of someone well informed about the subject and confident about their answer.

Plan an essay structure

history essay outline

Once most of your research is complete and you have a strong contention, start jotting down a possible essay structure. This need not be complicated, a few lines or dot points is ample.

Every essay must have an introduction, a body of several paragraphs and a conclusion. Your paragraphs should be well organised and follow a logical sequence.

You can organise paragraphs in two ways: chronologically (covering events or topics in the order they occurred) or thematically (covering events or topics based on their relevance or significance). Every paragraph should be clearly signposted in the topic sentence. 

Once you have finalised a plan for your essay, commence your draft.

Write a compelling introduction

Many consider the introduction to be the most important part of an essay. It is important for several reasons. It is the reader’s first experience of your essay. It is where you first address the question and express your contention. It is also where you lay out or ‘signpost’ the direction your essay will take.

Aim for an introduction that is clear, confident and punchy. Get straight to the point – do not waste time with a rambling or storytelling introduction.

Start by providing a little context, then address the question, articulate your contention and indicate what direction your essay will take.

Write fully formed paragraphs

Many history students fall into the trap of writing short paragraphs, sometimes containing as little as one or two sentences. A good history essay contains paragraphs that are themselves ‘mini-essays’, usually between 100-200 words each.

A paragraph should focus on one topic or issue only – but it should contain a thorough exploration of that topic or issue.

A good paragraph will begin with an effective opening sentence, sometimes called a topic sentence or signposting sentence. This sentence introduces the paragraph topic and briefly explains its significance to the question and your contention. Good paragraphs also contain thorough explanations, some analysis and evidence, and perhaps a quotation or two.

Finish with an effective conclusion

The conclusion is the final paragraph of your essay. A good conclusion should do two things. First, it should reiterate or restate the contention of your essay. Second, it should close off your essay, ideally with a polished ending that is not abrupt or awkward.

One effective way to do this is with a brief summary of ‘what happened next’. For example, an essay discussing Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 might close with a couple of sentences about how he consolidated and strengthened his power in 1934-35.

Your conclusion need not be as long or as developed as your body paragraphs. You should avoid introducing new information or evidence in the conclusion.

Reference and cite your sources

A history essay is only likely to succeed if it is appropriately referenced. Your essay should support its information, ideas and arguments with citations or references to reliable sources.

Referencing not only acknowledges the work of others, but it also gives authority to your writing and provides the teacher or assessor with an insight into your research. More information on referencing a piece of history writing can be found here .

Proofread, edit and seek feedback

Every essay should be proofread, edited and, if necessary, re-drafted before being submitted for assessment. Essays should ideally be completed a few days before their due date, then put aside for a day or two before proofreading.

When proofreading, look first for spelling and grammatical errors, typographical mistakes, incorrect dates or other errors of fact.

Think then about how you can improve the clarity, tone and structure of your essay. Does your essay follow a logical structure or sequence? Is the signposting in your essay clear and effective? Are some sentences too long or ‘rambling’? Do you repeat yourself? Do paragraphs need to be expanded, fine-tuned or strengthened with more evidence? 

Read your essay aloud, either to yourself or another person. Seek feedback and advice from a good writer or someone you trust (they need not have expertise in history, only in effective writing).

More history essay tips

You may also find our page on writing for history to be useful.

Citation information Title: “Writing a history essay” Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn , Steve Thompson Publisher: Alpha History URL: https://alphahistory.com/writing-a-history-essay/ Date published: April 13, 2019 Date updated: December 20, 2022 Date accessed: February 09, 2023 Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use .

Writing a Good History Paper

You may click on the links below to navigate through the topic of your choice:

Top Ten Reasons for Negative Comments on History Papers

Making sure your history paper has substance.

Word and Phrase Usage Problems

Analyzing a historical document, writing a book review, writing a term paper or senior thesis.

(Drawn from a survey of the History Department ) 10. You engage in cheap, anachronistic moralizing .  9. You are sloppy with the chronology .  8. You quote excessively or improperly .  7. You have written a careless “one-draft wonder.” (See revise and proofread)  6. You are vague or have empty, unsupported generalizations .  5. You write too much in the passive voice.  4. You use inappropriate sources .  3. You use evidence uncritically.  2. You are wordy .  1. You have no clear thesis and little analysis.

Get off to a good start.

Avoid pretentious, vapid beginnings. If you are writing a paper on, say, British responses to the rebellion in India in 1857, don't open with a statement like this: “Throughout human history people in all cultures everywhere in the world have engaged in many and long-running conflicts about numerous aspects of government policy and diplomatic issues, which have much interested historians and generated historical theories in many areas.” This is pure garbage, bores the reader, and is a sure sign that you have nothing substantive to say. Get to the point. Here’s a better start: “The rebellion in 1857 compelled the British to rethink their colonial administration in India.” This sentence tells the reader what your paper is actually about and clears the way for you to state your thesis in the rest of the opening paragraph. For example, you might go on to argue that greater British sensitivity to Indian customs was hypocritical.

State a clear thesis.

Whether you are writing an exam essay or a senior thesis, you need to have a thesis. Don’t just repeat the assignment or start writing down everything that you know about the subject. Ask yourself, “What exactly am I trying to prove?” Your thesis is your take on the subject, your perspective, your explanation—that is, the case that you’re going to argue. “Famine struck Ireland in the 1840s” is a true statement, but it is not a thesis. “The English were responsible for famine in Ireland in the 1840s” is a thesis (whether defensible or not is another matter). A good thesis answers an important research question about how or why something happened. (“Who was responsible for the famine in Ireland in the 1840s?”) Once you have laid out your thesis, don’t forget about it. Develop your thesis logically from paragraph to paragraph. Your reader should always know where your argument has come from, where it is now, and where it is going.

Be sure to analyze.

Students are often puzzled when their professors mark them down for summarizing or merely narrating rather than analyzing. What does it mean to analyze? In the narrow sense, to analyze means to break down into parts and to study the interrelationships of those parts. If you analyze water, you break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. In a broader sense, historical analysis explains the origins and significance of events. Historical analysis digs beneath the surface to see relationships or distinctions that are not immediately obvious. Historical analysis is critical; it evaluates sources, assigns significance to causes, and weighs competing explanations. Don’t push the distinction too far, but you might think of summary and analysis this way: Who, what, when, and where are the stuff of summary; how, why, and to what effect are the stuff of analysis. Many students think that they have to give a long summary (to show the professor that they know the facts) before they get to their analysis. Try instead to begin your analysis as soon as possible, sometimes without any summary at all. The facts will “shine through” a good analysis. You can't do an analysis unless you know the facts, but you can summarize the facts without being able to do an analysis. Summary is easier and less sophisticated than analysis—that’s why summary alone never earns an “A.”

Use evidence critically.

Like good detectives, historians are critical of their sources and cross-check them for reliability. You wouldn't think much of a detective who relied solely on a suspect’s archenemy to check an alibi. Likewise, you wouldn't think much of a historian who relied solely on the French to explain the origins of World War I. Consider the following two statements on the origin of World War I: 1) “For the catastrophe of 1914 the Germans are responsible. Only a professional liar would deny this...” 2) “It is not true that Germany is guilty of having caused this war. Neither the people, the government, nor the Kaiser wanted war....”  They can’t both be right, so you have to do some detective work. As always, the best approach is to ask: Who wrote the source? Why? When? Under what circumstances? For whom? The first statement comes from a book by the French politician Georges Clemenceau, which he wrote in 1929 at the very end of his life. In 1871, Clemenceau had vowed revenge against Germany for its defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. As premier of France from 1917 to 1920, he represented France at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He was obviously not a disinterested observer. The second statement comes from a manifesto published by ninety-three prominent German intellectuals in the fall of 1914. They were defending Germany against charges of aggression and brutality. They too were obviously not disinterested observers. Now, rarely do you encounter such extreme bias and passionate disagreement, but the principle of criticizing and cross-checking sources always applies. In general, the more sources you can use, and the more varied they are, the more likely you are to make a sound historical judgment, especially when passions and self-interests are engaged. You don’t need to be cynical as a historian (self-interest does not explain everything), but you do need to be critical and skeptical. Competent historians may offer different interpretations of the same evidence or choose to stress different evidence. You will not find a single historical Truth with a capital “T” on any matter of significance. You can, however, learn to discriminate among conflicting interpretations, not all of which are created equal. (See also: Analyzing a Historical Document )

Be precise.

