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The Hulbert Taft, Jr. Library



The History Essay: A Research Guide

Greg Hawes (2005)

Chapter One - The History Essay

Believe it or not, there is really only one type of History essay: the thesis essay. Whether you are writing an in-class essay, a final exam essay off an outline or producing a 15 page research paper, you will be writing a thesis essay. This essay is perhaps different from types of essays you might write in English class, so this booklet should help you understand what is expected from your writing in the social sciences.

What is the thesis?

A thesis essay is simply an essay that seeks to prove a point. Your thesis is the argument that your paper is making. A thesis must therefore do the following:

  • It must take a stand that a reasonable person could argue against. If your "thesis" winds up being a statement of fact or even a universally agreed upon opinion, your paper will suffer.

  • It should answer the question (either your own or your teacher's).

  • It should be reasonably specific. If the thesis is general, then the paper will also be a collection of general points.

If, for instance, your thesis is a statement of fact, you will usually wind up with a paper that simply relates a narrative, rather than makes an argument. Let's take this "thesis": "Abraham Lincoln led this nation through the Civil War." This paper will almost certainly relate Lincoln's experiences as President during the Civil War, but it will not make an argument about Lincoln's leadership. It will be simply a summary of events that the reader could just as easily find in an encyclopedia.

But what of a thesis that argues a universally held opinion? "Abraham Lincoln's leadership during the Civil War makes him one of America's greatest presidents." This is an opinion, but it is tough to argue against. The paper will be neither creative nor stimulating; it will simply be a recollection of commonly held beliefs. As an academic exercise, this paper will be essentially pointless.

So what might be a thesis for this writer? The best solution is to narrow your argument so that it becomes more closely tied to you and your thinking and research. "Abraham Lincoln's deep religious belief in a just God allowed him to lead the Union through the Civil War." This thesis promises not to be a bland rehashing of commonly known events in Lincoln's presidency, but will instead attempt to analyze Lincoln's presidency. The writer here will have to explain why Lincoln was a great leader and will have to prove that she has come up with the best explanation for this fact or opinion.

Another tactic is to argue against the commonly held belief. "Lincoln's leadership was only of minor significance in the North's victory in the Civil War." This can often make for an interesting paper, but it will require the writer to make an especially well proven argument. This approach is not for beginners or the faint of heart.

In Summary…

The history essay is an exercise in proving an arguable thesis with evidence.

Chapter Two – The Thesis Question

If the thesis is so important, how do I go about creating one?

In many cases, your teacher will ask you a question. On tests, essays and exams, your teacher will ask questions designed to help you create a thesis. You will not open up your test and read, "Hey, tell me what you know about the British Empire." Instead, the questions will be designed to force you to take a position. There are several types of essay questions.


These questions are fairly straightforward. You are being asked to explain the reasons behind something that has happened.

Q: How was England able to colonize the coast of North America so quickly?

T: "A combination of disease and intertribal conflict prevented eastern Native Americans from resisting English territorial expansion."

Here, the writer must explain why a few thousand Englishmen were able to invade and overcome superior numbers of Native Americans. Rather than try and list every conceivable cause behind English success, the writer picks two points and focuses on these as the most important.

Q: Why did neo-fascist groups grow in popularity in the United States during the early 1990s?

T: "The fall of the Soviet Union as a unifying threat and difficult economic conditions were the primary reasons behind the rise of neo-fascism in the early 1990s."

Here again, the writer is going to prove why something happened. This is about the process of what happened.


Anytime you are asked to compare two or more "things" (events, people, causes, trends and so on), you are being asked to evaluate them in relation to each other. Your thesis should make some sort of point about this comparison. Most papers are to some degree or another compare and contrast papers, because you are almost always comparing your interpretation against another.

Note: When you compare something, you are looking at the similarities, whereas when you contrast something, you focus more on the differences.


Q: Compare Karl Marx's ideas with the practices of Soviet Communism.

T: "Lenin's emphasis on the dictatorship of the proletariat signaled a break with Marx's ideas of complete equality."

In this instance, the writer is focusing on one aspect of Leninism to show how different it is from Marxism. The paper will necessarily compare and contrast Marx and Lenin's views on equality.

Q: Who was more important to creating modern America: Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton?

T: "Despite our devotion to Jefferson's lofty ideals, it has been Hamilton's practical interpretation of the Constitution that has guided America's development as a nation."

Here, the comparison is implicit in the question. The writer has taken a position, and we can expect that this paper will compare Jefferson and Hamilton's competing ideas and how they helped shape the nation.


Occasionally you will be given an opinion and asked to evaluate it. You are effectively evaluating someone else's thesis. In this instance, it is very important to keep the given statement in the forefront of your argument.

Q: Assess the validity of this statement: "The American Revolution was a true social, economic and political upheaval."

T: "While the Revolution did constitute a break with English governance, American gender roles and political structures were basically unchanged and the new nation remained dependent on English trade."

This thesis disagrees with the given statements and gives three specific examples of why the writer disagrees.


But what if there is no question?

For most research papers, you are not even given a specific topic, much less a question. Instead, your own interests determine your topic. Perhaps you are interested in the recent terrorist attacks.

For a paper like this, you must begin by asking yourself questions. As you do your preliminary research in the reference sources, you should start asking questions about your topic. Some of those questions will be essentially factual.

"What is bin Laden's conflict with the U.S.?"

"How did the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan?"

