A Guide to Writing in History
(based on A Guide to Writing in History and Classics by M. Damen)
2.A.1. Sticking to the Question/Topic.
If I've given you a question or thesis topic to address, or we have discussed your paper topic and agreed on it, please do not refocus the question or thesis topic onto another subject of your own choosing without consulting me. Also, don't leave any part of the question or topic out. Remember that, as much as it's your answer, it's my question and I—or more often we together—have worked very hard to put these questions or thesis topics into a form that guides you toward a professional, scholarly response. Don't undercut that foundation. It's there to help you learn.
Starting Off Your Paper Right. Begin by reading carefully the entire thesis topic or question handed you. Underline key words and look for ways to include them in your paper, in the very first sentence if possible. So, for instance, if the question is "How does the history of Western Civilization affirm that women have played a visible role in public life?," you might start your paper with something like "The history of Western Civilization shows women have played meaningful roles in political, military and commercial life." Then sow throughout your paper words like "visible" and "public life" to remind both yourself and your reader about the specific issue at hand. With all that, it will be clear what issue you're addressing, and how.
Should I Copy Out the Question/Thesis Topic at the Top of the Paper? Unless I tell you to do so explicitly, I prefer you not copy out the question or thesis topic, because in a paper that's well-written it's unnecessary. Especially when we have designed a roster of suitable topics or questions and the first sentence of your paper includes key-words drawn from them, then it should be self-evident which question or thesis topic you're addressing. There's simply no need for you to copy it out, assuming, of course, the rest of the paper is sound. If not, then copying out the question or thesis topic will hardly fix the situation. Only rethinking and rewriting will. So, whether or not the paper's well-written, copying out the question or topic doesn't help.
Staying on the Subject and Not Wandering Off Topic. One of the most important things to bear in mind as you write your paper is that everything you say in it should be directed to the theme. Wandering off topic, no matter how insightful or true your comments may be, detracts from the force of your argument and hence does more damage than good. Instead, tie every sentence you write directly and explicitly to the point you're making, that is, to the theme. And don't count on the readers to make the connection. Instead, if you're at all unsure about whether the relationship between fact and theme is clear, say it outright. Tell us why the data you cite pertain to the issue at hand. And if you can't, take the statement out of your paper.