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HIST 300 - Introduction to Historical Studies: Historical Writing

Historical Writing - An Overview

Academic writing within the discipline of history will primarily ask a student to participate first-hand in the historical research process, interpreting your findings to add new perspectives to an existing area of study or to answer a question about the past.  Research papers are one of the most commonly used methods for presenting this information in a history course.

Your GOALS when writing a historical research paper include the following:

  1. Choose a topic that asks a good historical question, and that allows an event to be understood or examined in a new or different way from previous historians.  
  2. Ensure that your topic is BROAD enough to find sufficient sources to support your research, but NARROW enough to prevent overloading yourself with unrelated or marginally-related results during the search phase.
  3. Focus on how your ideas and research connect to the work of previous historians.
  4. Make sure you have a clear, persuasive, well-organized thesis of your own.  

What is Historiography?

Definition of historiography

1a :the writing of history; especially :the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods
b :the principles, theory, and history of historical writing 
  • a course in historiography
2:the product of historical writing :a body of historical literature 
  • a survey of the country's historiography

(retrieved from

Essentially, historiography is the writing of history, or the writing of "the history of history" by historians.  For the purposes of this course, you need to know that a historiographic essay:

  1. summarizes the changing ideas and approaches to a particular topic of history 
  2. discusses why those ideas may have changed over time.   

Organizing Your Sources

There are different ways to organize sources.  One basic division is between non-written artifacts (remains, buildings, coins, statues, clothing, etc.), and written documents (records, diaries, newspapers, treaties, etc.).  For most courses, you will only need to understand written sources.

Among written sources, historians usually assign three levels of relevance:  PrimarySecondary and Tertiary.  These categories take their names from the Latin for one, two or three steps removed from the original event. 

Steps in Historical Writing

Historical writing follows a general pattern; by following this structure you will increase the strength of your research.  

  1. Formulate your argument; ask questions about your topic to generate an interesting perspective or argument that could be argued from multiple angles or viewpoints.  Some examples of this type of question might be:  
    • Was slavery the main cause of the American Civil War?
    • Was Martin Luther a failure or a success?  
  2. Gather good source material, both primary and secondary.  Pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings regarding the subject as you do your preliminary reading, to help you focus your thesis.  Ask yourself:
    • Where do the arguments seem weak?
    • How does this information make me react, and what questions does it leave unanswered?
    • Are there other conclusions that could be drawn from this material that are left unstated?
  3. Use an "argument checklist":
    • Have I stated my thesis quickly and concisely, ideally in the first paragraph?
    • Have I provided examples as evidence for any and all assertions I make?
    • Have I preemptively addressed counter-arguments and possible sources of contention within my paper?
  4. Check your paper for organization and clarity.  Ensure there are the following elements:
    •  An introduction that includes your thesis and the main argument that you will make.
    • A systematic development of that argument that includes both evidence and your own analysis.
    • A concise conclusion that ties all your ideas together.
    • Complete citations for all the sources you use to support your arguments and ideas.
  5. Avoid the following common pitfalls:
    • comparing the past to the present, unless specifically asked to do so
    • broad generalizations
    • anachronisms:  [definition retrieved from: on 2/22/2016]   
      anachronism (noun)

      something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological 

      time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time:

      The sword is an anachronism in modern warfare.

      an error in chronology in which a person, object, event, etc., is assigned 

      a date or period other than the correct one:

      To assign Michelangelo to the 14th century is an anachronism.