"What was the relationship between bin Laden and the Taliban?"

"Where did bin Laden get his money?"

These questions will need to be answered with further research. But as you learn more about the facts of your topic, you will begin to ask deeper, more difficult questions.

"How was Al Qaeda able to pull off the 9/11 attacks? Was it their skill, American ineptitude or something else?"

"Why didn't the Taliban give up bin Laden and save themselves in October 2001?"

"What was the point of the 9/11 attacks? What did they hope to accomplish?"

These questions, too, will need extra research, but they do not come with neat, factual answers. Therefore, your answers to these questions are much more likely to lead you to a thesis statement.

How do I know if I have a thesis question?

It is essential to check your thesis question with your teacher early on in the research project. Your teacher will be able to discern between questions like the first three above that have factual answers and the second set of three that will lead to interpretive theses.

When is a history essay not a thesis essay?

Sometimes a teacher will ask you a "short answer" question. These are usually a paragraph in length and do not advance a developed thesis. Instead, these are opportunities to demonstrate your mastery of a topic, by answering a specific question at greater length than simply filling in a blank or choosing from multiple options.


If you understand what is being asked, you can answer the question with a relevant, responsive and specific thesis. This will allow you to write a relevant, responsive and specific essay.

Chapter Three- The Outline

What is the purpose of the outline?

At certain stages in your development as a writer, you will be required to turn in outlines. In fact, Lower Mids have assignments where the end product is the outline itself. What's the point?

Outlines help you structure your argument. Once you have settled on your thesis, you must begin to shape how you will prove your thesis to be true. This structure is vitally important to how successful your overall argument proves to be. If you have a strong thesis, but your supporting arguments are simply spilled out onto the page in a random order, your reader is not likely to be impressed or convinced. A good structure will help lead the readers where you want them to go. It will reveal your evidence in a manner most likely to convince them.

For instance, let's say you have three main supporting points to make. One is a slam dunk, 100% convincing argument and the other two are less related but still helpful points. You would probably want to start with the slam dunk and then include the other two in brief follow up paragraphs.

If you had three interrelated points, you might want to organize them by their relationship with each other. Perhaps point A leads to point B which leads to point C. Even though B is your most "important" point, it might logically belong in the middle.

Chronology is an important structural tool. Studying history should not be solely the memorization of dates, but dates are important. When looking at questions that surround the cause (Why did America enter World War I? Why did the civil rights movement succeed?), chronology is a necessary organizing principle. Things happen in chronological order. Even in essays that don't deal with cause and effect, chronological order can be vitally important, and it can help you organize your paper.

The outline is what helps you shape your supporting points before you begin writing. Even on a timed test, you should take the time to organize your thoughts and your arguments before simply scribbling away on the page.

What are the basic elements of structure?

The most basic structural element in your writing is, of course, the sentence. Those sentences should make sense both in terms of their internal grammar and in terms of what comes before and after them.

The structural element with which the outline helps most is the paragraph.

The paragraph is the basic building block of an argument. Each paragraph should make a single point. Preferably that point should be identified in the first or second sentence of its body paragraph. Just as a thesis serves as the overarching point of your entire paper,

so your topic sentence serves as the overarching point of your paragraph.

The paragraph's length may vary. It might be a big point requiring a big paragraph or a small point requiring a small paragraph. Perhaps it's a transitional point that leads the reader from one point to another. A paragraph can be as brief as two sentences, as long as it represents a single idea within your argument.

For example, your thesis is: "The three main reasons Julius Caesar rose to power were his personal abilities and magnetism, the intransigence of the Senate and the ineptitude of Pompey." You can see that you should probably have three body paragraphs: one on Caesar's abilities, one on the Senate and one on Caesar's rival, Pompey. But you might decide you need a paragraph linking the points about the Senate and Pompey. It might only be a few lines long, but if you feel your paper needs that transitional paragraph, by all means include it.

You have probably heard of the "Five Paragraph Essay". It should not be an exercise in your ability to count to five. Your essay should be organized according to the evidence and argument you are making, rather than by a pre-established and arbitrary number.

Why not write a longer paragraph that includes everything?

One of your primary jobs as a writer is to make it easy on your reader. You want the reader to follow your argument smoothly. If the reader gets lost or frustrated, she will turn against you and your argument, regardless of the validity of your thesis. If each paragraph is a dense thicket of ideas without structure, the reader will lose the thread of the argument.

Better to be clear, simple and straightforward than to be obtuse, confusing and muddled.

What is the purpose of the conclusion?

In an in-class essay, the conclusion might only be a few lines to restate (though not simply repeat) your thesis and note to the reader how you have proved the points you set out to prove. Then the bell rings and the paper gets snatched away. But on a take home paper or a research paper, your conclusion should do more. It should still restate and reaffirm your thesis, but it should also draw the reader to the larger significance of this topic.

A good conclusion can leave a favorable impression in your reader's mind and should, for that reason, be as thoughtful and insightful as possible. What lessons may be drawn from your thesis? What is the greater significance of your topic in the larger context of history? These are the questions best answered in the conclusion.

An example:

Q: "Why was the period after the Civil War known as the Age of the Railroads?"

T: "The railroads not only allowed for the expansion of cities and stimulated the demand for steel; they created a new economic order in the United States."

