Digital History>Writing Guides>Steps in Writing a Research Paper

Steps in Writing a Research Paper

Step 1: Identify a historical question worth addressing.

Most people think that history is simply a succession of names and dates—one fact after another. In fact, effective history writing is always argumentative. It responds to ongoing debates in the field or in the public mind. Historians construct their arguments in certain characteristic ways:

Identifying a Topic

1. Closing gaps in the scholarship: There are gaps in the scholarship, and I will close them.

2. Debunking myths: There is a "traditional" or popular interpretation of this issue that I will debunk.

3. Complicating a topic: The existing interpretation of this topic is far too simple

4. Taking sides in a debate: There is a debate on this topic, and I will demonstrate that one side is right and the other wrong.

5. Recasting a debate: There is a debate on this topic, and I will demonstrate that the debate must be recast, because previous scholars have asked the wrong questions, or viewed the topic in the wrong way.

6. Refining or rebutting generalizations: I will use a case study to refine or rebut a generalization.

Step 2: Find historical sources that address this question.

Historical papers draw on two kinds of sources:

1. Secondary sources are scholarly studies of a particular topic. From these, one can learn about the arguments surrounding a specific subject.

2. Primary sources provide the raw data out of which history is reconstructed. They may included printed or published texts, unpublished manuscripts and papers, maps and other visual materials, music and other audio materials, and artifacts.

Reading a Primary Source

  • Content: What information can be gleaned from this source?
  • Interpretation: Does the source support or challenge commonly accepted conclusions about a topic?
  • Reliability: Does the source provide accurate or biased information?

Reading a Secondary Source

  • Read the title
  • Read the book from the outside in:
    What do the preface, introduction and conclusion tell you about the author’s thesis?
  • Follow the book’s argument:
  • Focus on the topic sentences.

Gathering Materials

History students need to develop proper research skills.

They need to be familiar with locating sources of information and properly citing them.

Reference Sources

  • Bibliographies
  • Periodical guides
  • Newspaper guides
  • Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks
  • Biographical directories
  • Chronologies
  • Historical statistics
  • Archives and manuscripts
  • Book review digests and indices
  • Essays in an anthology
  • Government documents
  • Legal documents
  • Journals and magazines
  • Newspaper

Taking Notes

Notes should contain:

  • A descriptive heading
  • A summary the information
  • Direct quotations
  • The source of the information

Step 3: Writing your essay.

The Three Parts of a History Essay

  • The Introduction
  • The Body
  • The Conclusion

Part I. The Introduction
The introduction to your essay should:

  • Catch the reader’s attention with an anecdote, quotation, intriguing fact, or statistic.
  • Introduce the problem
  • Define key terms
  • State the thesis—a one-sentence statement of your argument—in a provocative way.
  • Provide a road map for the paper.

Part II. The Body
The body of your essay:

  • logically lays out your argument
  • anticipates counterarguments
  • interprets and evaluates evidence

The body of your essay is built around paragraphs. Each paragraph begins with a topic sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about.

In the body of your essay, you will support your argument with evidence, quotations, and analysis. You need to remember that evidence does not speak for itself. It needs to be summarized, explained, and interpreted.

Part III. The Conclusion
The conclusion of your essay should:

  • restate the thesis
  • explain the significance and implications of your thesis
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