Vague statements and empty generalizations suggest that you haven't put in the time to learn the material. Consider these two sentences: “During the French Revolution, the government was overthrown by the people. The Revolution is important because it shows that people need freedom.” What people? Landless peasants? Urban journeymen? Wealthy lawyers? Which government? When? How? Who exactly needed freedom, and what did they mean by freedom? Here is a more precise statement about the French Revolution: “Threatened by rising prices and food shortages in 1793, the Parisian sans-culottes pressured the Convention to institute price controls.” This statement is more limited than the grandiose generalizations about the Revolution, but unlike them, it can open the door to a real analysis of the Revolution. Be careful when you use grand abstractions like people, society, freedom, and government, especially when you further distance yourself from the concrete by using these words as the apparent antecedents for the pronouns they and it. Always pay attention to cause and effect. Abstractions do not cause or need anything; particular people or particular groups of people cause or need things. Avoid grandiose trans-historical generalizations that you can’t support. When in doubt about the appropriate level of precision or detail, err on the side of adding “too much” precision and detail.

Watch the chronology.

Anchor your thesis in a clear chronological framework and don't jump around confusingly. Take care to avoid both anachronisms and vagueness about dates. If you write, “Napoleon abandoned his Grand Army in Russia and caught the redeye back to Paris,” the problem is obvious. If you write, “Despite the Watergate scandal, Nixon easily won reelection in 1972,” the problem is more subtle, but still serious. (The scandal did not become public until after the election.) If you write, “The revolution in China finally succeeded in the twentieth century,” your professor may suspect that you haven’t studied. Which revolution? When in the twentieth century? Remember that chronology is the backbone of history. What would you think of a biographer who wrote that you graduated from Hamilton in the 1950s?

Cite sources carefully.

Your professor may allow parenthetical citations in a short paper with one or two sources, but you should use footnotes for any research paper in history. Parenthetical citations are unaesthetic; they scar the text and break the flow of reading. Worse still, they are simply inadequate to capture the richness of historical sources. Historians take justifiable pride in the immense variety of their sources. Parenthetical citations such as (Jones 1994) may be fine for most of the social sciences and humanities, where the source base is usually limited to recent books and articles in English. Historians, however, need the flexibility of the full footnote. Try to imagine this typical footnote (pulled at random from a classic work of German history) squeezed into parentheses in the body of the text: DZA Potsdam, RdI, Frieden 5, Erzgebiet von Longwy-Briey, Bd. I, Nr. 19305, gedruckte Denkschrift für OHL und Reichsleitung, Dezember 1917, und in RWA, Frieden Frankreich Nr. 1883. The abbreviations are already in this footnote; its information cannot be further reduced. For footnotes and bibliography, historians usually use Chicago style. (The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.) On the Writing Center’s website you can find a useful summary of Chicago citation style prepared by a former history major, Elizabeth Rabe ’04 ( Footnotes ). RefWorks (on the library’s website) will convert your citations to Chicago style. Don’t hesitate to ask one of the reference librarians for help if you have trouble getting started on RefWorks.

Use primary sources.

Use as many primary sources as possible in your paper. A primary source is one produced by a participant in or witness of the events you are writing about. A primary source allows the historian to see the past through the eyes of direct participants. Some common primary sources are letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, church records, newspaper articles, and government documents of all kinds. The capacious genre “government records” is probably the single richest trove for the historian and includes everything from criminal court records, to tax lists, to census data, to parliamentary debates, to international treaties—indeed, any records generated by governments. If you’re writing about culture, primary sources may include works of art or literature, as well as philosophical tracts or scientific treatises—anything that comes under the broad rubric of culture. Not all primary sources are written. Buildings, monuments, clothes, home furnishings, photographs, religious relics, musical recordings, or oral reminiscences can all be primary sources if you use them as historical clues. The interests of historians are so broad that virtually anything can be a primary source. (See also: Analyzing a Historical Document )

Use scholarly secondary sources.

A secondary source is one written by a later historian who had no part in what he or she is writing about. (In the rare cases when the historian was a participant in the events, then the work—or at least part of it—is a primary source.) Historians read secondary sources to learn about how scholars have interpreted the past. Just as you must be critical of primary sources, so too you must be critical of secondary sources. You must be especially careful to distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly secondary sources. Unlike, say, nuclear physics, history attracts many amateurs. Books and articles about war, great individuals, and everyday material life dominate popular history. Some professional historians disparage popular history and may even discourage their colleagues from trying their hand at it. You need not share their snobbishness; some popular history is excellent. But—and this is a big but—as a rule, you should avoid popular works in your research, because they are usually not scholarly. Popular history seeks to inform and entertain a large general audience. In popular history, dramatic storytelling often prevails over analysis, style over substance, simplicity over complexity, and grand generalization over careful qualification. Popular history is usually based largely or exclusively on secondary sources. Strictly speaking, most popular histories might better be called tertiary, not secondary, sources. Scholarly history, in contrast, seeks to discover new knowledge or to reinterpret existing knowledge. Good scholars wish to write clearly and simply, and they may spin a compelling yarn, but they do not shun depth, analysis, complexity, or qualification. Scholarly history draws on as many primary sources as practical. Now, your goal as a student is to come as close as possible to the scholarly ideal, so you need to develop a nose for distinguishing the scholarly from the non-scholarly. Here are a few questions you might ask of your secondary sources (bear in mind that the popular/scholarly distinction is not absolute, and that some scholarly work may be poor scholarship). Who is the author? Most scholarly works are written by professional historians (usually professors) who have advanced training in the area they are writing about. If the author is a journalist or someone with no special historical training, be careful. Who publishes the work? Scholarly books come from university presses and from a handful of commercial presses (for example, Norton, Routledge, Palgrave, Penguin, Rowman & Littlefield, Knopf, and HarperCollins). If it’s an article, where does it appear? Is it in a journal subscribed to by our library, listed on JSTOR , or published by a university press? Is the editorial board staffed by professors? Oddly enough, the word journal in the title is usually a sign that the periodical is scholarly. What do the notes and bibliography look like? If they are thin or nonexistent, be careful. If they are all secondary sources, be careful. If the work is about a non-English-speaking area, and all the sources are in English, then it's almost by definition not scholarly. Can you find reviews of the book in the data base Academic Search Premier? If the book was published within the last few decades, and it’s not in there, that’s a bad sign. With a little practice, you can develop confidence in your judgment—and you’re on your way to being a historian. If you are unsure whether a work qualifies as scholarly, ask your professor. (See also: Writing a Book Review )

Avoid abusing your sources.

