_D_e_ve_lo_p_i_n_g_a_t_h_es_is -..!~ 4_3 __ ..subject; in other words, you need to learn how to think
like a historian. Learning these conventions will enable
you to be an active participant in historical conversations.
Be aware of your own biases. We naturally choose to write
about subjects that interest us. Historians should not
however, let their own concerns and biases direct the wa;
they interpret the past. A student of early modern Europe,
for example, might be dismayed by the legal, social, and
economic limitations placed on women in that period.
for being “selfish and
chauvinistic” might forcefully express such a student’s
sense of indignation about what appears to modern eyes
as unjust, but it is not a useful approach for the historian,
who tries to understand the viewpoints of people in the
past in the social context of the period under study.
Respect your subject. When you write a history paper, you
are forming a relationship of sorts with real people and
events whose integrity must be respected. The people
who lived in the past were not necessarily more ignorant
or cruel (or, conversely, more innocent or moral) than we
are. It is condescending, for example, to suggest that an
intelligent or insightful person was “ahead of his or her
time” (suggesting, of course, that he or she thought the
same way we do).
Do not generalize. Remember that groups are formed of
individuals. Do not assume that everyone who lived in
the past believed the same things or behaved the same
way. Avoid broad generalizations such as “the medieval
period was an Age of Faith” or “pre-modern people were
not emotionally attached to their children.” At best, such
statements are cliches. More often than not, they are also
wrong. (For more on the issue of appropriate language,
Your topic is the subject you have been assigned to write
about (for example, the Salem witchcraft trials, the Lewis
and Clark expedition, the rise of the Nazi party). If you
merely collect bits of information about your topic, however, you will not have written an effective history paper.
A history paper, like many other kinds of academic writing, usually takes the form of an argument in support of a
thesis-a statement that reflects the conclusion you have
reached about your topic after a careful analysis of the
Since the thesis is the central idea that drives a history
essay, it is important that you understand exactly what a
thesis is. Imagine that you have been given the follOWing
Avoid anachronism. An anachronistic statement is one
in which an idea, event, person, or thing is represented in a way that is not consistent with its proper
historical time or context. For example, “Despite the
fact that bubonic plague can be controlled with antibiotics, medieval physicians treated their patients with
ineffective folk remedies.” This sentence includes two
anachronisms. First, although antibiotics are effective
against bubonic plague, they had not yet been discovered in the fourteenth century; it is anachronistic to
mention them in a discussion of the Middle Ages. Second, it is anachronistic to judge medieval medicine by
modern standards. A more effective discussion of the
medieval response to the bubonic plague would focus
on fourteenth-century knowledge about health and
disease, theories of contagion, and sanitation practices.
In short, you should not import the values, beliefs, and
practices of the present into the past. Try to understand the people and events of the past in their own
Discussthe role of nonviolent resistance in the Indian
As you develop your thesis statement, keep the following
Athesis is not a description of your paper
topic. Although your reader should not have to
guess what your paper is about, the thesis must do
more than announce your subject or the purpose
for which you are writing. “This paper is about the
role of nonviolent resistance in the Indian independence movement” is not a thesis statement;
nor is “The purpose of this paper is to describe the
methods Mohandas Gandhi used to gain Indian
independence from Great Britain.” These sentences
merely restate the assigned topic.
in: Mary Lynn Rampolla , A Pocket Guide to Writing
in History (Bedford/St. Martin’s 2010), 43-59.
A thesis is not a question. Although historians
always ask questions as they read (see 3a for advice
on active reading) and a thesis statement arises
from the historian’s attempt to answer a question,
a question is not, in itself, a thesis. “Why were
Mohandas Gandhi’s methods successful in the
movement to achieve Indian independence from
Great Britain?” is a valid historical question, but it
is not a thesis statement.
A thesis is not a statement of fact. While
historians deal in factual information about the
past, a fact, however interesting, is simply a piece
of data. The statement “Mohandas Gandhi led the
movement for Indian independence from Britain”
is not a thesis.
A thesis is not a statement of opinion.
