Tips and Resources
Here we have compiled for you some materials that will assist your writing efforts and help you prepare for meetings with our tutors. Below you will find advice and guidelines provided by Dr. Judith Mansilla and Dr. Micah Oelze, coordinators of the Writing in History program, along with some useful links to external resources.
Writing in History General Instructions
Writing is Tough
Putting words on a page requires we overcome procrastination and then face the fears of failure. We must have the courage to create something new based on the research we have conducted and readings we have engaged. In FIU’s undergraduate history program, you will encounter multiple types of writing assignments such as book reviews, short essays, and original research papers. Certain writing principles and strategies can be helpful across the board here. First, we recommend that you write before you feel ready. That means that you begin to write (in complete sentences and full paragraphs) even as you reflect on the books you are reading for class. This mentally conditions you to digest ideas, and assures that you understand those ideas well enough to organize them on paper. We also encourage you to do plenty of brainstorming before you write: make lists, draw diagrams, anything necessary to imagine the larger picture. Finally, draft fully and draft early. You want to get all of your ideas on paper and do so more than a week before the assignment is due. This assures you have plenty of time to do the real work: editing.
To this end, we have prepared some short notes to help you as you edit your drafted work. At the end of these notes, we provide you additional resources including links to helpful webpages and instructions for further (face-to-face) engagement with FIU’s Writing in History program, which includes free access to tutoring and workshops for those students currently enrolled in any history course on campus.
When editing any type of historical prose (a book review, an essay, or a research paper), we need to begin by organizing our paragraphs. In the historical style of writing, our paragraphs need to start with topic sentences. That means the first sentence of each paragraph literally sums up the main point of the paragraph. How do we figure this out? First, draft out your paragraph, with all of the pertinent information included. Once you have the draft, read through paragraph again. At the point, decide what it is you are really trying to say. Write down that main message. Then copy and paste it at the very beginning of the paragraph!
Here is an example of a rough-draft paragraph lacking a topic sentence:
In the 1920s, Bogotá, Colombia, was increasingly connected with international markets but lacked the infrastructure necessary for reliable transportation of goods. Migration to Bogotá from rural areas also expanded during this period. This brought a demographic explosion within the city. Next came congestion, shantytowns, congestion, lack of hygiene, and an outgrown infrastructure. State leaders did not have a wide group of local experts to turn to since Bogotá’s Faculty of Architecture was not created (it would be established in 1936). So local leaders turned to international experts.
What is the main point of the paragraph? Try to guess before reading on.
I think the main point of the paragraph is that socio-economic changes forced Bogotá’s leaders to look for urban solutions. So I will write that down and then paste it at the beginning of the new paragraph. If I really want to get fancy (and I do), I will use that new topic sentence to help me revise the paragraph into a more focused argument. Here I will also make sure to include a citation:
Socio-economic changes in 1920s Bogotá, Colombia, forced local leaders to look for urban solutions. The city had become more connected with international markets but lacked the infrastructure necessary for reliable transportation of goods. Nor was this the only challenge faced by city leaders. Urbanization, specifically in-migration from rural areas, brought a demographic explosion accompanied by congestion, shantytowns, congestion, and sewage problems. Local leaders—lacking the local experts that would come only after the 1936 creation of Bogotá’s Faculty of Architecture—turned to international experts.*
Juan Castillo Diaz, Bogotá: El tránsito a la ciudad moderna 1920-1950 (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2003), 78-96, 114.
Our drafts often lack a clear organization. When we do not edit, our readers (usually professors) get frustrated because they have no idea where we are or where we are headed! They feel like they are watching the movie Memento, in which the scenes are out-of-order and the audience struggles to know what is going on. But our papers are generally less artistic than Memento!
When writing a research paper, we will need to reflect on our organization after writing a draft. We need to make sure we are moving in this order:
- Introduction: Try to open the paper with an inviting introductory paragraph (or two) that situates the reader with: time, place, and main topic of the paper. In most cases, you will want to close this paragraph with the thesis – a single sentence that captures the main argument you are setting forth and defending.
- Historiography: Soon after the introduction (probably right afterwards) you will want to mention who else has written on the topic. You will also want to explain what is new or innovative about your writing. Is your argument different? Are you challenging the argument of a previous author? Do you have new information that others did not have access to? Is this a topic that scholars have not examined?
- Sources: In a paragraph or two, tell your audience what sources serve as the foudation for your analysis. I am talking here specifically about primary sources. Are you using newspapers? Journals and diaries? Personal correspondence? Archival documents produced by a some government branch? What sources are you examining? How do they help further your argument?
- Method: This is the logical next step: let the reader know how are you analyzing these sources. Sometimes this means bringing in critical theory: are you reading political sources for what they tell you about gendered assumptions? Are you giving a class analysis to a problem that used to be seen as purely a question of race? Other times the “method” section means that you tell the audience about the bias and assumptions within your text. For example, if you are working with a newspaper from 1920s Argentina, but with the paper was printed by marxist labor organizers, then you need to be upfront with that. How does that change your approach to the reading? What have you done to find other sources with different perspectives on the same issue? Finally, a discussion of method may require you to explain your own special skills. Say you have taken classes on cinematography which has helped your analysis of black-and-white footage taken in Washington, DC, in the 1930s. If so, explain your knowledge and how you bring it to bear on the historical analysis that follows.
