writing about history

Writing About History


In this post, we will explore various approaches to writing about History. We will discuss how you can combine primary and secondary sources to develop a discussion in your paper that is both accurate and insightful. In the second section of this blog post, we will look at how you, as a historian, should be mindful of the audience when crafting your argument. Finally, we’ll talk about some common pitfalls that historians often fall into while writing their papers and offer advice on avoiding making those mistakes in your work. Let’s get started!

What is History?

History is a subject that can be interpreted in many different ways. Some people define History as what has happened, while others may see it as studying past events and their causes. It’s important to note that these two definitions are not mutually exclusive, and they both have merit

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History in Three Perspectives

The Positivist Approach

The positivist perspective defines History as what has happened in terms of facts. It’s an objective account of past events with no bias or judgment about those events.

The Interpretive Approach

The interpretive perspective views History through a subjective lens. There is an emphasis on interpreting evidence instead of just observing it.

The interpreter is actively involved and brings their values, judgments, and biases to the evidence.

The Critical Approach.

The critical perspective attempts to unearth power structures in society and how they affect historical events. It examines History from an analytical perspective, focusing on revealing contradictions throughout time instead of just documenting them.

What is the Importance of Writing History?

Writing History is an integral part of the historians’ workflow. You need to go back and look at a source, rethink some things, or read another source to produce a critical argument in your paper. In essence, writing forces you to engage more closely with the evidence you encounter.

You might also wonder why it’s essential to discuss the importance of writing History in your paper. It’s true that you probably won’t be graded on how well you expound the why behind using evidence. A concrete explanation can make it more straightforward why specific sources are essential and relevant in your thesis.

What Sources Do Historians Use?

When writing about History, it’s essential to understand how historians use sources.

History sources can be primary or secondary.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are any source that comes from the period you’re studying. For example, if you’re writing about the Holocaust, a primary source would be a diary entry written by someone who was actually in one of the concentration camps during World War II.

Primary Sources include:

  • Diaries, letters, memoirs
  • Oral History
  • Speeches and other public records

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources include;

  • Modern scholarship
  • Books, articles, and other written documents
  • Artwork and music from the period
  • Opinions of historians about primary source material.  (e.g., in a book review)

For example, if you were doing a thesis on Holocaust memoirs, a secondary source would be an essay discussing the nature of those testimonies as historical documents.

How Do Historians Approach Arguments?

The historian’s argument synthesizes evidence into an original conclusion. It’s important to note that historians are not just taking pieces of evidence and putting them together in any way they want. There needs to be a conscious decision about what sources are used, how those sources support one another, and why they all matter for your research question.

One aspect of this synthesis can include making connections between diverse evidence. For example, if you’re writing a paper about the Vietnam War and want to analyze propaganda posters from that time, it’s important to contextualize those sources by discussing other primary documents like letters or memoirs written during the war. This helps your argument come together in a cohesive way rather than just being made up of random pieces here and there.

Researchers approach arguments in a variety of ways:

There are five crucial research approaches historians use when they’re developing and writing an argument. These include:

  • Rhetorical analysis, which is the study of how language is used and understood within society over time;
  • Historicism, which looks at historical events as part of a larger narrative;
  • Structuralism, which attempts to uncover the hidden structures that underlie human society and culture.  (e.g., language)
  • Marxist analysis, which is based on the writings of Karl Marx as it relates to power structures in society;  
  • The feminist approach largely emerged from Marxist analysis but focused on the power dynamics between men and women.

Each of these approaches has different strengths and weaknesses, depending on how you’re approaching your topic. It’s essential to consider which approach is most applicable to build an argument that will be coherent and convincing for your intended audience.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources: How Do Historians Use Them?

Primary sources are great for understanding what happened, but secondary sources help you put those events into a larger narrative. When doing your history course, it is essential to use both sources to develop your argument in writing History.

