image of a girl writing

For most high schoolers, the phrase “essay-writing” conjures monotonous prose and the dreaded five-paragraph format. Luckily, these rules go out the window with college.

Unfortunately, they get replaced by other, stricter rules.

One of the subjects where this transition is more jarring is history. Throughout secondary schooling, students are taught to memorize facts and narratives. Though they are given a glimpse into the creation of these narratives – in the form of potted summaries and theories – they are never taught to critique these.

Adjusting to the new expectations in college is one of the most important steps in writing history papers.

From there, however, one needs a plan of attack:

  1. Don’t know what to write? Read.Your first line of defense should be assigned readings from seminar or section, Jstor and your college’s media website. What are some questions that historians have asked themselves? Are there any “grand theories” that are currently being debunked?If you’re ready to take a bigger challenge, dig into your college’s archives and microfilm collection. Ask your professor or TA if there are any course-specific primary source websites. (For example, there is a website dedicated to German history, with documents dating back to 1500.)
  2. Frame your purpose as a question.The scientific process is not just a protocol to memorize for general chemistry lab reports – it also applies to disciplines like history. In order to produce a thought-provoking piece, refrain from writing on topics that cannot be posed as a question. For example, rather than writing a paper on how the League of Nations was formed, question a prevailing theory about the formation of this organization, or talk about the various actors who formed it.The easiest way to create a question is to ask yourself if there is anything that genuinely confuses or interests you. Think to yourself: okay, so we’ve learned about this great person in history, but there’s this one aspect of his/her life that confuses me. Was there a certain movie behind that?Now, take a step back and evaluate your question. It is imperative that you do this at the outset – it will save you a lot of time and grief. Here is the best litmus test:Can the question be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”?

    Do you have access to the resources that you will need?

    Is the question interesting? If you answer the question, will people say “interesting” or “so what?”

  3. “Flag” your key sentences
    Remember how, in high school, teachers would say “show don’t tell?”
    Well now it’s important to tell. Be as explicit as possible in your thesis and topic sentences. In any statement that involves an argument, lay out your premises and conclusion clearly. Though good prose is important, make sure that arguments are not caught up in ornate diction.
  4. Reference other historians
    There is no better way to show mature understanding of a field than to engage its scholars. For example, if there is a historian with an interesting take on the topic or theory that you’re analyzing, be sure to bring up their arguments. Bonus points for critiquing and incorporating their conclusions into your work.
  5. Use primary sources
    When you write your senior thesis, or if you go on to do academic work in history, you will be expected to write papers almost entirely based on primary sources. This is because it is important for you to convey novel analysis of a topic rather than summarizing others’ thoughts. Presenting a fresh take on a primary source is an expectation in academia.
  6. Chicago Citations
    Contrary to what many learn in high school, MLA is not the gold standard of citations. For history, in particular, it is important to use Chicago citations. Be sure to acquaint yourself with the rules.