Although a thesis statement must reflect what you
have concluded, it cannot be a simple statement of
belief or preference. The assertion “Mohandas Gandhi is my favorite political leader of the twentieth
century” does not constitute a thesis.
people thought he was a good person” or “Gandhi succeeded because the British were treating the Indians
badly.” Rather, the thesis makes a specific claim: that the
contrast between Gandhi’s use of civil disobedience and
the use of force by the British had a significant impact
on public opinion. Third, a thesis is always a debatable
point, a conclusion with which a thoughtful reader might
disagree. In other words, the thesis makes an assertion
that sets up an argument. It is the writer’s job, in the body
of a paper, to provide an argument based on evidence
that will convince the reader that his or her thesis is a
valid one. The thesis, then, is the heart of your paper. lt
presents what you have concluded about the topic under
discussion and provides the focal point for the rest of
To ensure that your thesis really is a thesis, review the
Tips for Writers box on page 46.
From the moment that Mohandas Gandhi decided to respond to force
with acts of civil disobedience. British rule of India was doomed; his
indictment of British colonial policy in the court of public opinion did
far more damage to the British military than any weapon could.
4d Constructing an argument
One reason you might find it difficult to develop a thesis statement is that you feel hesitant to come to independent conclusions about the meaning and significance
of the materials you are working with; after all, what if
your interpretation is wrong? It often seems safer just to
reiterate the topic, or ask a question, or state a fact with
which no one could argue. But, as noted in 4c, to write
an effective history paper, you must be Willingto reach a
conclusion about your subject that could be challenged
or debated by an intelligent reader. While this may seem
intimidating, keep in mind that historical issues are seldom clear-cut and that professional historians, working
from the same sources, often disagree with each other or
form different interpretations. It is unlikely that there is
only one correct point of view concerning the topic you
have been assigned or only~one correct interpretation of
the sources you are examining. You do not need to convince your readers that your thesis or argument represents
the only possible interpretation of the evidence. You do,
however, need to convince them that your interpretation
is valid. You will be able to do this only if you have provided concrete evidence from reliable sources in support
of your argument and have responded honestly to opposing positions.
In short, a thesis is not a description of your paper
topic, a question, a statement of fact, or a statement of
opinion, although it is sometimes confused with all of
the above. Rather, a thesis is a statement that reflects what
you have concluded about the topic of your paper, based on a
critical analysis and interpretation of the source materials you
For the assignment given above, the following sentence is an acceptable thesis:
You should note three things about this statement. First,
while the thesis is not itself a question, it is an answer to
a question-in this case, the question posed above: “Why
were Mohandas Gandhi’s methods successful in the
movement to achieve Indian independence from Great
Britain?” A thesis usually arises from the questions you
pose of the text or texts as you engage in active reading.
Second, the thesis is specific. In attempting to answer the
historical question raised above, the writer did not make a
broad generalization like “Gandhi was successful because
Tips for Writers
Testing Your Thesis
~ It is not a thesis.
~ It is not a thesis.
~ It is not a thesis.
~ It is not a thesis.
the solar system and the heart as the center of the body,
and that this analogy led him to consider whether the
blood, like the planets, might move about the body in
a circular motion. Her thesis will depend on the conclusion she has reached, after careful and active reading of
the text, about which of these elements was more significant in his discovery of circulation. If she concludes that
experimentation and observation were more important in
Harvey’s thinking, her thesis statement might look like
Your proposed thesis does no
more than repeat the topic you
are writing about
Your proposed thesis poses a
question without suggesting an
Your proposed thesis merely
articulates a fact or series of
Your proposed thesis simply
reflects a personal belief or
Although Harvey sometimes used analogies and symbols in his discussion of the movement of the heart and the blood, it was his careful
observations, his elegantly designed experiments, and his meticulous
measurements that led him to discover circulation.
If, on the other hand, she concluded that Harvey’s philosophical commitments were more significant, she might
write the follOWing: If. ..
Your proposed thesis:
suggests an answer to a
question you have posed
as a result of your reading,
is specific, rather than
is debatable (that is, it asserts
a conclusion with which a
reader might disagree), and
can be supported by evidence
from the sources
Harvey’s commitment to observation and experiment mark him as one
of the fathers of the modern scientific method; however, a careful
reading of On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals suggests
that the idea of circulation did not arise simply from the scientific
elements of his thinking, but was inspired by his immersion in neoPlatonic philosophy.
