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Handbook for Historians

Guide to writing research papers for the History Department at Le Moyne College

First Hint: Understand the purpose of historical writing

First Hint: Understand the purpose of historical writing

Keep in mind this advice from Professor Edward H. Judge: “Contrary to popular belief, a person who writes history does not simply describe the past or narrate events. Instead, the job of the historian is to analyze the past, investigate developments, evaluate evidence, make informed judgments and decisions, confront issues, and answer questions” What does this mean? It means you are NOT reporting “facts” about the past; instead, you are using evidence from the past to make an argument.

Second Hint: Avoid sexist language

Second Hint: Avoid sexist language

Follow these four guidelines:

1. Avoid using gender-specific pronouns (she, her, hers, he, him, his) to refer to persons of both sexes. But please also bear in mind that the pronoun their can only be used when you are referring to more than one person.

Avoid writing:
A good student always does his homework.
Instead write:
Good students always do their homework.
Or: A good student always does the homework.
Or: A good student always does his/her homework.

2. Avoid using gender-specific pronouns to refer to nations, institutions, or inanimate objects.

Avoid writing:
The Challenger was destroyed and her crew lost.
Instead write:
The Challenger was destroyed and its crew lost.
Avoid writing:
Britain has lost most of her colonies.
Instead write:
Britain has lost most of its colonies.
Or: The British have lost most of their colonies.

3. Avoid using gender-specific nouns to refer to person of both sexes.

Avoid writing:
It looks as if mankind is on the verge of destruction.
Instead write:
It looks as if humanity is on the verge of destruction.
Avoid writing:
The average man is not interested in politics.
Instead write:
The average citizen is not interested in politics.
Or: The average person is not interested in politics.
Avoid writing:
The best kings choose good advisors.
Instead write:
The best rulers choose good advisors.
Avoid writing:
Faculty members are welcome to bring their wives.
Instead write:
Faculty members are welcome to invite their spouses.

4. Avoid using words or expressions which reflect sex-role stereotypes.

Avoid using: Instead use:
workmen workers
craftsmen artisan
fireman firefighter
mailmen letter carriers
foreman supervisor
policeman police officer
manpower personnel
saleswoman sales associate
statesman diplomat
housewife homemaker
cleaning lady housekeeper
coed student
man-to-man person-to-person
stewardess flight attendant

Third Hint: Do a rough draft

Third Hint: Do a rough draft

Not all professors ask for this, especially in lower-level history courses, but if yours does, read on . . .

As you prepare to write the rough draft of your paper, you should do the following things:

  1. Your thesis statement must be revised for the last time and placed in finished form. This must be done before you proceed to 2 below.
  2. Your outline must be juggled and revamped until its topics are aligned in a logical, effective sequence. Feel free to attempt alternative approaches until you devise an organizational framework with which you feel comfortable. If necessary, rephrase your thesis statement (even though you have already adopted its finished form); it and your outline should form a unified, integrated whole. Make sure that every entry in your outline is related in some way to your thesis.
  3. You should then read carefully through your research notes, selecting material that is directly relevant to both thesis and outline while setting aside irrelevant items.  Do not be dismayed by the fact that you will have more notes than you need; this is to be expected. Exercise a rigorous selectivity over your notes, avoiding the temptation to "pad" your paper with unnecessary material. The result will be a leaner, more coherent paper.
  4. Next rearrange the material you decided to use into the order in which you intend to use it, adhering closely to the outline. During this process you should begin to integrate the evidence with your own opinions and interpretations.

Writing the draft requires a sense of proportion. There is no prescribed formula for how much of the paper should be derived from researched sources, and how much should consist of your own ideas derived from your scholarship. Papers composed of a string of direct quotations, stitched together by a few transitional sentences, are obviously unacceptable.  So are papers assembled entirely from your own unsubstantiated allegations, with only a token citation here and there. You must say what you think, and you must say why you think it. You should present the interpretations of those authorities who agree with you, and explain why those who hold different opinions are mistaken. What is required is a judicious blending of research and opinion into a coherent, fluid rough draft.

Make sure, however, to provide sufficient support and documentation for what you write.  Assertions about the motivations or intentions of historical figures (e.g., “Hitler really was not interested in the Sudetenland; what he wanted was war with Czechoslovakia.”) should be backed up with evidence and argumentation. Sweeping, categorical, unprovable claims (e.g., “In all of human history, there never was a more cynical and unscrupulous statesman than Bismarck.”) should be avoided.

Be certain to follow the lead of your thesis statement at all times. Adherence to the thesis insures your paper against charges of lack of unity; substantial deviation from it places the paper in mortal danger. Progress logically and carefully through the areas covered in your outline.  Make good use of your introduction and conclusion, the two places in which you are expected to state your case most vigorously and concisely.

In writing your rough draft, be sure to leave wide margins on all sides, and to double space. This will provide ample room for corrections, cross outs, inserts, and comments when you (or your teacher) are revising and editing your work. Print up a “hard” copy of your rough draft for yourself and your teacher. You or s/he can then mark up this copy while you are editing and revising. This way you will have a record of the changes made, which should be useful for future reference. Besides, some professors require students to turn in a copy of their rough draft along with their final paper.

When you have finished the rough draft, proofread it carefully yourself, and ask a friend to proofread it for you. Do not hesitate to make corrections at once  - after all, this is not the final copy. Many professors in HST 302 require submission of the rough draft well in advance of the final copy; professors in other history courses may or may not require this. Whether or not your professor requires submission of the rough draft, prepare it carefully and revise it diligently. The results will be a better paper and a better grade.