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Department of History

Succeeding in History Courses

Common Problems with Student Papers

  1. Avoid spelling and capitalization errors.
  2. Its and it’s—what is the difference? There, their, and they’re? What about effect and affect? This is where The Elements of Style book can help.
  3. Do not switch tenses in your paper. It is confusing to read a paper that changes from "he did" to "he does". Past tense is safest for history papers.
  4. Do not use contractions in academic papers.
  5. Avoid semicolons: students almost always use them incorrectly. If you must use a semicolon, check The Elements of Style to make sure you are using it correctly.
  6. Include a Title that is related to your topic and your thesis statement. Do not title your paper “paper 1” or “History paper.”
  7. Include page numbers. There is no excuse for not using page numbers on an academic paper, even a draft. Start the numbers on the first page of text, not on the cover sheet.
  8. Use 12 point type, preferably Times New Roman. Use 1 inch margins on each side, top, and bottom. Other than block quotes, footnotes, and bibliographic entries, everything should be double-spaced, including the space between paragraphs or after subheadings.
  9. Any quotation over three lines should be a block quote. Indent 1/2 inch from the left and single space the quotation, with one space above and below the quotation. Do not make it smaller type. Remember to footnote or endnote. Quotation marks are not used in block quotes.
  10. Avoid repetitious papers that repeat the same ideas or words in a repetitious manner. Also, do not use the same word over and over in the same sentence or paragraph.
  11. Do not write a paper filled with one or two sentence paragraphs. Does each paragraph have a topic sentence related to your larger thesis?
  12. Get the names right. Give the full name and title the first time you write it. After that use the last name only. Thus you would use “Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini” the first time, and “Mussolini” from there on. (NOT “Benito”)
  13. Chinese and Japanese names usually have the surname first. For Mao Zedong and Chiang Kaishek, for example, Kaishek and Zedong are given names, not surnames. Thus you would use "Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek" for the first mention, then "Chiang" for the rest of the paper. Note that there are different two romanization systems for Chinese names and terms. Pick one and use it consistently
  14. Spell out all acronyms the first time you mention them. For example, "Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)" would be the correct format. After the first mention, you can use CIA.
  15. Every paragraph should have a topic sentence, a general statement that introduces the reader to the paragraph or sums up the paragraph’s main point. Could someone read one sentence from each paragraph and have a general idea of your paper is about?
  16. Beware the passive voice! In your sentences, you should always make clear who is doing what.
    Examples where this is CLEAR: (1) the king issued a decree in order to end religious violence.(2) A decree was issued by the king in order to end religious violence.
    Example where this is NOT CLEAR: the decree that was issued was to end violence between religious factions.
  17. Make effective use of quotations. Do not quote widely-known facts. Use quotations for statements or phrases from important historical figures, or when a secondary source has a particularly well-written passage. Remember that you can put ideas in your own words and cite.
  18. Show that you understand each author's political agenda, when the book was written, or the materials used by the author to prove his or her thesis. How does this shape the author's conclusions? Do not select sources based upon the fact that they fit your personal political agenda.
  19. Do not try to explain the nature and destiny of man in your paper. It is best to focus on a smaller, clearly defined, topic.
  20. Do not present completely uncontroversial theses that reflect little thought. Treatment of Jews in Germany was bad and many people died. Many people were surprised by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. OK, then tell my how and why.
  21. Try to finish the paper early enough to let it sit for 24 hours, then come back and re-read it. Remember: good writing is always re-writing. You can’t do good revision unless you have some distance from the paper. Unrevised writing is just a draft.

Department of History
Liberal Arts Building, Room 4210 F (map)
Hours: Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Phone: 410-704-2923
Fax: 410-704-5595



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