Note that the writer of this essay could come to either
of these conclusions after a careful examination of the
text. What is essential is that the student support her
thesis by constructing an argument with evidence taken
from the text itseIf. It is not enough simply to make an
assertion and expect readers to agree. In the first instance,
she would support her thesis by pointing to examples of
experiments Harvey designed and carried out. She might
also note Harvey’s emphasis on quantification and the
care with which he described experiments that could be
replicated. In the second instance, she might note the
number of times Harvey compares the heart to the sun,
thus providing an analogy for circulation. She might
also note that Harvey was unable to observe circulation
directly, since capillaries are too small to be seen with
the microscopes available at the time, and that his belief
in circulation therefore required an intuitive leap that
could not have been drawn solely from observation or
To support your argument, you must offer evidence from
your sources. Imagine that you have been given the following assignment in a course on the history of science:
“Analyze the role played by experiment and observation
in William Harvey’s On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in
Animals.” A student writing an essay on this topic would
have noticed that Harvey describes his experimental
method and his observations in great detail. She would
also have noticed, however, that Harvey drew inspiration
from the analogy he saw between the sun as the center of
experiment. In both cases, the student would cite specific
instances from the text to support her thesis, integrating
quotes from the source as appropriate. (For more on using
quotations, see 7a-2.)
interpretation is valid, despite the existence of counterevidence or alternative arguments, but do not imply that
your interpretation is stronger than it is by eliminating
data or falsifying information. Rather, a successful paper
would respond to counterevidence and differing interpre- .
tations by addressing them directly and explaining why,
in your view, they do not negate your thesis.
4d-2 Responding to counterevidence and anticipating
Acknowledging counterevidence-source data that does
not support your argument-will not weaken your paper.
On the contrary, if you address counterevidence effectively, you strengthen your argument by showing why
it is legitimate despite information that seems to contradict it. If, for example, the student writing about Harvey wanted to argue for the primacy of experiment and
observation in his work, she would need to show that
these elements were more significant than his interest in
philosophical speculation. If she wanted to argue that his
philosophy was more important, she would have to demonstrate that it was his keen interest in the ways in which
some philosophers interpreted the centrality of the sun in
the universe as a metaphor that allowed him to interpret
what he observed about the movement of the blood and
the heart in creative new ways. In either case, her argument would need to be based on a consideration of the
evidence and counterevidence contained in the relevant
source or sources, not merely on her own gut feelings.
Similarly, if you are writing an essay in which you are
examining secondary sources, you should demonstrate
that you are aware of the work of historians whose interpretations differ from your own; never simply ignore an
argument that doesn’t support your interpretation. It is
perfectly legitimate to disagree with others’ interpretations; this is, after all, one of the purposes of writing a
book review or a historiographic essay (see 3b-3 and 3b-6).
In disagreeing, however, it is important to treat opposing
viewpoints with respect; you should never resort to namecalling, oversimplifying, or otherwise distorting opposing
points of view. Your essay will be stronger, not weaker, if you
understand opposing arguments and respond to them fairly.
A good argument, then, does not ignore evidence or
arguments that seem to contradict or weaken the thesis.
If you discover information that does not support your
thesis, do not suppress it. It is important to acknowledge all of your data. Try to explain to readers why your
Note: Of course, if the counterevidence is too strong, you
will need to adjust, or even completely change, your thesis. Always be open to the possibility that your initial
conclusions might need to be modified in response to the
evidence you find. (For more on the process of gathering
evidence and developing a thesis, see Sb.)
Even after analyzing an assignment, reading the sources
carefully with a historian’s eyes, developing a thesis, and
finding evidence in the sources that supports your thesis,
you may still find it difficult to organize your ideas into
an effective paper. History papers, like other academic
writings, include an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. This section examines the specific elements that
your history instructor will expect to find in each of these
parts of your paper.
4e-l Drafting an introduction
The introductory paragraph of your paper is in many
ways the most important one and therefore the most difficult to write. In your introduction, you must (1) let your
readers know what your paper is about and provide background information on the texts, people, or problems
under discussion; (2) put the topic of your paper into context; and (3) state your thesis. You must also attract your
readers’ attention and interest. The opening paragraph,
( then, has to frame the rest of the paper and make readers
want to continue reading. There is no magic formula for
writing an effective first paragraph. You should, however,
keep the following conventions in mind.
