You sound like an insecure after-dinner speaker. But if you are footnoting encyclopedias in your papers, you are not doing college-level research. The dictionary is your friend. Keep it by your side as you write, but do not abuse it by starting papers with a definition. You may be most tempted to start this way when you are writing on a complex, controversial, or elusive subject.
Actually, the dictionary does you little good in such cases and makes you sound like a conscientious but dull high-school student.
Save in the rare case that competing dictionary definitions are the subject at hand, keep dictionary quotations out of your paper. Avoid quoting a secondary source and then simply rewording or summarizing the quotation, either above or below the quotation. Writing a Book Review Your professor wants to see your ability to analyze and to understand the secondary sources.
Do not quote unless the quotation clarifies or enriches your analysis. If you use a lot of quotations from secondary sources, you are probably writing a poor paper. An analysis of a primary source, such as a political tract or philosophical essay, might require lengthy quotations, often in block format.
Using primary sources and Use scholarly secondary sources. Unless instructed otherwise, you should assume that your audience consists of educated, intelligent, nonspecialists. Explaining your ideas to someone who doesn't know what you mean forces you to be clear and complete. When in doubt, err on the side of putting in extra details. Resist the temptation to condemn or to get self-righteous.
Obviously, you should not just stop abruptly as though you have run out of time or ideas. Your conclusion should conclude something. If you merely restate briefly what you have said in your paper, you give the impression that you are unsure of the significance of what you have written.
A weak conclusion leaves the reader unsatisfied and bewildered, wondering why your paper was worth reading. A strong conclusion adds something to what you said in your introduction.
A strong conclusion explains the importance and significance of what you have written. A strong conclusion leaves your reader caring about what you have said and pondering the larger implications of your thesis. Leave plenty of time for revising and proofreading. Show your draft to a writing tutor or other good writer. Reading the draft aloud may also help. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and a few may slip through no matter how meticulous you are.
But beware of lots of mistakes. The failure to proofread carefully suggests that you devoted little time and effort to the assignment. Proofread your text both on the screen and on a printed copy. Your eyes see the two differently. If ewe ken reed this ewe kin sea that a computer wood nut all ways help ewe spill or rite reel good.
The Writing Center suggests standard abbreviations for noting some of these problems. You should familiarize yourself with those abbreviations, but your professor may not use them. Try your hand at fixing this sentence: You may not match Shakespeare, but you can learn to cut the fat out of your prose. Write in the active voice. The passive voice encourages vagueness and dullness; it enfeebles verbs; and it conceals agency, which is the very stuff of history.
You know all of this almost instinctively. At its worst, the passive voice—like its kin, bureaucratic language and jargon—is a medium for the dishonesty and evasion of responsibility that pervade contemporary American culture. Your professor will assume that you don't know. Italy was an aggressive actor, and your passive construction conceals that salient fact by putting the actor in the syntactically weakest position—at the end of the sentence as the object of a preposition.
Notice how you add vigor and clarity to the sentence when you recast it in the active voice: Note that in all three of these sample sentences the passive voice focuses the reader on the receiver of the action rather than on the doer on Kennedy, not on American voters; on McKinley, not on his assassin; on King Harold, not on the unknown Norman archer.
Historians usually wish to focus on the doer, so you should stay with the active voice—unless you can make a compelling case for an exception. The verb to be is the most common and most important verb in English, but too many verbs to be suck the life out of your prose and lead to wordiness. Enliven your prose with as many action verbs as possible. You may have introduced a non sequitur ; gotten off the subject; drifted into abstraction; assumed something that you have not told the reader; failed to explain how the material relates to your argument; garbled your syntax; or simply failed to proofread carefully.
If possible, have a good writer read your paper and point out the muddled parts. Reading your paper aloud may help too. Paragraphs are the building blocks of your paper. If your paragraphs are weak, your paper cannot be strong. Try underlining the topic sentence of every paragraph. If your topic sentences are vague, strength and precision—the hallmarks of good writing—are unlikely to follow.
