A research paper in History is exactly what it says on the tin – a written endeavor to research some events, factors, situations or conditions in the past to prove a certain point. In this sense, it is rather close to a term paper, and indeed, the difference between the two is often vague.
The main distinctive feature is that a research paper isn’t tied to any particular period. You may have to write one over either a shorter or a longer period of time than a semester, and it may be larger or smaller than an average term paper, so you should adapt the following advice to the specifics of your particular task.
You may have a varying amount of freedom in your choice of topic. Sometimes the path is already decided for you by your professor, and the most you can do is to ask for a slight alteration. Sometimes you are given a free hand. Either way, you should strive to write about something you are both interested and well-versed in. One of the two can do, but try to avoid writing on topics that are both unfamiliar and boring to you. Remember, you will have to spend many hours gathering information and analyzing it, so don’t approach this choice lightly.
Laymen often perceive history as a mechanical record of events that happened in the past. The reality is much more complicated. History is not only concerned with what happened (although it is extremely important, and figuring out the nature of past events based on fragmented, incomplete and often biased sources is a major part of a historian’s work), but with why it happened and what were its consequences. At the same time, it isn’t the job of history to evaluate the moral nature of the events.
Any academic work is to a considerable degree based on existing bibliography on the subject. However, for History it is especially important as written sources are, by and large, all you have to rely on. You can’t run practical experiments, you can only glean some understanding from something somebody has written on the subject.
Therefore, your choice of topic is to a great degree based on the existing body of work on the subject. Ask yourself the following questions:
In the end, your topic should deal with an interpretation of events, their causes and effects, be neither too general nor too narrow and, ideally, be something you would write about willingly. Here are some examples:
The first order of business is to prepare the sources you are going to use in your research. All sources can be roughly divided into two types:
As your time is limited, you should be very selective about the sources you use. Before choosing a work to use as a source, you should check how relevant and trustworthy it is. Find out the following:
Remember – a history research paper is only as good as the sources it is based on. Even if your reasoning and analytical abilities are impeccable, if they are based on disreputable, untrustworthy or one-sided sources, it immediately devalues your work.
Select a limited number of sources representing different points of view but unlikely to be strongly influenced by factors not related to the subject matter (politics, author’s views, etc.). Don’t try to encompass them all – even the narrowest subjects usually have enough sources to last you a lifetime.
When you start reading, know when to stop: don’t fall into the trap of reading for reading’s sake, for you can collect information and corroborative evidence indefinitely. Start writing when you feel you have an absolute minimum to work on, and read up on things that require additional attention as you go along.
Once you’ve clearly formulated your topic and made about a third of the necessary research, you should start working on your outline. In the outline you are supposed to define the main points of your research, decide how they relate to each other and to the main topic of your work, in what order they are to be mentioned and what supporting details you should provide.
Remember – this isn’t a plan set in stone. It is an outline that you write mostly for your own convenience. If, in the course of your work, you find out that some facts are better mentioned in different order, or have unexpected similarities and connections and thus have to go hand in hand, make these changes. Right now, your paper is a work in progress.
Once you’ve defined and narrowed down your topic, you won’t have particular problems with the title of your paper. A history research paper doesn’t need its title to be overly creative and unusual – its main purpose is to clearly and unequivocally denote the topic and, if possible, your main argument. Consult your instructor if you feel any doubts.
This is where most of your work lies, and it is where you should start after you finish preliminary work. Introduction comes later, possibly last, when you already know how your research turned out.
In writing the main part of your paper, it is important to follow certain conventions. They may differ in different colleges, but some things are accepted almost everywhere:
Once you’ve finished with the main body of research, you can write an introduction based on it. Point out the main topic of your paper, what arguments you intend to make, what conclusion you expect to draw and so on.
To a considerable degree, it is a formal part built around the main part of the paper, and it is exactly the reason why you should start working on it when everything else is already done – otherwise you will have to rewrite it multiple times to reflect the changes your research underwent in the course of work.
Conclusion mostly recounts the same ideas as introduction does, only now you mention whether research went as planned, whether you achieved the expected results, what you believe to be the significance of your research, what work remained undone and what can be done in the future.
Check everything you’ve written so far. Correct any grammar, syntax and spelling mistakes you could have made. You can use online spellcheckers for that purpose, but don’t expect much from them – the best course of action would be to hire a professional editor or proofreader.
If necessary, don’t hesitate to correct, revise and even rewrite parts of your paper. Even if you find flaws at such a later date, it is better to spend some additional time on corrections than to hand it in as it is and hope nobody would notice.