Writing a history paper is a process. Successful papers are not completed in a single moment of genius or inspiration, but are developed over a series of steps. When you first read a paper prompt, you might feel overwhelmed or intimidated. If you think of writing as a process and break it down into smaller steps, you will find that paper-writing is manageable, less daunting, and even enjoyable. Writing a history paper is your opportunity to do the real work of historians, to roll up your sleeves and dig deep into the past.
What is a history paper?
History papers are driven by arguments. In a history class, even if you are not writing a paper based on outside research, you are still writing a paper that requires some form of argument. For example, suppose your professor has asked you to write a paper discussing the differences between colonial New England and colonial Virginia. It might seem like this paper is straightforward and does not require an argument, that it is simply a matter of finding the "right answer." However, even here you need to construct a paper guided by a larger argument. You might argue that the main differences between colonial New England and Virginia were grounded in contrasting visions of colonization. Or you might argue that the differences resulted from accidents of geography or from extant alliances between regional Indian groups. Or you might make an argument that draws on all of these factors. Regardless, when you make these types of assertions, you are making an argument that requires historical evidence. Any history paper you write will be driven by an argument demanding evidence from sources.
History writing assignments can vary widely--and you should always follow your professor's specific instructions--but the following steps are designed to help no matter what kind of history paper you are writing. Remember that the staff of the History Writing Center is here to assist you at any stage of the writing process.
1. Make sure you know what the paper prompt is asking.
Sometimes professors distribute prompts with several sub-questions surrounding the main question they want you to write about. The sub-questions are designed to help you think about the topic. They offer ideas you might consider, but they are not, usually, the key question or questions you need to answer in your paper. Make sure you distinguish the key questions from the sub-questions. Otherwise, your paper may sound like a laundry list of short-answer essays rather than a cohesive argument.
A helpful way to hone in on the key question is to look for action verbs, such as "analyze" or "investigate" or "formulate." Find such words in the paper prompt and circle them. Then, carefully consider what you are being asked to do. Write out the key question at the top of your draft and return to it often, using it to guide you in the writing process. Also, be sure that you are responding to every part of the prompt. Prompts will often have several questions you need to address in your paper. If you do not cover all aspects, then you are not responding fully to the assignment. For more information, visit our section, "Understanding Paper Prompts."
2. Brainstorm possible arguments and responses.
Before you even start researching or drafting, take a few minutes to consider what you already know about the topic. Make a list of ideas or draw a cluster diagram, using circles and arrows to connect ideas--whatever method works for you. At this point in the process, it is helpful to write down all of your ideas without stopping to judge or analyze each one in depth. You want to think big and bring in everything you know or suspect about the topic. After you have finished, read over what you have created. Look for patterns or trends or questions that keep coming up. Based on what you have brainstormed, what do you still need to learn about the topic? Do you have a tentative argument or response to the paper prompt? Use this information to guide you as you start your research and develop a thesis.
3. Start researching.
Depending on the paper prompt, you may be required to do outside research or you may be using only the readings you have done in class. Either way, start by rereading the relevant materials from class. Find the parts from the textbook, from the primary source readings, and from your notes that relate to the prompt.
If you need to do outside research, the UCLA library system offers plenty of resources. You can begin by plugging key words into the online library catalog. This process will likely involve some trial and error. You will want to use search terms that are specific enough to address your topic without being so narrow that you get no results. If your keywords are too general, you may receive thousands of results and feel overwhelmed. To help you narrow your search, go back to the key questions in the essay prompt that you wrote down in Step 1. Think about which terms would help you respond to the prompt. Also, look at the language your professor used in the prompt. You might be able to use some of those same words as search terms.
Notice that the library website has different databases you can search depending on what type of material you need (such as scholarly articles, newspapers, books) and what subject and time period you are researching (such as eighteenth-century England or ancient Rome). Searching the database most relevant to your topic will yield the best results. Visit the library's History Research Guide for tips on the research process and on using library resources. You can also schedule an appointment with a librarian to talk specifically about your research project. Or, make an appointment with staff at the History Writing Center for research help. Visit our section about using electronic resources as well.
4. Take stock and draft a thesis statement.
By this point, you know what the prompt is asking, you have brainstormed possible responses, and you have done some research. Now you need to step back, look at the material you have, and develop your argument. Based on the reading and research you have done, how might you answer the question(s) in the prompt? What arguments do your sources allow you to make? Draft a thesis statement in which you clearly and succinctly make an argument that addresses the prompt.
If you find writing a thesis daunting, remember that whatever you draft now is not set in stone. Your thesis will change. As you do more research, reread your sources, and write your paper, you will learn more about the topic and your argument. For now, produce a "working thesis," meaning, a thesis that represents your thinking up to this point. Remember it will almost certainly change as you move through the writing process. For more information, visit our section about thesis statements. Once you have a thesis, you may find that you need to do more research targeted to your specific argument. Revisit some of the tips from Step 3.
5. Identify your key sources (both primary and secondary) and annotate them.
Now that you have a working thesis, look back over your sources and identify which ones are most critical to you--the ones you will be grappling with most directly in order to make your argument. Then, annotate them. Annotating sources means writing a paragraph that summarizes the main idea of the source as well as shows how you will use the source in your paper. Think about what the source does for you. Does it provide evidence in support of your argument? Does it offer a counterpoint that you can then refute, based on your research? Does it provide critical historical background that you need in order to make a point? For more information about annotating sources, visit our section on annotated bibliographies.
While it might seem like this step creates more work for you by having to do more writing, it in fact serves two critical purposes: it helps you refine your working thesis by distilling exactly what your sources are saying, and it helps smooth your writing process. Having dissected your sources and articulated your ideas about them, you can more easily draw upon them when constructing your paper. Even if you do not have to do outside research and are limited to working with the readings you have done in class, annotating sources is still very useful. Write down exactly how a particular section in the textbook or in a primary source reader will contribute to your paper.
6. Draft an outline of your paper.
An outline is helpful in giving you a sense of the overall structure of your paper and how best to organize your ideas. You need to decide how to arrange your argument in a way that will make the most sense to your reader. Perhaps you decide that your argument is most clear when presented chronologically, or perhaps you find that it works best with a thematic approach. There is no one right way to organize a history paper; it depends entirely on the prompt, on your sources, and on what you think would be most clear to someone reading it.
An effective outline includes the following components: the research question from the prompt (that you wrote down in Step 1), your working thesis, the main idea of each body paragraph, and the evidence (from both primary and secondary sources) you will use to support each body paragraph. Be as detailed as you can when putting together your outline.
7. Write your first draft.
This step can feel overwhelming, but remember that you have already done a lot of work and--armed with your working thesis, source annotations, and outline--have all the tools needed. Do not feel that you have to work through your outline from beginning to end. Some writers find it helpful to begin with the section in which they feel most confident. Look at your outline and see if there is one part that is particularly fleshed out; you may want to begin there. Your goal in the draft is to articulate your argument as clearly as you can, and to marshal your evidence in support of your argument. Do not get too caught up in grammar or stylistic issues at this point, as you are more concerned now with the big-picture task of expressing your ideas in writing.
If you have trouble getting started or are feeling overwhelmed, try free writing. Free writing is a low-stakes writing exercise to help you get past the blank page. Set a timer for five or ten minutes and write down everything you know about your paper: your argument, your sources, counterarguments, everything. Do not edit or judge what you are writing as you write; just keep writing until the timer goes off. You may be surprised to find out how much you knew about your topic. Of course, this writing will not be polished, so do not be tempted to leave it as it is. Remember that this draft is your first one, and you will be revising it.
When you are writing up the evidence in your draft, you need to appropriately cite all of your sources. Appropriate citation has two components. You must both follow the proper citation style in your footnotes and bibliography, and document always but only when such documentation is required. Remember that you need to cite not just direct quotations, but any ideas that are not your own. Inappropriate citation is considered plagiarism. For more information about how and when to cite, visit our section on citations.
8. Revise your draft.
After you have completed an entire first draft, move on to the revision stage. Think about revising on two levels: the global and the local. The global level refers to the argument and evidence in your paper, while the local level refers to the individual sentences. Your first priority should be revising at the global level, because you need to make sure you are making a compelling and well-supported argument.
A particularly helpful exercise for global-level revision is to make a reverse outline, which will help you look at your paper as a whole and strengthen the way you have organized and substantiated your argument. Print out your draft and number each of the paragraphs. Then, on a separate piece of paper, write down each paragraph number and, next to it, summarize in a phrase or a sentence the main idea of that paragraph. As you produce this list, notice if any paragraphs attempt to make more than one point: mark those for revision. Once you have compiled the list, read it over carefully. Study the order in which you have sequenced your ideas. Notice if there are ideas that seem out of order or repetitive. Look for any gaps in your logic. Does the argument flow and make sense?
When revising at the local level, check that you are using strong topic sentences and transitions, that you have adequately integrated and analyzed quotations, and that your paper is free from grammar and spelling errors that might distract the reader or even impede your ability to communicate your point. One helpful exercise for revising on the local level is to read your paper out loud. Hearing your paper will help you catch grammatical errors and awkward sentences.
Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself while revising on both the global and local levels:
- Does my thesis clearly state my argument and its significance?
- Does the main argument in each body paragraph support my thesis?
- Do I have enough evidence within each body paragraph to make my point?
- Have I properly introduced, analyzed, and cited every quotation I use?
- Do my topic sentences effectively introduce the main point of each paragraph?
- Do I have transitions between paragraphs?
- Is my paper free of grammar and spelling errors?
Remember, start revising at the global level. Once you are satisfied with your argument, move onto the local level.
9. Put it all together: the final draft.
After you have finished revising and have created a strong draft, set your paper aside for a few hours or overnight. When you revisit it, go over the checklist in Step 8 one more time. Read your paper out loud again too, catching any errors you might have missed before.
At this stage in the process, you need to make sure you have taken care of all the details. Your paper needs to have a title that does not just announce the topic of the paper, but gives some indication of your argument. Reread the paper assignment and make sure you have met all of the professor's requirements: Do you need page numbers? A separate title page? Will you submit your paper electronically or in hard copy? Have you followed all of the stated formatting guidelines (such as font-size and margins)? Is your bibliography appropriately formatted?
10. Congratulate yourself. You have written a history paper!
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Updated December 2017
An outline is a map of a longer work, which can be anything from a brief essay to a full-length book. Authors write outlines at many stages in their projects, but especially when they have completed a fair amount of research and want to figure out how to organize their findings, and again when they have written a draft and want to check it for narrative or logical consistency.
An outline has two goals. The first is to organize a long work into smaller sections. This will be helpful to you as you write, since it will break an intimidating project into shorter, more manageable tasks. And it will help the reader follow your story or argument by drawing her attention to the key episodes or arguments.
The second goal, one sometimes overlooked, is to highlight the major findings of a body of research. The best way to do this is with what the authors of the Purdue OWL page on Types of Outlines and Samples call such an outline a “full sentence outline,” listing not merely topics to be covered, but claims to be made and supported with evidence.
Classic outlines denote the major sections of a work with upper case Roman numerals. Within each section, a subsection can be denoted with a capital letter, and smaller levels still with Arabic numerals, lower case letters, and, if really necessary, lower case Roman numerals. I have found, however, that decimal outlines are easier to work with, so I suggest them here.
To show how this looks in practice, I have outlined Christopher W. Wells, “The Road to the Model T: Culture, Road Conditions, and Innovation at the Dawn of the American Motor Age.” Technology and Culture 48, no. 3 (2007): 497–523. doi:10.1353/tech.2007.0142. Most of this outline consists of sentences taken directly from Wells’s article; to avoid clutter I have copied them without quotation marks. Believing this to be fair use, I have not sought permission from the copyright holder, but I have received Professor Wells’s kind permission to repurpose his work in this way.
The titles of the sections (indicated by single digits) are those of the headings in the published article. The lower level headings (two- and three-digit numbers) are topic sentences from Wells’s essay, with the two-digit numbers indicating statements that summarize claims fleshed out in the three-digit paragraphs.
Most outlines need not be so detailed. To present the basic structure of a term paper, article, or chapter (that is, anywhere from 4,000 to 12,000 words), two levels of headings should suffice, and that is what I’ve used for my Article Outline Example: Decimal format, which outlines Wells’s article in only two pages. Here, the highest-level headings signal new sections of the paper, and second-level headings indicate clusters of paragraphs. This format makes for a good discussion document for a student and an instructor. I have also posted a blank outline in .docx format, which you are welcome to use.
If you want to outline a multi-chapter work, such as a dissertation, then you will need to add another level to the hierarchy. In that case, single digits represent chapters, two-digit headings represent sections, and three-digit headings represent clusters of paragraphs.
I crafted the Wells outlines based on the finished work, a process called reverse outlining. (See University of Wisconsin – Madison Writing Center, “Reverse Outlines,” The Writer’s Handbook.) No doubt Wells’s working outline looked different, and perhaps he would outline the final project somewhat differently as well. (Though he tells me my version is pretty close to the one he used as he polished the piece for publication.) An outline need not be an exact map, only a rough guide to tell you where you’ve been, and where you are going.
Please note the following about this outline:
Each section presents a thesis.
I have started each section with its own thesis taken from the essay, one that supports the thesis of the article as a whole. Except for section 2, these do not appear at the start of the section in the article. The thesis for section 3 appears at the tail end of the previous section, while the thesis for section 4 appears in the final paragraph of that section. For student papers, and particularly for outlines, I suggest that you place the thesis for each section at the start of that section.
Notice how the section headings themselves suggest claims, not merely topics. Wells could have titled section 3, “Cars in Europe and America.” By titling it instead, “Updating the Horseless Carriage, Americanizing the Automobile,” he emphasizes the choices faced by American consumers and designers.
Each paragraph makes a claim.
While this is a narrative history, Wells takes care to make claims for each section of the narrative and in almost every topic sentence. Note his use of transitional words and phrases (more, thus) and contrast words (however, despite, yet, although). When a claim is spread across two paragraphs, he links the two through the repetition of key terms (“vanadium steel” in one topic sentence, “strong, lightweight materials” in the next). Only once does he include a quotation (from Scientific American) in his topic sentence, and he does so when the source makes precisely the analytic argument that he himself wishes to make.
An article is built out of sections, which are built out of 5-paragraph essays.
The article is essentially composed of a series of 5-paragraph essays (designated by two-digit headings): the building blocks of so much formal writing. Sections (designated by single digits) can vary in length and complexity. But they don’t vary all that much, and the range here (roughly 10–20 paragraphs, or 2–4 subsections) is a good target. I outlined the entire article using only digits 1–5, and you shouldn’t need to go much beyond that in your outlines. Occasionally you might need 6, but if you hit 7, it’s probably time to split whatever you are working on into two or more units.
Key terms hold it all together.
In his introduction, Wells establishes a dialectic between the worldview of the horse-minded and that of the machine-minded. (Section 2 broadens the latter to the “mobility-minded.”) Note how he keeps coming back to this crucial comparison by repeating terms relating to horse-mindedness or mobility-mindedness. In the full article, the term “-minded” appears 29 times.
Christopher W. Wells, “The Road to the Model T: Culture, Road Conditions, and Innovation at the Dawn of the American Motor Age.”
Outlined by Zachary M. Schrag
1.1. Lede: In 1920, a single vehicle dominated the American market for automobiles: Ford’s famous Model T.
1.2. Research question: Why did so many Americans buy Model T’s, making them the center of the American automotive revolution?
1.3. Historiography: Many scholars, such as Rudi Volti, argue that the Model T “embodied few technological innovations, but was sturdy, reliable, and easy to drive by the standards of the time.”
1.4. Thesis: In fact, the Model T’s design created a new type of motor vehicle—the lightweight automobile—that transformed the U.S. market from one of disagreement and division into a broad mass market focused largely (if not exclusively) on a single technology. In doing so, it reconciled two seemingly irreconcilable worldviews, one forged in the world of the horse, and the other guided by enthusiasm for machines.
[ZMS note: here I have reorganized some of Wells’s phrases to fit my thesis-statement template. Wells does not claim that Volti and others are wrong; rather, he offers a more complete explanation of the Model T’s popularity, arguing that its design was more innovative than Volti suggests. Wells presents a dialectic of opposing forces–horses and machines–and shows how the Model T resolved that contest by embodying the best of both.]
2. Competing Visions, Specialized Designs (16 paragraphs
2.1. Thesis: As horseless carriages appeared more frequently on U.S. streets, turn-of-the-century observers debated the role that such expensive new machines should play in everyday life
2.2. Most early commentators on horseless carriages fell into one of two broad groups: the “horse-minded” who compared motor vehicles specifically to horses, and the “mobility-minded” who compared them to all other forms of transportation.
2.2.1. Horse-minded observers voiced a variety of opinions about the new machines.
2.2.2. The predictions of mobility-minded observers were more varied.
2.2.3. Mobility-minded pragmatists were more forgiving, arguing that the machines should not be blamed for whatever problems accompanied their use.
2.2.4. A small group of mobility-minded utopians discerned limitless potential in motor vehicles.
2.2.5. At the dawn of the industry, however, engineers were unable to design motor vehicles flexible enough to perform the diverse tasks that early motorists desired.
2.3. The fact that designers chose from three major motor types—steam, electric, and gasoline—underscores both the diversity and the uncertainties of early horseless-carriage design.
2.3.1. Writers in the popular and trade presses assessed electric, steam, and gasoline engines differently.
2.3.2. With turn-of-the-century manufacturers jockeying for marketplace advantage, horseless-carriage enthusiasts peered into a murky future.
2.3.3. The uncertainty generated by the range of specialized motor-vehicle designs at the turn of the century casts doubt on the inevitable triumph of gasoline technology, a belief often shared by historians.
2.4. The declining importance of the market for commercial motor vehicles, such as urban trucks and taxis, and the rapid expansion of the market for private, recreational vehicles, helped cause manufacturers and consumers alike to develop an overwhelming preference for gasoline-powered vehicles
2.4.1. The emphasis that successful manufacturers placed on catering to personal pleasure suggests that the gasoline carriage triumphed in the United States because elites seeking recreational vehicles comprised the largest market for motor vehicles.
2.4.2. Viewed from the perspective of elite consumers looking for “adventure machines,” the internal-combustion engine indeed seemed superior to its steam and electric competitors.
2.4.3. The ability to escape the city to motor across the countryside held a powerful appeal for many new owners, giving the technology an almost magical aura.
3. Updating the Horseless Carriage, Americanizing the Automobile (19 paragraphs)
3.1. Thesis: Despite its strengths, the adventure-machine thesis does not fully explain the development of automotive technology in the United States, where the split between mobility-minded and horse-minded buyers put the evolution of automotive technologies on a very different trajectory from the adventure-oriented path followed in Europe.
3.2. Europe, and particularly France and Germany, embraced gasoline carriages earlier and more fully than did the United States.
3.2.1. The Mercedes-style automobile opened new vistas for power and speed, pushing engineers beyond the design considerations that prevailed for horse-drawn carriages.
3.2.2. According to Scientific American, the nation’s most popular magazine devoted to mechanical innovations, Americans were gaining “an instinctive appreciation of the fact that an automobile belongs more to the class of the locomotive than that of the carriage.”
3.2.3. Reflecting this new conceptualization of “proper” motor-vehicle design, U.S. manufacturers quickly emulated the French-style automobile after its debut at the 1902 New York Motor Show. ”
3.3. Like most cultural imports, however, the social meanings that the French attached to the automobile were subject to subtle change when translated into the American idiom.
3.3.1. A large part of the U.S. market was still horse-minded, however, and rejected the paradigm-changing French-style automobile in favor of refined versions of the horseless carriage.
3.3.2. Two new types of gasoline carriages, both of which cost significantly less than Mercedes-style automobiles, claimed growing numbers of horse-minded buyers after 1902.
3.3.3. That runabouts and high-wheelers captured a growing share of the market even as technical opinion coalesced around the Mercedes-style automobile should give pause to those who would conclude that the internal-combustion engine triumphed simply because it was technologically superior, or even because it made the best “adventure machine.”
3.3.4. Measured against a horse’s cost and capabilities, many Americans—particularly those from rural areas—chose the cheap, utilitarian options provided by runabouts and high-wheelers over powerful Mercedes-style automobiles, fashionable electrics designed for city streets, or complicated steamers.
3.4. Perhaps, however, the most important factor explaining why so many horse-minded consumers chose gasoline-powered runabouts and high-wheelers lies in an important factor that all manufacturers had to address: the poor state of U.S. roads.
3.4.1. For Mercedes-style cars true to French designs and built for speed on smooth surfaces rather than for durability on rough ones, the bruising conditions on U.S. country roads initially limited their utility—and thus their market share.
3.4.2. The problem grew from the European practice of placing the automobile’s chassis close to the road to increase stability during rapid cornering.
3.4.3. For mobility-minded motorists interested primarily in high-speed racing, the dearth of good roads created major problems.
3.4.4. Yet securing good roads, even on a small scale, proved a slow and herculean task, and many elite—and impatient—motorists sought other solutions.
3.4.5. Expensive trips in search of smooth surfaces were at best a stopgap solution, and few elite racing enthusiasts had Vanderbilt’s resources to construct expensive private highways.
3.5. Engineers thus began adapting Mercedes-style automobiles to U.S. conditions by raising the chassis to provide greater road clearance.
3.5.1. The emergence of a distinctly American touring car based on French gasoline technology increased the average cost of automobiles in the United States.
3.5.2. At the same time and despite the emerging consensus that the modified Mercedes represented a superior design, the market for comparatively low-priced runabouts and high-wheelers also expanded, albeit more slowly.
3.5.3. With one eye on the potential profitability of the low-priced market and another on the strengths of the Americanized Mercedes style, some manufacturers began to develop stripped-down versions of the touring car.
4. Merging Worldviews in Ford’s “Universal Car” (9 paragraphs)
4.1. Thesis: To label the Model T “the Universal Car” was grandiose marketing hype and yet, as a description of the first automobile to appeal to horse- and mobility-minded consumers alike, it contained more than a little truth.
4.2.1. Because increased power necessitated a heavier frame and thicker, stronger parts, weight-to-power ratios—a rough measure of performance—stabilized among better-quality vehicles in the neighborhood of 80:1.
4.2.2. Despite the difficulties that had to be surmounted, Henry Ford embraced the vision of a lightweight automobile.
4.2.3. For all its success, however, the Model N was still a two-passenger runabout, and Ford believed his company’s future lay in its ability to solve the riddle of how to build a lightweight, full-sized, amply powered automobile.
4.3. After much trial and error, Ford’s team developed a design—dubbed the Model T when it went into production—that finally seemed to thwart the circular curse of weight and power.
4.3.1. Ford’s confidence that he could do so grew partly from his belief that a workable solution to the weight-to-power dilemma lay in vanadium steel, a tough and light new alloy then commercially unavailable in the United States.
4.3.2. Coupling strong, lightweight materials with a four-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine, the Model T’s 100-inch wheelbase—a good deal shorter than that of other Americanized touring automobiles—carried only 1,200 pounds.
4.3.3. As such, the Model T delivered the first true Mercedes-style adventure machine to the high end of the low-cost market.
4.3.4. Although the Model T excelled as an adventure machine, it also featured functional, utilitarian characteristics that Ford emphasized to appeal to horse-minded consumers.
5.1. The Model T’s design allowed it to bridge the technological and social chasm that divided mobility- and horse-minded motorists—a signal accomplishment. Because of this fusion, the distinctions between horse- and mobility-minded motorists slowly began to blur and disappear.