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Study Aids - Paper Writing

Why are you writing a paper for your class? One reason you are writing a paper for this course is that I believe students who write about history tend to remember what they've thought about, analyzed in detail, and presented coherently on the printed page. Writing is a form of thinking. By crafting a paper, you will have to think carefully about evidence and arguments as well as presentation. You will have to use your imagination but also be a cautious evaluator of what other people have written or said. These are useful skills which will serve you well in your other classes at Western Michigan but, more importantly, they will serve you well in any future endeavor you may undertake.

This study aid has sections to help guide you through the stages of writing a paper:

Style Sheet: Before writing their paper, all students should be familiar with the Style Sheet for History papers in Prof. Berkhofer's classes. They also will want to read the Citing Sources page very carefully so that they have proper references to the sources they use to make their arguments. This is the best way to avoid grade reductions purely because of errors in format.

How to Begin Writing: In any writing project, the name of the game is to be focused and well organized. Since the communication of ideas is every bit as important as the ideas themselves, your grade will be weighted to reflect your competence in three areas:

  • Style--How well do you communicate your ideas? Do you use complete sentences? Proper syntax and paragraph structure? Spelling? Consult the Style Sheet page for details.
  • Organization--Does your paper have a natural flow of ideas from one paragraph to the next? Is there a logical progression in your argument? Do you have a clearly stated thesis that is supported by the body of the paper?  See the 5-paragraph format suggestions for one possible way to organize your paper.
  • Content--How well do you use the assigned text? Can you cite textual evidence to support your claims. See the citation page for more on how to cite sources correctly. Return to top.

Organization: Every paper must have strong organization to make sense to a potential reader. The most important feature of organization is to have a clear thesis statement. The second most important is to have clear and direct topic sentences which advance the argument in subsequent paragraphs. It is also very helpful to plan your paper using various forms of outlining, and then to review the organization and content after creating a draft to be sure that it is the most effective possible.

In papers there are many different forms of organization which can be effective, but to help you organize and focus shorter papers, consider the traditional five-paragraph format. Every essay must have an introductory paragraph where the key question is set forth, its content established, and a clear thesis presented. The second paragraph may clarify either by defining terms or by showing what the subject is not. The third and fourth paragraphs will present the body of evidence through a development of two supporting arguments (paragraphs can be added here to produce further supporting arguments). Finally, the essay must have a conclusion in which the thesis is reconsidered and the significance of the question/argument is shown.  The resulting paper will have the following sections:

  • Introduction--question, context, thesis statement
  • Qualification--definitions and clarification
  • Evidence--supporting argument #1
  • Evidence--supporting argument #2
  • Conclusion--thesis reconsideration, significance

This is an effective essay format and is easily adaptable to longer papers by simply adding paragraphs of evidence in the middle. Even for much longer papers, keeping such categories in mind will help you to keep the paper focused and clear for your reader. Many thanks to Larry Snyder who contributed to the content of this section.

Basic Instructions: Here are some basic instructions to be sure to remember:

Thesis: Create a paper that addresses the question(s) provided. Be sure to read the whole question at least twice. This will require you to come up with a main argument (also known as a thesis), which is supported with evidence taken from the assigned sources. The goal is to create a well-written analytic essay.
Length: Whatever the assignment specifies--don't try to "fudge" with margins.
Format: Read the Style Sheet guidelines and be sure your paper conforms to them. Remember to staple your pages together.
Identification: Put your name and your course section (e.g., Hist 1000-500) on the first page in the upper right hand corner.

Grading Criteria: Papers will be graded in two main areas: Content and Mechanics.

Content (Argument & Evidence): Your paper must use sources and construct a viable, believable argument. A thesis should be something that is at least debatable by intelligent people (no one would choose to argue that the world was flat anymore, for example; test your argument to see if someone would take a different point of view.) You must use evidence from the sources to support your thesis. An argument without evidence is like a world-class debater who insists on speaking in nursery rhymes: he may have a lot to say, but no one will believe he really means it.

