These strategies originate from a writing workshop for SFU History students, co-sponsored by the SFU History Student Association and the Student Learning Commons.

Critical thinking

“Interpretation, not rote memorization…close analysis…critical reading.”

Main mode of thinking about history: telling a story that synthesizes primary and secondary sources.  “We tell stories about what happened.  We try to what it all means…” (R. Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History, 3rd ed, 1999, p. 32)

  • Summarize:  locate the source’s main points, themes, or thesis; identify the main content and structure; understand the purpose
  • Interrogate:  who, what, when, where, why?
  • Evaluate: accuracy, significance, fairness or bias, context

(L. Behrens et al., Writing and Reading Across the Disciplines, Cdn ed., 2007, pp. 68 - 69)

Inference:  “We infer by calling on past experience to interpret a present event or situation….The aim of inference is coherence.  We try to fit everything into a plausible whole.”  (Marius, pp. 42 - 43)

Sound argumentation and structure

Good history essays:

  • Have a focused, limited topic.  Don’t try to do too much!  Techniques for focusing include:
    • talking about the topic with others
    • reviewing notes
    • taking a concept “down the ladder of abstraction,” or “viewing” a concept/event through a “camera lens” that zooms closer toward an object.
  • Have a central thesis or proposition you want your reader to accept.  Techniques for developing a thesis include:
    • asking/answering questions
    • refining an opinion
    • reading for key positions and counter-arguments
    • creating a “working thesis” that isn’t finalized until you’ve finished drafting.
  • Get to the main point quickly.  Avoid lengthy introductions!
  • Are built on evidence. “…detailed factual information from primary and secondary sources” (Marius, p. 20).  You also need to take counter-arguments or contrary positions into account.
  • Have the qualities of a good story.  An historical essay should include your original thoughts’ “it should not be a rehash of the thoughts of others” (Marius, p. 24).

Integration of source material

Integral to these processes and strategies is the ability to synthesize source information.  Synthesis means creating a coherent and balanced interpretation to support your original position (thesis).  You use the most salient, relevant source-information as evidence to support your thesis.

Whenever you make a generalization that extends or develops your thesis, immediately support that generalization with a quote, summary/paraphrase, or other reference to a source.  Even though you may not be inventing something wholly new, you are synthesizing sources and interpretations in a way that no one has yet done.  In effect, you are telling a new story.  

For more resources on using sources to support your argumentation, see Writing handouts: Integrating sources.

Coherence (“telling a good story”)

Introduction: intrigue the reader, make the reader care or pay attention without being gratuitous.  Include necessary background/context.  Define key terms if necessary (make extended definitions part of the body).  Make your position (thesis) clear.

Body:  follow the “outline” of concepts embedded in your thesis.  Extend your definitions of key terms if needed.  Ensure each paragraph has a clear topic (sentence, theme, thread).  Reiterate key words/concepts to maintain coherence.  Acknowledge counter-arguments.

Tip: Try a "reverse" outline. After writing your draft, can you take the first and last sentences of every paragraph and pull a reasonably coherent “story” out of just those sentences?

Conclusion:  avoid “in conclusion”!  Reiterate your initial position with a brief summary of your main arguments, but then move beyond your thesis to suggest why this interpretation matters.  What is its possible significance for readers?  Why should they care?

Do’s and don’ts of writing style and expression

1.  Follow this basic structural principle for clear, coherent sentences:

The sentence beginning has… The sentence ending has…
Topic/Subject  Action/ Verb  
Given (old) information    New information
Shorter, simpler, familiar structures    New, longer, complex structures
  Stress or climax

2.  Use the passive voice only when the alternative would be awkward.

ACTIVE: The committee will investigate the high failure rates in these courses.

                AGENT   (subject)           ACTION (trans. verb)         GOAL (object)

PASSIVE: The high failure rates in these courses will be investigated [by the committee].

                GOAL (object)                  ACTION                             AGENT (subject)

The passive voice places the GOAL (object of the transitive verb) at the front of the sentence and allows us to omit the agent (subject) altogether. This is not a good stylistic choice when the AGENT matters.

3.  Keep verb tenses consistent.  As a rule, use the past tense when writing about the past, and use the present tense when commenting on a source.

4.  Learn to spot and correct errors of expression.  See our Top 10 Self-Help Editing Tips resource for more information and links.

5.  Avoid wordiness.  Examples include noun clusters, redundant phrasing, and unnecessary filler words and content. 

6.  As a rule, use the footnote/endnote citation style (Chicago/Turabian) for all history papers. Use a simplified (parenthetical) citation style for book reviews unless otherwise instructed. See History Information Resources: Citing & Writing.