C: "Railroads ushered in the steel age, allowing for residents of skyscrapers in New York to eat Kansas City beef shipped to them in refrigerated cars along steel tracks. Everyone from the farmer to the urbanite saw their life touched by this new technology. America had been a primarily agrarian nation prior to the Civil War, but that conflict had proved the efficiency of railroads. After the war, America would become an industrial power, and steel would be the basis of that power." (To this point, the author has restated and reaffirmed his argument. Now he will draw a larger point.) "But the railroads were not without serious flaws. They consolidated immense wealth in the hands of a few men, often by shady means. They began to erode the Jeffersonian ideal of the smaller farmer or craftsman. They destroyed the Plains Indian culture. The ills of the railroad would unleash powerful political forces that would transform the United States as it passed into the Twentieth century."

What about in class writings?

You should still take the time to organize your writing before you begin. A few minutes’ preparation to create a rough outline will benefit the clarity and organization of your essay.

Are there other elements of structure?

As you grow as a scholar, you will produce longer and more complicated work. You might wish to include sub-headings or chapters. Occasionally this is done on major research papers, but they are only used properly about half of the time. Unless you have a compelling reason for including chapters or subheadings, you should probably avoid them at this time.

In Summary…

The outline allows you to plan the structure of your argument by organizing your supporting points into coherent paragraphs.

Chapter 4 – Proof Through the Use of Evidence

The basic structure of the paper is in place:

  • An opening paragraph that introduces the topic and leads up to a thesis statement

  • A series of supporting paragraphs that proves your thesis

  • A conclusion that expresses the greater significance of your paper

But the most important remaining question revolves around the structure of each individual paragraph. Once you have settled on your thesis, you must then prove that thesis using evidence and that proof occurs in the body paragraph.

How do I structure my body paragraphs?

Every body paragraph is like a small paper-within-a-paper. Each paragraph has an assertion or point that functions as a thesis or topic for that paragraph. That assertion is then proven with evidence and explained with analysis.

Your assertion or point is the topic of that paragraph and should be readily apparent to the reader in the first one or two sentences of that paragraph.

What type of evidence should I use?

Your evidence can take several forms.


The first and arguably best form of evidence is primary sources. These are sources that were created at the time of the event that you are writing about. For instance: the letters that George Washington wrote to the Continental Congress are primary sources, as is the diary of a Napoleonic soldier. The Emancipation Proclamation and the majority opinion in Roe vs. Wade are primary sources. Contemporary newspaper or magazine accounts would also qualify.

When you use primary sources, it is especially vital to include analysis. If you were writing about attitudes towards slavery in the United States in the early 1800s, and your source was a slave holder who paints a fairly benign picture of slavery, your analysis would need to identify the bias of the speaker and explain why this source further advances your thesis. If you simply included a quote from this slave holder without analyzing and explaining its significance to your thesis, this quote would not advance your thesis proof.

Finding the primary source is only half the work, the other half is explaining why that source material advances your thesis.


Another form of evidence is secondary sources. These are sources that were written after the event and often have their own thesis to prove. Secondary sources can be helpful primarily because they offer their own analysis.

For instance, if you were writing a paper about the birth of American Capitalism, you might wish to read parts of Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the ten dollar bill). Chernow, as a biographer, has already read the primary source documents, synthesized them into a narrative or story and offered his own opinions. You may use Chernow's opinions to back up your own points, and since Mr. Chernow has won a Pulitzer Prize and presumably you have not, your thesis proof is aided by the support of a distinguished scholar.

Secondary sources can also include excerpts from primary sources. This can be a helpful shortcut, but be careful. If the author of the secondary source edited the primary source, the author may have altered the meaning subtly. For instance, an article about abortion written from a pro-choice viewpoint, might alter the words of an anti-abortion activist to make that activist seem less reasonable. Be aware of this when using secondary sources to provide primary source material.


A final form of evidence is tertiary sources (third level). These include encyclopedias, reference books and your textbooks. These tend to be more general and have less overt bias. They also tend to be very poor sources on which to base a paragraph. The best use of tertiary sources is during the very early stages of research when you need a broad overview of a topic or perhaps when you need to quickly find out about some aspect of your paper (ie, you're writing about Peter the Great, but you realize you need to know a quick history of the Czars that preceded him.).

Papers – especially research papers – that rely on tertiary sources are not supported by good evidence and do not demonstrate very good research. The only exception to this rule would be if your teacher gives you a take home paper and advises you to use the textbook for supporting evidence.

Note: Major encyclopedias are usually not included in a bibliography – though they should be cited with a footnote where appropriate. The reason they are not included in a bibliography is that they don't represent original research.

What form of evidence should I use?

There are different forms of evidence, but one of the most frequently used is the quotation.

Quotations serve several purposes.

  1. They allow the actors to speak in their own words. This is obviously true of primary sources. When you use the words of Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth to express the horrors of slavery, your argument draws on the impact of their immediacy to the subject.

  2. They allow you to draw on the words and expertise of experts. This is more true of secondary sources. When a scholar or commentator offers an opinion to back up the point you are making, the authority their own words bring to your paper is helpful.

  3. They allow you to define terms precisely. Quoting from dictionaries is not always necessary (and can be tiresome and amateurish), but sometimes you need to define your terms precisely.

  4. You have to analyze the quotation itself. If you were to analyze a speech by President John Kennedy, you would obviously include quotes from the speech.

