Why Writing Works

Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts

Writing in History

by Dr. Anita Gaul

In history, like in most other fields of study, writing is the primary form of communication. Historical writing takes many different forms: an essay, a book, a journal article, an informational poster in a museum exhibit, an encyclopedia article, or the script of a documentary film, among others. Yet all these forms share some common characteristics: a clear thesis supported by evidence, accuracy, and clarity. Additionally, historical writing at its best tells a good story. Skillful historical writing can inspire and challenge its readers, and, as historian Peter N. Stearns writes, convey “a sense of beauty and excitement, and ultimately another perspective on human life and society.”

Types of writing in History

It is important to keep one’s audience in mind when writing in the field of history. In general, there are two types of writing: academic history and popular history.

Academic history is written for an audience of scholars and professional historians, many of whom work in the “academy,” meaning colleges and universities. Academic writing tends to be more complex, applies specific historical methods or theories, and includes lengthy recitations of previous research done on a particular topic (called a literature review).

As in the field of philosophy, most academic writing in the field of history takes the form of a journal article or book. Books can be a single-authored historical monograph or an anthology in which many authors contribute an essay or chapter. Academic journal articles are much shorter than an historical monograph and are the most prevalent mode of publication for scholars and professional historians.

Digital publications are becoming increasingly accepted and common in the field. This includes online encyclopedias, textbooks, and scholarly journals. Journals are increasingly available online, and some are now exclusively available in an online format.

Historical writing can also take the form of popular history. Works of popular history are geared towards a general audience – people who are not professionally-trained historians, academics, or scholars. These are people who are simply interested in history and like to read about it. Popular history tends to be written in a simpler, more engaging style, avoids the use of academic jargon or complex historical methods and theories, and spends less time reviewing previous research done on a particular topic.

Popular history works can also take different forms. There are many popular history books. Examples include David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard or Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. There are also popular history magazines and journals intended for a general audience. Many state and local history organizations produce magazines of this type, such as the Minnesota History Magazine, published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Digital publications are a particularly common venue for popular history. This includes encyclopedias, magazines, and historical websites. One good example of an online encyclopedia is MNopedia, produced and published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Historical writing takes other forms as well, forms that might not be immediately apparent. Informational posters in any exhibit in an history museum are a form of historical writing. Roadside markers indicating sites of historical importance are another example. Information conveyed in an historical documentary film (such as Ken Burns’ documentaries) usually begins as a script written and/or reviewed by historians.

In short, there are many ways for historians to convey historical information and tell a story. The key to deciding which form to use is to determine who your audience is and how or where they will be receiving or viewing the information: Online? In a museum? In a documentary film? In a book? Once you determine the answers to these questions, you can determine the best method of writing for your project.

Writing in the classroom

Students in history courses usually write argumentative essays. Students in higher-level history courses are often required to produce a research paper. A Bachelor’s degree in history usually requires a student to write a final research paper, usually as part of a history capstone course in the final year of their studies.

An argumentative essay is a type of writing that identifies an issue, articulates the writer’s position on the issue, then uses evidence to support that position. In other words, this type of essay presents an argument and carefully defends that argument with evidence.

The standard format for this type of essay includes an introduction, body, and conclusion. In the introduction, the student explains the topic and provides context. It is essential for the introduction to include a thesis statement that clearly articulates the argument being made in the paper. The body of the essay contains the evidence and support for the student’s position. The conclusion briefly summarizes the evidence and revisits the thesis.

The historical research paper is also an argumentative essay, but is longer and includes more evidential support. A research paper generally addresses a more complex topic than a short argumentative essay; therefore, it requires more evidence (and therefore more research). A student will need to investigate both primary and secondary sources in order to find evidence to support their position. It is also necessary to review the work already published on the topic and connect one’s paper to this existing scholarship (called a literature review).

Learning how to write a clear and concise argumentative essay is a useful skill for all areas of life, but is particularly useful in the workplace. Employers value employees who can write well, summarize information, evaluate evidence, and make reasoned arguments. In one’s everyday life, the ability to assess evidence, consider conflicting arguments, and clearly articulate one’s own positions enables us to be critical thinkers, informed citizens, and rational human beings.