H105, American History I

Paper writing guidelines

1.  Every paper should in the first paragraph clearly state a forceful overarching thesis directly responding to and fully answering the question.  That thesis should also have sufficient nuance to accommodate the complexity of history, in order not to reduce history to a “single story.” Your paper should focus on what your thesis argues were the most prominent elements of history, but your paper should also consider countervailing elements.

2.  The first paragraph should also specify the basic historical context of the paper, what was at stake for people in the past, and the main themes that you will use to organize your analysis across the entire paper.

3.  Each and every paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that specifies its main analytical point and how it will contribute to the argument of your overarching thesis.  Don’t start a paragraph by simply describing or listing.

4a.  Each paragraph should contain historical quotations, specific facts, and concrete examples (cited in endnotes or footnotes) as evidence to support the paragraph’s main analytical point.  Any quotations especially should be introduced in a prior sentence (identifying writer, time, and place), and then interpreted in a subsequent sentence (precisely how are those words evidence for your thesis?).  Never assume that a quotation is self-explanatory.  Quotations should not be too long; a sentence or two should suffice.  In some cases, a quotation can be excerpted in such a way as to fit within your own sentence.

4b.  Whenever you quote from a specific writer, you should identify who that writer was, and also what social group they represented as well as what motivated such people in their engagement with the world.  Never assume that any historical figure, no matter how famous, is self-explanatory.  Do not take quotations literally — any words are not objective descriptions of life (past or present); they are subjective perspectives, claims, desires, et cetera.

5.  Each paragraph should end with a concluding sentence explaining how the evidence of that paragraph contributed to the paragraph’s main analytical point and to your paper’s overarching thesis.  Never assume that your evidence has been self-explanatory.

6.  As you write your analysis, avoid the passive voice, such as “There began slavery in Virginia.”  Instead, always use the active voice:  who did what, when, how and why.

7.  As you write your analysis, avoid reification, such as “Slavery encouraged white people to stick together.”  Concepts like “slavery” or “globalization” don’t make history happen; PEOPLE MAKE HISTORY HAPPEN.  Use the active voice:  who did what, when, where, how, and why.

8a.  Important and/or overused abstract terms such as “individualism” or “freedom” should either be defined or avoided.  The meaning of such broad terms is contested in the present as it was in the past, and thus you must specify your definition of them (a dictionary definition does not suffice).

8b.  Unpleasant terms like certain collective nouns found in primary-source documents from the past should be put in quotation marks.  Unsavory value judgments from the past, like “civilized” or “barbaric,” should also be put in quotation marks.  Without quotation marks, it looks like you are agreeing with such unsavory notions.

9.  Avoid broad nouns and pronouns like “people,” “individuals,” “they,” “colonists,” “Americans,” “we,” etc.  Always identify the specific social group you are discussing, and convey a sense of their perspective and their motivation.

10a.  Be attentive in every paragraph to time frames and dates as you describe historical change and/or continuity.  Briefly identify and date any events, trends, ideas, people, institutions, or documents you mention.

10b.  Use the past tense; history happened in the past.  Nothing was or is “inevitable” — avoid that word like the plague.

11.  Avoid the first person, such as “I”.  The writing assignments are about argument and analysis substantiated with evidence; they are not mere opinion.  For the same reason, avoid colloquial language.  You are writing for a thinking audience, not for casual chatter.