History is accessible as a simple dichotomy between primary and secondary sources, but the lines aren’t drawn. Make sure that both sources will support your argument. Use them together to paint a complete picture of the period you’re studying.

When you write about History, think about the audience. If you’re writing for an expert in your field, you probably don’t need to explain how historians use sources or why it’s essential to discuss the significance of writing History in your paper. The same goes for other methods, such as evidential reasoning and context.

It can be challenging to write about History with a general audience because they aren’t familiar with some of the concepts we take for granted as historians. This means that it’s your job to explain those concepts. Take time to define terms and explain what you mean when you use specific language.

What is the Difference Between a Primary Source and a Secondary Source?

Primary sources are any source that comes from the period you’re studying. For example, if you’re writing about the Holocaust, a primary source would be a diary entry written by someone who was actually in one of the concentration camps during World War II.

Secondary sources are modern scholarship and interpretations of primary sources. For example, if you were researching Holocaust memoirs, a secondary source would be an essay discussing the nature of those testimonies as historical documents.

How Do You Check History?

People often want to make sure that what they read about History is accurate and true. There are different ways historians can double-check it, such as:

  • Verify any information with multiple sources
  • Look up primary vs. secondary sources
  • Make sure your resources are credible

Primary Sources: Include any information taken from original documents or artifacts of the time. For example, if you were writing about an event in the 1980s, a primary source could be someone’s diary from that time.

Secondary Sources: Include any information taken from another historian’s work on the topic or period. For examples of secondary sources are books and journal articles.

Credible resources: Your resources should be written by a historian, not someone who isn’t an expert on the topic.

How Do You Write About History Research Paper Step by Step?

A historical research paper assignment asks you to write about a particular period and how it has changed over the years. Here’s what you need to do to come up with your argument:

  • Pay attention to your audience. If you’re writing for an expert in the field, they already know that it’s crucial to discuss sources and context when writing about History. Think of how you’d explain these concepts if you talked to someone who doesn’t have any prior knowledge of the topic.
  • Determine what kind of thesis is appropriate (evidential reasoning, context)
  • Use both primary and secondary sources to back up your argument
  • Remember that you need a thesis statement (evidential reasoning, context) when writing about History.
  • Double-check your sources. Use at least two credible resources and verify any information with multiple sources if you can. In addition, make sure that the secondary sources you’re using are written by historians who specialize in the period or topic you’re studying. Hence, they have a better understanding of how it should be analyzed.
  • Define any terms or language you might use. For example, if your thesis statement is evidential reasoning (the idea that you need multiple sources to support an argument), then make sure the reader knows what this means so they can follow along with your essay.

1. Choose a topic

Think about what you already know or plan to learn about a time or event. Decide on a topic you are writing about.

Gather information- You’ll need to gather all the relevant information on your topic from different sources, including books, articles, primary sources, and experts’ opinions.

2. Do your research

Use a library, the internet, or interview experts to gather all your information.

You’ll need to find reliable sources that are backed up with evidence and information

3. Do historical analysis

Once you’ve gathered all the information and facts, you need to look at them and decide what they mean in your topic.  Then develop your ideas and arguments.  You’ll need to include an explanation of how your evidence proves your argument.

4. Give your historical research paper a title

Your title can be either a historical question or a statement about what you are writing about.

5. Start writing the introduction

State which period of History you’re discussing and start explaining why you chose this topic.

Give a brief overview of what your essay will cover.

6. Write the body of your paper

When writing your paper, have three main headings in a separate paragraph for each main idea.  For example, if you are writing about American History, these could be: 1) Colonization, 2) Civil War and Slavery 3) Success of the US. 

After each heading, you should write between 2 and 4 sub-headings related to it with short sentences explaining what happened or is essential.

Under each sub-heading, you should include information and facts along with explanations on how they prove or disprove your argument.

7. Conclusions

Restate what you’ve learned about the topic and give your opinion on why it’s essential to learn about this time or event/problem.