Do not open with a global statement. Unsure of how to
start, many students begin their papers with phrases
like “Throughout history … ” or “From the beginning of
time … ” or “People have always wondered about … ” You
should avoid generalizations like these. First, you cannot
prove that they are true: How do you know what people
have always thought or done? Second, these statements
are so broad that they are virtually meaningless; they offer
no specific points or details to interest readers. Finally,
such statements are so vague that they give readers no
clue about the subject of your paper. It is much more
effective to begin with material specific to your topic.
The following opening sentence comes from the first
draft of a student paper on William Harvey’s On the
Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals:
practice of medicine? In other words, this opening sentence makes readers want to continue reading; they want
to know the author’s thesis.
Include your thesis in the first paragraph. If your opening sentence has been effective, it will make your readers want to
know the main point of your paper, which you will state
in the thesis. As you read works by professional historians, you may notice that the introduction to a journal
article or book may be long, even several paragraphs, and
the author’s thesis may appear anywhere within it. Until
you become skilled in writing about history, however, it
is best to keep your introduction short and to state your
thesis in the first paragraph. The following is the first draft
of the introductory paragraph for the paper on Harvey: From ancient times, people have always been interested in the human
body and how it works.
Although, grammatically, there is nothing wrong with
this sentence, it is not a particularly effective opening. For
one thing, it is such a general statement that readers will
be inclined to ask, “So what?” In addition, it gives readers
no indication of what the paper is about. Will the essay
examine ancient Greek medical theory? Chinese acupuncture? Sex education in twentieth-century American
In revising the sentence, the student eliminated the
general statement altogether and began instead with a
description of the intellectual context of Harvey’s work:
From ancient times, people have always been interested in the human
body and how it works. Harvey was a seventeenth-century physician
who performed many experiments and discovered the circulation of
This introduction begins with the ineffective opening
sentence we looked at above. The “thesis statement”
that follows isn’t really a thesis at all; it is simply a statement of fact. (For more on writing an effective thesis, see
4c.) Moreover, there is no clear connection established
between the ideas contained in the opening sentence and
Harvey. From this first paragraph, a reader would have
no id~hat the paper was about, what its central point
might be, or what to expect in the pages that follow.
In the final version of this introductory paragraph, the
student uses the revised opening sentence and incorporates a’more effective thesis, which is underlined here:
For the scholars and physicians of seventeenth-century Europe, observation and experimentation began to replace authoritative texts as
the most important source of information about human anatomy and
From this one sentence, readers learn four things about
the subject of the paper: the time frame of the discussion
(the seventeenth century), the place (Europe), the people
involved (scholars and physicians), and the topic (the
importance of experiment and observation in the biological sciences). Readers’ curiosity is also piqued by the
questions the sentence implies: Why did experimentation
begin to replace authoritative texts? Was this change a
subject of controversy? Who was involved? How did this
change in method affect the science of biology and the
For the scholars and physicians of seventeenth-century Europe, observations and experimentation began to replace authoritative texts as
the most important source of information about human anatomy and
physiology. This trend is clearly illustrated in the work of William
Harvey, who designed controlled experiments to measure blood flow.
However, Harvey was not led to his revolutionary discovery of the
circulation of the blood by experimentation alone. but was inspired by
flashes of intuition and philosophical speculation.
In this introductory paragraph, the connection between
Harvey and the rise of observation and experiment in the
seventeenth century is clear. Moreover, the thesis statement reflects the author’s conclusions and anticipates
the argument that will follow; we can expect that in the
course of the paper, the author will support her argument
by discussing Harvey’s experimental method, his philosophical speculations, his moments of intuition, and the
role all three played in his theories about circulation.
Plan to rewrite your opening paragraph. Because the opening
paragraph plays such a crucial role in the overall effectiveness of your paper, you should always plan on revising it
several times. In addition, when the paper is complete, it
is important to check each section against the introduction. Does each paragraph proVide evidence for your thesis? Is it clear to your reader how each point relates to the
topic you have established in your introduction? Knowing that you will have to rewrite your introduction can be
reassuring if you are having trouble beginning your paper.
Write a rough, temporary opening paragraph, and return
to it when you finish your first draft of the entire paper.
