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Parts Of A Historical Research Paper

This is an overview of the features, elements, and organization of a history essay. Being able to clearly organize and express one’s thoughts is a precious and pleasurable skill. Even during Europe’s darkest age, there were men and women who dedicated themselves to reasoned and eloquent writing.

Courses in history involve a great amount of reading and the writing of complex essays. Because history courses are not primarily concerned with teaching composition, you are expected to arrive at university with some writing skills and to work on improving these skills throughout your studies. Pay close attention to the comments, corrections, and tips that your tutor provides when he or she marks your essays. Most tutors are happy to assist students during the planning, research, and writings stages of term papers. Even professional writers seek help.

This Workshop should prepare you to

  1. Recall the general purpose of essay assignments
  2. Identify the features of an essay
  3. Organize a history essay
  4. Identify the elements of an introduction
  5. Recall the features of an effective thesis
  6. Organize a paragraph
  7. Identify the elements of a conclusion

Key Terms

  • active voice
  • chronological organization
  • conclusion
  • continuity
  • linking sentence
  • parts of the argument
  • past tense
  • thesis statement
  • topical organization

Athabasca University's Library "Help Centre" and the University's Write Site provide excellent information and friendly advice on improving one's writing. You can also improve your communication skills by modelling your papers on the scholarly books and articles you read throughout your studies.

Purpose of Essay Assignments

There are two major purposes for essay assignments. First, the process of researching, planning, and writing an essay is an excellent way to learn the material and develop skills in critical thinking and clear communication. Second, tutors assign essays to evaluate a student’s knowledge of material and skills in reasoning and communicating.

Features of an Essay

Whether it is a monograph hundreds of pages long or a one-page job application letter, essays share the same basic features.

  • Develop a logical and fair argument supported by evidence in order to persuade a reader.
  • Synthesize information from a variety of sources and present facts and interpretations accurately and clearly.
  • Analyze evidence, in the case of history, by explaining the meaning and significance of primary source evidence, and by clearly summarizing and comparing the interpretations of historians.
  • Carefully and precisely document sources by providing citations and bibliography.

Title Page

At the center of the first page, place the title of your essay. Like the title of a book or article, it should indicate the topic or even the main point of your essay. At the bottom of the page write "Submitted by" and provide your name. Also provide the course name and number, your tutor's name, and the date of submission. Start numbering your essay after the title page, in the top, right corner.


The first paragraph introduces the topic of your essay, states your thesis, and indicates the parts of the argument that supports the thesis. The introduction gives the reader a solid preview. As you write your essay, start with a provisional draft introduction, but expect to develop and change it as you refine the argument of your essay. The final draft of your introduction will likely be written after you have completed your essay.

Introduce the Topic

Pay attention to how scholars introduce their essays or book chapters. Some writers announce the topic briefly but directly. Some use an interesting anecdote or quotation. Others highlight a current scholarly debate. A common mistake among inexperienced essay writers is to introduce too broad a topic. For example, never begin your essay with hackneyed phrase such as, "Since the beginning of time . . ." or "Mankind has always. . . ."


A proper essay has a main point which answers the research question it raises: this is the thesis and it is clearly and briefly articulated in the introduction. After you establish a topic, think and research, and as you read about it, develop a provisional thesis statement. This will help you to focus your research. As you think, read, and write more on the topic your thesis should gradually become more refined. This is why it takes time and thought to produce a good essay.

You may notice that some articles (especially by British writers) do not appear to have a clear thesis statement—instead, the statement appears in the conclusion as an answer to a clear question asked in the introduction. Nevertheless, the whole article argues for the concluding thesis. In North America, most instructors insist that a definitive thesis statement appears in the introduction and guides the balance of the essay. If you wish, save it for the conclusion, but discuss this plan in advance with your tutor.

Thesis Statement

It can be challenging to compose a strong thesis statement. A preliminary thesis can start off casually with a short description. For example, "The rulers of France, England and Germany achieved different levels of centralization during the tenth century." But instead of answering a question, this particular thesis raises more questions. How were they different? Why were they different?

A stronger thesis statement would argue an explanation. For example, "Centralization of feudal monarchies depended upon the ability of kings to exert greater control over their nobles. England was the most compact country and kings were able to unite all the English against the common Viking foe. Germany was large, but kings used their traditional influence of the Church to balance the power of nobles. In France, local nobles had the upper hand and enjoyed greater power than their distant king."

