How to Write a Research Paper in History/Organizing your work

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One of the most critical parts of moving from your notes to a finished paper is Organization. This chapter will help you develop your notes into a first draft paper.

Outline[edit]

Once you have approximately 40% of your research completed, and you are sure of your topic, you should begin assembling an outline. How do you know when you have 40% of your research completed? Take the number of pages the final draft of the paper is supposed to be, and multiply that by 3.5. This represents the approximate number of paragraphs your paper should have in it. Each of those paragraphs needs at least two, and preferably three details in it. Those details must come from your research.

An outline's purpose is to determine where the individual pieces of research should go, and in what order. Ideally, related pieces of information should go together. If you are doing research on the history of seige warfare, you should not jump from the Persian seige of Amida to the seige of Vicksburg to the seige of Stalingrad and back again in the same paragraph. Instead, each of those major themes should be a separate group of paragraphs. Perhaps you will arrange them in historical order, with Amida coming first and Stalingrad last. Perhaps you will apply the lessons of Amida and Vicksburg to Stalingrad. Perhaps you will begin with Stalingrad before flashing back to Vicksburg and Amida.

You can always shuffle the different parts of your outline around, but it is helpful to have an idea of what details belong in which portion of the paper. The early drafts of your outline will also help you see where the research you have already done fits, and what portions of your paper are weak.

Details, Details[edit]

Details come in four basic types for many research papers. The first are date/event synchronicities: In 146 BCE, the Romans destroyed Carthage utterly. The second type is a location/date/data synchronicity: By 100 CE, the Romans had stationed 15 legions along the Rhine. The third type of detail is a definition: Latifundias were large slave-run plantations in Roman-ruled Italy. The fourth type of detail is a direct quotation from one of your research sources, along with a date and location: In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar promised the Senate, "This will be the last year of confusion," when he instituted the Julian calendar.

Each of your details should be backed up with appropriate citations, whether these be footnotes, parenthetical notes, endnotes, or other attributions, from the source materials you are using.

Defining a Narrative[edit]

Whether you use Harvard Notation or some other system for writing the outline of your paper, you should make some progress toward defining your narrative by the time you have 60% of your research completed. Research papers should have some kind of underlying story they wish to tell, whether that be the results of the War of the Spanish Succession, or the consequences of the Treaty of Westphalia.

Your story should support the thesis, but you will impress your history teacher, and likely earn a higher grade, if you are doing more than merely reciting a laundry list of facts and figures.

What is the Story?[edit]

Introducing Your Work[edit]

A research paper should open with an introduction. This is an extremely important part of your work. It provides the reader with some understanding of what will follow. Introductions help form perceptions of written texts, and most readers will think more highly of your work if it is well introduced.

This is the hardest part of your writing, though producing a good introduction is helped through having an understanding of what it should contain. Firstly, it should outline the parameters of your work, such as the dates of the period studied, the geographical remit of the paper, and the basic subject matter of what you will be studying. Secondly, and more importantly, you should briefly introduce your thesis. This should only be done in the broadest terms in the introduction, and will be developed further in the body of your work.

In terms of length, an introduction should be approximately 10% of the final length of the paper.

Quotation Files[edit]

Thanks to modern word processing tools on computers, it is possible to record your research notes directly into the same types of documents that you will use to write your paper. This can be an invaluable tool: for each source (book, magazine article, newspaper story, encyclopedia entry, or primary source), create a separate file, and copy useful quotations into the file, complete with pre-formatted citation. When it comes time to add the quotation to your paper, you can simply Copy/Paste the quotation into the document, along with its footnote. Maintain a directory of sources on your computer means that you always have a resource to return to for future projects and papers.

Careful selection of quotations in this manner will also create a summary of the article, book, or primary source in question.

Bibliographies[edit]

All good history papers should have a list of sources cited. This list is called a Bibliography, though these days it is likely to include as many periodical articles and websites, as it is to contain books.

Bibliographies follow different formats at different institutions; it would be difficult to categorize them all. However, the general standard is to list primary sources first, in alphabetical order by author's name.

Secondary printed sources, such as periodical literature, is listed the same way, after all the primary sources are accounted for.

Tertiary sources, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, and textbooks, would be listed next in high school-level research papers. However, tertiary sources in general should usually be avoided for research papers written in college or graduate school (although magisterial works such as the Oxford English Dictionary might be cited in order to nail down the intended meaning of an unusual word in an older primary source.)