8. Editing

Edit your paper for any spelling, punctuation, or grammatical mistakes. Then, read through it and make sure the whole thing makes sense to you (and anyone else who reads it).

Finally, ask a teacher or someone else you trust to check what you’ve written before you hand it in!

Writing the Introduction

In the introduction of a history paper, you must:

  • Introduce your topic clearly to your readers, so they know what is being discussed in the essay. Give a reason why it’s essential.
  • Ask one or two questions that will be answered in the rest of the document. – State who wrote about the topic and why you chose their ideas. – Give the names of some other scholars who have written about the topic and explain what they found out.

Writing the Body of a History Paper

You will need to include four paragraphs in your document:

  • First paragraph 
  • Second paragraph 
  • Third paragraph 
  • Fourth paragraph (optional)

The first paragraph

Restate the topic of your thesis. Students should give their readers some background information. For example, you might give a brief timeline of events to show what happened in History before the topic and explain why it’s essential today.

  • Discuss one or two key points that are clearly explained in your thesis statement.
  • You need to include references for any facts, dates, or quotes you use.

The second paragraph

Show how your thesis is based on evidence from History and scholarly sources. Students need to explain the research clearly and discuss all the critical information so their readers can understand it without difficulty.

If possible, you might want to compare and contrast different views on the topic. You can also give your point of view, but you must make sure it is based on facts and evidence from History.

The third paragraph

Include more information to back up the points discussed in your essay. Students might want to give a detailed explanation of how one event led to another or its effect on people in History.

You can write about the facts you found during your research and explain how they relate to each other.

The fourth paragraph (optional):

You have more freedom to discuss alternative viewpoints on the topic and explain why you disagree with them. – You might want to give your readers advice on how to approach the topic.

Writing the Conclusion

In history papers, conclusions are summaries of what was discussed in your essay. They should be short statements that restate essential points from your paper and provide a clear author’s position on the matter.

You can also provide some recommendations that can help people understand your subject better. Avoid using any new information in them.

You might want to write a short epilogue or add your thoughts and interpretation on the topic if it is appropriate. However, make sure you don’t introduce anything new that hasn’t been discussed before.

You can organize your essay into different parts. For example, you might start with a thesis statement that introduces the topic. Thesis statements are always better when they are under the sub-heading of the section. Include an introductory paragraph which can include a small intro, your thesis statement, and your basic plan for the essay. Include a closing sentence that summarizes what you intend to discuss in the essay after you’ve introduced it.

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What is the Format for Writing History Paper?

If you’re writing a paper for a history class, there are specific requirements that you need to know about before starting your essay.

  • Write your paper in MLA format, which has specific guidelines for formatting, including the order of the sources and how they should be cited.
  • Each source should be from a different author and have different views on the topic to show that you’re not biased.
  • Include all the sources (at least 3-5) to show that you did research.
  • Use quotation marks when writing about the subject. For example, you can write, “The invention of the light bulb changed people’s lives in a way that is almost impossible to measure.”
  • Include your sources properly and use MLA format citations, including the author’s name, date published, and title of the article or book.
  • Give credit to the author and avoid paraphrasing their work unless you discuss various viewpoints or give your own opinion.
  • Apart from MLA, you can also use the Chicago Manual of Style as it’s the recommended guide for citations in History. You may visit the University of Wisconsin’s writing center webpage for more information on this topic.
  • Use a standard font size and set your margins to 1″ from the top, bottom, left, and right. Make sure the first page only has your name and the title of your paper so you can create a header with these two items on each new page.
  • Number pages at the top, center of each page, and use a header with your name and the page number on every new page.
  • A history paper should be between 1,400-1,600 words.
  • Use a clear and organized writing style, so there are no grammatical errors in your paper.
  • Be ready to discuss the topic for at least five paragraphs.
  • Include your thoughts, interpretation, and feelings about the topic in the final paragraph of your essay.