Many potentially valuable sources are easy to abuse. Be especially alert for these five abuses: Web abuse. The Web is a wonderful and improving resource for indexes and catalogs. But as a source for primary and secondary material for the historian, the Web is of limited value. Anyone with the right software can post something on the Web without having to get past trained editors, peer reviewers, or librarians. As a result, there is a great deal of garbage on the Web. If you use a primary source from the Web, make sure that a respected intellectual institution stands behind the site. Be especially wary of secondary articles on the Web, unless they appear in electronic versions of established print journals (e.g., The Journal of Asian Studies in JSTOR). Many articles on the Web are little more than third-rate encyclopedia entries. When in doubt, check with your professor. With a few rare exceptions, you will not find scholarly monographs in history (even recent ones) on the Web. You may have heard of Google’s plans to digitize the entire collections of some of the world’s major libraries and to make those collections available on the Web. Don’t hold your breath. Your days at Hamilton will be long over by the time the project is finished. Besides, your training as a historian should give you a healthy skepticism of the giddy claims of technophiles. Most of the time and effort of doing history goes into reading, note-taking, pondering, and writing. Finding a chapter of a book on the Web (as opposed to getting the physical book through interlibrary loan) might be a convenience, but it doesn’t change the basics for the historian. Moreover, there is a subtle, but serious, drawback with digitized old books: They break the historian’s sensual link to the past. And of course, virtually none of the literally trillions of pages of archival material is available on the Web. For the foreseeable future, the library and the archive will remain the natural habitats of the historian. Thesaurus abuse. How tempting it is to ask your computer’s thesaurus to suggest a more erudite-sounding word for the common one that popped into your mind! Resist the temptation. Consider this example (admittedly, a bit heavy-handed, but it drives the point home): You’re writing about the EPA’s programs to clean up impure water supplies. Impure seems too simple and boring a word, so you bring up your thesaurus, which offers you everything from incontinent to meretricious. “How about meretricious water?” you think to yourself. “That will impress the professor.” The problem is that you don’t know exactly what meretricious means, so you don’t realize that meretricious is absurdly inappropriate in this context and makes you look foolish and immature. Use only those words that come to you naturally. Don’t try to write beyond your vocabulary. Don’t try to impress with big words. Use a thesaurus only for those annoying tip-of-the-tongue problems (you know the word and will recognize it instantly when you see it, but at the moment you just can’t think of it).  Quotation book abuse. This is similar to thesaurus abuse. Let’s say you are writing a paper on Alexander Hamilton’s banking policies, and you want to get off to a snappy start that will make you seem effortlessly learned. How about a quotation on money? You click on the index of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations , and before you know it, you’ve begun your paper with, “As Samuel Butler wrote in Hudibras ,  ‘For what is worth in anything/ But so much money as ’t will bring?’” Face it, you’re faking it. You don’t know who Samuel Butler is, and you’ve certainly never heard of Hudibras , let alone read it. Your professor is not fooled. You sound like an insecure after-dinner speaker. Forget Bartlett’s, unless you're confirming the wording of a quotation that came to you spontaneously and relates to your paper.  Encyclopedia abuse. General encyclopedias like Britannica are useful for checking facts (“Wait a sec, am I right about which countries sent troops to crush the Boxer Rebellion in China? Better check.”). But if you are footnoting encyclopedias in your papers, you are not doing college-level research.

Dictionary Abuse. The dictionary is your friend. Keep it by your side as you write, but do not abuse it by starting papers with a definition. You may be most tempted to start this way when you are writing on a complex, controversial, or elusive subject. (“According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary , liberalism is defined as...”). Actually, the dictionary does you little good in such cases and makes you sound like a conscientious but dull high-school student. Save in the rare case that competing dictionary definitions are the subject at hand, keep dictionary quotations out of your paper.

Quote sparingly

Avoid quoting a secondary source and then simply rewording or summarizing the quotation, either above or below the quotation. It is rarely necessary to quote secondary sources at length, unless your essay focuses on a critical analysis of the author’s argument. (See also: Writing a Book Review ) Your professor wants to see your ability to analyze and to understand the secondary sources. Do not quote unless the quotation clarifies or enriches your analysis. When in doubt, do not quote; instead, integrate the author’s argument into your own (though be sure to acknowledge ideas from your sources, even when you are paraphrasing). If you use a lot of quotations from secondary sources, you are probably writing a poor paper. An analysis of a primary source, such as a political tract or philosophical essay, might require lengthy quotations, often in block format. In such cases, you might need to briefly repeat key points or passages as a means to introduce the author’s ideas, but your analysis and interpretation of the text’s meaning should remain the most important aim. (See also: Using primary sources and Use scholarly secondary sources .)

Know your audience

Unless instructed otherwise, you should assume that your audience consists of educated, intelligent, nonspecialists. In fact, your professor will usually be your only reader, but if you write directly to your professor, you may become cryptic or sloppy (oh well, she’ll know what I’m talking about). Explaining your ideas to someone who doesn't know what you mean forces you to be clear and complete. Now, finding the right amount of detail can, admittedly, be tricky (how much do I put in about the Edict of Nantes, the Embargo Act, or President Wilson’s background?). When in doubt, err on the side of putting in extra details. You’ll get some leeway here if you avoid the extremes (my reader’s an ignoramus/my reader knows everything).

Avoid cheap, anachronistic moralizing

Many of the people and institutions of the past appear unenlightened, ignorant, misguided, or bigoted by today’s values. Resist the temptation to condemn or to get self-righteous. (“Martin Luther was blind to the sexism and class prejudice of sixteenth-century German society.”) Like you, people in the past were creatures of their time; like you, they deserve to be judged by the standards of their time. If you judge the past by today’s standards (an error historians call “presentism”), you will never understand why people thought or acted as they did. Yes, Hitler was a bad guy, but he was bad not only by today’s standards, but also by the commonly accepted standards of his own time. Someday you’re going to look pretty foolish and ignorant yourself. (“Early twenty-first century Hamilton students failed to see the shocking inderdosherism [that’s right, you don’t recognize the concept because it doesn’t yet exist] implicit in their career plans.”)

Have a strong conclusion

Obviously, you should not just stop abruptly as though you have run out of time or ideas. Your conclusion should conclude something. If you merely restate briefly what you have said in your paper, you give the impression that you are unsure of the significance of what you have written. A weak conclusion leaves the reader unsatisfied and bewildered, wondering why your paper was worth reading. A strong conclusion adds something to what you said in your introduction. A strong conclusion explains the importance and significance of what you have written. A strong conclusion leaves your reader caring about what you have said and pondering the larger implications of your thesis. Don’t leave your reader asking, “So what?”

Revise and proofread

Your professor can spot a “one-draft wonder,” so don't try to do your paper at the last moment. Leave plenty of time for revising and proofreading. Show your draft to a writing tutor or other good writer. Reading the draft aloud may also help. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and a few may slip through no matter how meticulous you are. But beware of lots of mistakes. The failure to proofread carefully suggests that you devoted little time and effort to the assignment. Tip: Proofread your text both on the screen and on a printed copy. Your eyes see the two differently. Don’t rely on your spell checker to catch all of your misspellings. (If ewe ken reed this ewe kin sea that a computer wood nut all ways help ewe spill or rite reel good.)

Common Marginal Remarks on Style, Clarity, Grammar, and Syntax

Note: The Writing Center suggests standard abbreviations for noting some of these problems. You should familiarize yourself with those abbreviations, but your professor may not use them.  

Remarks on Style and Clarity

Wordy/verbose/repetitive..

Try your hand at fixing this sentence: “Due to the fact that these aspects of the issue of personal survival have been raised by recently transpired problematic conflicts, it is at the present time paramount that the ultimate psychological end of suicide be contemplated by this individual.” If you get it down to “To be or not to be, that is the question,” you’ve done well. You may not match Shakespeare, but you can learn to cut the fat out of your prose. The chances are that the five pages you’ve written for your history paper do not really contain five pages’ worth of ideas.