Mechanics (Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation): Your paper can have a wonderful argument and great evidence to support it, but without mechanics, your presentation will fail. To go back to that world-class debater, imagine that he stuffed his mouth full of marbles before he began speaking--you couldn't understand him, no matter how brilliant he was. Good mechanics enhance your delivery of the argument in your paper, and it can't do without them. Your papers should demonstrate all good writing skills necessary to university-level composition. That means your essays should be free from spelling errors, improper grammar, incorrect punctuation, and awkward constructions. History is not merely "getting the facts right"—it is also about presenting an effective argument using evidence.

If you have questions about technical English skills, you can consult the instructor. But you should first read the style sheet page. For more technical questions, one also might consult the standard style manual for the WMU History Department: The Chicago Manual of Style or Kate Turabian’s Manual which explains the basics of CMS for students (both available electronically on the WMU Library History Subject Guide or at the library in the Reference section).

Also remember that history writing usually is not first person singular. Unless a question deliberately asks for YOUR perspective, don't write using "I" or "my" in your essays. Unlike scholars in some other fields, most historians still write without saying "I", "me" or "my"—but this convention does not mean that historians have no opinions. An analytic essay writer must learn to write in the "third person" voice. If you need examples, look at the books for your class.

Advice on Writing: Some step-by-step advice for working on your paper.

Before you start writing: Read the whole assignment before you begin writing. Use other reading materials assigned in this class or lecture materials (if they are relevant) in answering the question. If you are writing a "research paper" you will need to go to the library to find source materials.

When you start writing: Read the assigned question carefully. What does the assignment want you prove or discuss? Make sure that you understand the question. Once you know what it wants, make sure your essay sticks to answering it--don't wander off on some tangent. If you are constructing your own question, be sure it is well focused and answerable.

For your thesis and topic sentences: Choose strong topic sentences that will make clear to the reader exactly what you intend to prove. These topic sentences will structure your analysis and help you write coherent paragraphs that stick to a main idea.

For evidence: A good history essay has to have it—but be careful that your evidence is clear and legitimate, not stolen. You need to be able to cite sources specifically to support your argument. Read citing sources if you don't know how to use sources as evidence. A good essay almost always will use quotations drawn from the sources. Appropriately used quotations will strengthen your argument. But citations and quotes are no substitute for your argument, your analysis--do not quote extensively and then assume that the quote is making the argument for you. Explain how a quote fits your thesis. Be sure to give credit to the original author.

Conclusion: A conclusion makes your essay come to an end with a bang, not a whimper. To just regurgitate/restate exactly what you said in the essay is to whimper. A conclusion with "bang" will tell the reader something more than what they read in your previous paragraphs.

Editing: Be sure to proofread your paper carefully before handing it in.

Proofreading: All writers must refine their work to make it as convincing and effective as possible. Good history papers are precisely written and error-free.

After you've completed a first draft, go back and reread what you've written. Does it meet the requirements for a well-written essay? Does your argument have enough evidence? Or is your argument not as strong and persuasive as you thought it was originally? The third paragraph may belong in the middle, and the second paragraph at the end. Rewrite and reorganize the sections that need help. This step is the one that makes the most difference between weak and strong papers; however, you must have written the first draft far enough in advance, so that you have the time to revise/rethink.

For a checklist of basic mistakes to avoid, see the list of Common Errors.

Finishing: Before you hand in your essay, proofread a final time for errors. Experience shows that such proofreading is best done from the printed page using a pen or pencil, not on screen. Unfortunately, spell-checking programs are only capable of giving some help and they can (especially with automatic typing correction) introduce errors. For example, "there", "their" and "they're" all sound alike (homonyms) and may be spelled correctly by you, but you need to make sure you (or the word processing program) have used the right one. Check for spelling, correct word usage, punctuation, grammar mistakes, and awkward construction. One test is to read each sentence aloud; sometimes the ear can catch a mistake on paper. But beware colloquialisms, using phrases that are common in everyday speech but not used in formal writing. Another good suggestion is to have a friend proofread your essay for mistakes or logical gaps. Make sure the paper meets the guidelines of the style sheet. Look at the Common Errors checklist to avoid the most obvious errors. Make sure your name and class are on the paper and that it is stapled together. Be sure to save the final electronic version of the paper, so that you can reprint it if necessary.

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Robert F. Berkhofer
Dept. of History
4301 Friedmann Hall
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5334

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Last Revised:
December 15, 2011