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Writing in History

By Dr. David Dorondo

  • David DorondoSince the time of the ancient Greeks, writing is the principal means historians have use to transmit knowledge to succeeding generations. Writing is the historian’s means of storytelling, the basis of history.

  • I see the components of good writing as the components of a solid building. In writing, the foundation of a building is the mechanics, or grammar and punctuation.

  • The first story of the building is a clear thesis. The thesis is the point in the text where the writer declares to the reader exactly what he or she means to say.

  • The second story of the building, or essay, is a combination of valid sources and factual accuracy. These items give the writer a structure from which to work that shapes the bulk of his or her paper.

  • Finally, the third story, the crown on the whole thing, is felicity of expression. This means that the writer has chosen words to create meaning that is elegant and yet as succinct as possible.

  • Students who make As display their talent for writing early in papers—generally in the first page or two. I am typically struck by the degree of integration of all the “stories” of the building. In addition, I can picture these same elements as teeth on mechanical gears that lock and unlock in a continuous cycle without damaging each other. A strong paper contains a continuing, meaningful harmony among mechanics, thesis, facts, and expression.

  • Students who make Bs, Cs, and Ds write papers in which the integration breaks down. The degree of breakdown determines the grade I will assign. Accurate pagination is essential because it allows me to make references within the paper in my comments to the student. Also essential are a proper title page, proper margins, proper notes, and a bibliography or works cited section.

  • I also have a few criteria that lead to an automatic F on papers. I feel that more than one sentence fragment in a 300- or 400-level paper reflects a fundamental flaw in mechanical understanding. I also think that sustained, egregious punctuation problems, subject-verb disagreements, or spelling errors constitute an automatic F. To reach this level, these errors must be significant and distract the reader. Finally, careless formatting errors also will result in an automatic F.

  • Writing varies in my classes depending on their level. In my freshman and sophomore classes, I typically don’t have essay exams, but I do often have a term essay. In my junior and senior classes, every exam is essay only. I typically will assign a term essay as well. On occasion, I also assign book reviews and reaction papers. In general, all of my classes have a heavy dose of writing. The only difference between each level is the length, the number of sources required, and higher expectations for quality as class rank increases.

  • History majors often continue to law school or into civil service jobs, and these positions involve massive amounts of reports, analyses, and records. However, all careers in history (and not just those mentioned previously) use writing in some way. After its start, the writing process never really stops. Historians must create written records (that’s what history is, after all), so writing never will disappear. In addition, writing is used for research and professional advancement—for example, scholarly papers, abstracts, book reviews, and book-length manuscripts.

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