Misuse of the passive voice.

Write in the active voice. The passive voice encourages vagueness and dullness; it enfeebles verbs; and it conceals agency, which is the very stuff of history. You know all of this almost instinctively. What would you think of a lover who sighed in your ear, “My darling, you are loved by me!”? At its worst, the passive voice—like its kin, bureaucratic language and jargon—is a medium for the dishonesty and evasion of responsibility that pervade contemporary American culture. (“Mistakes were made; I was given false information.” Now notice the difference: “I screwed up; Smith and Jones lied to me; I neglected to check the facts.”) On history papers the passive voice usually signals a less toxic version of the same unwillingness to take charge, to commit yourself, and to say forthrightly what is really going on, and who is doing what to whom. Suppose you write, “In 1935 Ethiopia was invaded.” This sentence is a disaster. Who invaded? Your professor will assume that you don't know. Adding “by Italy” to the end of the sentence helps a bit, but the sentence is still flat and misleading. Italy was an aggressive actor, and your passive construction conceals that salient fact by putting the actor in the syntactically weakest position—at the end of the sentence as the object of a preposition. Notice how you add vigor and clarity to the sentence when you recast it in the active voice: "In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia." I n a few cases , you may violate the no-passive-voice rule. The passive voice may be preferable if the agent is either obvious (“Kennedy was elected in 1960”), irrelevant (“Theodore Roosevelt became president when McKinley was assassinated”), or unknown (“King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings”). Note that in all three of these sample sentences the passive voice focuses the reader on the receiver of the action rather than on the doer (on Kennedy, not on American voters; on McKinley, not on his assassin; on King Harold, not on the unknown Norman archer). Historians usually wish to focus on the doer, so you should stay with the active voice—unless you can make a compelling case for an exception.

Abuse of the verb to be.

The verb to be is the most common and most important verb in English, but too many verbs to be suck the life out of your prose and lead to wordiness. Enliven your prose with as many action verbs as possible. ( “In Brown v. Board of Education it was the opinion of the Supreme Court that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”) Rewrite as “ In Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ violated the Fourteenth ”

Explain/what’s your point?/unclear/huh?

You may (or may not) know what you’re talking about, but if you see these marginal comments, you have confused your reader. You may have introduced a non sequitur ; gotten off the subject; drifted into abstraction; assumed something that you have not told the reader; failed to explain how the material relates to your argument; garbled your syntax; or simply failed to proofread carefully.  If possible, have a good writer read your paper and point out the muddled parts. Reading your paper aloud may help too.

Paragraph goes nowhere/has no point or unity.

Paragraphs are the building blocks of your paper. If your paragraphs are weak, your paper cannot be strong. Try underlining the topic sentence of every paragraph. If your topic sentences are vague, strength and precision—the hallmarks of good writing—are unlikely to follow. Consider this topic sentence (from a paper on Ivan the Terrible): “From 1538 to 1547, there are many different arguments about the nature of what happened.”  Disaster looms. The reader has no way of knowing when the arguing takes place, who’s arguing, or even what the arguing is about. And how does the “nature of what happened” differ from plain “what happened”? Perhaps the writer means the following: “The childhood of Ivan the Terrible has provoked controversy among scholars of Russian history.” That's hardly deathless prose, but it does orient the reader and make the writer accountable for what follows in the paragraph. Once you have a good topic sentence, make sure that everything in the paragraph supports that sentence, and that cumulatively the support is persuasive. Make sure that each sentence follows logically from the previous one, adding detail in a coherent order. Move, delete, or add material as appropriate. To avoid confusing the reader, limit each paragraph to one central idea. (If you have a series of supporting points starting with first, you must follow with a second, third , etc.) A paragraph that runs more than a printed page is probably too long. Err on the side of shorter paragraphs.

Inappropriate use of first person.

Most historians write in the third person, which focuses the reader on the subject. If you write in the first person singular, you shift the focus to yourself. You give the impression that you want to break in and say, “Enough about the Haitian revolution [or whatever], now let’s talk about me!” Also avoid the first person plural (“We believe...”). It suggests committees, editorial boards, or royalty. None of those should have had a hand in writing your paper. And don’t refer to yourself lamely as “this writer.” Who else could possibly be writing the paper?

Tense inconsistency.

Stay consistently in the past tense when you are writing about what took place in the past. (“Truman’s defeat of Dewey in 1948 caught the pollsters by surprise.”) Note that the context may require a shift into the past perfect. (“The pollsters had not realized [past perfect] that voter opinion had been [past perfect] changing rapidly in the days before the election.”) Unfortunately, the tense problem can get a bit more complicated. Most historians shift into the present tense when describing or commenting on a book, document, or evidence that still exists and is in front of them (or in their mind) as they write.  (“de Beauvoir published [past tense] The Second Sex in 1949. In the book she contends [present tense] that woman....”) If you’re confused, think of it this way: History is about the past, so historians write in the past tense, unless they are discussing effects of the past that still exist and thus are in the present. When in doubt, use the past tense and stay consistent.

Ill-fitted quotation.

This is a common problem, though not noted in stylebooks. When you quote someone, make sure that the quotation fits grammatically into your sentence.  Note carefully the mismatch between the start of the following sentence and the quotation that follows:  “In order to understand the Vikings, writes Marc Bloch, it is necessary, ‘To conceive of the Viking expeditions as religious warfare inspired by the ardour of an implacable pagan fanaticism—an explanation that has sometimes been at least suggested—conflicts too much with what we know of minds disposed to respect magic of every kind.’” At first, the transition into the quotation from Bloch seems fine. The infinitive (to conceive) fits. But then the reader comes to the verb (conflicts) in Bloch’s sentence, and things no longer make sense. The writer is saying, in effect, “it is necessary conflicts.” The wordy lead-in and the complex syntax of the quotation have tripped the writer and confused the reader. If you wish to use the whole sentence, rewrite as “Marc Bloch writes in Feudal Society , ‘To conceive of...’” Better yet, use your own words or only part of the quotation in your sentence. Remember that good writers quote infrequently, but when they do need to quote, they use carefully phrased lead-ins that fit the grammatical construction of the quotation.

Free-floating quotation.

Do not suddenly drop quotations into your prose. (“The spirit of the Progressive era is best understood if one remembers that the United States is ‘the only country in the world that began with perfection and aspired to progress.’”) You have probably chosen the quotation because it is finely wrought and says exactly what you want to say. Fine, but first you inconvenience the reader, who must go to the footnote to learn that the quotation comes from The Age of Reform by historian Richard Hofstadter. And then you puzzle the reader. Did Hofstadter write the line about perfection and progress, or is he quoting someone from the Progressive era? If, as you claim, you are going to help the reader to judge the “spirit of the Progressive era,” you need to clarify. Rewrite as “As historian Richard Hofstadter writes in the Age of Reform , the United States is ‘the only country in the world...’” Now the reader knows immediately that the line is Hofstadter’s.

Who’s speaking here?/your view?

Always be clear about whether you’re giving your opinion or that of the author or historical actor you are discussing. Let’s say that your essay is about Martin Luther’s social views. You write, “The German peasants who revolted in 1525 were brutes and deserved to be crushed mercilessly.” That’s what Luther thought, but do you agree?  You may know, but your reader is not a mind reader. When in doubt, err on the side of being overly clear.

Jargon/pretentious theory.

