Thesis: A good historian does not adopt a thesis until quite late on in the process of preparing a paper. First, find good questions to ask yourself, questions that deserve and actually call for an answer, real world questions even if the paper is about a remote period of the past. Only at the almost-final stage of preparation will you know at last more or less exactly what you want to argue, what your line of argument (thesis if you will) is to be. You can then make sure that we readers know too, by signalling to us both questions and thesis in the introduction.

  • In the body of the paper, argue your case for your answers to the questions you have set youself. Do not write a simple narrative, or just tell a story, or try to include everything (no matter how little) you know about a subject.
  • Of course, in making your argument, you will need to give examples that support the thesis, and these examples may well include narrative. But you should try to persuade the reader of the validity of your argument. So aim to write an analytical paper in which you discuss the thesis, and then draw a conclusion for the preceding debate. By the end the reader should be able to state your point of view clearly, and to summarize the evidence of which you base that argument.
  • Take a position; don't waffle. Say what you think, and why. In history, although certain facts are indisputable, there are few "right" or "wrong" answers; usually it is a matter of a "good", i.e. persuasive, argument, or a "bad" one, i.e. an unpersuasive, poorly planned one.

Bibliography: A research paper requires research, i.e. finding the relevant primary sources, secondary literature, etc, and evaluating all this material. Skim through the secondary sources and see what general lines of argument develop that relate to your topic.

Are you sure you understand the difference between "primary" and "secondary" materials, and why they matter? If not, ask!

  • Use your professor as a resource.
    • Consult them for broad suggestions on manageability of the topic, which directions might be most promising, etc.
    • Ask for pointers on bibliography.
    • Come to Office Hours ahead of exam!

Outline: After you have done your research, plan in advance what line of argument you will take. Depending on the complexity of your subject and on your own study habits, the outline may be anything from a broad general guide to a very detailed plan. The outline should enable you to check easily on the development of the argument, and to re-order it in the most effective, logical order.

  • An outline will also help you gauge your time. Start working on the paper well in advance of the due date. It is highly recommended that you meet the specified due date. Notify your instructor as soon as possible if it seems that, for some legitimate reason, you may need an extension. A paper simply turned in late, without prior negotiation, will usually draw a penalty
  • You may need to go through multiple plans before writing the paper, to clarify your questions and their ordering (crucial) and to gradually sort out the argument with which you bring together the different questions you have set yourself. .

Title: Choose a title which suggests a question or debate you will address. Print it at the top of the first page, and on the cover sheet. Bear it in mind while you are writing the paper. Don't let yourself stray from the subject as you have framed it. Subtle suggestion: If you have something nifty you badly want to include, you should arrange the initial presentation (title and introduction) to make it relevant -- Right from the start.

Introduction: Start strongly. This is where you manage (or fail) to capture interest and thereby improve your grade. Usually the first paragraph should introduce the argument. Sometimes a short opening paragraph is also needed to set the historical context.

Argument: Marshall evidence to support your thesis. This does not mean that you simply pile up facts. If others take different lines of argument on your topic, indicate why you agree or disagree with them.

Conclusion: Finish with a bang not a whimper. Summarize the debate neatly in a paragraph or two. Save a point of interest to end on -- a comment on the significance of the subject, what is original about your argument, etc. The conclusion should reinforce, in the reader's mind, the persuasiveness of your whole argument.

Quotations: Keep all quotes short: We are more interested in what you have to say than in anyone else's words. All quotes must fit smoothly into the text. Any quotation longer than 3 lines should be indented and single-spaced. Acknowledge the source of all direct quotations in a footnote -- author, work, page etc.

Revisions: Once you have written the paper, read it through again. And again.

  • Read it aloud! You may be surprised to discover that your ear catches infelicities, such as simple grammatical errors, that "look" fine on paper, and so escape your eyes. You will also be so pleased when it sounds good, euphonious, persuasive, clear.
  • Get someone else to read it. Does it flow easily? Does it make sense? Can they follow your argument?
  • Please, please proof your work carefully. Check your spelling. Remember that Spell-Checker software will not tell you if you are usiong a word correctly or in the right place, only that it exists in its dictionary. Have both a Dictionary and a Thesaurus of your own to hand. If certain phrases are repeated often enough to seem boring, seek out accurate synonyms in the Thesaurus.

--- Cornell University


What's in an argument and the dreaded "T"?!