Writing for history

writing for history

An ancient Egyptian scribe, the educated class who specialised in writing

History, like other branches of the humanities, is carried by the written word. Ever since the days of Herodotus and Plutarch, historians have relied on written texts to communicate historical narrative and meaning. Despite the technological advances of the last two decades, not much has changed in this regard. Historians today still use documents, books, essays and the like to record their findings. New technologies have changed the ways that historical sources and written information are stored, shared and presented – but not the information itself. History students must still expect to undertake a sizeable amount of reading and writing. Success in history hinges not only on your interest in the past, but also your ability to write clearly and effectively about the past.

Writing for history can be difficult. It is not a natural or innate talent; nobody is born a great historian or historical writer. Like other skills it is learned, developed and practiced over time, so that it develops and improves. If you are taking an advanced history course for the first time, you should think your historical writing as a work in progress. The best lesson is to study how the professionals write history. As you read different historians, think about how they organise their writing; how they weave together narrative, evidence and analysis; and how they communicate with their readers. As you write your own pieces, take time to reflect on your writing and seek feedback from others. With practice, advice and reflection, you will become an effective history writer. It is not an easy process, nor can it be hurried. As with many things, different students will progress at different speeds. The important thing is to work hard, be patient and remain positive.

The following drop down links some general tips about writing for history. You can also find useful information on our page about writing history essays.

Plan your writing
When writing anything for history, never leave the structure or organisation of content to chance. Starting a lengthy piece of writing without any planning, in the hope that it will ‘fall together’ or ‘work out’, seldom works. It is very difficult to structure and organise writing ‘on the fly’, even for skilled writers. The longer the task, the more effort you should put into structuring and planning. Before drafting a long paragraph, extended response or essay, construct some kind of brief plan. It need not be complex – a list, some dot-points or a concept map is sufficient – but this plan should provide a framework for the ideas, arguments and information you intend to present.

Think before writing, think while writing
An obvious piece of advice but one that is easily forgotten or ignored. You should think continually during the process of writing, from start to finish. A sentence or complicated phrase should be fully conceived in your mind before you start committing it to paper. A moment’s thought and mental planning before each new sentence or paragraph is often the difference between clear and effective writing, and aimless waffling. Pause before starting a new sentence and ask yourself what you intend to say and how you want it to sound. Read every sentence and paragraph when complete and think whether it says what you want it to.

Know your answer or contention
Most history writing responds to a problem, question or statement. Before starting to write you should have a clear contention – in other words, an argument or ‘answer’ that responds to the question or statement. In an essay your contention must be clearly expressed in the introduction. It should be revisited and restated regularly through the body of your writing, then reiterated in the conclusion. The contention is vital for two reasons. First, it shows that you have contemplated the question and formed a confident and cogent answer. Second, the contention should serve as the focal point or ‘backbone’ of an effective essay or extended response.

Use signposting
The first step toward well organised and effective writing is a good plan. The second step is to signpost as you write. A signpost is a sentence or phrase that tells the reader the direction your writing is going to take. Signposting can be used anywhere in your writing, though it is usually found in the introduction or in topic sentences. There are several different ways you can signpost. Some signposting is direct and obvious, e.g. “This essay will begin by examining the propaganda methods used by the Nazis before considering factors behind their rise to power in 1933.” Rhetorical questions can also serve as signposts, e.g. “What factors led to the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in January 1933?” When discussing multiple points you can signpost by beginning each sentence with “First,” “Second,” “Third,” and so on. These devices will organise your ideas and prepare your reader for what to expect.

Be clear, confident and direct
In history, the style and tone of your writing should be clear and straight to the point. You should aim to sound well informed and confident, even if you are not. Write assertively and directly. State information and arguments as though they are beyond doubt. Avoid flowery or overly descriptive language, wishy-washy statements or irrelevant background information. Get straight to the point by addressing the question and outlining your contention. Use shorter sentences wherever possible. Write in the active voice rather than the passive voice. Proof read your work carefully and, if possible, have someone else proof read it for you. A good test for clarity in writing is whether it can be fully understood after one reading – is this the case with yours?

Avoid hyperbole and cliché
Hyperbole (pronounced high-perba-lee) is language that is exaggerated, overly colourful or dramatic. It is used for effect rather than accuracy. Examples of hyperbole might include “George Washington was a colossus of a man” or “the fall of the Bastille brought Europe to a standstill”. A little hyperbole can add colour and flair to writing but in most cases it sounds silly. You should avoid using hyperbole and be wary of it, particularly when proof reading your final work. The best history writing is convincing because it presents evidence, facts and argument in a calm and rational manner – not because it employs dramatic language.

A cliché is a tired and overused expression or phrase. Most clichés started as creative and meaningful statements – but have lost their meaning or impact through constant use and overuse. Some common cliches include “since the dawn of man”, “in the nick of time”, “survival of the fittest”, “history repeats itself”, “as good as gold”, “time flies” and “hook, line and sinker”. A comprehensive list of clichés can be found at clichésite.com. It is virtually impossible to write without any cliché at all, however an essay or text with too much cliché will sound unoriginal, lacking in creativity and annoying. Be wary of clichés and try to limit them in your writing. It is much better to develop your own ways of expressing ideas and information.

Avoid generalisation
One of the common traps in history writing is the habit of generalising, especially when discussing nations, societies or other large groups of people. Some common generalisations include statements like “the nobles distrusted the king”, “the peasants were all starving”, “the French people wanted reform” or “the nation rose up as one”. People are almost never this united, nor do they behave in such a uniform way. The larger the group, the more likely that it contained different conditions, ideas, opinions, loyalties and interests. When writing about a large group, be sure to acknowledge that it contained different responses, views and perspectives. Doing so avoids generalisation and gives your writing greater depth and complexity.

Write as journalist, not as character
History writing should demonstrate evidence of research, analysis and evidence, as well as an ability to construct a compelling argument. It is not a forum for creative writing or personal viewpoints. Think of yourself as a reporter, using information and sources to explain a particular event. Try to avoid getting bogged down in irrelevant facts or stories just because they sound interesting. Write clearly, objectively and dispassionately. Avoid making value judgements or using emotive labels such as “evil”, “twisted” or “abhorrent”. Always write in the third person, as someone looking at the topic from a neutral perspective. Never write in the first person or use phrases like “I think…” or “In my opinion…”.

Use narrative, analysis and evidence
A common pitfall in writing for history is failing to strike a balance between narrative (describing what happened) analysis (explaining how or why it happened and why it was significant) and evidence (information from primary or secondary sources that support your narrative and analysis). Weaving these three things together is not an easy skill – but it is important. Too much narrative will make your writing sound like a story or a descriptive piece. Too much analysis will make your writing seem ‘dry’, abstract and convoluted. A lack of evidence will make your writing sound unconvincing and without authority. Read a few paragraphs from a reputable historian and think about how they use narrative, analysis and evidence. Strive to achieve the same balance in your own writing, aiming for roughly equal parts of each.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Writing for history” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/writing-for-history/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].