Historians value plain English. Academic jargon and pretentious theory will make your prose turgid, ridiculous, and downright irritating. Your professor will suspect that you are trying to conceal that you have little to say. Of course, historians can’t get along without some theory; even those who profess to have no theory actually do—it’s called naïve realism. And sometimes you need a technical term, be it ontological argument or ecological fallacy. When you use theory or technical terms, make sure that they are intelligible and do real intellectual lifting.  Please, no sentences like this: “By means of a neo-Althusserian, post-feminist hermeneutics, this essay will de/construct the logo/phallo/centrism imbricated in the marginalizing post-colonial gendered gaze, thereby proliferating the subjectivities that will re/present the de/stabilization of the essentializing habitus of post-Fordist capitalism.”

Informal language/slang.

You don’t need to be stuffy, but stay with formal English prose of the kind that will still be comprehensible to future generations. Columbus did not “push the envelope in the Atlantic.” Henry VIII was not “looking for his inner child when he broke with the Church.” Prime Minister Cavour of Piedmont was not “trying to play in the major leagues diplomatic wise.” Wilson did not “almost veg out” at the end of his second term. President Hindenburg did not appoint Hitler in a “senior moment.” Prime Minister Chamberlain did not tell the Czechs to “chill out” after the Munich Conference, and Gandhi was not an “awesome dude.”

Try to keep your prose fresh. Avoid cliches. When you proofread, watch out for sentences like these: “Voltaire always gave 110 percent and thought outside the box. His bottom line was that as people went forward into the future, they would, at the end of the day, step up to the plate and realize that the Jesuits were conniving perverts.” Ugh. Rewrite as “Voltaire tried to persuade people that the Jesuits were cony, step up to the plate and realize that the Jesuits were conniving perverts.” Ugh. Rewrite as “Voltaire tried to persuade people that the Jesuits were conniving perverts.”

Intensifier abuse/exaggeration.

Avoid inflating your prose with unsustainable claims of size, importance, uniqueness, certainty, or intensity. Such claims mark you as an inexperienced writer trying to impress the reader. Your statement is probably not certain ; your subject probably not unique , the biggest, the best, or the most important. Also, the adverb very will rarely strengthen your sentence. Strike it. (“President Truman was very determined to stop the spread of communism in Greece.”) Rewrite as “President Truman resolved to stop the spread of communism in Greece.”

Mixed image.

Once you have chosen an image, you must stay with language compatible with that image. In the following example, note that the chain, the boiling, and the igniting are all incompatible with the image of the cold, rolling, enlarging snowball: “A snowballing chain of events boiled over, igniting the powder keg of war in 1914.” Well chosen images can enliven your prose, but if you catch yourself mixing images a lot, you're probably trying to write beyond your ability. Pull back. Be more literal.

Clumsy transition.

If your reader feels a jolt or gets disoriented at the beginning of a new paragraph, your paper probably lacks unity. In a good paper, each paragraph is woven seamlessly into the next. If you find yourself beginning your paragraphs with phrases such as “Another aspect of this problem...,” then you are probably “stacking note cards” rather than developing a thesis.

Unnecessary relative clause.

If you don’t need to restrict the meaning of your sentence’s subject, then don’t. (“Napoleon was a man who tried to conquer Europe.”) Here the relative clause adds nothing. Rewrite as “Napoleon tried to conquer Europe.” Unnecessary relative clauses are a classic form of wordiness.

Distancing or demeaning quotation marks.

If you believe that a frequently used word or phrase distorts historical reality, don’t put it in dismissive, sneering quotation marks to make your point (“the communist ‘threat’ to the ‘free’ world during the Cold War”). Many readers find this practice arrogant, obnoxious, and precious, and they may dismiss your arguments out of hand. If you believe that the communist threat was bogus or exaggerated, or that the free world was not really free, then simply explain what you mean.

Remarks on Grammar and Syntax

Ideally, your professor will help you to improve your writing by specifying exactly what is wrong with a particular passage, but  sometimes you may find a simple awk in the margin. This all-purpose negative comment usually suggests that the sentence is clumsy because you have misused words or compounded several errors. Consider this sentence from a book review:

“However, many falsehoods lie in Goldhagen’s claims and these will be explored.”

What is your long-suffering professor to do with this sentence? The however contributes nothing; the phrase falsehoods lie is an unintended pun that distracts the reader; the comma is missing between the independent clauses; the these has no clear antecedent ( falsehoods? claims? ); the second clause is in the passive voice and contributes nothing anyway; the whole sentence is wordy and screams hasty, last-minute composition. In weary frustration, your professor scrawls awk in the margin and moves on. Buried under the twelve-word sentence lies a three-word idea: “Goldhagen often errs.” When you see awk, check for the common errors in this list. If you don’t understand what’s wrong, ask.

Unclear antecedent.

All pronouns must refer clearly to antecedents and must agree with them in number. The reader usually assumes that the antecedent is the immediately preceding noun. Do not confuse the reader by having several possible antecedents. Consider these two sentences:

“Pope Gregory VII forced Emperor Henry IV to wait three days in the snow at Canossa before granting him an audience. It was a symbolic act.”

To what does the it refer? Forcing the Emperor to wait? The waiting itself? The granting of the audience? The audience itself? The whole previous sentence? You are most likely to get into antecedent trouble when you begin a paragraph with this or it , referring vaguely back to the general import of the previous paragraph. When in doubt, take this test: Circle the pronoun and the antecedent and connect the two with a line. Then ask yourself if your reader could instantly make the same diagram without your help. If the line is long, or if the circle around the antecedent is large, encompassing huge gobs of text, then your reader probably will be confused.  Rewrite. Repetition is better than ambiguity and confusion.

Faulty parallelism.

You confuse your reader if you change the grammatical construction from one element to the next in a series. Consider this sentence:

“King Frederick the Great sought to expand Prussia, to rationalize agriculture, and that the state support education.”

The reader expects another infinitive, but instead trips over the that . Rewrite the last clause as “and to promote state-supported education.” Sentences using neither/nor frequently present parallelism problems. Note the two parts of this sentence:

“After 1870 the cavalry charge was neither an effective tactic, nor did armies use it frequently.”

The sentence jars because the neither is followed by a noun, the nor by a verb. Keep the parts parallel.

Rewrite as “After 1870 the cavalry charge was neither effective nor frequently used.”

Sentences with not only/but also are another pitfall for many students. (“Mussolini attacked not only liberalism, but he also advocated militarism.”) Here the reader is set up to expect a noun in the second clause, but stumbles over a verb. Make the parts parallel by putting the verb attacked after the not only .

Misplaced modifier/dangling element.

Do not confuse the reader with a phrase or clause that refers illogically or absurdly to other words in the sentence. (“Summarized on the back cover of the American paperback edition, the publishers claim that...”) The publishers are not summarized on the back cover. (“Upon finishing the book, many questions remain.”) Who finished the book? Questions can’t read. Avoid following an introductory participial clause with the expletives it or there . Expletives are by definition filler words; they can’t be agents. (“Having examined the origins of the Meiji Restoration in Japan, it is apparent that...”) Apparent to whom?  The expletive it didn’t do the examining. (“After going on the Long March, there was greater support for the Communists in China.”) Who went on the Long March? There didn’t go on the Long March. Always pay attention to who’s doing what in your sentences.

Run-on sentence.

Run-on sentences string together improperly joined independent clauses. Consider these three sentences:

“Galileo recanted his teaching that the earth moved privately he maintained his convictions.” “Galileo recanted his teaching that the earth moved, privately he maintained his convictions.” “Galileo recanted his teaching that the earth moved, however, privately he maintained his convictions.”

