Banner Text

Department of History

Succeeding in History Courses


"In the seaways of Tierra del Fuego," 1834.

"In the seaways of Tierra del Fuego," from HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego. Conrad Martens, c. 1834.

By Professor Ben Zajicek

The goal of this guide is to provide a nuts and bolts overview of the basic components of a good paper. Following these guidelines will not guarantee you an A. NOT following these guidelines will almost certainly guarantee that you will not get an ‘A.’

Writing Successful Thesis-Driven Essays

1. The Introduction

Depending on how long your paper is supposed to be, the introduction may be a single paragraph long (for a 3-5 page paper) or several pages long (for 25-30 page paper). But short or long, every introduction should accomplish two basic tasks:

  1. Problem: Explain to your reader what “puzzle” or “problem” you will solve. What is at stake? Why is it important?
  2. Thesis Statement: State your “solution” to this problem. What will you prove in the paper? Try to include the word “because.”

Problem. As a writer, you must keep your reader in mind. Before you tell the reader what you will prove, you need to explain to your reader why it is worth proving. To do that, you need to explain what “problem” or “puzzle” needs to be solved. Explain to your reader what it is about the world that is poorly understood, what unanswered question you will provide an answer to. Ideally, you should make your reader curious enough to want to keep reading.

Thesis Statement. A “thesis” is a statement of what you will prove in the paper. Every thesis statement should be the “solution” to a problem, the “answer” to a question. A useful tactic is to include the word “because” in your thesis statement. This forces you to lay out your basic reasoning: x happened because of y.

Example. In a classic essay about seventeenth-century Europe, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper begins by laying out a series of puzzles and problems for his reader. The following is an excerpt:

The middle of the seventeenth century was a period of revolutions in Europe. These revolutions differed from place to place, and if studied separately, seem to rise out of particular, local causes; but if we look at them together they have so many common features that they appear almost as a general revolution.... What was the general cause or character of this crisis?

[He goes on to explain to his readers answers that have been proposed by historians over the years, and to reject them one by one.]… If the crisis of the seventeenth century, then, though general in Western Europe, is not a merely constitutional crisis, nor a crisis of economic production, what kind of a crisis was it? In this essay I shall suggest that, in so far as it was a general crisis - i.e., ignoring inessential variations from place to place - it was something both wider and vaguer than this: in fact, that it was a crisis in the relations between society and the state.1

What is the “problem” or “puzzle” here? Apparently a Europe-wide crisis in the seventeenth century, and historians have failed to explain it adequately. This raises a question: “What was the general cause or character of this crisis?” As a reader, I am now very curious – I want to know the answer. And the author gives it to me: the crisis was caused by “relations between society and the state.” In the rest of the essay Trevor-Roper goes on to explain what he means and to give examples from the Netherlands, Spain, England, and France.

A good thesis statement should be provable, which means it is also a statement that can be disproved. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s thesis about the seventeenth century crisis is a good example: other historians vigorously debated his thesis in the 1960s and 1970s, and the discipline’s premier journal, The American Historical Review, published a review of this debate as recently as 2010.

Use of the pronoun “I” Professors tend to have strong opinions about the use of the pronoun "I" in papers - but they disagree (often strongly) about whether it's a good thing or a bad thing to use "I." Students are advised to check with each instructor to see what his or her preferences are on this matter.

The argument against “I” is that it is unnecessary fluff and draws too much attention to the process of writing and to the author. A paper should be about the historical subject, not about the author's feelings or opinions.

The argument for “I” is that using “I” encourages students to recognize that they are doing more than simply “stating the facts” or describing events as they happened. Rather, they are making an argument. An argument is different from an opinion because an argument is supported by evidence. Argument doesn't require the use of "I", but using "I" can make it easier for students to realize that they are taking a stand. Using “I” can also encourage students to think about the process of writing as a dialog. When a student writes, "In this paper I will argue," he or she is often reminded that the task at hand is to convince readers that the argument is plausible.

2. The Body of the Paper

In the body of the paper, your task is to convince your reader that your thesis statement is plausibly supported by evidence. A useful technique for brainstorming a paper is to imagine a dialog between you and a skeptical friend. You explain to your friend the interesting puzzle you are trying to solve and the solution that you have come up with, and your friend looks at you quizzically and says, “really? prove it.” You then have to come up with a series of “reasons” that your friend should agree with you.