The second thesis statement is more robust because it offers a rational explanation for the differences between the monarchies. If you find that your thesis statement is too descriptive, try adding a "because" clause—then make sure that the rest of your essay supports this new explanation. As you plan and refine your thesis, consult with your tutor.

Parts of the Argument

Sometimes a well-developed thesis will make clear the parts of the argument found in the essay. In the example above, a reader would expect to find parts devoted to the three countries it mentions and in the described order. A weaker introduction would fail to indicate what a reader should expect, either by including points that do not appear in the essay's argument or by omitting those that do.


It is common in historical writing for the introductory paragraph to be followed by a brief background section that provides readers with a context for the essay's argument. The section will summarize the main events and people, or perhaps give an overview of the scholarly views or theories that the essay will test or challenge. As you read articles, you will notice scholars often provide this information.

The Body of the Essay

The body of an essay consists of logically organized paragraphs that argue the essay, explain examples, discuss evidence, raise problems, etc. Each point in the essay's argument, as outlined in the introduction, should correspond to a part of the body or main part of the essay. In shorter essays, each paragraph corresponds to a point in the argument. In longer essays, several paragraphs may be needed to develop each point. Indeed, there may be sections and subsections within the essay.

Some inexperienced essay writers learned in grade school that an essay should make three points—this is not the case. If your research turns up five factors that explain your research question, then your essay should address them. Some writers prefer to use headings to mark each section, but check with your tutor before doing so.

Each paragraph of the body should focus on a single point and be carefully organized. Once the topic sentence has introduced the main point of the paragraph, you may research and interpret the evidence further to develop the point in the sentences that follow. In a history paper, this type of writing involves referring to primary and secondary sources discussed in Skills Module 2. Module 4 will explain how to use evidence in your essays. The last sentence of a paragraph might offer a conclusion or summary, or it may include a phrase that links to the idea of the next paragraph. Such links help your reader to follow the parts of your essay's argument.

Organization of the Parts of the Argument

The two most common ways to organize a history paper are chronologically and topically. Another common way would be geographically, such as the thesis about medieval monarchies described earlier. The essay would describe the degree of centralization of the three kingdoms, and explain the factors of conquest and dynastic success for each. The same thesis could be argued topically, by focusing on factors that determined the power of kings: size of a kingdom, the need for a strong leader, and royal power over the Church. A chronological organization would probably not be as useful for that thesis because it compares countries during the same time period. Chronological organization works very well when we compare different periods, or when we are explaining change over time.

If you find that your essay is simply narrating a story rather than arguing an explanation, try to select factors that will explain what you are describing. Sometimes it is helpful to make an analytical table organized chronologically, geographically, or topically in order to find new ways to organize the information that you find while researching. This can help you to develop a better thesis and to experiment with different ways of organizing your paper.

Outlining the Argument

When you plan your essay and compose the body, it is helpful to work from an outline. The outline will likely change as you research, think, and write, but it will help you to remain focused. Outlines also help you to develop a stronger thesis. An essay that is poorly organized will be difficult for a reader to follow. A poorly planned essay may also be difficult for a student to research or write.

Elements of Clear Writing

While the structure of your essay is important, a good essay must also consist of clearly written sentences. Clear writing is inseparable from clear thinking. A history course is not a writing course or an English grammar course, but it will require you to think and write clearly, and provide rational arguments that are clearly stated and easily understood. As you work, keep a writing guide handy as a reference for the rules of English and for tips on style: you find some recommendations at the end of the module. AU’s Write Site also offers guidance as well as short tutorials on all aspects of writing. Follow the link to “Academic Writing Resources.” The more you refer to such aids and practice your writing, the better your communication skills will become.

When proofreading your essays, ensure that your writing contain the features and elements described in this module and that it conforms to the standards for organizing history essays. Check to see that your sentences and paragraphs are carefully composed and organized to support your clearly articulated thesis. If they do not, revise your essay before submitting it.


After the body of the essay, the final section draws together the conclusion. In a shorter term paper, this will consist of one or two paragraphs. In longer essays the conclusion may be a page or more in length.

The conclusion begins by briefly recalling the initial question or problem raised in the introduction. It will then summarize the parts of the essay and remind the reader how evidence supports the thesis of the essay. Be concise. If any of these elements are missing, the conclusion will be weak and the essay may not convince the reader.