The first fuses two independent clauses with neither a comma nor a coordinating conjunction; the second uses a comma but omits the coordinating conjunction; and the third also omits the coordinating conjunction (however is not a coordinating conjunction). To solve the problem, separate the two clauses with a comma and the coordinating conjunction but. You could also divide the clauses with a semicolon or make separate sentences. Remember that there are only seven coordinating conjunctions ( and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet ).

Sentence fragment.

Write in sentences. A sentence has to have a subject and a predicate. If you string together a lot of words, you may lose control of the syntax and end up with a sentence fragment. Note that the following is not a sentence:

“While in Western Europe railroad building proceeded rapidly in the nineteenth century, and in Russia there was less progress.”

Here you have a long compound introductory clause followed by no subject and no verb, and thus you have a fragment. You may have noticed exceptions to the no-fragments rule. Skilful writers do sometimes intentionally use a fragment to achieve a certain effect. Leave the rule-breaking to the experts.

Confusion of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

Consider these two versions of the same sentence:

1. “World War I, which raged from 1914-1918, killed millions of Europeans.” 2. “World War I that raged from 1914-1918 killed millions of Europeans.”

The first sentence has a nonrestrictive relative clause; the dates are included almost as parenthetical information. But something seems amiss with the second sentence. It has a restrictive relative clause that limits the subject (World War I) to the World War I fought between 1914 and 1918, thus implying that there were other wars called World War I, and that we need to distinguish among them. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the writer of the second sentence appears foolish.  Note carefully the distinction between that (for use in restrictive clauses, with no comma) and which (for use in nonrestrictive clauses, with a comma).

Confusion about who’s doing what.

Remember—history is about what people do, so you need to be vigilant about agency. Proofread your sentences carefully, asking yourself, “Have I said exactly who is doing or thinking what, or have I inadvertently attributed an action or belief to the wrong person or group?” Unfortunately, there are many ways to go wrong here, but faulty punctuation is among the most common. Here’s a sentence about Frantz Fanon, the great critic of European imperialism. Focus on the punctuation and its effect on agency: “Instead of a hierarchy based on class, Fanon suggests the imperialists establish a hierarchy based on race.” As punctuated, the sentence says something absurd: that Fanon is advising the imperialists about the proper kind of hierarchy to establish in the colonies. Surely, the writer meant to say that, in his analysis of imperialism, Fanon distinguishes between two kinds of hierarchy. A comma after suggests fixes the immediate problem. Now look at the revised sentence. It still needs work. Better diction and syntax would sharpen it.  Fanon does not suggest (with connotations of both hinting and advocating); he states outright. What’s more, the comparison of the two kinds of hierarchy gets blurred by too many intervening words. The key point of the sentence is, in effect, “instead of A, we have B.” Clarity demands that B follow A as closely as possible, and that the two elements be grammatically parallel. But between the elements A and B, the writer inserts Fanon (a proper noun), suggests (a verb), imperialists (a noun), and establish (a verb). Try the sentence this way: “Fanon says that the imperialists establish a hierarchy based on race rather than class.” Now the agency is clear: We know what Fanon does, and we know what the imperialists do. Notice that errors and infelicities have a way of clustering. If you find one problem in a sentence, look for others.

Confusion about the objects of prepositions.

Here’s another one of those common problems that does not receive the attention it merits. Discipline your prepositional phrases; make sure you know where they end. Notice the mess in this sentence: “Hitler accused Jewish people of engaging in incest and stating that Vienna was the ‘personification of incest.’” The reader thinks that both engaging and stating are objects of the preposition of. Yet the writer intends only the first to be the object of the preposition. Hitler is accusing the Jews of engaging , but not of stating ; he is the one doing the stating . Rewrite as “Hitler accused the Jews of incest; he stated that Vienna was the ‘personification of incest.’” Note that the wordiness of the original encouraged the syntactical mess. Simplify. It can’t be said too many times: Always pay attention to who’s doing what in your sentences.

Misuse of the comparative.

There are two common problems here. The first might be called the “floating comparative.” You use the comparative, but you don’t say what you are comparing. (“Lincoln was more upset by the dissolution of the union.”) More upset than by what? More upset than who? The other problem, which is more common and takes many forms, is the unintended (and sometimes comical) comparison of unlike elements. Consider these attempts to compare President Clinton to President George H. W. Bush. Often the trouble starts with a possessive:

“President Clinton’s sexual appetite was more voracious than President Bush.”

You mean to compare appetites, but you've forgotten about your possessive, so you absurdly compare an appetite to a man. Rewrite as “more voracious than President Bush’s.” A variation of this problem is the unintended comparison resulting from the omission of a verb:

“President Clinton liked women more than President Bush.”
Re-write as “more than did President Bush.”

A misplaced modifier may also cause comparison trouble: “Unlike the Bush administration, sexual scandal nearly destroyed the Clinton administration.” Rewrite as  “Unlike the Bush administration, the Clinton administration was nearly destroyed by sexual scandal.” Here the passive voice is better than the misplaced modifier, but you could rewrite as “The Bush administration had been free of sexual scandal, which nearly destroyed the Clinton administration.”

Misuse of apostrophe.

Get control of your apostrophes. Use the apostrophe to form singular or plural possessives (Washington’s soldiers; the colonies’ soldiers) or to form contractions (don’t; it’s). Do not use the apostrophe to form plurals. (“The communists [not communists’] defeated the nationalists [not nationalists’] in China.”)

Comma after although.

This is a new error, probably a carryover from the common conversational habit of pausing dramatically after although . ( “Although , coffee consumption rose in eighteenth-century Europe, tea remained far more popular.”) Delete the comma after although . Remember that although is not a synonym for the word however , so you cannot solve the problem in the sentence by putting a period after Europe . A clause beginning with although cannot stand alone as a sentence.

Comma between subject and verb.

This is a strange new error. (“Hitler and Stalin, agreed to a pact in August 1939.”) Delete the comma after Stalin. Finally, two hints: If your word-processing program underlines something and suggests changes, be careful. When it comes to grammar and syntax, your computer is a moron. Not only does it fail to recognize some gross errors, it also falsely identifies some correct passages as errors. Do not cede control of your writing decisions to your computer. Make the suggested changes only if you are positive that they are correct. If you are having trouble with your writing, try simplifying. Write short sentences and read them aloud to test for clarity. Start with the subject and follow it quickly with an active verb. Limit the number of relative clauses, participial phrases, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. You will win no prizes for eloquence, but at least you will be clear. Add complexity only when you have learned to handle it.

An historical/an historian.

The consonant “H” is not silent in historical and historian , so the proper form of the indefinite article is “A.”

Avoid the common solecism of using feel as a synonym for think, believe, say, state, assert, contend, argue, conclude, or write. (“Marx felt that the bourgeoisie exploited the proletariat.” “Emmeline Pankhurst felt that British women should be able to vote.”) The use of feel in these sentences demeans the agents by suggesting undisciplined sentiment rather than carefully formulated conviction. Concentrate on what your historical actors said and did; leave their feelings to speculative chapters of their biographies. As for your own feelings, keep them out of your papers. (“I feel that Lincoln should have freed the slaves earlier.”) Your professor will be delighted that the material engages both your head and your heart, but your feelings cannot be graded. If you believe that Lincoln should have acted earlier, then explain, giving cogent historical reasons.

The fact that.

This is a clumsy, unnecessary construction. ( “The fact that Nixon resigned in disgrace damaged the Republican Party.”) Re-word as “Nixon resigned in disgrace, damaging the Republican Party.” Never use the hideous phrase due to the fact that.

In terms of.

This phrase is filler. Get rid of it. (“Bismarck was a success in terms of uniting Germany.) Rewrite as “Bismarck successfully united Germany.”

Attend carefully to the placement of this limiting word. Note, for example, these three sentences:

“The government only interred Japanese Americans during World War II.” “The government interred only Japanese Americans during World War II.” “The government interred Japanese Americans only during World War II.”

The first limits the action to interring (as opposed to, say, killing); the second limits the group interred (i.e., not Italian Americans); the third limits the time of interring (i.e., not during other wars).

Thus and therefore.

More than likely, you have not earned these words and are implying that you have said more than you actually have. Use them sparingly, only when you are concluding a substantial argument with a significant conclusion.

Misuse of instead.

Instead is an adverb, not a conjunction. Consider this sentence: “Charles Beard argued that the framers of the constitution were not idealists, instead they promoted their economic interests.” Revise as “The framers of the constitution, Charles Beard argued, did not uphold ideals; instead , they promoted their economic interests.” Now the instead appears properly as an adverb. (Note also that the two clauses are now parallel—both contain transitive verbs.)

Essentially and basically.

These are usually either filler words (the written equivalent of “uh” or “um”) or weasel words that merely call attention to your vagueness, lack of conviction, or lazy unwillingness to qualify precisely. (“ Essentially , Churchill believed that Nazi Germany presented a grave danger to Britain.”) Delete essentially and basically unless you are writing about essences or bases.

Both share or both agree.

These are redundant. If two people share or agree , they are both involved by definition. (“Stalin and Mao both agreed that capitalism belonged in the dustbin of history.”) Delete both .

This word means one of a kind. It is an absolute. Something cannot be very unique, more unique, or somewhat unique.

Incredible.

In casual conversation incredible often means extraordinary, astonishing, or impressive (“Yesterday’s storm was incredible.”). To avoid confusion in historical prose, you should stick with the original meaning of incredible : not believable. If you write that “William Jennings Bryan gave incredible speeches,” you’re saying that you don’t believe his speeches, or that his audiences didn’t believe them at the time—in other words, that he appeared to be lying or mistaken. You probably mean that he gave great speeches. If you write that “It’s incredible that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor,” you’re calling into question the very existence of a historical event. You probably mean that the Japanese attack was unwise or reckless. English is rich with adjectives. Finding the best one forces you to think about what you really mean.

As a synonym for subject matter, bone of contention, reservation, or almost anything else vaguely associated with what you are discussing, the word issue has lost its meaning through overuse. (“There were many issues involved with Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb, and some historians have issues with his decision.”) Stop talking about issues and get to the point.

Beware of the word literally . It’s commonly misused, and you almost never need it in historical prose. Literally means actually, factually, exactly, directly, without metaphor. The careful writer would never say, “Roosevelt literally swamped Landon in the election of 1936.” One imagines Roosevelt (in his wheelchair no less!) dumping the hapless Landon off a pier in the Everglades on election night. The swamping was figurative, strictly a figure of speech. The adverb literally may also cause you trouble by falsely generalizing the coverage of your verb. “London was literally destroyed by the blitz.” This suggests that the whole city was destroyed, when, in fact, only parts were destroyed. Rewrite as “The blitz destroyed parts of London.” Now you’ve qualified properly (and gotten rid of the passive).

When you’re tempted to use this word, resist. Like issue , involve tells the reader too little. (“Erasmus was involved in the Renaissance.”) This statement could mean virtually anything. Delete it and discuss specifically what Erasmus said or did.

This is a fine old word with many precise meanings, but as an overused synonym for feature, side, or part, it is usually a sign of insipid prose (“Another aspect of the issues in this area is the fact that...”). Just get directly to the point.

Most good writers frown on the use of this word as a verb.(“Eisenhower’s military background impacted his foreign policy.”) Affected, influenced, or shaped would be better here. Impacted suggests painfully blocked wisdom teeth or feces. Had an impact is better than impacted , but is still awkward because impact implies a collision.

Here is another beloved but vapid word. (“Many factors led to the Reformation.”) Such a sentence usually opens a vague, boring, weaseling paragraph. If you believe (quite reasonably) that the Reformation had many causes, then start evaluating them.

Meaningful.

Overuse has drained the meaning from meaningful . (“Peter the Great took meaningful steps to westernize Russia.”) Just get to the point.

Interesting.

The adjective interesting is vague, overused, and does not earn its keep. (“Burckhardt had an interesting perspective on the Renaissance.”) This sentence is filler. Delete it and explain and analyze his perspective.

The events that transpired.

Your professor will gag on this one. Events take place or happen by definition, so the relative clause is redundant. Furthermore, most good writers do not accept transpire as a synonym for happen. Again, follow the old rule of thumb: Get right to the point, say what happened, and explain its significance. You don’t need any filler about events and transpiring .

The reason is because.

This phrase is awkward and redundant. Replace it with the reason is, or better still, simply delete it and get right to your reason.

For all intensive purposes.

The phrase is for all intents and purposes , and few good writers use it in formal prose anyway.

Take for granite.

This is an illiteracy. The phrase is “ take for granted .”

Should of/could of.

You mean should have or could have .

Center around.

Good writers frown on this phrase because it’s illogical and jarring. Use center on or center in. Attention to a small detail like this indicates that you’re thinking carefully about what you’re saying, so when the big problems confront you, you’ll be disciplined and ready.

Begs the question.

Recently, many people have started to use this phrase to mean raises, invites, or brings up the question. (“Stalin’s purges beg the question of whether he was paranoid.”) Actually, begging the question is the common logical fallacy of assuming your conclusion as part of your argument. (“In the late nineteenth century, many Americans moved to the cities because of urbanization.”) Note that the use of abstractions (e.g., urbanization) encourages begging the question . Understanding this fallacy is central to your education. The formal Latin term, petitio principii, is too fancy to catch on, so you need to preserve the simple English phrase. If something raises a question, just say so.

Historic/historical confusion.

Everything in the past or relating to the past is historical. Resist the media-driven hype that elevates the ordinary to the historic . (“A three-alarm fire last night destroyed the historic site of the first Portuguese-owned dry cleaners in Cleveland.”) Reserve the word historic for the genuinely important events, persons, or objects of the past. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 was indeed historic . Historically , historians have gathered annually for a historical convention; so far, none of the conventions has been historic .

Affect/effect confusion.

The chances are that the verb you want is affect , which means to have an influence on (“The Iranian hostage crisis affected [not effected] the presidential election of 1980”). Effect as a verb means to bring about or cause to exist ( effect change). Effect as a noun means result or consequence (“The effect of the Iranian hostage crisis on the election...”).

While/whereas confusion.

If you’re stressing contrast, the word you want is whereas . While stresses simultaneity. “Hobbes had a dismal view of human nature, whereas [not while] Rousseau believed that man had a natural sense of pity.”

It’s/its confusion.

This is the classic bonehead error. Note that the spell checker won’t help you. And remember— its’ is not a word at all.

Reign/rein confusion.

A queen reigns during her reign. You rein in a horse with reins.

Their/there/they’re confusion.

You do know the difference. Pay attention.

Everyday/every day confusion.

As an adjective, everyday (one word) means routine. If you wish to say that something happened on every successive day, then you need two words, the adjective every and the noun day . Note the difference in these two sentences: “Kant was famous for going on the same constitutional at the same time every day . For Kant, exercise and thinking were everyday activities.”

Refer/allude confusion.

To allude means to refer to indirectly or to hint at. The word you probably want in historical prose is refer , which means to mention or call direct attention to. “In the first sentence of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ Lincoln refers [not alludes ] to the fathers of the nation [he mentions them directly]; he alludes to the ‘Declaration of Independence’ [the document of four score and seven years earlier that comes to the reader’s mind, but that Lincoln doesn’t directly mention].”

