Writing in History

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There is no single method for writing a history paper; however, there are certain strategies that can be employed to make the whole process less daunting. Ultimately that is the purpose of the present guide – to introduce general strategies and guidelines for writing history papers.

Further instruction on how to write a history paper can be found in a number of comprehensive guides, including:

For the purposes of the present guide, however, consideration will primarily be given to research, writing, referencing, style, and common mistakes to avoid.


When you first begin your research, it is often helpful to engage in some general reading on the topic of interest. Feel free to scan the internet and consult encyclopedias to gain an overall understanding of the main themes, key dates, and historical players of the issue you are researching. Keep in mind, however, that websites like Wikipedia, though potentially useful as a basic resource, are not considered to be scholarly sources and cannot be used in academic bibliographies. Such resources are only to be used as a stepping stone for your real research.

Start taking notes from the very beginning of your research. Having good notes will help you organize your thoughts about the topic and will help you when sitting down to write the final paper. The best notes are those that document your thoughts on what you have read – keep track of things that interest you (such as a particular person, event or reaction), things that seem unusual, and anything that makes you question "why?"

Questioning what you are reading will help narrow your focus – and remember that stronger papers often cover less since a very broad topic can create a paper that is too simplistic. For instance, while you might be interested in writing a paper about the First World War it is unrealistic to try and tackle the entire subject in one 10-page paper! A much more realistic approach would be to focus on one aspect of this conflict. Perhaps you find propaganda particularly intriguing. In this case, you would start keeping track of instances where propaganda has been mentioned in your general reading. From here you would begin assessing whether the topic – propaganda and the First World War – is researchable. Essentially a topic becomes "researchable" when you determine whether there are sufficient sources available to you.

When writing your history paper, you will draw from two types of sources: secondary and primary.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are books, monographs, and journal articles written by academics. These range from the very broad (Introduction to Western Civilization) to the very specific (Charles Dickens and the Movement for Sanitary Reform), and represent historians' interpretations of historical events. Secondary sources are easily located through Primo and Journal Indexes (Project Muse and JSTOR are particularly popular databases).

If we were to continue with our earlier example, the key words "World War, 1914-1918" and "propaganda" produce more than 90 entries in Primo. While a number of duplicate results may exist, in all likelihood you will not have time to read all of these books. Consequently, your research focus must be further narrowed.

For example, a much more manageable topic to research would be Canadian propaganda during the First World War. In this instance it would be useful to draw on one or two texts that deal generally with the war (such as The Great War, 1914-1918 by I.F.W. Beckett), texts that deal specifically with Canada (such as Canada and the First World War by John Alexander Swettenham), and texts that deal with propaganda and the war (such as A Call to Arms: Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Newspapers in the Great War by Troy Paddock).

The most useful texts would be those that relate most closely to your own research concern – namely Canadian propaganda during the First World War. Consequently you would draw upon such texts as Propaganda and Censorship during Canada's Great War by Jeff Keshen, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 by Peter Buitenhuis, and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?: A Visual History of Propaganda Posters by Peter Stanley.

As you read these secondary sources, pay attention to the texts used by the authors. In addition to providing insight about what scholars rely on to form their arguments, footnotes and bibliographies can also augment your own research plan and highlight those sources that you might not have otherwise looked at for your own paper.

Primary Sources

Primary sources come in many different forms – and are distinguished by when they were created, rather than what form they take. They include documents produced by individuals, governments, and institutions, and may have been created for publication or private use. These are the documents that really allow you to engage with history, as they provide insight into what people were thinking and how they were acting at a given moment in time. Essentially they act as a window into the past.

Primary sources include but are not limited to legislation, parliamentary papers, church records, population records, photos, books, letters, diaries, memoirs, films, journals, and newspapers.

Primary sources can be located a number of different ways. Many published primary sources are available through Primo. For instance, in researching Canadian propaganda during the First World War, you may discover that the department responsible for producing propaganda was the Dominion Publicity Committee (Victory Loan). A key word search of this committee through Primo locates ABC of the Victory Loan, created in 1918. Such a source might provide significant insight into the type of propaganda produced by the government during this time period.