At this stage, avoid introducing any new points or evidence in your conclusion—they belong in the body. Sometimes, expert authors of scholarly essays will state the broader implications of the essay's conclusion or make suggestions for further research. This is not usually one of the goals of an undergraduate term paper. Although the study of the past has implications for how we understand the present, history students should probably avoid moralizing.

To summarize, a history essay will have these elements:

  1. Title Page
  2. Introduction
    1. introduction to topic
    2. thesis statement
    3. parts of the argument
  3. Context Paragraph
  4. Body of the Essay
    1. Section/Paragraph 1
      1. (linking sentence or phrase)
      2. topic Sentence
      3. supporting evidence (sequence of events, examples, quotations, summary of scholarly interpretations)
      4. summary of main point
      5. (linking sentence or phrase)
    2. Section 2/Paragraph 2
      1. (linking sentence or phrase)
      2. topic Sentence
      3. supporting evidence (sequence of events, examples, quotations, summary of scholarly interpretations)
      4. summary of main point
      5. (linking sentence or phrase)
      6. Section 3/Paragraph 3
      7. Section 4/Paragraph 4


  5. Conclusion
    • reminds reader of initial problem or issue
    1. summarizes the parts of the argument to show how they support the thesis
    2. general conclusion, which restates the thesis
  6. Endnotes (unless the essay cited using footnotes)
  7. Bibliography of Works Cited

The scholarly articles and chapters in this course offer some examples of (long) essays. You will find some helpful links posted by AU's Write Site; follow the link to "Research Writing."

Good luck with your writing!

Suggested Resources

Barzun, Jacques, and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2004. This book is a manual on thinking and writing in the humanities.

Benjamin, Jules R. A Student's Guide to History. 11th ed. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2010.
An introductory guide to students learning history.

Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2007. An introductory guide to students learning history.

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th edition. Toronto: Longman, 2000.
"Strunk and White" is an excellent, short presentation of the rules of basic grammar, with good advice on composition, form, and style.

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 7th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. This guide explains the Chicago Manual of Style and also has sections on composing essays.

Write Site. Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University, 2009.
The Write Site provides writing coaching for Athabasca University students. The site also posts useful information, tutorials, and tip sheets on every aspect of writing.

"Help Centre." AU Library. Athabasca, AB: Athabasca, 2009. http://library.athabascau.ca/help.php?id=6
The library provides helpful links on research and writing.


This Module will provide you with an overview of the features, elements, and organization of a history essay. There is no quiz for this module - you will show off your skills when you write your research essay and answer the final examination.

Writing a history paper is a process.  Successful papers are not completed in a single moment of genius or inspiration, but are developed over a series of steps.  When you first read a paper prompt, you might feel overwhelmed or intimidated.  If you think of writing as a process and break it down into smaller steps, you will find that paper-writing is manageable, less daunting, and even enjoyable.  Writing a history paper is your opportunity to do the real work of historians, to roll up your sleeves and dig deep into the past.

What is a history paper?

History papers are driven by arguments.  In a history class, even if you are not writing a paper based on outside research, you are still writing a paper that requires some form of argument.  For example, suppose your professor has asked you to write a paper discussing the differences between colonial New England and colonial Virginia.  It might seem like this paper is straightforward and does not require an argument, that it is simply a matter of finding the "right answer."  However, even here you need to construct a paper guided by a larger argument.  You might argue that the main differences between colonial New England and Virginia were grounded in contrasting visions of colonization.  Or you might argue that the differences resulted from accidents of geography or from extant alliances between regional Indian groups.  Or you might make an argument that draws on all of these factors.  Regardless, when you make these types of assertions, you are making an argument that requires historical evidence.  Any history paper you write will be driven by an argument demanding evidence from sources.

History writing assignments can vary widely--and you should always follow your professor's specific instructions--but the following steps are designed to help no matter what kind of history paper you are writing.  Remember that the staff of the History Writing Center is here to assist you at any stage of the writing process.

1.  Make sure you know what the paper prompt is asking.

Sometimes professors distribute prompts with several sub-questions surrounding the main question they want you to write about.  The sub-questions are designed to help you think about the topic.  They offer ideas you might consider, but they are not, usually, the key question or questions you need to answer in your paper.  Make sure you distinguish the key questions from the sub-questions.  Otherwise, your paper may sound like a laundry list of short-answer essays rather than a cohesive argument.

