The Seventh Decade Direction: Is There Are Way to Write History That Isn't Boring?
You will find that your history professors care a great deal about your writing. They may cover your papers with red ink. Don’t despair. Writing is hard work, but it requires neither native genius nor initiation into occult knowledge. We historians demand the same qualities stressed in any stylebook— good grammar and syntax. You needn’t worry that you have to master a specialized “historical style.” A successful history paper is clear, precise, concise, organized, analytical, and concrete. It uses the active voice; it has a thesis; it explains the significance of the topic; and it tells the reader who, what, when, where, why, and how. We hope that this booklet will help you to avoid the most common problems of style and substance that students encounter in writing history papers.
A good historical question is broad enough to interest you and, hopefully, your classmates. Pick a topic that students in the class and average people walking down the street could find interesting or useful. If you think interracial relationships are an interesting topic and you find the 1940s to be an equally fascinating time period, come up with a question that incorporates both these interests. For example: “How did white and African-American defense plant workers create and think about interracial relationships during World War Two?” This question investigates broad issues—interracial romance, sexual identity—but within a specific context—World War Two and the defense industry. Avoid selecting a topic that is too broad: “How has war affected sex in America?” is too broad. It would take several books to answer this question. A good question is narrow enough so that you can find a persuasive answer to it in time to meet the due date for this class paper. After selecting a broad topic of interest, narrow it down so that it will not take hundreds of pages to communicate what happened and why it was important. The best way write a narrow question is to put some limitations on the question’s range. Choosing a particular geographic place (a specific location), subject group (who? what groups?), and periodization (from when to when?) are the most common ways to limit a historical question. The example above already contains a limited subject group (whites and African-Americans) and a short time period (WWII, 1941-1945); simply adding a place, such as “in the Bay Area” or “in Puget Sound” further narrows the topic: “How did white and African-American defense plant workers in the San Francisco Bay area create and think about interracial relationships during World War Two?” is a much more manageable question than one that addresses all defense workers. Avoid a question that only looks at one specific event or process. For example, “What happened on Thursday, Dec.12, 1943 at the Boeing bomber plant in Albany, California?” is too narrow. Perhaps there may have been several important events that day, including a fight over an interracial relationship. However, this question does not position you to explore the larger processes that were taking place in the plant over time, nor why they are important for understanding sex, race and gender in American history. A good historical question demands an answer that is not just yes or no. Why and how questions are often good choices, and so are questions that ask you to compare and contrast a topic in different locations or time periods; so are questions that ask you to explain the relationship between one event or historical process and another.
To explore historical events and establish their reasons, historians focus on asking the question why things happened the way they did. This is how a solid historical argument is developed. When answering this question, several tools are used to explain the past event, how and why it happened, as well as its impacts on human existence. Studying past occurrences includes evaluating the evidences which confirm that events took place as well as drawing viable conclusions. Historians employ a number of methods in their endeavor to unearth a mystery of the past events. One of the basic methods used in studying history includes the use of calendar, a tool that enables historians to travel back in time to a desired period. Calendars may differ depending on various cultural dating systems. Nonetheless, whichever dating system a community have used, it is very useful to a historian. For instance, the western nations begin their dating system from the year when Jesus is believed to have been born (Thompson and Holm 48). In contrast, the Jewish calendar starts 3,760 years before the Christ was born, which the Jews believe to be a period the world had been created. Muslims, on the other hand, date their calendar from the day their religious leader Muhammad left Mecca for Madinah (Fernández-Armesto 98). According to the western calendar, the initials “B.C.” denote the years before the birth of Christ (Thompson and Holm 56). The western dating system is the most popular dating method in historical studies. Years after the birth of Jesus are known as “A.D” which stands for Anno Domini, which is a Latin phrase that means “in the year of the Lord” (Fernández-Armesto 99).
Summing up, most people believe that history is a "collection of facts about the past." This is reinforced through the use of textbooks used in teaching history. They are written as though they are collections of information. In fact, history is NOT a "collection of facts about the past." History consists of making arguments about what happened in the past on the basis of what people recorded (in written documents, cultural artifacts, or oral traditions) at the time. Historians often disagree over what "the facts" are as well as over how they should be interpreted. The problem is complicated for major events that produce "winners" and "losers," since we are more likely to have sources written by the "winners," designed to show why they were heroic in their victories.
Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. The World: A History Combined Volume, London, UK: Pearson, 2009. Print.
Thompson, James Westfall, and Bernard Holm. A History of Historical Writing: From the earliest times to the end of the seventeenth century, Michigan, US: University of Michigan, 2006. Print.