There are times when quotations do NOT serve a purpose, especially when quotations are simple recitations of commonly known facts. "The Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620." What possible reasons would there be to include this in quotations? Yet, because students often feel the need to stuff their paper with "research" tied up in quotation marks, you often see needless quotes like this.

If it is an agreed upon fact, there is rarely any need to include it as a quote, unless the quote is especially vivid.

We will deal with the issue of paraphrasing later.

Scholarly Work

There is more to research than simply finding a quote or two to spruce up your essay.

Some of the best research takes place in the form of statistics. Public opinion polls, census data, election results; all of this is evidence. If you were writing about the 2000 Presidential election, you would definitely want to include much of this type of research. But if you were interested in the pre-Civil War South, you might wish to include statistics on what percentage of households owned slaves or where slaveholding and support for the Confederacy overlapped.

This evidence, like primary source evidence, must be analyzed by you. It must be made relevant to your thesis.

Much of higher level historical research relies on statistics and surveys. You must remember that this work should be cited, as we will discuss later.

Graphic Evidence

Evidence can take the form of art work, maps, cartoons or photographs. Usually, these should be placed in an appendix. If you were writing about the rise of Nazism, you might wish to include the posters and artwork that was created to glorify Germany and create the backdrop for fascism. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words.

This type of material also requires your analysis. Simply showing a Doonesbury cartoon from 1974 in your paper about Watergate does not make the cartoon evidence.

Again, these sources must be cited.

Hey, wait a minute, what about in-class essays? How can I use evidence then?

When you walk into a test, you will occasionally have the question ahead of you and be allowed to bring in an outline. This will allow you to integrate evidence into your paper. But what about those essays (like on the Advanced Placement exams) where you have no idea what the question is? You certainly can't be expected to pull a primary source quote from J.P. Morgan or a statistical analysis of medieval English land ownership from your memory.

When you are writing an essay "cold", you are not expected to have mastered the evidence as thoroughly. But the questions are not likely to be as specific either. You must still include evidence in your answer. If the question was "What was the most important long standing effect of the French Revolution?" you should offer, as specifically as you can, examples. That's all that's required.

Such an essay is, in effect, evaluating your ability to remember specific events and use them in a coherent argument. The fact that you do not have a prepared outline or 24 hours prep time only means that your essay will not be as specifically or thoroughly supported.

Still, the principle of assertion, evidence and analysis remains exactly the same.

In summary…

Each paragraph should have a single point that it makes in support of your thesis. That point should be backed by evidence. That evidence takes many different forms, and in fact, the more varied the forms, the more thorough the proof. You should include your analysis of the evidence to tie your assertion and your evidence back to your thesis.

Chapter Five – The Research Paper

What makes the research paper different from a regular paper?

Well, in the most basic sense: nothing. A research paper is expected to conform to all the same standards we have already addressed: thesis, supporting points or assertions that are backed by evidence that is analyzed by the writer. The only difference is that you will be given more time and freedom to explore the topic and will be expected to produce more evidence.

How do I begin a research paper?

You may be given a topic or a range of topics to choose from. If you're in American History your range of topics is remarkably broad. In Approaches to History, you might have a specific question to answer. Whatever the case, you will be turned loose into the library and cyberspace to help build evidence in support of your thesis.

If you don't have a specific topic, you must begin by narrowing your topics. Find one that interests you. If you're bored by your own topic, there is little chance of producing high quality work.

Pick a broad area, say the Space Race. Then do some preliminary research in the reference section. This is where tertiary sources provide the most help. You can read a broad synopsis in an encyclopedia, then move to more specific reference works to sharpen the focus of your paper.

At this point it is helpful to establish a working relationship with one of the Taft librarians. They will not do your research for you, and they will not think critically for you as you do your research. But they are invaluable in helping you find where the material is.

Do not head up to the stacks and check out a massive book on your topic. Not at this point. Indeed for most small research projects, there is no need to do much research in the stacks. Once you have narrowed your topic down and you have looked at the available reference section material, you should consider looking at other forms of research.

What are the basic formats of research material?

The most basic form is the reference section, which we have already covered in our discussion of tertiary sources.


There is a revolution in research going on right now. Billions of items are being added to the Internet and this expands your abilities to research from your dorm room. If you learn to use the Internet skillfully, you can find almost anything you might need, short of books and a few journals.


The library has access to many subscription services. They range from current newspapers and magazines to scholarly journal databases to encyclopedias. After you finish in the reference section, your next step should be the library homepage and the databases.

In some ways, these search engines and databases are quite easy to use. But they can be very difficult to master. Using a search engine at ProQuest for instance is a creative exercise. You should know the basics about your topic, so that you can enter the appropriate information in the search fields. If you were writing about the Space Race and entered "Russian Space Program", you might get articles talking about current Russian missions to the International Space Station. But if you were to enter "Soviet Space Program" and "Sputnik" you are much more likely to get relevant responses.

Be patient and persistent when you search the database. Don't simply put in one set of search words and then quit. For instance, simply searching for "Sputnik" might give you some information on the first manmade satellite. But if you then entered "Yuri Gagarin" you might also find information on the first man in space. These specific searches are more likely to yield valuable information than "Soviet Space Program".

Ideally, you have found – in the course of your research in the reference section – the important terms, persons and events to use in searching the databases. You should also use your teacher as a resource.

The use of databases is not a perfect tool, because if you put poor search parameters into the database, you will get poor information back. But you must master this technique, because it is the future of research.


