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HISB03: Critical Writing and Research for Historians

This guide will help you to find the resources needed to complete your research assignments.

Writing About History

Asking a Good Historical Question

When writing a historical research paper, your goal is to choose a topic and write a paper that:

  1. Asks a good historical question
  2. Connects ideas to previous work by other historians
  3. Offers a well-organized and persuasive thesis

1. Asking a good historical question:

A good historical question demands an answer that is not just yes or no, such as:

  • Why and how questions
  • questions that ask you to compare and contrast a topic in different locations or time periods
  • questions that ask you to explain the relationship between one event or historical process and another.

A good historical question is broad enough to interest you and your classmates. If you think interracial relationships are an interesting topic and you find the 1940s to be an equally fascinating time period, come up with a question that incorporates both these interests.

For example: "How did white and African-American defense plant workers create and think about interracial relationships during World War Two?" This question investigates broad issues—interracial romance, sexual identity—but within a specific context—World War Two and the defense industry.

After selecting a broad topic of interest, narrow it down by putting some limitations on the question's range, such as:

  • geographic place (a specific location)
  • subject group (who? what groups?)
  • periodization (from when to when?)

2. Connecting your ideas to previous work by other historians: 

Once you have a topic in mind, you need to find out what other scholars have written about your topic. If they've used the same sources you were thinking of using and reached the same conclusions, there's no point in repeating their work, so you should look for another topic. Most of the time, though, you'll find that other scholars have used different sources and/or asked different questions, and that reading their work will help you place your own paper in perspective.

When you are writing your paper, you will cite these historians—both their arguments about the material, and also (sometimes) their research findings.

Example: "As Tera Hunter has argued concerning Atlanta's laundresses, black women workers preferred work outside the homes of their white employers"(and then you would cite Hunter in a footnote, including page numbers).


3. Offering a well-organized and persuasive thesis.

Think of your thesis as answering a question. Have your thesis answer a "how" or "why" question, rather than a "what" question.

The thesis paragraph usually has three parts: (1) the subject of your paper, (2) your argument about the topic, and (3) the evidence you'll be using to argue your thesis.

Consider the following questions when reviewing your thesis paragraphs:

  • Does the thesis answer a research question?
  • What sort of question is the thesis answering?
  • Is the thesis overly descriptive? Does it simply describe something in the past? OR,
  • Does the thesis present an argument about the material?
  • Is the thesis clearly and succinctly stated?
  • Does the thesis paragraph suggest how the author plans to make his or her argument?

See also: Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students at Bowdoin College

Adapted from Writing at the University of Toronto

    Narrowing Your Topic

     Strategy  Explanation  Topic
     Time  The twenties, since the 1990s, the present, the future. Women in the workforce in the 1920s.
     Place City, province/state, country, comparing places. Women in the workforce in Australia.
     People Gender, age, occupation, income, ethnicity, etc. Single mothers in the workforce.
     Viewpoint Political, social, legal, economic, psychological, etc.  Social changes when women entered the workforce.

    Adapted from University of Washington Information Literacy Learning 2001-2004 Research 101: Topics - Narrowing a Research Question

    What is a Good Thesis?

    A good thesis derives from a good question.

    A thesis is the conclusion to a scholarly argument, the answer to a question. The best theses are good precisely because the questions they answer are significant, complex, and original.

    A good thesis engages with research sources.

    A good thesis is the product of an exploration of your source material and its meaning.You need to ask thoughtful questions of your topic and primary source material to develop a good thesis.

    Thesis Statement Samples

    Examples of Thesis Statements: From Bad to Better

    "Dorothy Richardson's The Long Day is a provocative portrayal of working class women's lives in the early part of the twentieth century."

    This is a weak thesis for a paper, since it is overly vague and general, and is basically descriptive in nature. The thesis does not suggest why or how Richardson's book is "provocative."

    "The narrator of Dorothy Richardson's 1905 work, The Long Day, exemplifies many ideas and perspectives of the early twentieth century's new feminism."

    This is a bit better, since the author is actually suggesting that there might be an argument about early twentieth-century feminism. But note how the language is still vague. What ideas and perspectives? To what effect does Richardson's work deal with these ideas?

    "While The Long Day's narrator exemplifies many tenets of the new feminism, such as a commitment to women's economic independence, her feminist sympathies are undermined by her traditional attitudes towards female sexual expression."

    OK. Now we are getting somewhere! This is a solid thesis. Note that the language is specific (commitment to women's economic independence, for example). Also, the author has detected a contradiction in the text, a tension that the paper can fruitfully analyze. It could be strengthened further by suggesting HOW Richardson's sympathies are undermined by her traditional attitudes.

    Source: Writing at the University of Toronto