A helpful way to hone in on the key question is to look for action verbs, such as "analyze" or "investigate" or "formulate."  Find such words in the paper prompt and circle them.  Then, carefully consider what you are being asked to do.  Write out the key question at the top of your draft and return to it often, using it to guide you in the writing process.  Also, be sure that you are responding to every part of the prompt.  Prompts will often have several questions you need to address in your paper.  If you do not cover all aspects, then you are not responding fully to the assignment.  For more information, visit our section, "Understanding Paper Prompts."

2.  Brainstorm possible arguments and responses.

Before you even start researching or drafting, take a few minutes to consider what you already know about the topic.  Make a list of ideas or draw a cluster diagram, using circles and arrows to connect ideas--whatever method works for you.  At this point in the process, it is helpful to write down all of your ideas without stopping to judge or analyze each one in depth.  You want to think big and bring in everything you know or suspect about the topic.  After you have finished, read over what you have created.  Look for patterns or trends or questions that keep coming up.  Based on what you have brainstormed, what do you still need to learn about the topic?  Do you have a tentative argument or response to the paper prompt?  Use this information to guide you as you start your research and develop a thesis.

3.  Start researching.

Depending on the paper prompt, you may be required to do outside research or you may be using only the readings you have done in class.  Either way, start by rereading the relevant materials from class.  Find the parts from the textbook, from the primary source readings, and from your notes that relate to the prompt.

If you need to do outside research, the UCLA library system offers plenty of resources.  You can begin by plugging key words into the online library catalog.  This process will likely involve some trial and error.  You will want to use search terms that are specific enough to address your topic without being so narrow that you get no results.  If your keywords are too general, you may receive thousands of results and feel overwhelmed.  To help you narrow your search, go back to the key questions in the essay prompt that you wrote down in Step 1.  Think about which terms would help you respond to the prompt.  Also, look at the language your professor used in the prompt.  You might be able to use some of those same words as search terms.

Notice that the library website has different databases you can search depending on what type of material you need (such as scholarly articles, newspapers, books) and what subject and time period you are researching (such as eighteenth-century England or ancient Rome).  Searching the database most relevant to your topic will yield the best results.  Visit the library's History Research Guide for tips on the research process and on using library resources.  You can also schedule an appointment with a librarian to talk specifically about your research project.  Or, make an appointment with staff at the History Writing Center for research help.  Visit our section about using electronic resources as well.

4.  Take stock and draft a thesis statement.

By this point, you know what the prompt is asking, you have brainstormed possible responses, and you have done some research.  Now you need to step back, look at the material you have, and develop your argument.  Based on the reading and research you have done, how might you answer the question(s) in the prompt?  What arguments do your sources allow you to make?  Draft a thesis statement in which you clearly and succinctly make an argument that addresses the prompt.

If you find writing a thesis daunting, remember that whatever you draft now is not set in stone.  Your thesis will change.  As you do more research, reread your sources, and write your paper, you will learn more about the topic and your argument.  For now, produce a "working thesis," meaning, a thesis that represents your thinking up to this point.  Remember it will almost certainly change as you move through the writing process.  For more information, visit our section about thesis statements.  Once you have a thesis, you may find that you need to do more research targeted to your specific argument.  Revisit some of the tips from Step 3.

5.  Identify your key sources (both primary and secondary) and annotate them.

Now that you have a working thesis, look back over your sources and identify which ones are most critical to you--the ones you will be grappling with most directly in order to make your argument.  Then, annotate them.  Annotating sources means writing a paragraph that summarizes the main idea of the source as well as shows how you will use the source in your paper.  Think about what the source does for you.  Does it provide evidence in support of your argument?  Does it offer a counterpoint that you can then refute, based on your research?  Does it provide critical historical background that you need in order to make a point?  For more information about annotating sources, visit our section on annotated bibliographies.

While it might seem like this step creates more work for you by having to do more writing, it in fact serves two critical purposes: it helps you refine your working thesis by distilling exactly what your sources are saying, and it helps smooth your writing process.  Having dissected your sources and articulated your ideas about them, you can more easily draw upon them when constructing your paper.  Even if you do not have to do outside research and are limited to working with the readings you have done in class, annotating sources is still very useful.  Write down exactly how a particular section in the textbook or in a primary source reader will contribute to your paper.

6.  Draft an outline of your paper.

An outline is helpful in giving you a sense of the overall structure of your paper and how best to organize your ideas.  You need to decide how to arrange your argument in a way that will make the most sense to your reader.  Perhaps you decide that your argument is most clear when presented chronologically, or perhaps you find that it works best with a thematic approach.  There is no one right way to organize a history paper; it depends entirely on the prompt, on your sources, and on what you think would be most clear to someone reading it.

