Writing Center

Faculty Advice for History and PPP Papers


Join me, a Writing Center graduate assistant, as we explore what constitutes good writing from the perspective of professors around campus. To kickstart this edition of the Writing Center blog, we have advice from Dr. John Fairfield. Although Dr. Fairfield has many areas of expertise, I have asked him to discuss writing History and PPP papers. Dr. Fairfield shares wonderful tips and insider information in the comments below. Read through and refer back to his detailed advice as you write your History and/or PPP papers!  --Kara H.


Dr. Fairfield:  First and foremost, writing is not easy. If you do not want to become a good writer, you will not become a good writer. You have to have a desire to figure something out and communicate what you figure you to someone else. It is hard work.


WC: Is there a general guide to use when formulating a thesis statement for a history (PPP) paper? If not, what are your tips for formulating a good thesis statement?

The History Department has no official guide. Jules Benjamin, A Student’s Guide to History is a useful volume. On writing in general, I recommend Christopher Lasch, Plain Style.

A thesis statement comes out of a question. Questions are the heart and soul of historical research. What do you want to know, to figure out? Without good, clear, and answerable questions, the historian gets nowhere. A good question can then generate a good preliminary thesis statement. Your thesis statement begins as tentative answers to your question. You will inevitably have certain preconceptions or prejudices about your topic; a preliminary thesis statement helps get those out in the open where you will be more aware of them and can avoid simply assuming what you need to demonstrate and support in your paper.

A preliminary thesis statement thus provides some direction for both your research and your writing. You should be looking for evidence that supports, challenges, or improves your preliminary thesis. You should be refining your thesis as the paper takes shape, perhaps even changing your mind dramatically as you learn more. As you research and write, your preliminary thesis should evolve into a convincing argument that becomes the backbone of your paper. Your paper should be designed as a means of persuading your readers of the validity of your thesis.

The single most important piece of advice I can give to students is to begin writing as soon as you begin researching. Writing helps you assimilate and organize what your research is telling you. It helps you figure out what you know, do not know, and need to know. It therefore guides your research. The additional benefit of writing as you research is that you will be producing the paper long before the final version is due, providing opportunities to rethink, revise, and improve your initial drafts. The final bonus is that your mind will work on the paper even while you sleep, making connections, refining ideas, throwing out wrong turns (there is plenty of scientific evidence to support this).

What constitutes a good thesis? A good thesis forces you to go beyond a literal description or account of an historical person, event, or idea to discuss its significance for larger issues, developments, and themes in history. “Abraham Lincoln was a very interesting figure” or “Abraham Lincoln was a very important president” are not terribly useful theses. “Abraham Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves” is better because instead of vaguely asserting Lincoln’s importance or interest, it specifically states what is important or interesting about Lincoln. “Seizing the opportunities for the expansion of federal power that the Civil War provided, Lincoln created a new, more powerful Union. Although Lincoln initially justified emancipation as a military necessity, his decision to free the slaves gave the war a moral dimension and imparted a reforming mission to the newly powerful and activist federal government” is even better.

This last thesis begins to explain and analyze the reasons for Lincoln’s extraordinary actions as well as their consequences. Another example: “Franklin Roosevelt was not a very great president” is not a particularly good or useful thesis. “Franklin Roosevelt failed to address the maldistribution of wealth that caused the Great Depression in the first place” is better. “Having failed to establish effective public control over national banking, Franklin Roosevelt had no way of bringing the Great Depression to an end. But Roosevelt’s determination to address some of the human costs of the economic disaster helped him create a durable political coalition” is probably the best of the three.


What are the most common types of papers a student will write in history (PPP) classes?

A list of common types of papers written in history courses, and the sources such papers are based on, follow. In PPP, there is usually (at least in my classes) an added emphasis on the future. That is, in terms of politics and policy and the common good, what are the implications of your argument? 

Sources: Where is your evidence and of what kind is it? Sources include books, articles, documents, pictures, interviews, physical artifacts, etc. Ask yourself what these sources can tell you and what can they not tell you. What sort of evidence might undercut your argument or convince you that your thesis is wrong and where might one find this evidence?

Primary sources:  These are sources from the time period under examination and which reveal the assumptions, motivations, interests, and actions of historical actors (diaries and correspondence, polemics, political platforms, philosophical treatises, etc.) or provide insight into the character of an historical period or the impact of historical forces (novels, films, material culture from architecture and urban design to consumer goods, photographs, and popular music) 

Secondary sources: These are second-hand accounts and analyses of historical events; useful for background material to aid the primary researcher; also the stuff of historiographic papers where they are treated as primary sources.

Research paper:  An argument based largely on an examination of primary sources (or reexamination, that is a second look at sources used by other historians but with different questions, assumptions, or in light of new arguments or issues).

Historiographic essay: An essay critically examining the assumptions, questions, methods, sources, and conclusions of a variety of historians working on a common issue, theme, or period.

Synthesis: An argument that draws upon the work of a variety of historians (with or without additional consideration of primary sources) and recombines the material in such a way that something new is learned or that reconsiders those works in light of materials, issues, ideas not found in them (this last example borders on the historiographic essay).


How would you suggest students format their paragraphs to enhance the flow of their paper?

I try to avoid overly long paragraphs in my writing. I think they are daunting, forbidding to readers, and I want my readers to keep reading. Most of my paragraphs are in the neighborhood of 100-150 words. Then you want the paragraphs to flow logically from point to point. This probably will not be the case in your first drafts. That is perfectly ok. Get your ideas, your thinking, out on the paper. You can revise and reorganize. In the revision process, you should find yourself moving paragraphs, moving sentences within and between paragraphs, and – perhaps most important – deleting unnecessary words as well as ideas and assertions that just do not fit in this particular argument. Then also think about the transitions from paragraph to paragraph. Does one point follow logically from the previous one, have I organized my thoughts and arguments in the most logical manner, these are the questions to ask yourself.   


When and how should students incorporate their own voice/opinion/argument into their paper?

Voice is a tricky thing. I have been writing seriously for over forty years and I still struggle to get my authentic voice into my writing. Ideally, one’s voice is present from the very first sentence. That does not mean you begin with “I think.” I generally avoid the first-person voice unless I have a good reason to use it (if my personal experience is somehow relevant to the matter at hand or can explain my approach to it, I will use the first-person voice, but mostly I avoid it). But voice is more than first-person voice, it is tone, approach, perspective, things that can communicate to readers that you have some illumination to offer, some new perspective, that you are a trustworthy and interesting author. As for opinion and argument, the entire paper is your argument. Opinion, at least opinion not supported by evidence and logical argument, is less useful and should be avoided.  


What are some of the common mistakes you see in history (PPP) papers?

Carelessness. Lack of revision. Spelling errors. Changing tenses for no apparent reason. Lack of proper citations. Lack of organization. Use of pronouns where the antecedent (the thing the pronoun refers to) is unclear. Lack of subject-verb agreement (“They argues,” to use a simple example, instead of “They argue).



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