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Section 5.7 Writing for History

Among scholars, historians are unique in their pursuit of knowledge from pasts that only get further away rather than clearer as time goes on. The difficulty of sometimes vast amounts of elapsed time combined with the intense and often bewildering particularity of different historical moments can make writing academically about history challenging for students. Read this guide to get an idea of how to think about your task as a historian in training!

Genres

Of the several kinds of writing you will be asked to do in your history classes, close readings of a primary source are perhaps the most foundational. A close reading is a paper in which you develop an analytical argument that takes into account the historical context the source is from. The skills you use to write a primary source close reading are transferable to the secondary source critiques that you will be asked to write. Another way to think of these critiques is as a way to “test other scholars.” Other history papers include papers that put primary and secondary sources in conversation with one another, annotated bibliographies, research prospectuses and comparisons of a historian's versus a popular source's version of an event to elucidate the difference between how historians and how others think about the past.

Purpose

[The purpose] is two-fold: firstly writing is a creative process, so we figure things out as we write, . . . but the end goal is to understand the people of the past and why they did things the way they did.

Unlike writing in many other academic disciplines, most good historical writing is open and accessible to the general reader. Part of the purpose of historical writing, then, is to bring the stories and patterns of the past to the attention of modern readers. Within these stories and patterns are the figures of the past. These figures can sometimes seem very strange, they can seem evil, they can seem funny, but they are ultimately human beings, and your task as a historian is to make sense of them from their perspectives to the extent to which that's possible—and it's a task that is, in fact, impossible. And that's part of what you can love about it: Your job is to try to make sense of a puzzle, always knowing that you can't quite get there.

Valued Characteristics

Imagination is really important. “Analytical” for us isn't like looking through a microscope, but having to really imagine, and being willing to think about things in new ways.

Writing for history can be very difficult because you are, in essence, being asked to disregard what you know—what your present has taught you—and recreate a world that you have never seen and that has ceased existing. For this reason, historical writing is an act of inquiry that is both logical and imaginative. To be a good historian you must begin by making observations and then use these observations to ask good questions that will help you reimagine the past in a new way or to find the gaps in existing ways of understanding it. These questions and new ways of seeing will allow you to gain a deeper knowledge of the past and, hopefully, a deeper empathy for its figures.

A second important part of writing historically is understanding that making a historical argument does not mean disregarding your sources to write what you want; rather, it means to allow your observations to help you make a convincing argument by presenting them in the truest possible way: historians feel they have an ethical responsibility to not abuse their evidence, to not do violence to the sources of the past, to not force a source to say something that it did not intend to say. For this reason, when you make an interpretive leap you must justify it so that you do not misrepresent a source.

This second characteristic of historical writing is often called being “value neutral.” However, being value neutral doesn't mean that historians don't see things as right and wrong—instead it means that in order to actually be able to distinguish one from the other a historian must first begin by understanding the people of the past—and you can't do that unless you have put aside your own moral lens long enough to figure them out. Putting aside your lenses is, indeed, the thing that will allow you to ask the questions you will need to ask in order to imagine the past—questions that are not merely factual, that are not anachronistic or judgmental, but analytical.

Evidence

We can't run experiments, or recreate the French Revolution in a test tube, so we have to make use of the surviving evidence.

History is a “quoting disciple”—you'll need to use quotes from your primary sources to make supportable claims. However, writing for history will also give you the opportunity to use non linear textual evidence at times, such as maps, historical artifacts, and art.

Conventions and Tips
  • It is fundamental to historical writing that you put your sources in context. Without this contextualization, your analysis may be anachronistic.

  • Secondary sources aren't proof. Don't use theories as facts, instead use them to frame your argument rather than “prove” it.

  • Because you want to appeal to non expert readers, avoid jargon. If you absolutely need technical terminology, then be sure to define your terms.

  • Avoid the counterfactual. Write about what happened, not what would have, should have, or could have happened.

  • Don't make broad claims or generalizations about human nature. Instead work to preserve the particularity of the past.

  • When writing historically, chronological order should be your default way to organize, however, don't be limited by chronology if your paper would be clearer organized another way (e.g., thematically, by historical figures or groups).

  • Write in the past tense!

  • Citations are important. Use the Chicago style in general.