Other primary sources can be located in archives, including Guelph's own Archival and Special Collections, and, increasingly, primary sources can also be located online. As with all websites, consideration must be given to the reliability of the site. Generally websites hosted by reputable organizations and academic institutions can be trusted. For instance, the Canadian War Poster Collection, which is hosted through the McGill Rare Books and Special Collections, is considered reputable and could be used in a paper analyzing Canadian propaganda in the First World War.

In addition to reading primary sources for content, one also must give consideration to potential biases, limitations and trustworthiness of the sources. Questions to ask include "who created it and for what purpose?"; "who was the intended audience?"; "how does it fit into the wider historical context?", etc.

It should be noted that some sources can be viewed as either secondary or primary, depending on what research questions are being asked. For instance, while Edward Gibbon's, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is  a solid piece of scholarly work, it also provides insight into aspects of Enlightenment philosophy, since Gibbon was very much a product of his age.

Exposure to a range of primary documents can ultimately be a catalyst for forming new research questions, allowing for a more "bottom-up" approach requiring a broadening focus, as opposed to the narrowing approach of the "top-down" approach discussed previously. For instance, when glancing at a newspaper you might stumble across a news story about a specific criminal trial. In reading about this situation, it may become apparent that certain class and/or gender issues featured prominently in the legal arguments or testimony. However, to make an historical argument about the case it becomes necessary to link the trial to the larger context, which can be located in secondary texts.

Learn more about primary sources.


When beginning to write it is useful to refer back to your research notes to remind yourself of the questions you asked, the ideas you generated, and insights you made. In the early stages of writing it is also beneficial to create an outline; this will give your

paper structure, create smooth transitions among supporting arguments, and help avoid repetition of ideas. An outline can also help you decide whether you will structure your paper chronologically or thematically.


In the introduction you should identify the topic that is to be discussed, as well as the time period, main themes and, if applicable, key figures. Ideally the introduction will lead logically toward one's thesis.

Students often have difficulty coming up with an argumentative, clearly defined thesis. Sometimes they think they have nothing "new" to say, or state something that is too vague or simplistic. A good thesis often emerges from good research questions – ask yourself why something happened, why it was significant, or offer different interpretations. If you find yourself struggling with the exact wording of the thesis, allow yourself to return to it after you have written the rest of the draft. Often your conclusion can provide insight into what you were really arguing throughout your paper, and it may be worth revisiting your introduction and thesis to ensure that it reflects the conclusions that were made.


The body of the paper is where evidence and analysis is presented, ultimately creating a narrative in support of the paper's thesis. Keep in mind that the study of history is concerned with why and how past events took place and for understanding the actions and motivations of persons involved in said events.

Effective analysis includes comparing and contrasting information, consideration of primary sources, thoughtful inferences, and recognition of alternate interpretations or theories. For instance, you could compare American and Canadian propaganda produced during the First World War. Were there significant differences between the two? What were the similarities? Or, you could examine different types of propaganda, such as posters encouraging volunteerism or the purchase of war bonds. Alternately, you could examine visual representations of nationalism or gender from propaganda posters and make arguments based on such inferences.


While the conclusion should relate back to the thesis, it does not need to reiterate the entire introduction or thesis. Rather it should bring loose ends together, indicate the significance of the issue, and generally bring the essay to a close.


When writing any academic paper, it is important to use proper referencing in order to avoid plagiarism. As a general rule, one should reference any specialized knowledge and/or ideas that are not your own, as well as any direct quotations. More information on plagiarism – and how to avoid it – can be located through the Academic Integrity at the University of Guelph website.

Chicago style is the commonly accepted reference system for history. Although Chicago style allows for two forms of referencing – in-text citation or notes and bibliography – most historians rely on the latter and use either footnotes or endnotes in their papers.


While history papers are primarily assessed for content and analysis, a poor style can negatively influence evaluation of the final product. There are several easy steps, however, that, if followed, will make your essay seem more polished and professional.

Keep in mind some simple formatting basics. These include creating a title page, which includes the title of the paper, your name and student number, the course number, and date; double-spacing the text and using a clear 12-point font; numbering pages; and stapling the pages together.