The act of writing your draft will help you clarify your
ideas, your topic, and your thesis.
you wish to cover in your paper. (For advice on making
an outline, see Se.)
Provide support for the poragraph’s main point. The topic sentence should be followed by evidence in the form of examples, quotations from the text(s), or statistics that support
the main point of the paragraph. Make sure that you do
not wander off the point. If you include irrelevant information, you will lose momentum and your readers will
lose the thread of your argument. Instead, make sure you
choose examples that proVide clear and sufficient support
for your main point. If you are using a direct quote as
evidence, make sure you explain to the reader why you
are including this quote by integrating it grammatically
into your text and framing it in a way that shows how it
supports your point. (For more information on how and
when to quote, see 7a.)
Make clear connections between ideas. To be convincing,
your evidence must be clear and well organized. Transitional words and phrases tell your readers how the individual statements in your paragraph are connected. To
choose transitions that are appropriate, you will need to
think about how your ideas are related. The follOWingare
some transitional words or phrases that indicate particular kinds of relationships:
In your introduction, you present your subject and state
your thesis. In the body of your paper, you provide an
argument for your thesis based on evidence from the
sources you have been reading and answer any objections
that could be raised. You should think of each paragraph
as a building block in your argument that presents one
specific point. If the point of each paragraph is not clear,
the reader will not be able to follow your reasoning and
your paper will be weak and unconvincing. (For more on
constructing an argument, see 4d.) The follOWing advice
will help you write well-organized, cohesive, and persuasive paragraphs.
Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Each paragraph
should have one driving idea that provides support for
your paper’s overall thesis. This idea is usually asserted in
the topic sentence. If you have made an outline, your topic
sentences will be drawn from your list of the main points
To compare: also, similarly, likewise.
To contrast: on the one hand/on the other hand,
although, conversely, nevertheless, despite, on the contrary, still, yet, regardless, nonetheless, notwithstanding, whereas, however, in spite of
To add or intensify: also, in addition, moreover,
further, too, besides, and.
To show sequence: first (and any other ordinal
number), last, next, finally, subsequently, later, ultimately.
To indicate an example: for example, for
consequently, as a result, because, accordingly, thus,
since, therefore, so.
Writing paragraphs: an example. The follOWing is a paragraph from the first draft of a paper on Chinese relationships with foreigners during the Ming period:
Organizing your paper
This paragraph has been improved in several ways. First,
a topic sentence (which is underlined) has been added to
th beginning. Readers no longer need to guess that this
paragraph will address the apparent contrast between
sixteenth-century Chinese suspicion of foreigners and the
imperial court’s acceptance of Jesuit missionaries.
Second, the author has clarified the connections
between ideas by including transitional words and
phrases. These transitions (which are italicized) illustrate
several different kinds of relationships-including contrast, cause and effect, and sequence-and allow readers
to follow the writer’s argument.
Third, the paragraph has been reorganized so that the
relationships between events are clearer. For example, the
revised paragraph states explicitly that the Jesuits’ adaptation to Chinese customs was the key reason for the success of European missionaries during the Ming dynasty;
this connection is obscured in the original paragraph by
poor organization. Finally, the writer has removed references to foot binding and to European interest in China
during the Enlightenment. Both are interesting but irrelevant in a paragraph that deals with Chinese attitudes
The Chinese were willing to trade with barbarians. They distrusted foreigners. Jesuit missionaries were able to establish contacts in China.
During the seventeenth century, they acquired the patronage of
important officials. They were the emperor’s advisers. Chinese women
bound their feet, a practice that many Europeans disliked. Relations
between China and Europe deteriorated in the eighteenth century. The
Jesuits were willing to accommodate themselves to Chinese culture.
Chinese culture was of great interest to the scholars of Enlightenment
Europe. Matteo Ricci learned about Chinese culture and became fluent
in Mandarin. He adopted the robes of a Chinese scholar. He thought
that Christianity was compatible with Confucianism. The Jesuit missionaries had scientific knowledge.
Although each sentence is grammatically correct, this
paragraph as a whole is very confusing. In the first place,
it has no clear topic sentence; readers have to guess what
the writer’s main point is. This confusion is compounded
by unclear connections between ideas; the paragraph
lacks transitional words or phrases that alert readers to the
connections that the writer sees between ideas or events.
