Part of the research process is understanding the common expectations that readers (and professors!) have when reading books and articles about history. If you review the editorial policies of the American Historical Association and major historical journals such as the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History, you can see that these standards are common to the discipline as a whole, so why not guide your own work by them?
A good history essay:
- Has an argument
When writing a research paper, the most important part is not the compilation of names, numbers, and events but rather the formulation of a problem that will give meaning and structure to those facts. That is, the researcher transforms a topic into a problem and suggests solutions/answers to that problem as arguments that the paper will then seek to sustain.
- Has a manageable, focused, and limited topic
Taking into consideration the specific requirements of the paper assigned by your professor, you should find a topic that you can adequately work given the time frame available. If you have to write a 20-page paper, be careful to not think that you need a big issue to cover that many pages; instead, you'll want a well -focused topic that would allow you to study and think about your sources in a careful way. As Richard Marius advises in A Short Guide to Writing about History: "If you try to do too much, you will not do anything. To write a good essay in history, you must be sure that evidence is available, that you have the time to study it carefully and repeatedly, and that you choose a topic you can write a worthwhile paper on." (14)
- Is based on primary sources
Primary sources are the closest texts/evidence available about the problem that the essay seeks to investigate, preferably those produced by the subjects who participated in the events/issues studied. A good historical essay preferably uses more than one primary source, although of course there can be exceptions and limitations to this expectation depending on the subject matter.
- Is written “in the same spirit that you would tell a good story”
A good story usually begins by posing a problem that attracts the attention of the reader and lets him/her know what the story is about and why it is worth reading. Then, it takes the reader through the process of discovery, providing information and critically evaluating it, and then to the climax, wrapping everything up in the conclusion.
- Gets to the point quickly
A good paper does not lose the reader's interest by taking too long to introduce its problem of study. A good rule is to address the general subject in the first paragraph; in addition, by no later than the second page, your readers should know why you have written your essay and why your topic is important.
- Has a title that defines the subject clearly
The title does a number of things: it grabs the readers' attention, reflects the content of the essay and helps keep track of what you're writing about.
- Carries the reader step-by-step through the evidence
Keep in mind that you need to convince your audience that your argument is valid. Therefore, you need to guide readers through your evidence, clearly demonstrating that you have a good handle on it and have considered why it is or not reliable and what can we learn from it. As you take the reader through your supporting evidence, make sure that you are explaining why it is important and how it connects to your argument.
- Documents its sources
A serious writer and researcher always documents where his/her ideas have come from. While there is an ethical issue that we should all respect, readers might also want to go look up the sources we used, and that would be impossible if they are not cited properly. This is where reference notes come in handy; use either footnotes at the bottom of the page or endnotes on a separate page at the end of the paper.
- Is written dispassionately
When you write a history essay, you should not overwhelm the prose with your own emotions or sermonize about an issue. You do not need to tell the reader that a certain person or issue is evil; instead, give readers the evidence and detail and let the reader understand and judge without any insistence on your part.
- Is an original contribution to the subject
A good history essay brings an original, fresh contribution to a topic, even if the contribution is small. We should not repeat what has already been done or said. Readers may want to read an essay either because they will learn something new or because the writer will evaluate an old issue in new light. That is going to be your contribution; that is how you will add your own voice and arguments about a historical issue. This is the reason why historians research what has been done and what needs to be done. Reading a good general book(s) on the subject and doing a bibliographic search will help you identify areas that need to be further investigated.
- Considers its audience
Always keep in mind that you will be writing for your instructor and other students who may not be specialists in the field. This means that you will need to define important terms and provide a context for the problem, place and time you are writing about. Yet be careful to only provide the background information that the readers will need to understand the problem you are investigating.
- Takes contrary evidence into account
A good history essay is honest; it attempts to be truthful about what happened and considers contrary evidence and arguments. Not only can you strengthen your case by considering contradictory evidence and critically evaluating it, but your readers will also trust your work as a historian more if you consider all sides rather than pretending that other views do not exist.
- Uses grammatically correct English and is written in an appropriate academic style
Sometime students believe that instructors are being too picky when they correct grammar and punctuation. The truth is, however, that a worthwhile paper may not be appreciated if the reader is constantly being distracted with bad grammar and misspelled words. While the spell checker in your word processing program may take care of misspelling, be careful; it doesn't know when you wrote “there” for “their,” “capitol” for “capital,” "it’s" for" its" or “then” for “than.” Carefully reread and revise your paper drafts.
- Has a conclusion that mirrors its introduction
Instead of summing up what you did in the essay, always try to end your essay with an interesting statement. It is a common practice to connect the ideas and words used in the beginning paragraph with those at the end of the essay. Think of where and how you launched the reader on a journey in your essay and then land him or her where the journey began.
These criteria were borrowed from Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing about History. 3rd Ed. (New York: Longman, 1999) 13-28.