Hello there, historian!
My name is Stephen Fishbune, and you’ve stumbled upon a resource I created to help students write papers in history classes.
This resource is set up so that you can easily jump to whatever section you need, whether you are working on the beginning of your paper or the end. Take a look!
General Information and Advice
Know Your Professors
Dr. de Boer Dr. Lippman Dr. Tristano
SM 235 SM 227 SM 237
Paper Topic Advice:
Get creative, but don’t lose sight of the main topic. Professors need to read a bunch of similarly themed papers: make yours stand out. If you are ever concerned that you are too far away from the main topic, just ask your professor.
One of the primary goals of the history department is to teach you how to engage with primary and secondary sources. When you use a lot of evidence in your papers, not only are you supporting your argument, but you are displaying to your professor that you are learning an important skill.
Formatting and Citation:
Chicago Manual of Style is the preferred format in the history field. Saint Mary’s history professors especially like footnote style citations.
Your history class may require you to do some research. For articles, go to the Saint Mary’s library website and click on the “Articles/Databases” tab. JSTOR and Academic Search Premier are good starting points. For books, choose the “Books and More” tab and click on “WorldCat,” listed below the search bar, for a large selection.
This depends on the topic. If you are explaining how a set of events led to something else, your structure is very important and should guide the reader through specific events. If you are looking at the ideas presented in a historical work of fiction, you can be more creative. You could follow the development of ideas within the plot chronologically, or you could jump around to look at key quotes and themes. Outlines may be useful!
Starting a paper can be difficult. In general, you want an introduction that “funnels” the reader to the thesis, starting more broadly and then becoming more specific. Many times an intro can be the most creative aspect of your paper, drawing the reader in. The only advice that is applicable 100 percent of the time is what not to do at the start of your paper. Never, EVER, use phrases like “Since the beginning of time . . .” or “Throughout history . . .”. These phrases are clichéd, vague, and often incorrect.
The following example is taken from a book review I wrote in Dr. Lippman’s class about the Ottoman Empire. Notice how I move from the broad idea of Ottoman history texts to my specific argument about the book we read in class.
Crafting a history of the Ottoman Empire that describes the Ottomans on their own terms has proved a very difficult task for many historians. Perhaps even more difficult is writing such a history in a way that is both accessible and interesting for readers. Giancarlo Casale rises to the challenge on both fronts in his book The Ottoman Age of Exploration. Using a variety of Ottoman and Portuguese sources, Casale guides readers through the Ottoman’s growing exposure to and influence in the Indian Ocean region. In doing so, he hopes to convey that the Ottomans participated in an Age of Exploration that shared the essential traits of European exploration, “an assertion that will no doubt come as a surprise to those accustomed to thinking of the Ottoman Empire in quite different terms: at first as the primary obstacle to exploration and later as its principal victim.” To avoid the Eurocentrism that this comparison invites, Casale asserts that the book “is at its heart a narrative rather than a comparative history,” entirely focused “on the actions of the Ottomans themselves.” Despite an evident lack of source material and the occasional expression of favoritism, Casale is largely successful in proving the existence of an Ottoman Age of Exploration, providing a narrative that is excellently written and clearly focused throughout.
A thesis statement should be an argument. Instead of just regurgitating information already given to you, use that information to make a claim that can be debated. Think of this example. Let’s say your topic is the influence of the Atlantic slave trade. If your thesis statement is, “During the development of the so called ‘New World,’ millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean,” you are essentially saying nothing new. It is a declarative statement, not a claim. However, now let’s say you write, “Because millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, the development of the so called ‘New World’ was influenced by African culture as much as European culture.” Here you make an argument that can be debated. You even allude to some evidence, namely, the large number of Africans that were moved to the Americas.
In this thesis example, observe how I argue for the success of Casale’s book. I can tell you with great certainty that some other people would disagree with this statement, but that is why it is an argument. Also notice how I point out key topics that will be mentioned in the body, like the lack of source material and the excellent writing.
Despite an evident lack of source material and the occasional expression of favoritism, Casale is largely successful in proving the existence of an Ottoman Age of Exploration, providing a narrative that is excellently written and clearly focused throughout.
In the body of your paper, you want to give as much evidence as possible for your thesis. Each paragraph should point toward your thesis. Stay focused, and don’t try to do too much in one paragraph. A good rule of thumb is to keep each paragraph focused on one piece of your argument. Placing two, three, or more ideas in one paragraph confuses the reader.
Example Body Paragraph:
Notice how my topic in this paragraph directly relates to my statement in the thesis about Casale’s excellent writing and focus. The rest of the paragraph provides evidence for this statement.
None of these issues detract too heavily from the greatest success of The Ottoman Age of Exploration: Casale’s excellent writing and methodology. For a text detailing anything from canal projects to naval tactics, The Ottoman Age of Exploration is remarkably easy to read. Furthermore, Casale manages to include digressions into topics like cartography without navigating too far away from his main narrative. In his introduction, Casale writes that he hoped to integrate “the kind of expansive intellectual history practiced by students of global encounters with the more inclusive grand narratives of world historians.” The result is an informative overview of the Ottomans’ expansion into the Indian Ocean region that gives the characters involved in this expansion their due. Casale uses the stories of individuals like Sefer Reis, whose “victories were measured not in hectares of conquered territory, but in captured vessels and increased customs revenues,” to explain complex Ottoman developments, such as the tactical shift from assaulting Portuguese forts to battling at sea.
