Writing Papers for HIST 100
HIST 100 is intended to develop students' understanding of the history of Western civilization.
This includes developing an understanding of the ways in which Western civilization has
interacted with the rest of the world. Part of the understanding of history, in turn, comes from
learning about the questions historians ask in their investigation of the past.
Papers are your chance to show the understanding you have gained in your studies.
Understanding is not simply a matter of being able to state information. In order to understand,
you need to know whether the information is true, what the information means, and why the
information you have stated is the correct answer to the question you are addressing.
Understanding involves being able to explain.
Therefore when you write a history paper, you need to show that you can explain.To show taht
you understand your topic you need to write papers that provide clear, organized explanations of
the points you wish to convey.
- The best general tip I know is this: As you try to think of how to express what you wish to say,
pretend that you are trying to explain to a person -- a fellow student, for example -- who is
intelligent but has not taken HIST 100. Pretend that you are trying to show this person that
you have understood the reading and have come to accurate conclusions about it. This person
has not yet done the reading, so you must make very clear exactly what passages of the
reading you are referring to, and you must make very clear what you think the passages mean
(so that the person can look the passages up). The person you are talking to has not taken
HIST 100, so you need to make clear how you reached your conclusions: what were the steps
you took in reasoning? How are the different things you talk about connected? What shows
that your conclusion is a correct or accurate conclusion?
- Sometimes there are several different accurate conclusions that one can draw from a single
text. However, there are likely to be several inaccurate ones too: conclusions that make factual
errors about dates, places, causes, etc.; conclusions that show that you have not read carefully
what the author you are reading has to say. Read carefully, make sure you know what the
author you are reading means, and identify which statements by that author led you to arrive at
- On a history paper, I do not deduct points for errors in spelling or grammar. HOWEVER,
errors in spelling and grammar can make it hard to tell what you mean to say. In fact, errors in
spelling and grammar often make it seem as if you are saying something you did not mean to
say. If I cannot tell what you mean, I cannot give you credit for having understood what you
are writing about. And if grammatical errors make your paper say something you did not mean
to say, I cannot give you credit for what you meant to say; I only know what you say, not what
you mean to say. In this way, errors of spelling and grammar can harm your grade indirectly.
So, make sure your spelling and grammar are accurate enough to convey your meaning.
- Similarly, I do not deduct points for problems of organization. HOWEVER, if your paper is
poorly organized, I cannot tell what you mean, and cannot give you credit for having
understood what you are writing about. Organization problems can therefore harm your grade
For example, make sure that each paragraph deals with just one idea or theme or point. Make
sure that the statements in each paragraph show some connection to one another; make sure that
it is clear why those particular statements should go together. Also, be sure that the point you are
making with the whole paragraph is clear.
Make sure that all of your statements and all of your paragraphs have to do with what you say in
your thesis statement. Do not add information whose connection to the thesis of the paper is not
Be sure to identify when you are quoting from an author, when you are summarizing an author,
and when you are stating your ideas.
Do not repeat statements or ideas. (Partial exceptions to this principle: It is all right to SHOW at
the end of the paper that your thesis statement is correct, and this may involve restating the thesis
statement. Also, it is perfectly fine to begin a paragraph with a phrase such as, "One example of
Thucydides' interest in eyewitness accounts is..." and then to begin the next paragraph with,
"Another example of Thucydides' interest in eyewitness accounts is...")
Make sure you know what the topic questions mean, and what the text you have chosen
means. If you are having trouble with those things, contact your instructors.
For example, here are some terms that are used in the topic questions. Make sure you understand
them correctly (many people use these terms without thinking about what they really mean):
credible: offering reasonable grounds for being believed.
cause (used as a noun): something that brings about a result or an effect; or, something that helps
to bring about a result or an effect. (A cause is not just something that comes before an effect; the
cause is what actually makes the effect happen, or helps to make it happen. If you say that one
thing caused another to happen, you need to show how the first thing really led to the second,
why it had to lead to the second thing.)
evidence: something that furnishes proof; an indication of what is true.
(These definitions are from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 8th ed.)
- A good way to determine whether your paper is clear and understandable is to read it aloud to
yourself, or see if you can find a willing victim among your fellow students. If you don't
understand what you wrote, or if another student does not get your point, then you should
think about rewriting. If you cannot make what you mean clear to a reader, then the reader
cannot tell whether you understand what you are writing about.
- Be sure to make an extra copy of your paper before you hand it in. Make a backup copy
of the file on a diskette and/or a hard drive, so that you have 2 copies of the file. Save
them for at least the entire semester. That way, if you lose your printout on your way to
hand it in, or if your printer fails, or if you give it to a friend to hand in and your friend forgets
to hand it in, you are covered.
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