Try to make the text as interesting as possible for the reader. This can be achieved by using sentences of varying lengths, while fluidity can be enhanced by using transition words like "consequently," "arguably," "alternatively," etc. It is also best to avoid words such as "felt" or "believed" since it may be difficult to prove that the persons in question actually did feel a certain way. Similarly, avoid the use of "I." While you may want to identify that an idea is your own, this can be implied in how and what you are arguing.

Since history papers rely extensively on primary sources, effective quoting is integral to good essays. However, it is important not to quote for the simple sake of doing so. Rather, one should consider what the quote actually adds to the paper. Does it simply reiterate what has already been said in the text? Or does it provide additional information? Do not let the quotes "write" the paper for you – and keep in mind that readers can be wary of multiple, lengthy quotes!

Generally it is best to avoid quoting extensively from secondary documents, as paraphrasing can be much more effective. For instance while the following examples provide the same information, the information is better paraphrased, evident in Example B.

Example A: According to Ede and Cormack, Vesalius "began with humanism, since he compared alternate texts of Galen in order to find the purest and least corrupted."1

Example B: Vesalius adhered to humanistic principles, comparing different texts of Galen to find the most pure and least corrupt information.1

Furthermore, quotes need to be "anchored" and context should be provided to show how it relates to the text. Essentially, the existence of quotes – however lengthy – should add to the overall narrative and not detract from it.

Examples of effective quoting:

Poor: In 1857, the Royal Commission published findings that generated a public outcry, as illustrated in this quote from the June 3, 1857 issue of the Scotsman, ". . . such treatment is utterly disgraceful . . . ."2 Clearly, these findings upset many people in Scotland.

Fair: The publication of the findings by the Royal Commission in 1857 generated a public outcry. The treatment of lunacy in Scotland was felt to be "utterly disgraceful . . . The humanity of the country, upon knowing this information, would be moved to insist on legislation if this had been known."2

Good: The Royal Commission to examine Scottish asylums and lunacy laws published its findings in 1857, the results of which generated a public outcry. The treatment of lunacy in Scotland was deemed "utterly disgraceful," and it was claimed by some that the "humanity of the country" would have been roused "to insist on legislation" had this information be made available to the public earlier. 2

Poor: Vesalius prescribed first-hand dissection for all would-be anatomists since, as illustrated in a quote from The Surgical Art, "Galen hardly noticed anything except the fingers and the bend of the knee – which he would certainly have passed over with the rest, if they had not been obvious to him without dissection."3 This is why he criticized Galen, because he did not do his own dissections.

Good: Vesalius criticized Galen's methods, commenting that Galen only understood the underlying structure of "the fingers and the bend of the knee" and nothing else since he did not conduct dissections on humans.3

Common Mistakes to Avoid:

There are a number of common mistakes that students sometimes make when writing history papers – especially if they have little experience doing so.

Avoid wide-sweeping or generalized statements, including "since the beginning of time" or "throughout history," or general terms such as "society," unless you have already established what society you are discussing. Such statements are impossible to prove and immediately suggest that the paper may be approaching a topic too simplistically.

Confusing chronology can also be a problem, and can be a particular problem when discussing different time periods. Stick to simple past tense. With the exception of historiographical papers - when the present tense can occasionally be utilized – it makes sense to use the past tense when discussing history.

Avoid the passive voice, which can make text seem overly long, and instead use an active voice. This makes the narrative more engaging for the reader. For instance "John read the book" is considered active, while "The book was read by John" is considered passive. More examples of active and passive voice can be located at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.

With respect to general tone, avoid slang and colloquial language. Remember that you are writing for an academic audience!

In your analysis, be careful when distinguishing between causation and correlation. While it may be tempting to argue that a particular event or action directly influenced a later event or action, it can be difficult to make links between events that were many years apart. Similarly, it is not necessary to link historical events to contemporary concerns.

Avoid overly long paragraphs; essays do not have to follow the "five paragraph model" and new paragraphs should be used when needed – i.e., when a new thought is being introduced. Also avoid overly long sentences that try to deal with multiple ideas.

Be careful of explicit or implicit judgment about certain events or actions. Recognize that events happen in a specific context, and that moral attitudes and social mores constantly change and evolve.

Lastly, proof-read, proof-read, proof-read! This will help catch some obvious errors, including grammatical missteps, poor word choice, and strange transitions between ideas.