Each time you give your friend a reason, he says: “why should I believe that?” And so you have to do two things: you have to explain the evidence you have found, and you have to explain why you think that, logically, the evidence supports your reasons. You have to give enough examples, and make them convincing enough, that you can convince your friend that your reasoning is at least plausible. You may not be right – perhaps there is evidence out there that would disprove your case and you simply have not found it. The best you can do is to show that, given the evidence that you have, your inferences are plausibly correct.

The kinds of evidence that you use will vary depending on the assignment your professor has given you, but, in general, history papers rely on two basic types of evidence. The first is evidence taken from other historians – information taken from your textbook, statistics taken from an almanac. The second type of evidence is evidence taken from primary sources – sources written by people who lived in the time and place you are writing about. These might be quotations from letters or extracts from laws or passages from philosophical treatises. Whatever the source, it is important to remember that your evidence does not speak for itself. Your job is to give the evidence and then explain why your reader should agree with you that this evidence supports your reasoning. Keep your skeptical friend in mind at all times, that person who looks at you says, “wait, why should I agree that this quotation says anything important about your topic?”

Avoid giving background information for its own sake. Students often feel the need to provide “background information” before they attempt to prove their thesis. This should be avoided at all costs. If information is necessary to convince your reader that your thesis is correct, then make that information part of a “reason” that supports your thesis. Otherwise leave it out of the paper.

3. Conclusions

Your paper comes to a conclusion when you have adequately convinced your reader that your thesis statement is plausibly true. Then comes the conclusion. In your conclusion you should do more than just re-state your thesis. You should explain why it matters. Picture your skeptical friend again: you have finally worn him down: he has stopped saying, “really?” with that skeptical look, and has instead nodded and said, “ok, I see where you’re coming from. That makes sense.” Your job now is to circle back to the “problem” or “puzzle” that you started with, and to explain how solving this problem will help people understand the world differently. Explain to your reader the payoff of this new understanding.

Example. At the conclusion of his essay on the seventeenth century, Trevor-Roper writes:

When that prosperity failed, the monstrous parasite was bound to falter. In this sense, the depression of 1620 is perhaps no less important, as a historical turning-point, than the depression of 1929: though a temporary economic failure, it marked a lasting political change. Some of them sought to reform themselves, to take physic and reduce their bulk. Their doctors pointed the way: it was then that the old city states, and particularly Venice, though now in decadence, became the admired model, first of Holland, then of England. And yet, asked the patient, was such reform possible, or even safe? Could a monarchy really be adapted to a pattern which so far had been dangerously republican? Is any political operation more difficult than the self-reduction of an established, powerful, privileged bureaucracy ? In fact, the change was nowhere achieved without something of revolution….2


Citing Sources

Professors in the history department require the use of Chicago Style for formatting footnotes (not MLA or APA). Learn the correct footnote or endnote format. An excellent guide can be found on the Cook Library website and online at the University of Chicago Press website. Students writing theses and dissertations should buy the best available guide to Chicago Style, Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

"Footnotes in the text should be superscript numerals that go after the quotation marks and period."1 Where do the footnote numbers go? After the punctuation, not before it! Footnotes or endnotes without page numbers are useless: always include a page number.

1 This is where the footnotes belong.


Bibliography: Writing a Thesis-Driven Essay

  1. Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo Bedau. From Critical Thinking to Argument: A Portable Guide. 3rd ed.: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011.
  2. Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  3. Crews, Frederick C., Sandra Schor, and Michael Hennessy. The Borzoi Handbook for Writers. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.
  4. Graff, Gerald, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel K. Durst. "They Say/I Say": The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing: With Readings. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011.
  5. Posusta, Steven. Don't Panic: The Procrastinator's Guide to Writing an Effective Term Paper (You Know Who You Are). 1st ed. Santa Barbara: Bandanna Books, 1996.
  6. Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 3rd ed. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011.
  7. Williams, Joseph M., and Gregory G. Colomb. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 10th ed. Boston: Longman, 2010.
  8. Williams, Joseph M., and Lawrence McEnerney. “Writing in College: A Short Guide to College Writing.” University of Chicago Writing Program, online resource.


1. H.R. Trevor-Roper, "The General Crisis of the 17th Century," Past & Present, no. 16 (Nov. 1959): 31, 38. [back to text]

2. Trevor-Roper, "General Crisis," 61. [back to text]

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



University Police

Closings & News
410-704-NEWS (6397)

Text Alerts
Sign up now