When you’re writing a history paper, you’ll typically be expected to give your opinions about a historical topic. It won’t be enough to just state those opinions, however; you’ll need to support them with credible, scholarly evidence. That’s why you should offer only carefully reasoned opinions that you can back up with a specific, systematic argument.
Focusing Your Argument: Developing a Thesis
One of the most important aspects of a good history paper is the thesis statement, or the point you’re trying to make. A good way to find a thesis is to start with a question about history such as “How were Americans affected by World War II?” You may need to do some preliminary research to develop and refine the questions or even to find a question worth asking. You can find a research question by reviewing the assigned readings for the course, looking at your lecture notes, and/or thinking over previous class discussions.
Your research question should be broad enough to cover at least some of the issues that interest you, but not so broad that you cannot persuasively answer it within the page limit. One way to narrow a question is to look at how an issue affected a particular group or groups. For example, you could narrow the question about how Americans were affected by WWII to “How were American women affected by World War II?” That’s still pretty broad for the average seminar paper, so try narrowing it even further by getting more specific: “How were American women whose husbands were at war affected by the social changes that accompanied World War II?”
When you begin answering the question, be sure to follow the assignment prompt. For most assignments, you won’t need to summarize key events or present a chronology—you can assume your readers know the basic facts. Instead, you’ll be asked to think critically and analytically about events. Put another way, you should examine a historical event or period and come up with a defensible argument about it. You can interpret or explain the event or show how it affects our understanding of history in general or the history of a particular time and place.
To move from a research question to a thesis, you have to offer up an answer to your question. For the previous example you might say “Many American wives were newly independent because of WW II, either for the duration, while their husbands were away fighting, or permanently, if their husbands never returned or retuned irreparably wounded. These women, especially if they were working class and did not have the support of extended families, were left to support themselves and were not affected by the post-war propaganda that exhorted women to leave their jobs and go back to housewife duty.” This is a working thesis, and as you research this social phenomenon you may need to refine it further.
Finding Sources of Information
To explore and support an argument, you’ll need to analyze primary and secondary sources of information.
Primary sources. A primary source is any document or other artifact from the time period you are writing about, or something created by people who saw or participated in the historical event or period themselves. For example, if you research the lifestyles of women workers in San Antonio during the 1940s, primary sources could include one or more of the following:
- San Antonio newspapers from the period, in English or Spanish
- Records from factories and businesses
- U.S. census records
- Autobiographies of workers and business owners in San Antonio during the 1940s
- Maps that show the location of the factories where women worked
- Music from the period
Primary source can include written documents, artifacts, buildings, films, paintings, cartoons, etc. The source is primary because of its historical existence, not its type.
Secondary sources. These materials primarily include books and journal articles written by historians or other scholars on the subject. Even if you are writing a paper using primary sources, you should also look at secondary sources to see what others say about your topic. The Texas A&M University library subject guide is your best starting point. From the library’s website, library.tamu.edu, select Subjects under Research Guides, and then explore the resources listed under History. You may also want to contact a reference librarian.
When you find sources, view them with a critical eye. Try to find out the bias of the author. Why is the author writing about the topic? Is the author logical? Emotional? Are the sources cited sufficient, reputable, and persuasive? Remember: your paper is only as good as your sources. While a Google search can be a good way to help you find a topic, be skeptical of information you find that way since it’s not from a credible scholarly source. Once you’re ready to research in earnest, use a reputable database, such as Historical Abstracts (EBSCO), where you can verify that a source is scholarly.
Many students question when to cite a source. The rule of thumb is to cite anything you use from another source that’s not common knowledge. What would an educated person already know about your topic? For example, if you are writing about the Civil War, most people who know history would be aware of information like the locations of major battles and the names of generals. This is information that cannot be argued with or contested. However, they probably would not know what one soldier wrote in his diary about his experiences in battle, so you would cite anything you learned from that source. You should also cite ideas or opinions you find in your sources, whether you paraphrase, summarize, or quote them directly.
When in doubt, cite. Citing not only protects you from accusations of plagiarism, it also allows other scholars to follow your footsteps and understand where you got your ideas and information. Citing shows you are familiar with the latest conversations and theories regarding your topic which, in scholarly circles, lends your own work credibility.
History papers are almost always written in the past tense. Whenever possible, use active voice. (For example,Instead of writing “The battle was won by the British Navy,” use the active form, “The British Navy won the battle.”) Even though you’re presenting your own opinions, you should write in third person. (Instead of “I think the naval blockade was effective,” you would write “The naval blockade was effective because . . . “).
History papers are usually formatted using The Chicago Manual of Style. The style manual, available on the web and in Evans Library, gives detailed instructions on the formatting of notes, parenthetical references, and issues specific to history and other disciplines.