Novel/book confusion.

Novel is not a synonym for book. A novel is a long work of fiction in prose. A historical monograph is not a novel —unless the historian is making everything up.

Than/then confusion.

This is an appalling new error. If you are making a comparison, you use the conjunction than . (“President Kennedy’s health was worse than [not then ] the public realized.”)

Lead/led confusion.

The past tense of the verb to lead is led (not lead ). “Sherman led [not lead ] a march to the sea.”

Lose/loose confusion.

The opposite of win is lose , not loose . “Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment suspected that they would lose [not loose ] the battle to amend the constitution.”

However/but confusion.

However may not substitute for the coordinating conjunction but. (“Mussolini began his career as a socialist, but [not however ] he later abandoned socialism for fascism.”) The word however has many proper uses; however , [note the semicolon and comma] graceful writers use it sparingly.

Cite/site/sight confusion.

You cited a source for your paper; ancient Britons sited Stonehenge on a plain; Columbus’s lookout sighted land.

Conscience/conscious confusion.

When you wake up in the morning you are conscious , though your conscience may bother you if you’ve neglected to write your history paper.

Tenet/tenant confusion.

Your religion, ideology, or worldview all have tenets —propositions you hold or believe in. Tenants rent from landlords.

All are not/not all are confusion.

If you write, “ All the colonists did not want to break with Britain in 1776,” the chances are you really mean, “ Not all the colonists wanted to break with Britain in 1776.” The first sentence is a clumsy way of saying that no colonists wanted to break with Britain (and is clearly false). The second sentence says that some colonists did not want to break with Britain (and is clearly true, though you should go on to be more precise).

Nineteenth-century/nineteenth century confusion.

Historians talk a lot about centuries, so you need to know when to hyphenate them. Follow the standard rule: If you combine two words to form a compound adjective, use a hyphen, unless the first word ends in ly. (“ Nineteenth-century [hyphenated] steamships cut the travel time across the Atlantic.”) Leave out the hyphen if you’re just using the ordinal number to modify the noun century. (“In the nineteenth century [no hyphen] steamships cut the travel time across the Atlantic.”) By the way, while you have centuries in mind, don’t forget that the nineteenth century is the 1800s, not the 1900s. The same rule for hyphenating applies to middle-class and middle class —a group that historians like to talk about.

Bourgeois/bourgeoisie confusion.

Bourgeois is usually an adjective, meaning characteristic of the middle class and its values or habits. Occasionally, bourgeois is a noun, meaning a single member of the middle class. Bourgeoisie is a noun, meaning the middle class collectively. (“Marx believed that the bourgeoisie oppressed the proletariat; he argued that bourgeois values like freedom and individualism were hypocritical.”)

Your professor may ask you to analyze a primary document. Here are some questions you might ask of your document. You will note a common theme—read critically with sensitivity to the context. This list is not a suggested outline for a paper; the wording of the assignment and the nature of the document itself should determine your organization and which of the questions are most relevant. Of course, you can ask these same questions of any document you encounter in your research.

Your professor may ask you to write a book review, probably of a scholarly historical monograph. Here are some questions you might ask of the book. Remember that a good review is critical, but critical does not necessarily mean negative. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it a suggested outline. Of course, you can ask these same questions of any secondary historical work, even if you’re not writing a review.

Here are some tips for those long, intimidating term papers or senior theses:

Top Ten Signs that you may be Writing a Weak History Paper

10. You’re overjoyed to find that you can fill the required pages by widening all margins.

9. You haven’t mentioned any facts or cited any sources for several paragraphs.

8. You find yourself using the phrase “throughout history mankind has...”

7. You just pasted in another 100 words of quotations.

6. You haven’t a clue about the content of your next paragraph.

5. You’re constantly clicking on The Britannica, Webster’s, and Bartlett’s.

4. Your writing tutor sneaks another look at her watch as she reminds you for the third time to clarify your thesis.

3. Your main historical actors are this, it, they, the people, and society, and they are all involved with factors, aspects, impacts, and issues.

2. You just realize that you don’t understand the assignment, but it’s 3:00 A.M, the paper is due at 9:00, and you don’t dare call your professor.

1. You’re relieved that the paper counts for only 20 percent of the course grade.

Final Advice

You guessed it — start early.

Studying History at Hamilton

Students will learn to use interdisciplinary methods from the humanities and social sciences to probe the sources of the past for answers to present questions. They will learn to draw comparisons and connections among diverse societies across a range of historical eras. They will further learn to convey their findings through writing that is clearly structured, precise, and persuasive.

Office / Department Name

Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center

Contact Name

Jennifer Ambrose

Writing Center Director

Because Hamilton - Help Change Lives

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How to Write a History Essay

Last Updated: December 27, 2022 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Emily Listmann, MA . Emily Listmann is a private tutor in San Carlos, California. She has worked as a Social Studies Teacher, Curriculum Coordinator, and an SAT Prep Teacher. She received her MA in Education from the Stanford Graduate School of Education in 2014. There are 8 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, several readers have written to tell us that this article was helpful to them, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 233,368 times.

Writing a history essay requires you to include a lot of details and historical information within a given number of words or required pages. It's important to provide all the needed information, but also to present it in a cohesive, intelligent way. Know how to write a history essay that demonstrates your writing skills and your understanding of the material.

Preparing to Write Your Essay

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Doing Your Research

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Writing the Introduction

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Writing the Essay

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Proofreading and Evaluating Your Essay

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Sample Essay

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About This Article

Emily Listmann, MA

To write a history essay, read the essay question carefully and use source materials to research the topic, taking thorough notes as you go. Next, formulate a thesis statement that summarizes your key argument in 1-2 concise sentences and create a structured outline to help you stay on topic. Open with a strong introduction that introduces your thesis, present your argument, and back it up with sourced material. Then, end with a succinct conclusion that restates and summarizes your position! For more tips on creating a thesis statement, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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  1. How to Write a History Essay

    Step 1: Understand the History Paper Format · Step 2: Choose a History Paper Topic · Step 3: Write Your History Essay Outline · Step 4: Start Your

  2. How To Write a Good History Essay

    All history students should swear a similar oath: to answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question. This is the number one rule. You can

  3. Writing a history essay

    Writing a history essay · 1 Study the question · 2 Begin with a plan · 3 Start researching · 4 Develop a contention · 5 Plan an essay structure · 6 Write a compelling

  4. Writing a Good History Paper

    A successful history paper uses the active voice and is clear, concise, organized, and analytical. It tells the reader who, what, when, where, why, and how.

  5. How to write a historical essay PDF

    H2W: HOW TO WRITE A HISTORICAL ESSAY. 1. Recap the event or issue (include who, what, when and where). Example: On April 19, 1775, Minutemen gathered on the

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    Try to begin with one or two sentences which announce the topic of your essay and indicate what you will be writing about. The first sentence or two can give a

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    Be attentive to paragraph construction and order. Paragraphs should have strong topic sentences and be several sentences long. Try to show development in your

  8. How to Write a History Essay: Forming an Introduction

    Key moments. View all · set your reader at ease · set your reader at ease · set your reader at ease · open with a few lines of background · open with

  9. Writing a History Paper: The Basics (Example Essay Included)

    You will need this information to do your citations. Example Essay Research: Read several different works to get a sense of how different historians have

  10. Writing a History Essay

    Writing a History Essay · 1. Identify the assignment's goals. · 2. Review the available material on the question. · 3. Formulate a thesis. · 4. Organize the