The paragraph is also poorly organized; the writer seems
to move at random from topic to topic.
The follOWing is a revised version of the same paragraph:
4e-3 Writing an effective conclusion
Your paper should not come to an abrupt halt, yet you
do not need to conclude by summarizing everything that
you have said in the body of the text. An effective conclusion performs two vital functions. First, it brings the
paper full circle by reminding the reader of the thesis and
reiterating the most important points that were made in
support of the thesis. Second, it answers the main question that your reader, haVing read the entire paper, will
want to know: “Why is this important?” Thus, it is usually best to end your paper with a paragraph that states
the most important conclusions you have reached about
your subject and the reasons you think those conclusions
Note: A common pitfall for students is to end the paper
with some new idea or fact. You should avoid introducing
new ideas or information in the conclusion. If an idea or
fact is important to your argument, you should introduce
and discuss it earlier; if it is not, leave it out altogether.
The Chinese of the Ming dynasty were deeply suspicious of foreigners;
nevertheless. Jesuit missionaries were able to achieve positions of
honor and trust in the imperial court. ultimately serving the emperor
as scholars and advisers. At first glance, this phenomenon seems
baffling; upon closer consideration, however, it becomes clear that
the Jesuits’ success was due to their willingness to accommodate
themselves to Chinese culture. For example, one of the most successful of the early Jesuit missionaries, Matteo Ricci, steeped himself in
Chinese culture and became fluent in Mandarin. To win the respect of
the nobles, he also adopted the robes of a Chinese scholar. Moreover,
he emphasized the similarities between Christianity and Chinese traditions. Because of their willingness to adapt to Chinese culture, Jesuit
missionaries were accepted by the imperial court until the eighteenth
but leaves out information that is either very general
(“the Jesuit missionaries were sent to China in the Ming
period”) or too vague (“some had good relationships with
the emperor, but others didn’t”). Moreover, unlike the earlier version, it is explicit about how the key topics in the
paper-the flexibility of the Jesuit missionaries in adapting to Chinese culture, the parallels the missionaries drew
between Christianity and Confucianism, and the institution of more conservative policies-are related. It does
not add any new topics, however interesting those topics
might be. And, most important, this version, unlike the
first draft, clearly outlines the significance of the conclusions that the writer has reached: The Jesuit experience in
China tells us something about the relationship. between
culture and religious belief.
The following is the first draft of the conclusion for the
paper on Christian missionaries in China:
The Jesuit missionaries were sent to China in the Ming period. Some
had good relationships with the emperor, but others didn’t. Some
learned Mandarin and dressed in court robes. The pope wouldn’t let
the Chinese worship their ancestors, but some Jesuits thought that
Confucianism and Christianity were compatible. Another interesting
aspect of Chinese culture at the time was the practice of footbinding.
This conclusion is ineffective for several reasons. First,
there are no verbal clues to indicate that this is, in fact,
the conclusion. In addition, it is too general and vague:
Which missionaries had good relationships with the
emperor, and which didn’t? Moreover, while it lists some
of the key elements of the paper, it fails to indicate how
these ideas are connected. Most important, perhaps,
this conclusion does not suggest why the various ideas
presented in the paper are important; it fails, in other
words, to answer the questions “So what? Why is this
important?” Finally, a new topic is introduced in the last
In the revised version of the conclusion, these problems have been addressed:
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with any writing assignment is to leave yourself too little time to revise
and edit your work. A paper written the night before it is
due is never of the highest caliber and usually bears the
hallmarks of careless writing: sloppy mistakes in reasoning, awkward constructions, poor word choice, and lack
of clear organization. To write an effective history paper,
you must allow yourself time to review your paper, preferably at least twice: once to revise it for content and organization, and once to edit it for sentence style and grammatical correctness. (For advice on editing for style and
grammar, see 4g.)