Consider this topic sentence from a paper on Ivan the Terrible: Perhaps the writer means the following: Once you have a good topic sentence, make sure that everything in the paragraph supports that sentence, and that cumulatively the support is persuasive.
Make sure that each sentence follows logically from the previous one, adding detail in a coherent order. Move, delete, or add material as appropriate. To avoid confusing the reader, limit each paragraph to one central idea. If you have a series of supporting points starting with first, you must follow with a second, third , etc. A paragraph that runs more than a printed page is probably too long.
Err on the side of shorter paragraphs. Most historians write in the third person, which focuses the reader on the subject. If you write in the first person singular, you shift the focus to yourself. It suggests committees, editorial boards, or royalty. None of those should have had a hand in writing your paper.
Stay consistently in the past tense when you are writing about what took place in the past. Most historians shift into the present tense when describing or commenting on a book, document, or evidence that still exists and is in front of them or in their mind as they write.
In the book she contends [present tense] that woman History is about the past, so historians write in the past tense, unless they are discussing effects of the past that still exist and thus are in the present. When in doubt, use the past tense and stay consistent. This is a common problem, though not noted in stylebooks. When you quote someone, make sure that the quotation fits grammatically into your sentence. Note carefully the mismatch between the start of the following sentence and the quotation that follows: The infinitive to conceive fits.
Remember that good writers quote infrequently, but when they do need to quote, they use carefully phrased lead-ins that fit the grammatical construction of the quotation.
Do not suddenly drop quotations into your prose. Fine, but first you inconvenience the reader, who must go to the footnote to learn that the quotation comes from The Age of Reform by historian Richard Hofstadter.
And then you puzzle the reader. Did Hofstadter write the line about perfection and progress, or is he quoting someone from the Progressive era? You may know, but your reader is not a mind reader. When in doubt, err on the side of being overly clear. Historians value plain English. Academic jargon and pretentious theory will make your prose turgid, ridiculous, and downright irritating. Your professor will suspect that you are trying to conceal that you have little to say.
And sometimes you need a technical term, be it ontological argument or ecological fallacy. When you use theory or technical terms, make sure that they are intelligible and do real intellectual lifting.
Please, no sentences like this: Try to keep your prose fresh. When you proofread, watch out for sentences like these: His bottom line was that as people went forward into the future, they would, at the end of the day, step up to the plate and realize that the Jesuits were conniving perverts. Avoid inflating your prose with unsustainable claims of size, importance, uniqueness, certainty, or intensity.
Such claims mark you as an inexperienced writer trying to impress the reader. Your statement is probably not certain ; your subject probably not unique , the biggest, the best, or the most important. Also, the adverb very will rarely strengthen your sentence. Once you have chosen an image, you must stay with language compatible with that image. In the following example, note that the chain, the boiling, and the igniting are all incompatible with the image of the cold, rolling, enlarging snowball: If your reader feels a jolt or gets disoriented at the beginning of a new paragraph, your paper probably lacks unity.
In a good paper, each paragraph is woven seamlessly into the next. Many readers find this practice arrogant, obnoxious, and precious, and they may dismiss your arguments out of hand. If you believe that the communist threat was bogus or exaggerated, or that the free world was not really free, then simply explain what you mean. This all-purpose negative comment usually suggests that the sentence is clumsy because you have misused words or compounded several errors.
Consider this sentence from a book review:. What is your long-suffering professor to do with this sentence? The however contributes nothing; the phrase falsehoods lie is an unintended pun that distracts the reader; the comma is missing between the independent clauses; the these has no clear antecedent falsehoods?
In weary frustration, your professor scrawls awk in the margin and moves on. Buried under the twelve-word sentence lies a three-word idea: All pronouns must refer clearly to antecedents and must agree with them in number. The reader usually assumes that the antecedent is the immediately preceding noun.
Do not confuse the reader by having several possible antecedents. Consider these two sentences:. To what does the it refer? Forcing the Emperor to wait? The granting of the audience? The whole previous sentence? You are most likely to get into antecedent trouble when you begin a paragraph with this or it , referring vaguely back to the general import of the previous paragraph.
