Writing in History

What is History? The word history comes from the Latin historia, which means a narrative of past events; an account, talk, story. History isn’t just what happened in the past, but the narratives that are constructed about what happened. History, like other disciplines, is based on factual evidence, but “doing history” is the interpretation of those facts, the relationships between them, and the meaning we make of them. Writing history requires historical imagination to make connections between things in the past, because there are gaps in evidence we can draw on to understand them, because contextualizing evidence is itself an act of historical interpretation, and because there is significant distance between people’s thinking and being in different times, including our own. Writing history requires one to confront and acknowledge these challenges while nevertheless attempting to inhabit the past in interpreting it.

Writing history papers: While the content, focus, and specifics of each writing assignment may change, there are features of writing in history that are ever-present. A thesis statement is the crucial feature of historical writing and is always necessary. Think of a thesis statement not as one sentence, page, or paragraph but as the central idea of your writing, essentially what you want to say in your essay. It is an answer to a question about a historical topic. The question can be broad or specific, complicated or simple. It can vary on era, location, class, focus. In short, the question you are going to answer will require your thesis statement to adapt to it. Thesis statements can be flexible, complicated, or simple, but they are necessary in historical writing. The rest of your essay will flow from the central idea expressed in the thesis statement and will work in defense of it. History papers have a logical progression of argument from the introduction. If a thesis is an argument, a point you want to make, then the body of the paper should be a presentation of the evidence and details that support it. Writing in history, therefore, is not as simple as telling a story. It is more like building a court case: taking a stance, selecting evidence in defense of that stance, and clearly and effectively arguing for it.

History vs. Historiography: Because historical narratives are interpretations of historical developments, not uncontested truth, they change over time. Multiple narratives that purport to be about the same thing might contradict each other or might address different aspects of an issue, none being necessarily more right or wrong. The study of the discipline of history, of the development of historical narratives, and of changing interpretive priorities in history constitute historiography. Assignments in introductory level classes, such as reading responses or essays based on course materials, will rarely ask you to address different accounts of your topic or how those have developed over time in the relevant scholarship. However, if you are writing a research paper, you are taking part in historiography, and in many cases should address how past historians have addressed your topic.

What historians use to do their work: Students of history are expected to gain knowledge about the world around them from a variety of sources. The two main categories of these sources are primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are pieces of evidence directly from the time period or culture under study. The authenticity of these sources should be distinctly verifiable. Secondary sources are historical scholarship which use primary sources to support their claim. Most professional historical journal articles (the primary form to present historical research) draw on primary sources for much of their evidence. With these distinctions, it is important to understand that most historical writing will use a combination of primary and secondary sources. It is crucial to recognize where previous historians have gone in terms of research, but it is equally important to make your own conclusions about what the original sources actually say.