A Guide to Writing in History
(based on A Guide to Writing in History and Classics by M. Damen)
Many students think I want them to prove in their papers that they've read the assignment and "know the story." I do not! I have exams and various other means of assessing your knowledge of the details. What I'm seeking from your written work is whether or not you've listened in class and read and absorbed the assigned material. Papers tell me something very important and very different from other types of assessment. They show me not just what facts you know but that you've thought about what you've learned!
Thus, students who write about the success of the Romans and lapse into a narrative account of the history of the Roman Republic tell me only that they can regurgitate the story, not that they've tried to make sense of it. But making sense out of historical data is the ultimate goal of studying the past. The struggle that comes of trying to impose some order on the often discordant data surrounding past events is the way we learn about history, human nature and, above all, ourselves. So, don't write just to show what you've learned but to teach, especially yourself, about life then and now!
Remember this, too. I know the history we're studying in this class fairly well. There's no need to teach me anything about that. Inform me, instead, about something else just as important, your way of organizing the past. Thus, a mere reference to the Gracchi as Roman revolutionaries is usually sufficient, if your point is that Republican government in Rome was flexible enough to withstand severe internal disruption. Conversely, going on and on about the Gracchi is debilitating on two counts: it's unnecessary for your argument, and it skirts one of the central goals of writing in this class, that you set the data within some sort of coherent structure, your theme, your answer to the big questions about life.
So, don't let yourself get lost in details and forget the big picture. Cite an example as concisely as possible, and then return immediately to your main point. That is, don't start story-telling! Aim at saying what you think, not just what you know.