The word revise comes from the Latin revisere, which
means “to look at again.” When you revise a paper, you
are, quite literally, looking at the paper again with critical
eyes. To begin revising your paper, you need to read it
critically, as if it were someone else’s work. (For advice on
critical reading, see 3a.) You should read for logic and clarity, making sure that your evidence is sufficient and that
it supports your thesis. Be ruthless: Eliminate all extraneous material from the final draft, however interesting it
may be. For instance, if you are writing about the role that
Chinese laborers played in the westward expansion of the
American railroads, do not spend three paragraphs discussing the construction of the steam locomotive. If your
paper concerns the American government’s treatment
Thus, if we look at the experience of the Jesuits in China, it seems
that their success or failure depended largely on the degree to which
they were able to adapt to Chinese culture. The most successful missionaries learned Mandarin, adopted Chinese court dress, and looked
for parallels between Christianity and the teachings of Confucius. It
was only when the Church became more conservative – forbidding
Chinese Christians, for example, to venerate their ancestors-that
the Christian missionary effort in China began to fail. Ultimately,
willingness to accept traditional Chinese culture and practices may
have been a better way to gain converts than preaching complicated
This conclusion has been improved in several ways: It
includes key transitional words (thus, ultimately) that
indicate that the writer is drawing conclusions. It reiterates the important elements of the paper’s argument
Tips for Writers
Revising for Content and Organization
Although historians have long been just as concerned with
proper grammar as English professors are, it is beyond
the scope of this manual to cover the basic grammatical
rules such as comma placement, subject-verb agreement,
and pronoun usage. Grammar- and spell-check programs
will help you avoid some mistakes, but they are no substitute for learning the rules. Also, a spell checker will not
pick up words spelled correctly but used incorrectly or in
the wrong context (for example, Mink dynasty instead of
Ming). For advice on the basic rules of English grammar,
you should buy, and use, a general writing guide. (See
Appendix A for a list of guides.)
While you must follow grammatical rules, you do
have some flexibility when it comes to style, or the way
in which you write (simple vs. complex sentences, highly
descriptive vs. stark wording). The way in which you
express yourself and the words you choose are a reflection
of your own style. Nevertheless, historians tend to follow
certain conventions governing language, tense, and voice
that you will want to keep in mind when you write and
revise your history papers.
Does the first paragraph introduce the subject of the
paper and proVide information about the texts, people, or
problems under discussion?
Does the paper have a real thesis that is specific and debatable? Isthe thesis clearly stated in the first paragraph?
Does the paper proVide sufficient evidence to support the
thesis? Has counterevidence been carefully considered
Is the paper’s argument clear and logical? Has the evidence from sources been synthesized into a cohesive
Have historical subjects been treated with respect? Does
the paper avoid generalizations, anachronisms, and bias
in both its language and its assumptions?
Does each paragraph address one specific point, stated
clearly in a topic sentence, and does each point support
the paper’s central argument?
Is each paragraph clearly and logically organized? Do
transitional words and phrases signal relationships within
and between paragraphs?
Has any irrelevant or extraneous material been eliminated?
Does the conclusion tie the paper together?
Is the paper properly documented? (See 6b and Chapter 7.)
Section 4b introduced you to some of the habits of mind
that will help you think like a historian: you need to
respect your subject, avoid generalization and anachronism, and be aware of your biases and assumptions. As
you write and revise your paper, make sure that your
writing demonstrates that you have adopted these good
of Japanese citizens during World War II, do not digress
into a discussion of naval tactics in the Pacific theater.
You must be willing to rearrange the order of material, do
additional research to support weak points in your argument, and even change your entire thesis, if necessary.
ObViously, you need to allow plenty of time for this part
of the writing process, which may involve several drafts
of the paper. The questions in the Tips for Writers box
above will help you revise the content of your own paper
or write an effective peer review for a classmate.
. Historians, as noted earlier in this
chapter (see 4b), attempt to understand the people of the
past in their own contexts rather than judge them by the
norms of the present. If you such
as backward, primitive, uncivilized, and superstitious, you are
implying that your own period, culture, and perceptions
are superior to those of the past. Passing judgment on the
people of the past does not help us understand what they
believed, why they believed it, or the social and cultural
context in which they formed their beliefs.
Avoid biased language. Always take care to avoid words
that are gender-biased or that have negative connotations for particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups. You
49 Editing for style and grammar
Once you have finished revising your paper for matters
of content and organization (see 4f), you are ready for
editing, the final stage of the writing process, in which
you focus on sentence style and grammatical correctness.
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