Ah, the perils of Google…

Google and other search engines are helpful for finding something quick, like the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song, the homepage for the Jerusalem Post, the Department of Homeland Security's webpage or an electoral map for the election of 1876.

Google is not for open-ended research.

If you were to enter "Soviet Space Program" into Google, you will get thousands, probably millions of hits. Google will list them in the order that others accessed them. This means you are as likely to be directed to a site offering Russian mail-order brides with attention deficit disorders as information on the throw weights of Soviet rockets from 1960-1969.

Even if you do get sent to the appropriate topic, you have almost no way of verifying the validity of that source. Sure, Google might take you to, but it might also take you to Mrs. Crabapple's sixth grade class science project.

Better to use Google and other search engines for specific, directed inquiries, and even then, use skepticism in evaluating the authority of what you find.


Journals and magazines are often found through the library database, but they deserve a separate discussion.

Magazine articles can often provide an excellent secondary source analysis of your topic. The National Geographic might have run an article on the toxic waste left over by the Soviet Space Program that has turned the area around Semipalatinsk into the most polluted place on earth. Whether or not that is relevant to your topic is for you to determine, but you can find a manageable amount of information in a ten page article, and it will likely be much more valuable than a three hundred page book.

There are three types of periodicals: newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals.

  • Newspapers are often helpful as primary sources. The New York Times articles or editorials at the time of Sputnik will give you a sense of the shock that the Russian achievement caused in America. Articles will give you more factual information, whereas editorials give you more interpretive and opinionated material.

  • Magazines are usually more removed from an event, and provide more analysis and are often used as secondary sources (newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek would be closer to primary sources). Magazines like The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The National Review or The New Republic are written for a general audience. They should not be loaded down with jargon or inside references. Some magazines come with a bias that is important to recognize. The National Review and The Nation can reasonably be expected to have conservative and liberal biases respectively.

  • Scholarly journals are more specific and more sophisticated. They are written for people with some previous understanding of the topic. There are a few journals, like Current History, that are easy to read and understand even during a brief research project. But if you are doing a four day research project, it is probably unnecessary to look at The North American Journal of Political Science.

Scholarly journals are most helpful when you are doing a longer research paper, like the Upper Mid research paper or a Senior Seminar paper.


Books are made of paper, bound together into volumes. They were very popular in the 20th century and before. In fact, people once "read" books for "pleasure". This was before Satan invented the X-Box.

In all seriousness, books can provide more and deeper information on a topic than journals or databases can. They are the work of months or years of labor and they can provide insights into your topic that are superior to most other sources.

But they are long. If you are doing a short research project, you will not have time to read an entire book on the influence of German rocket scientists on American and Soviet rocketry from 1945-1975. If, however, this is a major research project, books are a vital part of your research process. They will differentiate between a superficial and authoritative paper.


In the stacks and online you will also find collections of primary source documents: the letters of Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist Papers, John Locke's Essays Concerning Human Understanding. These function as hard copy databases and can be very useful in finding primary sources.


Research should almost always begin with reference books, including at times your textbook. Then, depending on the time allotted, you should delve into the library’s databases, journals, and books with the help of the librarians and your teacher.

Chapter Six – Research and Taking Notes

What do I do when I find good material?

Whether it's good or great, you should immediately make a bibliographic "note-card". This note-card can be a physical 4x6 note-card or it could be a bibliographic entry directly into your bibliography. Your teacher should instruct you if he or she has a preference.

This step is more important than it first appears. You will need to include a bibliography with your research paper. The note-card allows you to have access to that information even if you are not in the library reference section, have returned the book or have exited the webpage. It will also simplify note-taking, as we shall see.

Why do teachers love note-cards so much?

Note-cards can be a wonderful organizational tool. Here is how the note-card system works:

  1. Bibliographic note-cards are created (preferably on a different size or color card than your note taking cards). These include everything from the author's name, title, publisher, URL, dates of publication to whatever else is required. You will only have to write them onto one card.

  2. Note-cards are filled with individual pieces of evidence. One quote gets one note-card. One statistic gets one note-card. One paraphrased summary of the author's argument gets one note-card. This is your evidence. Each piece stands alone at this point. If you are doing a complex research project, it can be helpful to include the sub-topic that the evidence addresses. If your paper is on the New Deal and New York City, you will find it helpful to write the sub-topic (say "Emergency Relief" or "Bridge and infrastructure projects") so that you can more readily organize your research.

  3. The note-card refers to the bibliographic card, so that you always know where it came from. At the top or bottom of the card, you should include the author's name or title (if there's no author or you are using more than one source by the same author) and the page number. This allows you to insert that piece of evidence into your paper and know immediately where that piece of evidence came from.This is where a lot of plagiarism occurs. It's late; you are wrapping up your paper. You have a quote, but you were a bad, bad person and forgot to record bibliographic information, so you make up a reference to Farrar, p.48. This is not the same as trying to pass off Mr. Farrar's work as your own, but it still amounts to shoddy and misleading work. If the teacher checks page 48 of Mr. Farrar's book and finds no such quote, you are officially in trouble, and at the very least will be penalized with a lower grade.

But how is this superior to simply taking notes on a piece of loose leaf notebook paper?

There are two advantages to note-cards over a page of notes.

  1. It is much easier to organize your evidence, because the evidence can be physically placed in groups. If you have two quotes and a paraphrased argument for your third body paragraph, you can put a paper clip around those three note-cards, set them aside and have created a rough outline that is driven by the research itself.