While each body paragraph should have its own central topic, the paper as a whole should flow together. This is where transitions come into play. A solid transition will guide the reader through different topics. Oftentimes, you will want to use transition words and phrases like “nevertheless,” “therefore,” and “as a result” (note: many of these can be found with a simple online search). However, just adding a transition word does not necessarily make two paragraphs connect well. You want ideas to flow together, and to do that, you might even lead into the next paragraph with the last sentence of your current one. If you can think of no way to connect two ideas, you may need to consider re-organizing your paper.
The following four transitions display how paragraphs can be formatted to flow together beyond simply including a transition word/phrase. Note that for each example, the first sentence is actually the last sentence of a paragraph, while the second sentence is the beginning of a new paragraph.
In fact, Casale claims that the Ottomans were much more interested in European portolan charts and Ptolemaic geographies, suggesting that “the Ottomans were largely dependent on the same sources of information about the outside world as available to Europeans.”While such an argument aligns with Casale’s notion that the Ottoman’s discovered the Indies on their own terms, it could also be argued that Casale is simply engaging in the comparative history that he hoped to avoid.
In this way, the reader is meant to view the Ottomans’ success in the Indian Ocean as positive, and the actions of the Portuguese as negative.Perhaps this makes sense from a purely Ottoman perspective—even though, as Casale points out, the Ottomans were very open to negotiations with the Portuguese—but one of the problems with creating such a narrative of good versus evil is the urge to side with the “hero.”
Bias exists in all writings, but Casale’s embellishment at times is related to a greater problem with the text: a lack of sources.While Casale works well with the sources he does have, it is clear that he is forced to speculate on multiple occasions.
It is worth noting, however, that even with his lack of extensive of source material, Casale is able to construct a largely coherent history. None of these issues detract too heavily from the greatest success of The Ottoman Age of Exploration: Casale’s excellent writing and methodology.
In the conclusion, you probably want to begin by addressing your thesis — without simply restating it. Then think about the idea or ideas you want to leave your reader with. Ask questions like, “What are the implications of my thesis?” Don’t stray away from your topic, but leave a strong final impression.
Because my example is a book review, I don’t necessarily bring up the implications of my argument, but I do try to leave the reader with a strong message of what I want them to remember most.
Overall, The Ottoman Age of Exploration is a successful look into a largely unexplored area in the history of the Ottoman Empire. Even with a limited amount of source material, Casale proves the determination of the Ottomans to engage with the Indian Ocean region economically, politically, and religiously on their own terms. By combining personal stories with grand historical narratives, Casale is able to keep readers engaged without getting bogged down in details. Combined with Casale’s simple and easy-to-read writing style, this narrative structure makes the The Ottoman Age of Exploration just as enjoyable as it is informative.
Chicago Manual of Style is the preferred formatting style in the history field. At Saint Mary’s, history professors prefer footnote style citations (as opposed to endnote style). Adding footnotes on Microsoft Word and Google Docs is easy. In Word, click the “References” tab and then hit “Insert Footnote.” In Google Docs, hit the “Insert” tab and then click “Footnote.” Be careful when citing! Footnote citations are not the same as the citations you place in your bibliography. Use Purdue Owl or the official CMS website to help guide you.
Here are the citations for Giancarlo Casale’s book. The first is in note style, and the second is in bibliography style. Notice that note style has four separate citations. The first is the basic note citation. The second is if you are returning to a text you have already cited, but another citation came between it in your footnotes. The third is for when you cite the same text two footnotes in a row. The fourth is for when you cite the same text and page number two footnotes in a row.
Giancarlo Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 6.
Casale, Ottoman Age of Exploration, 54.
Casale, Giancarlo. The Ottoman Age of Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Don’t waste time and space with credibility fluff like “Professor So-and-so from Something University wrote . . .” – Just write their name.
- Your thesis does not need to be static. Sometimes you won’t know how to articulate your argument until you start writing your body paragraphs. Just remember to go back to change your thesis statement!
- Avoid repeatedly introducing quotes with “he/she says, ‘ . . . ’” and instead try to provide interpretation or context before the quote. If possible, it looks impressive if you can weave the quote into your own sentence.
Ex. African Christianity, for example, formed because both cultures “accepted the basic reality of religion: that there was another world that could not be seen and that revelations were the essential source by which people could know of this other world.”
- Avoid the passive voice. Especially in history papers, it is necessary to convey who says or does what.
Wrong: Indulgences are rejected in the Ninety-Five Theses.
Right: Martin Luther rejects indulgences in his Ninety-Five Theses.
- Don’t say a person “believed” something to be true. When examining historical texts, you cannot know what someone truly believed — only what they said or wrote.
- Revise, Revise, Revise.