An effective outline includes the following components: the research question from the prompt (that you wrote down in Step 1), your working thesis, the main idea of each body paragraph, and the evidence (from both primary and secondary sources) you will use to support each body paragraph.  Be as detailed as you can when putting together your outline.

7.  Write your first draft.

This step can feel overwhelming, but remember that you have already done a lot of work and--armed with your working thesis, source annotations, and outline--have all the tools needed.  Do not feel that you have to work through your outline from beginning to end.  Some writers find it helpful to begin with the section in which they feel most confident.  Look at your outline and see if there is one part that is particularly fleshed out; you may want to begin there.  Your goal in the draft is to articulate your argument as clearly as you can, and to marshal your evidence in support of your argument.  Do not get too caught up in grammar or stylistic issues at this point, as you are more concerned now with the big-picture task of expressing your ideas in writing.

If you have trouble getting started or are feeling overwhelmed, try free writing.  Free writing is a low-stakes writing exercise to help you get past the blank page.  Set a timer for five or ten minutes and write down everything you know about your paper: your argument, your sources, counterarguments, everything.  Do not edit or judge what you are writing as you write; just keep writing until the timer goes off.  You may be surprised to find out how much you knew about your topic.  Of course, this writing will not be polished, so do not be tempted to leave it as it is.  Remember that this draft is your first one, and you will be revising it.

When you are writing up the evidence in your draft, you need to appropriately cite all of your sources.  Appropriate citation has two components.  You must both follow the proper citation style in your footnotes and bibliography, and document always but only when such documentation is required.  Remember that you need to cite not just direct quotations, but any ideas that are not your own.  Inappropriate citation is considered plagiarism.  For more information about how and when to cite, visit our section on citations.

8.  Revise your draft.

After you have completed an entire first draft, move on to the revision stage.  Think about revising on two levels: the global and the local.  The global level refers to the argument and evidence in your paper, while the local level refers to the individual sentences.  Your first priority should be revising at the global level, because you need to make sure you are making a compelling and well-supported argument.

A particularly helpful exercise for global-level revision is to make a reverse outline, which will help you look at your paper as a whole and strengthen the way you have organized and substantiated your argument.  Print out your draft and number each of the paragraphs.  Then, on a separate piece of paper, write down each paragraph number and, next to it, summarize in a phrase or a sentence the main idea of that paragraph.  As you produce this list, notice if any paragraphs attempt to make more than one point: mark those for revision.  Once you have compiled the list, read it over carefully.  Study the order in which you have sequenced your ideas.  Notice if there are ideas that seem out of order or repetitive.  Look for any gaps in your logic.  Does the argument flow and make sense?

When revising at the local level, check that you are using strong topic sentences and transitions, that you have adequately integrated and analyzed quotations, and that your paper is free from grammar and spelling errors that might distract the reader or even impede your ability to communicate your point.  One helpful exercise for revising on the local level is to read your paper out loud.  Hearing your paper will help you catch grammatical errors and awkward sentences.

Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself while revising on both the global and local levels:

- Does my thesis clearly state my argument and its significance?

- Does the main argument in each body paragraph support my thesis?

- Do I have enough evidence within each body paragraph to make my point?

- Have I properly introduced, analyzed, and cited every quotation I use?

- Do my topic sentences effectively introduce the main point of each paragraph?

- Do I have transitions between paragraphs?

- Is my paper free of grammar and spelling errors?

Remember, start revising at the global level.  Once you are satisfied with your argument, move onto the local level.

9.  Put it all together: the final draft.

After you have finished revising and have created a strong draft, set your paper aside for a few hours or overnight.  When you revisit it, go over the checklist in Step 8 one more time.  Read your paper out loud again too, catching any errors you might have missed before.

At this stage in the process, you need to make sure you have taken care of all the details.  Your paper needs to have a title that does not just announce the topic of the paper, but gives some indication of your argument.  Reread the paper assignment and make sure you have met all of the professor's requirements: Do you need page numbers?  A separate title page?  Will you submit your paper electronically or in hard copy?  Have you followed all of the stated formatting guidelines (such as font-size and margins)?  Is your bibliography appropriately formatted?

10.  Congratulate yourself. You have written a history paper!

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