  2. If this is a longer research project, it helps to keep large amounts of material discreetly organized. Let's say, for your major research paper, you have 50 pieces of good evidence. If this is true, you probably also have 150 pieces of irrelevant evidence or notes you took just to keep things straight in your own mind. If the notes are all lumped together in a spiral notebook, it will be hard to find the good evidence in the middle of all the less relevant stuff.

If you have been working for over a month on this project, you might not have the clearest recollection of what notes you took four weeks ago. Note-cards will help you find the important evidence.

Finally, the research skills you learn at Taft are part of your college preparatory experience. In college and graduate school, you will be writing longer, more complicated and more deeply researched papers. Learning to use note-cards as a Lower Mid will benefit you when you are writing your Senior Thesis in college.

So should I always use note-cards?

There are certain occasions when note-cards might be a bit extravagant. If your short research project only uses two or three sources and only takes three or four days to complete, you can probably get away with a sheet of notebook paper or typing them directly in a Word file.

But, using this shortcut will make it harder to master the technique of using note-cards, making the bigger, more important research projects harder.

In Summary

The more diligent you are in taking good notes with good organization, the easier actually writing your paper will be. Note-cards are the best way to organize your research, especially if you are working on a long research project.

Chapter Seven – Plagiarism

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism derives from the Latin word for kidnapping. It is a form of theft. In this case, you are kidnapping someone else's brainchild. If the words, ideas or work is someone else's you must acknowledge the creator of that work. Failure to do so is an honor code offense. Repeated or intentional failure to do so can result in your being asked to leave Taft.

How do I avoid plagiarizing someone?

The simplest rule is: When in doubt, cite. But this is not ultimately an answer.

What to cite:

  • Someone else's words – This is the easiest rule to observe. If you have a quote, you indicate where that quote came from.

  • Someone else's work – The Gallup Poll asked the questions, did the statistical analysis and published the poll. Give them credit for it. The same goes for any sort of analysis or research. It also would apply to a newspaper report, especially if it was an exclusive report.

  • Someone else's idea – This is a little trickier. If someone is making an argument that is original to them, you need to acknowledge that even if you don't use their specific words.

"Victor Davis Hanson argues in his book Carnage and Culture that Western nations enjoy a cultural advantage in making war that non-Western nations lack. He believes that free citizen armies are more motivated, adaptive and resilient than their non-Western counterparts." In this instance, the author's words were not used, but his ideas were expressed.

What not to cite:

  • Facts – Not all facts are exempt from this rule. If the "facts" come from an exclusive story in a newspaper or magazine or a statistical analysis, you should cite them. But if the facts are readily available in a tertiary source, you don't need to cite them.

If everyone agrees on the fact, it ceases to be any one person's intellectual property. ("The D-Day landings on June 6th, 1944 were a masterpiece of planning and logistics.")

If you can find the fact in multiple sources, it ceases to need a citation.

What's the deal with paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing someone else's work is the trickiest problem in note-taking and citation. At what point is it no longer necessary to cite? From the above, we can see that facts are not necessary to cite. If we are paraphrasing someone else's idea, we should, of course, still cite them.

But what about paraphrasing a summary of events from an encyclopedia or other similar source?

This is trickier still. What you are writing is part of your research, but it is not the "intellectual property" of the source. What is the intellectual property of the source is the prose, the writing of that summary.

Here are the first two paragraphs of an article from the New York Times by John Schwartz and Warren Leary:

The space shuttle Discovery glided back to Earth to a pre-dawn landing here in the Mojave desert today, nearly 14 days after its 5.8-million-mile journey began.

It was the first shuttle mission since the loss of the Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts in February 2003, which plunged the space agency into what Michael Griffin, NASA's administrator, has called the "depths of despair."

Much of this, except for the quote at the end, is factual information. But the words themselves are the intellectual property of Schwartz and Leary. Let's look at an unacceptable paraphrasing:

After nearly 14 days in orbit, the space shuttle Discovery glided to a pre-dawn landing in the Mojave desert. This was the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster of February 2003.

Even though the wording and structure has been rearranged, this is still plagiarism. Look at the phrasing lifted from the original:

After nearly 14 days in orbit, the space shuttle Discovery glided to a pre-dawn landing in the Mojave desert. This was the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster of February 2003. (Schwartz and Leary)

There's simply too much borrowing going on. Even with a citation, you have committed plagiarism.

Why not just throw quotations around the whole thing? Because the excerpt isn't really worthy of being a full quotation.

This is where note-taking comes into play again.

If you cut and pasted that NY Times article into your notes (as I did), then you are much more likely to steal words and phrases from it. The same goes for Xeroxing the article.

But what if you took notes that looked like this:

Discovery landed August 9 before dawn in the Mojave desert (Edwards AFB)

First mission since Columbia 2/2003

Your writing might look like this:

The space shuttle Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base shortly before dawn on August 9th, 2005, two and a half years after the Columbia shuttle disaster.

In this excerpt, you have written your own words with readily available facts. You might include Schwartz and Leary in your bibliography (if it was not a newspaper source), but there is no need to cite the specifics of what they wrote, because it is factual.

Let's take another example from the same article:

Weather for a shuttle landing has to be extremely clear, with no rain clouds within 30 miles of the landing site, since the decision to land comes more than an hour before the shuttle touches down. Good visibility is important, since the shuttle glides in to landing; the pilot cannot take it up again and turn around for a second try. And at the speeds the shuttle flies, rain can damage tiles.