- Historical Context and Analysis: Only after explaining all of these aspects are you free to move on to a discussion of historic context and actual analysis. This will be the brunt of your paper. Sometimes you will stitch analysis and historical context together like a quilt: one paragraph introduces the source, and the next explains the legal, social, or political context in the year the source was created. Other times you might recognize the need to give authors a detailed summary of certain political events in order that they can be better prepared to recognize key themes in the multiple sources that follow. If so, that is fine, but never give the reader more background information than is absolutely necessary for them to understand the rest of the paper. Imagine you are a gourmet chef. Never serve your audience more than they would care to eat.
- Conclusion: Your analysis should be followed be a worthwhile conclusion. After writing the draft, you might take some time away from your paper. Go to a coffee shop with just a journal about reflect on what you learned during the process. How has your understanding of the topic shifted? How can you apply this newfound understanding to other regions or times in history? What were the limitations to your study? Answering these types of questions will serve as prepwork for writing your conclusion. You final paragraphs can then help your readers, too, spend some time in reflection as they digest all of the wonderful lessons you have shared.
This whole process might sound too formulaic. But in reality, putting strict limits on our work—especially in the area of form—is the best way to force us towards greater creativity. Finally, this is training for a more innovative future: we all must learn the rules before we can break them effectively.
In English, short sentences sound best. There are multiple reasons for this. American authors such as Faulkner and Dos Passos set short sentences as a hallmark of American English writing. Journalists, too, follow suit. They take seriously the dictum to “keep it simple.” Such a commitment entered the academy in 1959 in the form of a tiny “bible” on writing, entitled The Elements of Style, which offered up the now-consecrated advice to keep sentence length to a minimum.
The architecture of the English language reveals our need for short sentences. English lacks gendered articles. Words like “the” and “a” are neither male nor female. As a result, sentences with multiple dependent clauses confuse an English reader in a way less likely to happen in Spanish and other gendered languages. Take, for example:
In the rest of colonial Brazil, indigenous communities continued to suffer under the hands of marauding slavers and, the activities of certain Jesuit priests notwithstanding, they continued to do great harm to them.
Who did harm to whom? In another language the “they” and “them” may be gendered to clarify the subject from the object. But we lack that privilege in English. So the best way to keep things clear is through short sentences:
Indigenous communities suffered in colonial Brazil. In certain cases, Jesuit priests did work to support the Amerindians. But across the region, marauding slavers inflicted great harm on the natives.
History professors often stand on a soapbox, preaching the virtues of citations hand-in-hand with the vices of plagiarism, emphasizing that only citations will save us from the fires of plagiarism tribunals. But we do not cite just to avoid plagiarism. We provide citations to bolster our own authority as writers. When we cite reputable names, we show that our ideas are supported by leaders in our field. The connection allows us to borrow from their ethos. In citing monographs published by recognized presses, we demonstrate to our reader that our arguments harmonize with publications that have received a stamp of approval from our most reputable institutions. What is more, by offering up a citation, we are proving to our readers that we have done our homework. We have taken the time to go to the library and thorough examine our topic. When seen from this perspectives, citations are a gift of authority that we can stamp on our own work. So stamp away!
Make sure you include citations at the end of each paragraph with serious historical content. Also include a citation at the end of every sentence that has a specific number or vocabulary word lifted from another work. Of course, you must cite every time you quote a source.
Here is the general rule for quoting. If you want to be a mediocre historian, cite anything you want and as much as you want. But if you want to go pro, then make three changes. First, only cite primary sources. Generally, you should only cite a secondary source (something written by another historian) if you are about to demonstrate that the other historian is wrong. Quoting the only other historian that has written on music during Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution allows you to make it very clear to your readers that the earlier historian had not actually listened to the albums he mentioned. In doing so, you boost your own credibility as the expert on the topic. But let us imagine that you do, in fact, appreciate an idea or framework from another historian. Paraphrase it. This proves to your reader that you have thoroughly digested that other historian’s ideas. This shows you have put in the time to understand not only the past but also how it has been interpreted.
Here is the second rule for going pro: never cite more than an entire sentence. Professional historians take the reader directly to the most important word or phrase in the primary document. They then integrate that word or phrase into the larger paragraph.
Finally, never place a quote at the end of a paragraph. Every one of your quotations should be followed by your own analysis. You are the historian: teach the reader what they should take away from the primary documents.
Writing in History Workshops
We host a variety of workshops for undergraduate students over the course of the academic year on writing-specific subjects such as forming historical arguments and using primary source material.
Information for workshops during the academic year 2017/18 will be posted at the beginning of Fall 2017. You can email the Writing in History program coordinators to ask for more information, and we will send you an invite to our writing workshops. We look forward to hearing from you.
If you would like to learn more about the craft of historical writing consider using online writing guides and training websites. We especially recommend the resources created by the following institutions:
University of California, Los Angeles Historical Writing Center
Harvard University Guide to Using Sources
Purdue University Online Writing Lab
Chicago Manual of Style Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide
Additionally, you could purchase The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. The work has the additional benefit of curing insomnia. The Chicago Manual of Style, meanwhile, offers all sorts of instructions for citations in the historical style.