Writing in the Disciplines: History

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Most students understand the differences between the type of writing they do when they text a friend and when they sit down to write a paper for a class. It’s pretty obvious that college instructors expect you to spell out words rather than using text designations for them, and using periods at the end of sentences in your paper doesn’t mean you’re angry.  It means you’re being clear.

However, when students are asked to state how writing varies from one discipline to another, things get a bit tricky.  Missing sometimes subtle cues, though, about what your instructor might expect could impact your grade in a negative way. Sometimes it seems like these preferences of what an instructor is looking for or considers “good” writing is personal, but more often than not, it has to do with the discipline that the instructor is part of.

This week, we are going to look at the discipline of history.  Understanding a bit more about it and about how ideas are considered and written about within that field will hopefully help you do better on the assignments you have for these classes.

So, what is history? That’s easy. It’s names, places, and events from the past, right? Well, yes. And, no.  If all you see it as is the memorization of these facts, then you’re missing a big part of what scholars (including your teachers) view history as–and this could be leading you to not really understanding what they are looking to see from you as a student in their class, whether that’s in an essay answer on a test, a research paper, or a book review.

Historians see all of those names, places, and events of the past as things which inform our present day lives, ideas, and expectations. It is an ongoing puzzle where scholars look at the past to try to discover both a cultural and personal significance in it. It is fluid and changing. As students in their classes, your history teachers expect you to do the same.  They want to see you engage with the past, to try to make an educated guess about the significance of particular points in history, cultural developments, and influences of people who came before you–both on their times and on your own.

Historians (and students in history classes) learn about history through two primary means. 1) They interact with historical artifacts. They analyze them, looking for clues about the past  and based on those clues, they come up with a theory about what happened and the significance of it.  2) They read the writing of other historians who have done a good deal of number one.  After doing both, they are then able to weave together a plausible narrative about a particular event or period which they are studying.

What does this mean to you as a student?  Quality writing for a history class means doing a good deal of reading before any writing happens. See, historians do two things: they know history, and they think about history.  Knowing is the recall of those names, places, dates, and events.  Thinking, though, means you are going to have to know more than just the bare facts.  If you try to skimp on the reading–whether that’s assigned readings for a test, sources for a paper, or a book for a review–you are going to find the task of writing much harder than it has to be.

The basic goal of any writing assignment you do for a history class is going to be this: taking knowledge you have about the past and shaping an insightful response to a question either posed by you or your instructor.

With this in mind, here are some questions to be asking yourself as you do your preparatory readings:

  • How does this work relate to what my instructor discusses in lecture?
  • How does it relate to other readings we’ve been assigned or that I’ve read for this assignment?
  • What does it say about a particular topic? How could I explain it to a friend?
  • Just as importantly, what does it not say?
  • What questions do I have about this work?
  • What points does it make that I agree with or disagree with? Why do I feel that way?

The next step in doing well on a writing assignment is to understand what the posed question is asking you to do. Often, instructors begin a question with a series of statements about the subject before moving to the question they want you to discuss. Often, students skip this “intro” in order to get to the “important stuff,” but in doing so, they often miss out on clues that the instructor is giving them about the expected content and organization of the answer.  Reading this section of the posed question carefully is the first step in giving your instructor the answer they are looking for.

The next is following through on the essential task the question is asking you to accomplish. Remember, we said that writing about history entails knowing history and thinking about history, right? Well, questions that instructors pose often have clues as to which one of these aspects they are expecting you to demonstrate in your writing.  Here are words which indicate an instructor is looking for your to show what you know:

  • summarize
  • outline
  • review

If you see these in a question or prompt, the instructor is generally looking for you to recall information you read from a text.  These words and phrases, however, are ones where which indicate your instructor expects you to go beyond simply information recall.  These indicate that the instructor is looking for you to demonstrate you’re thinking about history, that you’re making that educated guess:

  • why
  • how
  • analyze
  • critique
  • compare and contrast
  • discuss
  • cause and effect

Now that you understand what the general content of your assignment should cover, here are some practical tips to make your writing stronger:

  • Just like with other academic writing, make sure you have an introduction which sets up what you will be discussing in the body of your writing. If you are writing an essay for a test question, this can be accomplished in a sentence or two. Make sure your thesis is clear up front.  Discuss one main idea per paragraph.  Be sure you have a conclusion which wraps everything up.
  • Write your paper as if the person reading it is educated but has no specialized knowledge about history or the topic which you are discussing.  You are the “expert in the room.” Think about what this person needs to know in order to understand the argument you are making.  Fill in any gaps, explain terms they will need to know.
  • Make sure your argument is complex enough to show you have really thought about what you are saying and that it demonstrates you’ve weighed all of the available evidence and considered it when forming your argument. Avoid moralizing.
  • Use past tense verbs.  Keep the past in the past.  The exception to this would be if you are using a direct quotation where someone is speaking in present or future tense.  Do not change their verbs to past tense.
  • Use active voice when you can.
  • Avoid writing in first and second person.  First person pronouns are ones such as “I, me, we, us, mine, and  myself” which refer to you, the writer. Second person pronouns are those with the word “you” in them.
  • Avoid cliches, slang, and informal language.
  • “Feeling” is not a synonym for “said,” “thought,” or “did.” Focus on stating what a historical figure said or did rather than what they felt about what they did or said.
  • Don’t refer to the books you have read as “novels.” A novel is a work of fiction.  Unless that is actually what you read, the word you are looking for to describe the historical monograph you consulted is simply a book. Confusing these terms undermines your credibility.
  • Do not use apostrophes with decades.  It is the 1920s, not the 1920’s.
  • Write out the names of centuries (twentieth century, not 20th century).
  • Write out all numerals under 100 unless they are part of a date or are used as a percentage.
  • Use adjectives sparingly.
  • Avoid using “this” or “that” as a subject.  Instead, state the noun “this” or “that” replaces.
  • Use quotations sparingly.
  • Quotations need to be introduced, but you should avoid using phrases such as “In the book it says…” or “On page five…” to introduce them.  Try a phrase such as “Jones argues…” instead.
  • Be sure you correctly cite any information or ideas that are not yours, even if you have stated them in your own words. Common citation styles used in history include APA, Chicago, MLA, and Turabian.  Be sure you know which one your instructor expects you to use.
  • Avoid using exclamation points or all caps for emphasis.  Use italics to stress a word or phrase.
  • Be sure to allow plenty of time to revise and edit your work.

If you need more help than what’s provided here, be sure to stop by the Writing Center to talk with one of our tutors.  And, be sure to stop by the blog again next week when we discuss writing lab reports for your science classes!







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