Good historical writing is analytical, precise, accurate and interesting. Once they have completed their research, the best historians are able to construct a compelling narrative that makes sense of the evidence they have gathered without forcing the facts to fit into a predetermined analytical structure. The hardest part of this process is deciding what to include and what to leave out, because there is usually far too much evidence and not nearly enough space in your paper. What distinguishes History papers from the papers you might write in other courses? Perhaps the most difficult thing is the process of transforming facts into evidence, and evidence into argument.
Helpful Information for Writing in History
In your History classes at IUS, you will most often be asked to write two different kinds of essays: essays that work with primary sources, and essays that work with secondary sources. Primary sources are materials that are from the time period that you are discussing. Essays that work with primary sources often attempt to reconstruct an historical event, using various sources to argue for a particular interpretation or understanding of that event. We italicize the phrase "to argue" because it is important to understand that these kinds of essays - which are often narrative in approach - do not simply recreate an event. Nor are they an objective rendering of available facts. Rather, primary source essays are the result of a painstaking process of gathering, selecting, interpreting, and arranging evidence in order to produce an essay that argues a particular point of view.
When writing primary source essays, you'll want to be sure to:
- Select your evidence carefully
- Double-check your facts
- Structure your essay chronologically
- make a point
The second type of essay you'll be asked to write in your History courses are essays that analyze and/or synthesize secondary sources. Secondary sources are those that were written after the time period that you are studying and attempt to analyze that time period in some way. When writing an analysis (or a synthesis) using secondary sources, you will sort through various historical sources, compare their differences, and then write an essay that supports or challenges these interpretations of past events.
Note that a source can be either primary or secondary, depending upon how you intend to use it. For example, Lytton Strachey's, Eminent Victorians might be used as a secondary source if your subject is, indeed, the Victorians; however, if you are interested in exploring the attitudes of the Bloomsbury group towards their Victorian predecessors, then this text would be a primary source.Occasionally you might be asked to write in a particular genre - like biography, intellectual history, political history, and so on. Although the boundaries of historical genre are not always rigid, it's important to understand genre conventions if you are asked to do this kind of writing. If your professor makes such an assignment, be sure to ask her to clarify her expectations for you.