And let's say you paraphrase it thusly:

Piloting the shuttle at landing requires good visibility and no rain. The decision to land is made over an hour before the actual landing occurs and the shuttle crew gets no second chances once they have committed to the approach. (Schwartz and Leary)

Notice that this time I have cited the authors. In my judgment, this is not as readily available, factual information, so I wish to credit the reporters for it.

Whether to cite a paraphrased passage or not is an act of judgment. And remember the rule: When in doubt, cite.

In Summary…

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual material. You can avoid it by taking good notes and keeping track of where you found your research material. Unless you are a willful cheater, most plagiarism occurs because of poor organization and planning.

Chapter 8 – How to Cite

It is recommended that you consult NoodleTools (Taft Students with Taft School Google accounts only) for this information.

Taft's NoodleTools accounts default to Chicago/Turabian, the style recommended by the History department. MLA and APA styles are also available. 

The important thing to remember is to be consistent. Whatever style you or teacher decide to use, stick with that style throughout the paper.

Chapter 9 – Style Guide

Is style really important?

By "style" we're not talking about great rhetorical flourishes, but rather the ability to express yourself clearly and even eloquently in your writing. Obviously, the weight of your argument and your ability to marshal and use evidence is the most important aspect of your essay. But it should also be obvious that a paper that reads smoothly will be better than one that reads poorly.

What are some important style issues?


Two contrary examples:


"Your writing should be clear. It should be direct, like this example is."


"Your prose should at all times endeavor to be transparent and in a crystalline manner. The writing of history papers should be as direct as an arrow to the sun, whereas these written formulations are clearly exempted."

This is not to say that your writing should be a string of simple sentences, but it does suggest that you shouldn't try to write "fancy". "Fancy" writing, where you abuse your thesaurus and throw in qualifiers and awkward sentence constructions, can obscure the meaning of your argument.

The argument is the point, and if you obscure your argument with awkward sentence constructions ("Write like Yoda I do, yes!") your reader will have to focus on what your sentences mean rather than on the argument itself.


Don't oversell your argument. Sentences like: "Joseph Stalin was undoubtedly the foulest, most murderous human being to ever walk the face of the earth" actually harms your argument. The reader is forced, by the way you've written this, to come up with counterexamples: Adolph Hitler, Mao Zedong, Osama Bin Laden, Pol Pot.

As you've probably been taught when taking multiple choice tests, you should beware of absolute words like always, never, most, least and so on. The same goes for your writing.

You should not feel like you have to overstate your case. If the evidence does not support your thesis, using hyped up language won't either.

Also, by overplaying your hand, you invite disbelief of your authorial voice. The authorial voice is the authority you have as a writer ("Hey, this person can type; they must really know what they are talking about!"). When you use hyperbole, you almost force the reader away from you and your authority as a writer. The reader is put off by the "hard sell" of relentless overstatement.

Similarly, you want to avoid polemics. A polemic is an argument designed to create a furor. If you were to say, "The Patriots are the best football team ever and every other team is a wretched collection of has beens and never weres." Well, that's a polemic. It's designed to start an argument. Your job is to convince the other person that you are right.


The counterpoint to authorial voice is the fact that this paper is not about you. It is most certainly not about your opinions. For the purposes of academic arguments, no one cares what you "think" or "believe". All the reader cares about is what you can prove.

It is therefore vital that you remove yourself from the paper. That means any first person pronouns ("I" "me" "us" "we") should be stricken from your writing. Let's take the thesis: "I believe that the death of Teddy Roosevelt's first wife is what led him to become a great reformer." Really? You believe that? Good for you! But by making this about what you "believe" you draw attention away from what you can prove.

Imagine if a lawyer opened his case by saying, "I believe my client is innocent!" Well, no kidding, you believe that, counselor. But can you prove it?

Even the use of "us" or "we" when writing about American history is troublesome. You are a scholar, not a cheerleader. Your job is to use the facts to support your argument, not identify with one side or another. This ties into the rule on hyperbole.

Remember: This is not about you, it's about your argument.

Is grammar important?


Grammar and diction are important parts of written expression. Grammar is not arbitrary rules designed to make your life miserable; it is the essential rules of the road. The same goes for diction. Words have specific meanings, and if you use the wrong word, you can change the meaning of your paper.


Every teacher has his pet peeves. While reading 25 Empires papers, he will not catch every grammatical mistake, but his eyes might naturally catch the misuse of commas. When you move on to US History, the teacher might be especially attuned to dangling modifiers, and she will hammer that particular nail. The point is that your grammar abilities are not the focal point of your paper, your argument is. But if you mangle the grammar, your paper will be less clear. Also, sloppy grammar again undermines your authorial voice. If you write a lot of sentence fragments, it's difficult to take you seriously as a writer.

Grammar check is not proofreading. We will discuss proofreading below, but you should be aware that grammar and spell check are often wrong. They are certainly not a substitute for knowing how to write.


The English language has a LOT of words. It is a mish mash of German, Latin, French, Native American and other tongues. As a result there are often multiple words that mean roughly the same thing. But they don't.

Nude and naked would seem to mean the same thing; they both refer to the state of having no clothes. But "nude" refers to something artful, perhaps beautiful. "Naked" is a harsher word, it can mean vulnerable, exposed. You wouldn't write "Michelangelo's naked David…" and you wouldn't write "The nude light-bulb cast shadows around the tenement walls."