When in doubt, take this test: Circle the pronoun and the antecedent and connect the two with a line. Then ask yourself if your reader could instantly make the same diagram without your help. If the line is long, or if the circle around the antecedent is large, encompassing huge gobs of text, then your reader probably will be confused.
Repetition is better than ambiguity and confusion. You confuse your reader if you change the grammatical construction from one element to the next in a series.
The reader expects another infinitive, but instead trips over the that. Note the two parts of this sentence:. The sentence jars because the neither is followed by a noun, the nor by a verb. Keep the parts parallel. Make the parts parallel by putting the verb attacked after the not only. Do not confuse the reader with a phrase or clause that refers illogically or absurdly to other words in the sentence.
Avoid following an introductory participial clause with the expletives it or there. Run-on sentences string together improperly joined independent clauses. Consider these three sentences:. The first fuses two independent clauses with neither a comma nor a coordinating conjunction; the second uses a comma but omits the coordinating conjunction; and the third also omits the coordinating conjunction however is not a coordinating conjunction.
To solve the problem, separate the two clauses with a comma and the coordinating conjunction but. You could also divide the clauses with a semicolon or make separate sentences. Remember that there are only seven coordinating conjunctions and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet.
A sentence has to have a subject and a predicate. If you string together a lot of words, you may lose control of the syntax and end up with a sentence fragment. Note that the following is not a sentence:. Here you have a long compound introductory clause followed by no subject and no verb, and thus you have a fragment. You may have noticed exceptions to the no-fragments rule.
Skilful writers do sometimes intentionally use a fragment to achieve a certain effect. Leave the rule-breaking to the experts. The first sentence has a nonrestrictive relative clause; the dates are included almost as parenthetical information. But something seems amiss with the second sentence. It has a restrictive relative clause that limits the subject World War I to the World War I fought between and , thus implying that there were other wars called World War I, and that we need to distinguish among them.
Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the writer of the second sentence appears foolish. Note carefully the distinction between that for use in restrictive clauses, with no comma and which for use in nonrestrictive clauses, with a comma.
Remember—history is about what people do, so you need to be vigilant about agency. Focus on the punctuation and its effect on agency: Surely, the writer meant to say that, in his analysis of imperialism, Fanon distinguishes between two kinds of hierarchy. A comma after suggests fixes the immediate problem. Now look at the revised sentence. It still needs work.
Better diction and syntax would sharpen it. Fanon does not suggest with connotations of both hinting and advocating ; he states outright. But between the elements A and B, the writer inserts Fanon a proper noun , suggests a verb , imperialists a noun , and establish a verb. Try the sentence this way: We know what Fanon does, and we know what the imperialists do. Notice that errors and infelicities have a way of clustering.
If you find one problem in a sentence, look for others. Discipline your prepositional phrases; make sure you know where they end. Notice the mess in this sentence: Yet the writer intends only the first to be the object of the preposition. Hitler is accusing the Jews of engaging , but not of stating ; he is the one doing the stating. There are two common problems here.
More upset than who? The other problem, which is more common and takes many forms, is the unintended and sometimes comical comparison of unlike elements. Often the trouble starts with a possessive:. You mean to compare appetites, but you've forgotten about your possessive, so you absurdly compare an appetite to a man. A misplaced modifier may also cause comparison trouble: Get control of your apostrophes. Do not use the apostrophe to form plurals. This is a new error, probably a carryover from the common conversational habit of pausing dramatically after although.
Remember that although is not a synonym for the word however , so you cannot solve the problem in the sentence by putting a period after Europe. A clause beginning with although cannot stand alone as a sentence.
This is a strange new error. If your word-processing program underlines something and suggests changes, be careful. When it comes to grammar and syntax, your computer is a moron. Not only does it fail to recognize some gross errors, it also falsely identifies some correct passages as errors. Do not cede control of your writing decisions to your computer. Make the suggested changes only if you are positive that they are correct. If you are having trouble with your writing, try simplifying.
