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 the 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 the 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 the 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 afterward) 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 foundation for your analysis. I am talking here specifically about primary sources. Are you using newspapers? Journals and diaries? Personal correspondence? Archival documents produced by 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 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 the 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 the 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 by 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 to 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 of your study? Answering these types of questions will serve as prep work for writing your conclusion. Your 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.