Keys to Historical Research and Writing

by Rich Slatta, Professor of History, NC State University

Why this emphasis on writing?

Cognitive Answer

  • "Like talking, writing clarifies thinking. . . . The purpose of writing as a form of active learning is to help students explore their own thinking about concepts and issues, thereby expanding their mental structures." [Meyers & Jones, Promoting Active Learning, 1993, pp. 23-24].

    Applied (Practical) Answer

  • In our electronic age, what is write is often the first thing a potential employer or other important person sees. Thus everthing you write, including your resume. should brim with strong, clear prose. Fill your writing with active verbs to represent you and your ideas and capabilities at their best. Whether job hunting or seeking grad school admission, your WRITING is often the first impression you create. Make it a postive impression.
  • Writing is essential to professional success. See these excerpts from a July 2005 survey of 64 American corporations (source: "Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out, A Survey of Business Leaders," issued by the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges). More recent surveys reflect the same realities. Writing Process
    • People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired, and if already working, are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion.
    • Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility.
    • All employees must have writing ability
    • Applicants who provide poorly written letters wouldn't likely get an interview.
    • Follow these instructions for getting the most from your word processor. Set the software to check spelling, grammar, and writing style--the green squiggles showing questionable writing practices are your friends.

    Keys to Historical Writing

    Diagram to the right illustrates the historical writing process.
    1. Argue with evidence, especially primary sources (eyewitness accounts).
    2. Organize information clearly, logically, and topically. Create several well-focused paragraphs each focused on one subtopic related to the question. You may find this synthesis matrix helpful. It provides a visual means of organizing historical data.
    3. Interpret, comment, analyze, explain--don't just tell a story. Historical sources do not speak for themselves. Explain clearly and critically what your sources mean and what your analysis concludes.
    4. Do sweat the small stuff: spelling, grammar, word use, etc. Write history using the active voice and the simple past tense [-ed verbs]. (See how to kill the passive for details. For those of you new to historical writing, here's a Venn diagram of similarities and differences between writing in history and in other disciplines. However, notice below the similarities between historical and technical writing.
    5. Aply these Six Principles of Technical Writing to all your writing.
      1. Use Good Grammar
      2. Write Concisely
      3. Use the Active Voice
      4. Use Positive Statements
      5. Avoid Long Sentences
      6. Punctuate Correctly Need some extra tutoring on grammar issues? Here's a link to 6 websites full of grammar tutorials and assistance.
    6. Read the fine points of historical reading and thinking.