What are the Different Types of History Essays?

There are three main types of history essays that you can choose to write about. Each type has different requirements and needs a different writing style to make it effective. Here is a breakdown of the different types:

1. The narrative essay

A narrative essay is when you share a story about something that happened in History, which often includes personal stories and experiences.

Narrative Essay Outline:  Your intro should include your thesis statement (topic sentence) that states what you will be writing about in the body paragraphs. The first body paragraph should include a very brief background of the topic and then three points that you will explain.

Each point from your thesis statement should have an individual supporting paragraph with evidence to support it. Your conclusion for this essay can simply restate your thesis statement in more detail and briefly summarize all of the main ideas or key points from your essay.

2. An analytic essay

Analytical essays focus on evaluating arguments or claims made about specific issues related to History. You should use evidence from research to help you support your argument.

Analytical Essay Outline:  The intro should include the thesis statement, which is one sentence that states what you will be writing about in the body paragraphs. The first paragraph can state two opposing ideas and then explain why both arguments are valid and give a better argument for an alternative perspective.

This paragraph includes the main idea sentence, which is a topic sentence because it tells the reader what you will be writing about. The following body paragraphs should explain one argument from your thesis statement and include evidence to support that claim.

The conclusion restates all of the main ideas in more detail and briefly summarizes them for clarity.

3. The synthesis essay

A synthesis essay is when you put together two or more different ideas about History into one piece of writing. Students should try to present a new idea rather than taking a side in an existing debate.

Synthesis Essay Outline:  The introduction should include the thesis statement, which is one sentence that states what you will be writing about in the body paragraphs. The first paragraph can state two opposing ideas and then explain why both arguments are valid and give a better argument for an alternative perspective.

The paragraph includes the main idea sentence, which is a topic sentence because it tells the reader what you will be writing about. The following body paragraphs should explain one argument from your thesis statement and include evidence to support that claim. The conclusion restates all of the main ideas in more detail and briefly summarizes them for clarity.

Other essays include;

Argumentative Essay

A type of essay that you write to take a position on an issue and explain why. Usually, this topic is debatable where people have different opinions about it.

Comparative Essay

An argumentative essay that looks at two or more than two ideas to discuss their similarities and differences. This helps readers understand why one idea is better than the other.

 Rhetorical Analysis Essay

 An essay that looks at a piece of writing (or speeches, advertisements, etc.) analyzes why it was written the way.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing History Papers

Some common writing mistakes are not specific to writing a history paper. Students should avoid making them anyway. These include:

1) Focusing too much on the question and not enough on your topic.

2) Not having a clear thesis statement that is supported by evidence in each body paragraph.

3) Making arguments based on speculation or personal opinion instead of factual information.

4) Using first-person pronouns-“I” and “we” should only be used when you’re writing about yourself or your own experiences, but it’s considered bad form to write a history paper using that voice.

5) Writing in Passive voice -writing in the active voice makes writing much clearer and is more engaging for readers.

6) Going off-topic- For example; The Civil War is a massive topic, but your essay has to have one specific focus. You cannot add other ideas or issues into this paper unless they are relevant and support your argument.

7) Not using evidence- Evidence should be cited in your history paper to show exactly where you got the information used in your essay. Without documentation, readers might not know if your argument is just an opinion or a widely accepted fact.

How Do History Research Papers Differ From Other Types of Papers?

Generally, history papers do not include any creative writing and are written in a formal academic style. They follow the same format as other types of essays, including an introduction, body, and conclusion. However, there is one significant difference to your writing:

A good paper (historical research) must be based on evidence from what happened in History. You need to show your intended audience that what you’re writing is truthful and correct by taking information from a reliable source.

Thus, history research papers are based on more facts and data than other types of essays. You need to include relevant details to support your points of view.

What Are the 12 Branches of History?

