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University Writing Center
September 02, 2014

Organizing your Paper

There is no single, foolproof way to organize a paper in history. Organization depends on the genre: book reviews are organized differently from research papers.

Organization is often holistic, that is, may be derived from the nature of the research, the argument, and even the length of the project.  Your professor may have some preferred organization strategies. Review the assignment for specifics and check with your professor if you have questions.

Almost all history papers have some organizational strategies in common. Chances are you are already including many, if not all, of these organizational strategies in the papers you write. Understanding how they work will allow you to use them more effectively.

The Title makes the first impression on the reader. Few student writers give their title the attention it deserves, perhaps because they don’t see the title as part of the paper. Yet the title is the first thing the reader sees, and consequently, the first place the writer has a chance to communicate to the reader. The title can intrigue the reader, set up your argument, draw the reader in, provide a hint of your thesis—or send the message to your reader that the paper they are about to read will be boring. Clever titles can be difficult to come up with, especially if you’re writing a paper about an event that has been covered many times previously. Below are a few hints to devising an interesting title: 

  • Research Paper” or “Assignment One” isn’t a title. 
  • Richard Chamberlain” is better. At least, it tells your reader who or what your paper will be about.
  • Chamberlain’s Dilemma” is better still. This title restates the problem question: “If Richard Chamberlain had been more forceful in negotiations with Hitler, could he have avoided WWII?” It does not give away the answer to that question, requiring the reader to read on to find out.
  • Some writers use colons to set up a two part title: “Richard Chamberlain and Hitler: Was WWII Inevitable?

HINT: Readers make predictions about what the content, perspective, or argument of the paper will be based on the title. Care should be taken not to send the wrong message. Notice that “Chamberlain’s Dilemma” suggests that the paper will focus on the choices, decisions, and pressures facing Chamberlain at the outbreak of WWII and may explain why Chamberlain made the decisions he did. Even though “Richard Chamberlain and Hitler: Was WWII Inevitable?” covers the same historical material, this title suggests that the paper will focus on negotiations between these two leaders and whether Chamberlain had any real choices. You may find yourself revising your title several times as you draft your paper so the two match each other.

The Introduction has one purpose, to interest, intrigue, or prick the curiosity of your reader. Magazine and newspapers writers, who must compete for readers’ interest, recognize the need to hook the reader. Often, students are less likely to recognize the value of getting their reader’s interested in the topic of their research paper.

In addition to attracting your reader’s attention to the topic of your research paper, the introduction may include the thesis and should give at least a hint of the topic, argument, or perspective you will take in your topic.

There are a variety of methods for introducing a research paper in history. Several of the most common can be found in the four articles that appear in a single issue of The American Historical Review from December, 2004. In each case the author sought to interest historian using a different introduction strategy: 

An introduction might set up the historical problem being explored: “’True Crime’ The Origins of Modern Sensationalism” by Joy Wiltenburg, traces the origins of reporting on violence, the “True Crimes” of the title, back to the Middle Ages, arguing that these morally and emotionally charged accounts set the tone for crime reporting that is still prevalent. Rather than going directly to the historical period she was writing about, Wiltenburg starts by recounting a contemporary problem, readers’ reactions to television news: “A few years ago, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a study finding that ‘heavy watchers of television news reports greatly overestimated the incidence of crime in their communities, as compared with ‘light watchers.’” This introduction sets up her thesis, that the emotional tone of “true crime” stories, far from being mere sensationalism, reinforces cultural norms by drawing attention to violations of those norms.     

Often articles begin with the thesis in the very first sentence. This method is particularly common in articles that enter into a divisive debate or question the prevailing historical account, as in Sven Beckert’s “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War.” Beckert jumps right into his thesis with only as single sentence as setup: “Historians generally view the U.S. Civil War as a crucial turning point in the history of the American nation. But it was more than this: the Civil War sparked the explosive transformation of the worldwide web of cotton production and, with it, of global capitalism.”

Just as often, introductions carefully place the article in an ongoing conversation or debate. In "A Muse for the Masses": Gender, Age, and Nation in France, Fin de Siècle” by David M. Pomfret takes two pages to set up the historical conversation about “‘separate spheres’” for men and women in the Nineteenth Century. On the second page, he writes he will “reexamine” the historical record, signaling that he plans on challenging prevailing thought: “This argument reexamines the question of how men and women negotiated the accession of women to social and political rights . . .”

Often, introductions recount a narrative from the historical record that sets the scene, or illustrates the problem, argument, or perspective, as Richard L. Hernandez does in “Sacred Sound and Sacred Substance: Church Bells and the Auditory Culture of Russian Villages during the Bolshevik Velikii Perelom.” Hernandez provides immediate immersion into the historical moment he will be studying: “A small group of Bolshevik activists from the Bol’she-Polianskii district (raion) Communist Party Committee arrived in the village of Novoe Pokrokskoe in the Russian Central Black Earth Region on January 17, 1930. They had come for the church bells. Someone from the village faithful spotted their approach and managed to climb the bell tower before it was too late . . . .” 