Knowing how to use words is an extraordinarily important part of your education. “Articulate” is practically synonymous with “educated.” But people are reading less than ever before. You have a multitude of diversions in your life and spending hours with a book seems wasted time in a frenzied world. The result is a decline in verbal skills. How do you repair that?

Generally speaking, READ MORE! In the short run, the best way is to keep a dictionary – not a thesaurus – by you while you read and write. A dictionary will give a precise definition of the word you are looking for. Use it liberally.


You are writing an academic paper, and it should have a scholarly tone. "And then Teddy Roosevelt got all up in Woodrow Wilson's grill and called him a girly man. Teddy wanted to smack some pointy German helmets together. I mean, Teddy had his war thing going."

This is just so very, very wrong on so many levels. Don't be cute. Cute is for puppies. Be a scholar.


Some passive voice is necessary, when you might not know who the actor is. "Mistakes were made," is a famous political quote designed to obscure who made the mistakes. But take this quote "Mistakes were made at all levels of government." Compare it to this: "Every level of government made mistakes." Both sentences are technically correct, but the second quotation is much stronger. The passive voice should be avoided… ARGH! You should avoid the passive voice!



Affect (v): to influence

Effect (n): result

(v): to accomplish

Economic: relating to matters of finance and money

Economical: affordable

Imply: A speaker implies (suggests) something

Infer: The listener infers (deduces) something

Irregardless: not a word

Lie: to be in a state of rest

Lay: to put or set down,

the past tense of "lie" (hence the confusion)

That/Which: "That" is a more restrictive word. Generally speaking, if you use "which" and it can be switched to "that", you should do so. "The argument which is overstated is often lost." This should read "The argument that is overstated is often lost." Compare it with "Your argument, which is overstated, is not convincing." "That" would feel awkward and be wrong. Of course, "Your overblown argument is not convincing" is better still.

There: a place, a point in time, a position

Their: possessive of they

They're: "They are"

Too: also

Unique: if it is unique, there is only one of them. Nothing can be most unique.

Very: like all adverbs, be sparing with your use of this word.


Jargon is language that is specific to a field of study or profession, but its primary definition is language that is confusing.

Jargon seems to be a way to create an authorial voice without actually having authority or for creating exclusivity among the jargon speakers. The recent poker craze has added poker jargon to a more mainstream audience. Compare the two sentences.

"Danny's big slick looked like the nuts, until Rob, who was down to the felt, flopped a flush on the river."

"Danny's ace and king looked like it would win, until Rob, who was out of money, got his fifth card of the same suit on the last card dealt."

Poker jargon is fun and colorful, but it's also exclusionary. Imagine a similar sentence from an economist.

"West African kleptocracies do not have sufficient sunshine to warrant debt amortization."

"Corrupt west African regimes do have sufficient openness and accountability to warrant debt relief."

The jargon works for the economist, because the words mean something specific to her. But to the lay reader, they are needlessly confusing.

In other words, rule #1: Be Clear!


Proofreading is not simply hitting the spell check icon. Spell check will not catch every error, and it will on occasion give you bad advice.

More importantly, proofreading is not simply an exercise to catch grammatical errors. You should be evaluating how well you have proven your argument. There is a checklist at the end to help with proofreading and revision.


  • Use a friend. If you both finish your paper a few hours ahead of time, you can read each other's paper. Don't just "copy edit" looking for grammatical errors. Sure, you should keep an eye out for such problems, but as a critical reader, ask of every paragraph, "Does this further the thesis argument? Is the evidence well organized? Is the paragraph coherent?"

  • When you write, you become (hopefully) familiar with the material. Often you know what you meant to say, but you didn't actually say it that clearly. Another set of eyes can help spot those moments. Ideally, as you read your friend's paper for such moments, you will get better at identifying them in your own writing.

  • Give it some time to rest. Finishing early will allow you to put it away for a night and then re-read it the night before handing it in. The more time you can put between when you wrote it and when you re-read it, the more apparent your errors will become

  • Think "revision" not "proofread". Revision means to re-see, or to look at it from a new perspective. A writer once said that your first draft is simply the raw material from which to create better drafts. You won't likely have the time to fully re-write papers from scratch, but the closer you come to that, the better.



How well you write influences how effective your argument is. Write clearly so as not to obscure your argument.

Paper Checklist


  • Am I collecting bibliographic information on every source I find?

  • Am I taking well organized notes and do my notes identify where they came from, down to the page number?

  • Am I identifying a thesis question, and will my thesis question lead me to an arguable thesis?


  • Do I have an arguable thesis?

  • Does my introduction set the stage for my thesis?

  • Is each of my body paragraphs organized around a single point or assertion?

  • Do each of my assertions or points support and advance my thesis?

  • Do I have sufficient evidence for each assertion?

  • Do I have an analysis of my evidence that backs up my assertion?

  • Are my paragraphs organized in the best way to prove my argument?

  • Do I have a conclusion that restates the thesis and draws attention to a larger issue or truth?


  • Am I being clear?

  • Am I using words properly?

  • Is every sentence as free from errors as I can make it?


  • Can I have someone else look at it?

  • Can I take the time to let it "rest" before looking at it again?

  • As I or someone else proofreads it, can they answer all of the above questions?