How to Write a Research Paper in History/Writing the paper

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Somewhere between creating an outline and turning in your paper, you actually have to sit down and write the paper: you must turn your outline into complete sentences arranged in paragraphs.

Writing[edit | edit source]

Writing remains the greatest challenge in publishing a research paper. All the reading and note-taking in the world will not translate a mountain of data into ten or twenty or a hundred well-written pages that earn an A and see that you get your diploma on-time. There are some tricks that will get you through the rough days of writing, and produce a finished paper on time.

Determining your Pace[edit | edit source]

Many students writing a research paper for the first time greatly underestimate the amount of time necessary to complete one. A research paper of three to six pages may be assigned only a week in advance of its due date, but this is a signal that you should begin researching immediately. If you have a three week window in which to write, you should begin writing (with 80% or more of your research complete) by Wednesday of the second week. Of course, your own writing skills may argue for an earlier or later "begin writing" date than that.

Rewriting[edit | edit source]

Be sure to allow yourself time for editing and re-writing. Few people can turn out a letter-perfect research paper on their first try. Attend help sessions at your school's writing center, and ask friends to look over a completed first draft. Getting back comments, and trying to fix flaws, in an uncompleted paper may put you at risk for missing your due date or deadline. Always finish a rough draft first, so that you have something to hand in even in the event of a catastrophic loss of your paper.

Backing Up[edit | edit source]

Remember to back up your work regularly. The excuse "I'm sorry, but my computer hard drive failed this morning," will earn some sympathy, but is still a failing grade. Back up your research, back up your writing, back up your bibliography. Save both print and digital copies of the most critical pieces of your work, such as data tables, bibliographies, and chapters that you wrote in an inspired frenzy after an all-night conversation with your classmates. These things have a tendency to vanish unexpectedly.

Part of backing up is maintaining a clean and friendly workspace, so that dangerous accidents are less likely. When you are working on a research paper, put all food and drink away. You risk damage to your computer, your research materials and your final paper when you have liquids and messy solids near your work. Take pride in your labors, and avoid eating and writing at the same time. If you're hungry, take a ten-minute break, have a snack and something to drink; then put away your food, and go back to working.

Types of Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Paragraphs in a history paper come in several types. The three most general types are Thesis, or opening paragraphs, Body paragraphs, and Conclusion paragraphs. The following is not a comprehensive list (yet) of the different types of paragraphs historians use, but each example contains a basic description of what the paragraph's purpose is, and a sample topic sentence for each type of paragraph.

The two most critical types of paragraphs are Thesis paragraphs and Concluding paragraphs.

Thesis Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

A Thesis is a statement which encapsulates the point of view which you are presenting to your reader. A thesis paragraph, therefore, is a statement of your point of view, plus the general outline in a few sentences of the research in your paper. "Napoleon's Hundred Days pushed the great powers of Europe to adopt fierce controls on their citizens which persisted until World War I." The following sentences might mention broadened police powers, the reconstruction of numerous European cities to allow fields of fire for artillery and infantry, increased state prerogatives to interfere in private affairs, and tightening of the legal structures of several European nations. (However, many would argue that this is a very broad thesis, and the amount of proof necessary to convince others would be substantial.)

Narrow and Broad Proofs[edit | edit source]

The wider and more elaborate and far-reaching your thesis statement is, the more details -- the more proof -- you will need to back it up. Most research papers concentrate on only a few years or decades at most. Ideally, a thesis should be narrow: you should not attempt to prove that a curse lay upon the Tomb of Tutanhkamun simply because Lord Caernarveron died.

Concluding Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Concluding paragraphs represent a re-iteration of what you said in your thesis paragraph. You should not introduce new ideas, new data, or new materials in your final sentences. Instead, find a way to summarize your major themes, and re-state the thesis from your first paragraph. In essence, you are reminding your reader of what you set out to prove at the start, and (hopefully) show that you have proved it.

Body Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Body paragraphs constitute the main core of your argument.

Descriptive Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Descriptive paragraphs are designed to inform the reader's imagination, and give them a picture in their mind of what you, the author, see or feel about the subject. "As part of his routine to control the Russian royal family, Rasputin affected a fearsome appearance with wild hair and mesmerizing eyes." Each sentence of this paragraph should build up a picture in our eyes of what Rasputin wore and how he behaved.

Summary Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

'Summary paragraphs are designed to report a series of events in an orderly but concise way. "As Lincoln's funeral train progressed from Washington, DC to Springfield IL, ordinary Americans made numerous displays of affection for the fallen president." Each sentence in this paragraph will tell a different story from some of the stops that the train made.

Contrast Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Contrast paragraphs are designed to emphasize differences between two things or events. "Although they were related, president Franklin Roosevelt conducted his administration quite differently than Theodore Roosevelt." Each pair of sentences in this paragraph should find ways to show that the two men behaved differently.

Comparison Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Comparison paragraphs are designed to emphasize similarities between two distinct things or events. "The Suez Canal project and the Panama Canal project faced similar difficulties." Each sentence in this paragraph should find a point of similarity between the two engineering projects.

Narrative Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Narrative paragraphs are designed to tell in a few sentences what a person or group might be doing. "At Yalta, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin worked long days to draft proposals for a working peace at the war's end." Each sentence in this paragraph should involve at least two of the men named in the topic sentence, and what they did at Yalta.

Supposition Paragraphs[edit | edit source]

Historians love to play What If games of various sorts, and Supposition paragraphs are designed to tell in a few sentences what might have happened. "Had the emperor not recalled his fleets and established barriers to overseas travel, China might have come to dominate the southwestern Pacific." The sentences following this topic sentence would deal with fictional but probable outcomes of Chinese fleets in Indonesia, Australia, and India. The use of this type of paragraph should be limited, with a rule of thumb of one such paragraph per ten pages.

Next section: Citing your sources