Write short sentences and read them aloud to test for clarity. Start with the subject and follow it quickly with an active verb. Limit the number of relative clauses, participial phrases, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. You will win no prizes for eloquence, but at least you will be clear. Add complexity only when you have learned to handle it. Avoid the common solecism of using feel as a synonym for think, believe, say, state, assert, contend, argue, conclude, or write.
Concentrate on what your historical actors said and did; leave their feelings to speculative chapters of their biographies. As for your own feelings, keep them out of your papers.
If you believe that Lincoln should have acted earlier, then explain, giving cogent historical reasons. This is a clumsy, unnecessary construction. This phrase is filler. Get rid of it. Attend carefully to the placement of this limiting word. Note, for example, these three sentences:.
The first limits the action to interring as opposed to, say, killing ; the second limits the group interred i. More than likely, you have not earned these words and are implying that you have said more than you actually have. Use them sparingly, only when you are concluding a substantial argument with a significant conclusion. Instead is an adverb, not a conjunction. Note also that the two clauses are now parallel—both contain transitive verbs.
If two people share or agree , they are both involved by definition. This word means one of a kind. It is an absolute. Something cannot be very unique, more unique, or somewhat unique. To avoid confusion in historical prose, you should stick with the original meaning of incredible: You probably mean that he gave great speeches. You probably mean that the Japanese attack was unwise or reckless. English is rich with adjectives. Finding the best one forces you to think about what you really mean.
As a synonym for subject matter, bone of contention, reservation, or almost anything else vaguely associated with what you are discussing, the word issue has lost its meaning through overuse. Beware of the word literally. Literally means actually, factually, exactly, directly, without metaphor. The swamping was figurative, strictly a figure of speech. The adverb literally may also cause you trouble by falsely generalizing the coverage of your verb.
Like issue , involve tells the reader too little. Delete it and discuss specifically what Erasmus said or did. Just get directly to the point. Most good writers frown on the use of this word as a verb. Impacted suggests painfully blocked wisdom teeth or feces. Had an impact is better than impacted , but is still awkward because impact implies a collision. Here is another beloved but vapid word. If you believe quite reasonably that the Reformation had many causes, then start evaluating them.
Overuse has drained the meaning from meaningful. The adjective interesting is vague, overused, and does not earn its keep. Delete it and explain and analyze his perspective.
Your professor will gag on this one. Events take place or happen by definition, so the relative clause is redundant. Furthermore, most good writers do not accept transpire as a synonym for happen.
Again, follow the old rule of thumb: Get right to the point, say what happened, and explain its significance. This phrase is awkward and redundant. Replace it with the reason is, or better still, simply delete it and get right to your reason. The phrase is for all intents and purposes , and few good writers use it in formal prose anyway. Use center on or center in. Recently, many people have started to use this phrase to mean raises, invites, or brings up the question.
Understanding this fallacy is central to your education. The formal Latin term, petitio principii, is too fancy to catch on, so you need to preserve the simple English phrase. If something raises a question, just say so. Everything in the past or relating to the past is historical. Resist the media-driven hype that elevates the ordinary to the historic. The Norman invasion of England in was indeed historic.
Historically , historians have gathered annually for a historical convention; so far, none of the conventions has been historic. Effect as a verb means to bring about or cause to exist effect change. This is the classic bonehead error.
As an adjective, everyday one word means routine. If you wish to say that something happened on every successive day, then you need two words, the adjective every and the noun day. Note the difference in these two sentences: For Kant, exercise and thinking were everyday activities. To allude means to refer to indirectly or to hint at. The word you probably want in historical prose is refer , which means to mention or call direct attention to.
Novel is not a synonym for book. A novel is a long work of fiction in prose. A historical monograph is not a novel —unless the historian is making everything up.
This is an appalling new error. If you are making a comparison, you use the conjunction than. The past tense of the verb to lead is led not lead.