The 12 branches of history curriculum is a standardized course developed by Dr. Dominick LaCapra to promote an understanding and appreciation for all the different areas, events, and people studying History.

The idea behind this educational program is that students who study more than one area of History will identify patterns within the History of the world.

1. Ancient History (Prehistory – AD 476)

2. Medieval and Early Modern (476 – 1800)

3. Revolutionary and Modern (1800-1945)

4. Contemporary (1945 – present)

5. Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern History surveys significant developments from earliest civilizations to 1789 in western European nations, emphasizing the Classical and Medieval periods.

6. Modern European History deals with events from 1789 to the present, concentrating on western nations.

7. American History covers everything that happened in America from 1492 until recent times, including important people, places, and events that influenced the development of the US.

8. Latin American History – Deals with the History of Latin America from 1492 until recent times, examining everything that shaped the nations and cultures of this region.

9. African-American History – Covers everything that happened in Africa and North America from the 16th Century onward, including important events related to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

10. Asian-American History – Deals with the History of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 16th Century to recent times, covering everything that has shaped these regions, such as imperialism and colonialism.

11. World History – Covers all of world history from ancient times until recent events in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.

12. Comparative History – Deals with two or more historical events happening at about the same time or in different regions of the world. For example, you might write a paper on the causes of both World War 1 and World War 2.

History Research Paper Topics

Now that you understand how to write about History, it’s time to pick a topic. Here are some fabulous ideas for writing your thesis:

1) Why did the American Civil War start?

  • This war was fought between 1861 and 1865 over slavery, states’ rights, and nationalism. It resulted in over half a million deaths.

2) Who were the suffragettes? What do they stand for?

  • The suffragettes were women who fought for their right to vote in Britain from the 1890s until World War One. They wanted equality and better pay, conditions, and education too.

3) How has America changed from the 1970s onwards?

  • Since the 1970s, Americans have become less trusting of politicians. There is also a rise in cynicism and self-interest. The percentage of women in politics (as presidents or representatives) has decreased too.

4) How does the media affect people’s opinions about war today?

5) What is the future of warfare?

6) Why did some governors refuse to abide by Obamacare in 2014?

  • Some Republican governors refused to create state health exchanges or expand their Medicaid program for low income Americans as part of Obama’s plan. Find out why they decided not to follow this policy and what happened as a result.

7) How important was Christopher Columbus in the discovery of America?

8) How has technology changed the workplace over the last ten years?

9) What are your views on capital punishment?

10) Do you think people can be too obsessed with work or money? Explain why.

11) Should online dating websites have age restrictions for anyone over 55?

12) What is the History of sexism in America, and what are your views about equality in the workplace today?

13) How has the environment changed since you were born?

14) Are men or women more intelligent? Why do you think this might be?

15) Why did so many people immigrate to America in the 19th Century? How did this affect America?

16) Is there too much political correctness in the world today?

17) Do you think we need more regulation on gun control in the US? Why or why not?

18) What do you know about apartheid and how it affected South Africa from 1948 to 1994?

19) How has the Vietnam War affected America in a negative way?

20) Why do football players keep protesting by taking a knee during the national anthem at their games?


Writing History can be a challenging task for many students. You need to have a strong understanding of the topic you’re writing about to create an engaging paper. A quality history paper must have a clear thesis, relevant material, and proper documentation and citations to make a compelling argument about History.

Include different body paragraphs with facts and evidence that support your argument/thesis statement.

Explain why you used a specific piece of evidence in each paragraph as it relates to the thesis statement.

The conclusion should just restate your argument and evaluate its broader implications. It shouldn’t include any personal anecdotes or anything else that is not related to your main topic.

Titles can be either a historical question or a statement about what you are writing about. It needs to be specific language that is relevant to your argument.

Make sure you are citing and attributing all of your evidence to where it came from.

-Don’t forget the header with a space for the page number in the upper right hand corner!

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