Boston University: Writing history, a guide

AP history classes worry about writing more than most history classes.  But we really should do more writing in history class, both as a tool to learn about history in the past, and as an exercise in actually writing history.

Searching for something else, I stumbled on a guide published by thBoston University’s Department of History.  It’s not dull at all, but lively, and therefore quite useful, even though it starts out in French:

Raison d’être

Good, clear writing is, for most historians and professional writers, more of a process than a God-given talent. It begins with a blank piece of paper (or computer screen) and ends with a clearly organized and persuasive argument
in the form of a research paper, a published article, or a book manuscript.

History as a discipline is in its essence the discovery and interpretation of signs of the past as well as conventions of how to cite such evidence. It thus combines research (the search for historical evidence) and the organization of data into a convincing argument. Historical writing is one variety of written expression which seeks to inform and persuade the reader through the use of evidence organized around a central thesis or argument.  Good historical writing is not merely description, though it may employ illustrations and appeals to the reader’s imagination.

AP history teachers may find it useful for their classes.  Students working on National History Day projects may find it useful.  You may find it fun to read.  Check it out:  Boston University Department of History Writing Guide (in .pdf).

2 Responses to Boston University: Writing history, a guide

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    You’re absolutely right. In order to write well, really well, one has to have something to write about. I suspect that the best fiction and poetry writers don’t start with a blank page, either, really — think of Hemingway, just for one example. For Who the Bells Toll is a work of fiction, but it was based in no small part on Hemingway’s own experiences in the Spanish Civil War. He started out with something to say, and then practiced key methods of good writing in order to hone and polish that something.

    I like your method of picking and answering questions. Mind if I steal it for classroom use?


  2. mokurai says:

    I came to your blog during a search for posts on Ayn Rand, and decided to see what you had on your mind today.

    (My version of Shorter Ayn Rand Objectivism: I object, therefore I am not, and you can’t make me.)

    You raise a good question about history writing, but speaking strictly for myself, that isn’t how I do any of my historical or other writing. I don’t know from my own experience whether starting with a blank sheet may be permissible for fiction or poetry, but in history it is an admission of intellectual bankruptcy.

    I start with a question. Preferably a good question, but I can work with bad questions (Anthropogenic Global Warming denialism, for example) if nothing better is available. The mark of a good question is that it inherently does not have a Right Answer. Should you believe me? What are the most important things to do? How does one write effectively? But continuing with the previous bad question, it is true that all Global Warming models are wrong. Unfortunately for the rest of their argument, the reality of warming of air, water, land, ice, permafrost…that we measure over and over again is consistently _worse_ than predicted in the models. I can trace the history of scientific and philosophical denialism back to the trial of Socrates on a charge of impiety, and a little way into the poorly-documented pre-Socratic period.
    I add a list of all relevant data sources previously known to me or findable in an organized search process. I have lots of sources squirreled away, or at least bookmarked, and I know lots of places to put in queries.
    I then paste in the relevant bits of information, and any opinions worth taking note of, whether to guide further inquiry or just to point and laugh.
    Now it is time to organize the information, the questions, and the opinions into a coherent sequence, noting the credibility of each, and any gaps in the data or the argument. If I can see a way to fill in such gaps, I do so, or at least point them out as challenges to the interested reader.
    With all of that out of the way, then I can begin to write. I can clean up the presentation, clarify the logic, streamline the transitions, maybe add a bit of humor, my own or whatever I can ste–can borrow from someone else…”For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong.”–H. L. Mencken

    When I set out to write a guide for new Internet users in the early 1990s, there were three questions I could not answer, which then became the basis of research and action until I could, at least in principle.

    How do we get rid of Spam e-mail? (The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail, which I helped to start, settled on trying to get laws against spamming, modeled on successful anti-junk-fax laws. We have had success in some countries, but the fight continues.)
    How can we view all human languages on the World-Wide Web? (Solved by the Unicode character set and by software for entering, displaying, and printing Unicode text. I played a part in Unicode adoption for HTML URLs and URIs, and in publicizing the issues within the computer industry. You are using Unicode every day that you go on the Web. There are issues remaining with traditional Mongolian alphabets, but the Mongols are on them.)
    How can we get everybody on the Net? (I’m still working on that. One Laptop Per Child proposes that governments give every one of the billion or so children in the world one of its XO laptops or its forthcoming tablet computer, in order to give them all quality educations, qualify them for information age jobs, and end poverty. It seems likely to me that this would also, over a generation or two, put an end to nearly all preventable and treatable disease and disability; nearly all oppression; most government corruption; and maybe even war. Then we get to tackle the hard problems. So far, we have our computers, software, and e-learning materials in the hands of somewhat over 2 million children.)

    You see how that works?

    For my historical writing on the Federalist Party of No, the externally-imposed disasters of two centuries of the Haitian Revolution, the continuing aftermath of the Civil War within Tea Party/Republican Southern Strategy politics, and other such matters, including attempted humor, see


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