The opposite of win is lose , not loose. However may not substitute for the coordinating conjunction but. Your religion, ideology, or worldview all have tenets —propositions you hold or believe in. Tenants rent from landlords. The second sentence says that some colonists did not want to break with Britain and is clearly true, though you should go on to be more precise.
Historians talk a lot about centuries, so you need to know when to hyphenate them. Follow the standard rule: If you combine two words to form a compound adjective, use a hyphen, unless the first word ends in ly. The same rule for hyphenating applies to middle-class and middle class —a group that historians like to talk about. Bourgeois is usually an adjective, meaning characteristic of the middle class and its values or habits.
Occasionally, bourgeois is a noun, meaning a single member of the middle class. Bourgeoisie is a noun, meaning the middle class collectively. Your professor may ask you to analyze a primary document. Here are some questions you might ask of your document. You will note a common theme—read critically with sensitivity to the context. This list is not a suggested outline for a paper; the wording of the assignment and the nature of the document itself should determine your organization and which of the questions are most relevant.
Of course, you can ask these same questions of any document you encounter in your research. Your professor may ask you to write a book review, probably of a scholarly historical monograph. How do I pick a topic? But I can't find any material How do I put this together? Research Guide and Writing Guide. Picking a topic is perhaps the most important step in writing a research paper.
To do it well requires several steps of refinement. First you have to determine a general area in which you have an interest if you aren't interested, your readers won't be either. You do not write a paper "about the Civil War," however, for that is such a large and vague concept that the paper will be too shallow or you will be swamped with information.
The next step is to narrow your topic. Are you interested in comparison? Once you reach this stage try to formulate your research topic as a question.
For example, suppose that you decide to write a paper on the use of the films of the 's and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression. You might turn that into the following question: By asking yourself a question as a means of starting research on a topic you will help yourself find the answers. You also open the door to loading the evidence one way or another. It will help you decide what kinds of evidence might be pertinent to your question, and it can also twist perceptions of a topic.
For example, if you ask a question about economics as motivation, you are not likely to learn much about ideals, and vice versa. No one should pick a topic without trying to figure out how one could discover pertinent information, nor should anyone settle on a topic before getting some background information about the general area. These two checks should make sure your paper is in the realm of the possible. The trick of good research is detective work and imaginative thinking on how one can find information.
First try to figure out what kinds of things you should know about a topic to answer your research question. Do you need personal letters? What background information should be included? Then if you do not know how to find that particular kind of information, ASK. A reference librarian or professor is much more likely to be able to steer you to the right sources if you can ask a specific question such as "Where can I find statistics on the number of interracial marriages? Use the footnotes and bibliographies of general background books as well as reference aids to lead you to special studies.
If Carleton does not have the books or sources you need, try ordering through the library minitex. Many sources are also available on-line. As your research paper takes shape you will find that you need background on people, places, events, etc. Do not just rely on some general survey for all of your background.
Check the several good dictionaries of biography for background on people, or see if there is a standard book-length biography. If you are dealing with a legal matter check into the background of the judges who make the court decision and the circumstances surrounding the original incident or law. Try looking for public opinions in newspapers of the time. In other words, each bit of information you find should open the possibility of other research paths.
Learn to use several research techniques. You cannot count on a good research paper coming from browsing on one shelf at the library. A really pertinent book may be hidden in another section of the library due to classification quirks. The Readers' Guide Ref. R4 is not the only source for magazine articles, nor the card catalog for books.
There are whole books which are listings of other books on particular topics. There are specialized indexes of magazine articles. S62 and the Humanities Index Ref. See also Historical Abstracts Ref. Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves.
It also pays to browse the Internet. If you do not already have a general background on your topic, get the most recent good general source on the topic and read it for general orientation. On the basis of that reading formulate as clearly focused question as you can. You should generally discuss with your professor at that point whether your question is a feasible one.
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There are an infinite number of ways to write an essay because any form of writing is a means of self-expression. Your essay will be unique because you are unique: it’s up to you to ensure that it’s uniquely good, not uniquely mediocre. See also Historical Abstracts (Ref. D1.H5). Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves.