Each discipline has its own writing conventions and expectations. The following standards apply generally to written work in history, although individual faculty may differ in some respects or propose additional guidelines for some assignments. In any case, always check with the instructor for additional requirements.
1. Title/Thesis. Every paper should have a title that states its topic or question clearly and succinctly. An effective paper will then begin with a more complete statement of its thesis or argument in the form of a topical paragraph. While the general topic of the paper should reflect the student’s interests, it will usually help to consult with the instructor about the best way to pose or frame the particular question. An appropriate thesis or argument has more than one debatable side to it; it does not take the form of a true-false statement. Thus the goal of the paper is to persuade the reader that its interpretation is insightful, reasonable, and supported by the evidence, not that it is the only conceivable one.
2. Body of the paper: The main objective here is to present, in the most coherent, effective, and reader-friendly manner, the evidence that supports the thesis or argument. The organization of the material and the “flow” of the paper should reflect a conscious effort to establish logical transitions between the ideas in a single paragraph and between the various paragraphs that make up the paper. Each sentence, moreover, should express one, but only one, complete thought; it should have a subject, a verb, and an object – there should be no sentence fragments or incomplete sentences in a formal paper. Paragraphs in such a paper should always include more than a sentence or two; and longer paragraphs should begin with a topical sentence that introduces the rest. On the other hand, avoid paragraphs that are too long, or that include too many disparate ideas.
3. Conclusion: An effective paper concludes with a final paragraph or two in which the validity of the thesis or argument is reaffirmed in light of the evidence that has been presented. This is not the place, however, to introduce new ideas or material not covered in the body of the paper.
4. Style and Format: Most History papers belong to the category of formal writing, which means that some usages that are acceptable in speaking or in informal writing are not appropriate. This is the case, for example, with contractions (i.e. “wasn’t” in place of “was not”) and such shortcuts as “etc.,” use of the first- or second-person voice ( “I,” “we,” or “you”), and many colloquial expressions too numerous to list. Wherever possible, one should also avoid the passive voice, e.g., “the election was lost by the Democrats;” it is better to say “the Democrats lost the election.” Above all, use the past tense (“Caesar conquered Gaul”), not the “historical present” tense (“Caesar conquers Gaul”), to describe past events, i.e., history. Finally, the entire paper should be typed on one side of white paper, use standard 12-point fonts and one-inch margins, be double-spaced, include page numbers, and be either bound or stapled. Because not even history professors are infallible, save a backup copy of all written work submitted.
5. Grammar. College students should be familiar already with the basic rules of English grammar and punctuation. [Where the student’s first language is not English, it will be up to him/her to bring this to the instructor’s attention.] Among the general rules to keep in mind: verbs must agree with their subjects, verb tenses should remain consistent through a sentence or paragraph, proper nouns should be capitalized, and all words must, of course, be spelled correctly – nor can spell checkers, however useful, be relied upon to recognize all spelling errors. Foreign words and phrases as well as book and journal titles should be italicized or underlined; titles of articles or book chapters belong in quotation marks. Above all, formal written work at the college level needs to be revised more than once, and then proofread carefully to eliminate typographical or grammatical errors.
6. Quotations: Direct quotations are used to support a point made in the paper, not to make the point itself. They should be used sparingly, and not be inserted without introduction or comment; each direct quotation should cite the specific source from which it has been taken. Quotations may be adjusted to fit one’s own text (e.g., to maintain agreement and keep tense consistent), but if words are added, they must be in brackets (i.e., […]). By the same token, if part of a quotation is omitted, this should be make clear by means of ellipses (i.e. …) Direct quotes of more than three lines should be separated from the regular text, single-spaced, and indented; shorter quotes should be incorporated into the text, but clearly identified as such by quotation marks. Failure to use quotation marks to identify text passages taken from another writer constitutes plagiarism, a serious offense in academe and likely (if extensive) to result in a failing grade.
7. Footnotes/Endnotes: While most essays and book reviews do not require the use of footnotes or endnotes, formal research papers do call for them. In addition to indicating the source of specific information, notes may also be used to explain or expand upon points made in the text. All direct quotes or paraphrased material, and any specific fact or information that is not common knowledge, must be cited. This applies also to graphs, charts, or images inserted into the text. Simply rewriting a passage in one’s own words does not eliminate this obligation; one should still acknowledge the source of ideas or information taken from someone else’s work. The purpose of such notes is to let the reader know the source of the information presented and, if necessary, to check its veracity. It is crucial, therefore, that sources be cited properly, including specific page references, and that notes be placed correctly in the text – do not rely on collective footnoting, where all the notes for a long paragraph are grouped in a single note at paragraph’s end. On the other hand, if parts of a single sentence draw upon multiple sources, there is no need for more than one note.
Check with the instructor regarding a preference for footnotes vs. endnotes. Both kinds should be single-spaced, numbered consecutively, and include the author, title, place where published, publisher, publication date, and page numbers [see examples below]. Subsequent notes can be abbreviated, but must always include author, page number, and (where there may be ambiguity) short title. Parenthetical notes in the text itself, while common to several social science disciplines, are not used in most history papers (again, unless the instructor so advises). Where the use of internet sources is permitted – and this should not be taken for granted without consulting with the instructor – cut and paste the address for the exact page where the information was found and the date of retrieval. [But keep in mind that “I found it on the internet” may not make the information any more reliable than “I heard it from some guy in a bar.”]
8. Bibliography. At the end of the paper, and beginning on a separate page, there should be a list of all the works consulted, i.e., a Bibliography. The format for bibliography entries differs slightly from the note formats cited above. For example, because works are listed in alphabetical order, last names come first; and for chapters and articles, in lieu of individual page numbers the entire page range is given. When the bibliography grows to more than a page or so, it is common to list primary and secondary sources separately. The following footnote / endnote and bibliography formats are used for the most common kinds of sources:
1. William H. Rehnquist, The Supreme Court: A History (New York: Knopf, 2001), 204.
Rehnquist, William H. The Supreme Court: A History. New York: Knopf, 2001.
1. Jack Beatty, ed., Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), 127.
Beatty, Jack, ed. Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Work in an anthology:
1. Zora Neale Hurston, “From Dust Tracks on a Road,” in The Norton Book of American Autobiography, ed. Jay Parini (New York: Norton, 1999), 336.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “From Dust Tracks on a Road.” In The Norton Book of American Autobiography, edited by Jay Parini, 333-43. New York: Norton, 1999.
Article in a journal
(include the volume and issue numbers and the date; end the bibliography entry with the page range of the article):
1. Jonathan Zimmerman, “Ethnicity and the History Wars in the 1920s,” Journal of American History 87, no. 1 (2000): 101.
Zimmerman, Jonathan. “Ethnicity and the History Wars in the 1920s.” Journal of American History 87, no. 1 (2000): 92-111.
Article in a magazine/newspaper:
1. Joy Williams, “One Acre,” Harper’s, February 2001, 62.
Williams, Joy. “One Acre.” Harper’s, February 2001, 59-65.
1. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1943 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1965), 562.
U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1943. Washington, DC: GPO, 1965.
Source quoted in another source:
1. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Random House, 1965), 11, quoted in Mark Skousen, The Making of Modern Economics: The Lives and the Ideas of the Great Thinkers (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), 15.
Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations, 11. New York: Random House, 1965. Quoted in Mark Skousen, The Making of Modern Economics: The Lives and the Ideas of the Great Thinkers (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), 15.
Note: For anyone who would like additional help with writing, or with the subtleties and perversities of the English language, or even with the revision of particular manuscripts, a helpful Writing Center, 402 Neville Hall (phone 1-3828), stands ready to assist. Those with specific questions about proper form or usage should consult the University of Chicago’s Manual for Writers, by Kate Turabian; or its website: