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Writing in History


Like any other discipline, the field of history requires students to think critically and write effectively. Writing assignments allow students to “re-see” history as less a compendium of names, dates, and events, and more of a conversation among people interested in knowing the who, what, where, when, and why of particular events.

Historians typically want to place events within larger contexts to explore further how politics, economics, science, race, class and gender and/ or popular culture are involved. They write for various audiences, publishing articles for their peers’ review; writing books that offer fresh interpretations of past events; presenting conference papers and research from their studies; and, as college professors, preparing lectures and course plans.

The challenge for students is to think like historians and learn how to examine primary and secondary sources to formulate their own THESES and arguments about the past.

The Kinds of Questions Historians Ask

In addition to the who, what, where, when, and why, historians ask questions guided by their own areas of expertise or interest. They are typically concerned with new angles or new perspectives on topics and are interested in what the conversations they can evoke with new points of view. Often, historians form communities within communities, based on interests and views, as in the Organization of American Historians:

Writing Conventions in History

Historians proposed informed views of the past; in other words, historians are knowledgeable about counter arguments or opposing points of view and acknowledge the work of others as they present their own. As they draw conclusions, they will take into consideration what has already been proposed or suggested in relation to their subject.

Historians survey the field and conduct research; they look at what is available as evidence – primary documents such as speeches, diaries, journals, letters, maps, government documents, quantitative or numerical data – and secondary sources.
Historians credit the work and scholarship of others and do not emotionally discredit views contrary to their own.

Historians rely on the CMS system of documentation on their writing. The Chicago Manual of Style is the professional guideline for formatting and citing work.