Websites should be listed last. It is ironic on Wikibooks that we must caution against the prominent bibliographic placement of websites, but your grades are at stake here. While there are reliable websites available on the Internet, it is very difficult to determine their general usefulness or staying power as historical sources; the website author may suffer bandwidth crunch, and take down the site. The transcript of a purported "pioneer's diary" from 1853 on his site may be nothing more than a fiction. If you have questions about the suitability of a website, check with your instructor, and be prepared .

Annotated Bibliographies[edit]

One useful tool for developing a bibliography for a specific paper is to keep a running word processing file in your computer's hard drive of all the books you have read or in which you have searched, along with a sentence-or-two description of the content. In this way, you develop a lengthy list of materials that you have consulted as a scholar and as a reader, and you also have a handy reference guide for future papers. Some students keep separate bibliographies in separate subjects; you might have an American history bibliography file, a German history file, an Asian history file, and so on. Keeping a separate directory of these files allows you to develop a comprehensive background for future research.

Bibliographical Format[edit]

There are numerous standards for formatting your bibliography. Every institution often has its own standards, and many professors choose one standard over another. The MLA has one standard; a woman named Kate Turabian came up with another standard. Both are available in book form at libraries and bookstores.

Here are some simple standards to get you started. In each case, you provide the name of the creator of the work, followed by the name of the resource set apart by underlines or quotations of some sorts. Then you indicate when the work was produced, and where, and by whom.

  • For a book:
Last name, first name. Title. Place published: Publisher, year.
Broad, William J. The Oracle New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
  • For a newspaper:
Last name, first name. "Article Title" in Newspaper name, published in Day Month Year, on page #.
  • For a magazine:
Last name, first name. "Article Title" in Magazine name, Vol. #, Week of Day Month Year. Place Published.
  • For a Website:
Last name of creator, first name. URL: http://www.websitename.com/directory/subdir/page.html Date of last revision: day month year. Date of Inquiry: day month year.

Due Dates for Bibliographies[edit]

Get your bibliography done early. Begin adding items in the proper format to a computer file within 24 hours of being assigned the paper. Expect to have at least one source in your bibliography for each page in length that the final paper is expected to be, if you are still in high school. If you are in college or graduate school, expect that you will need two to four sources in your bibliography for each page in the final paper's length.

Ideally, if your teacher does not set a deadline for completion of the bibliography, set your own deadline. Pick a day that is no more than one-quarter of the way through the time you have to write the paper. If you have four weeks to write the paper, you should have a more or less complete list of books in your bibliography by Friday of the first week. If you only have a week, have your bibliography complete by noon the day after it is assigned.

Deadlines[edit]

Your instructor has set a specific due date for the paper. It may be that she has even set a specific hour of the day. It is unwise to assume you will be able to get an extension. Teachers have vacations, too; they set deadlines for their convenience. Plan to meet that deadline with time to spare.

There are several ways to make sure you are not stressed and worried that you can get across campus and turn in your paper on time.

Silver Rule[edit]

Do it more than once ahead of time. This is the silver rule: do a rough draft bibliography, a middle draft bibliography, and a final draft; Organize your paper according to several outlines, to find the one that suits your research best; find more information than you need, in more sources than you think are necessary; write and revise your final paper several times; have more than one back-up copy.

Procrastination[edit]

Avoid procrastination. Saunter from class to the library, the day the paper's assigned. Check out a book, and photocopy one article. Note both down in your bibliography. Create your quotations file and your paper file on your computer's word processor. Get it set up with templates for quotations and footnotes and page numbers. Get at least a few things typed into every file.

Look! You've gotten started! It's a lot harder to procrastinate once you realize the book you check out of the library only has ten relevant facts, and the article is not as useful as it looked at first glance.

Major Personal Due Dates[edit]

Set some personal due dates even if your instructor does not. Here are your critical due dates; note them down in your calendar or planning book, and put a sign up in your room:

  • Complete bibliography by mm/dd/yy
  • Four sources researched by mm/dd/yy
    • Ten sources researched by mm/dd/yy (more of these are optional, but a good idea)
  • Outline drafted by mm/dd/yy
  • Writing begun by mm/dd/yy
  • Revised Outline by mm/dd/yy
  • Revising begun by mm/dd/yy
  • Consult with classmates/colleagues/instructors by mm/dd/yy
  • Print final draft by mm/dd/yy and hh:mm (leave yourself an hour to get across campus, and deal with technical challenges)


Next section: Writing the paper