The Thesis, if you are writing a research paper, will expand on your revised Problem Question: “because I want my reader to understand . . . .” The thesis should not be confused with the thesis statement. What you want your reader to understand might be straightforward and informational, for instance, the importance to historiography of the book you are reviewing. Or, what you want your reader to understand might be complex and enter into an ongoing, even controversial, argument in the field. If you are writing a lengthy research paper, the complexity of your argument may require more than a thesis statement can provide. In such circumstances the thesis is often fully fleshed out as an extended argument in the conclusion, or in the case of a book or graduate thesis, the final chapter. The thesis is the academic argument you are making in your paper.     

The thesis statement: Contrary to what many people believe, perhaps including your history professor, thesis statements are not required in academic writing, nor are they always present in an academic paper. However, they are the norm. Unless you are an accomplished writer, or are prone to experimentation and risk taking, the wisest course is to include a thesis statement. The thesis statement has two main functions, one for the writer and the other for the reader.

For the reader, the thesis statement often provides a restatement or clarification of the argument, purpose, or perspective in the paper.

For the writer, the thesis statement provides a focal point, a touchstone, which keeps the writer on track throughout the writing process. Anything that doesn’t connect to the thesis statement doesn’t belong in the paper, no matter how interesting the research the writer has dug up, how cleverly written, or attached the writer is to an argument. 

There are two types of thesis statements commonly seen in history papers:

The argument thesis statement condenses the thesis into a single statement. A well-written thesis statement should be focused. Just like the third clause of the problem question, the thesis statement should pinpoint the argument, not make broad generalizations. Broad generalizations often do not leave room for the details, facts, and supporting arguments that are the foundation of a good history paper. The thesis statement should be arguable. Just as many student writers work under the misconception that they should have a broad thesis statement that will allow them to put lots of word on the paper, they think that a good thesis statement should be air tight. Just the opposite is true. For an argument thesis statement to work, there has to be room for actual argument. It must submit to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s test of a “reasonable man”: might a reasonable man accept or reject the thesis based on the value of the supporting evidence?

The roadmap thesis statement is often used for papers that don’t make major arguments, for instance, research papers that synthesize historical data, present new historical evidence such as a primary document, survey existing research, or introduce archival research. As the name suggests, roadmap thesis statements present a roadmap of the research to follow. They provide a framework that explains how the information is organized.

The thesis statement answers an important question (The Problem Question) but then must set up another question. That question, posed by a reasonable man, might be “What do you have to go on?” or “Can you provide evidence?” or “Can you explain that in more detail?” The rest of the paper answers that question. If there’s no argument, no problem, no further questions, there’s no reason for your reader to read farther. 

The Conclusion in a history paper is often the place where the main argument is developed in depth. A common model for history papers is to introduce the argument early in the paper, compile all the evidence in the body, then use that evidence to solidify that argument. Conclusions should go beyond merely repeating the argument or summarizing the evidence.  Often conclusions will address the significance of the research by widening the scope of the original problem, question, or argument. In the four articles from The American History Review, the various conclusions illustrate possible ways to make a deeper, more significant argument.

Joy Wiltenburg concludes “’True Crime’ The Origins of Modern Sensationalism,” by explaining the wider significance of the history she has told. She expands her original thesis, that “True Crime” stories reinforce cultural norms by sensationalizing deviation, to make a more inclusive argument: that ignoring these historical documents may have significance beyond the historical record itself: “Thus evidence from the sixteenth century into the modern age shows the cultural significance of sensationalist crime literature.” She concludes with a cautionary note that emphasizes the significance of this history: “As attested by the role of crime in modern American political discourse, intellectuals’ contempt for sensationalism has distracted attention from its often powerful effects.”

 In the conclusion to “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War,” Sven Beckert emphasizes cause and effect, the ways the history he recounts changes the historical narrative in ways that are more significant than history can account for without his story. The kernel of this cause and effect could be seen in his opening thesis, that the Civil War “sparked the explosive transformation of the worldwide web of cotton production and, with it, of global capitalism.” In his conclusion, he adds that “The global empire of cotton, torn asunder by the Civil War, was pulling together far-flung thread to create the warp and woof of a new global political economy.”

In "A Muse for the Masses": Gender, Age, and Nation in France, Fin de Siècle,” David M. Pomfret concludes by explaining the significance of an overlooked history on the ongoing historical debate he has set up. After outlining the historical debate, he adds historical evidence that he believes has been overlooked: “This article has sought to explain how, as the demographic boom of the nineteenth century tailed off and Europeans struggled with the consequence of what they perceived as decadence, degeneration, and over-civilization, age became a more important component in the representation of the modern nation.”

Richard L. Hernandez’s “Sacred Sound and Sacred Substance: Church Bells and the Auditory Culture of Russian Villages during the Bolshevik Velikii Perelom” concludes by explaining the way the isolated incidents he recounts has a deeper historical significance that explains a historical trend and/or contributes to the historical record. He does this by connecting the details he has recounted with a general principle: “Defending the church and its bells, it turns out, was integral to defending the village against the entire Boshevikproject. In other words, as has been true wherever and whenever radically modernizing regimes attacked traditional cultures like that of Russia’s rural population, the sacred and the secular were not easily separable in the ensuing conflict.”

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