A term paper is one of the most common formats you are going to deal with throughout your academic career in any subject, and history is not an exception. It presupposes a considerable amount of independent research to be carried out by the student, usually spread over a relatively long period – normally one is given an assignment at the beginning of the term and is supposed to hand in the results by its end.
Its ubiquity means only one thing – that if you want to succeed in academia you should study how to deal with such tasks.
This is the most difficult and the most important stage of your work, for you select the subject you are going to work with for the next semester. If you don’t want to spend this time researching something boring or desperately looking for relevant information on some obscure topic, you should approach it carefully.
First of all, try to select a topic you are genuinely interested in and know a lot about: it will be both much easier in terms of gathering sources and writing and more rewarding as a process. However, it isn’t always possible – in this case it is perfectly okay to ask your teacher or professor for suggestions (sometimes you will be assigned a topic from the get-go and freed from all the agony of choosing) or selecting something that has a considerable body of literature you can use as sources.
Once you’ve settled upon the general topic, narrow it down. You should maintain the balance between making the topic too specialized and risking having insufficient info to go by and leaving it too general and vague – in this case, you won’t have an opportunity to sufficiently analyze anything, and the paper will turn out shallow.
Now that you’ve decided on what you are going to write about, try to formulate a historical question about your subject matter. It is very important – History is, first and foremost, an objective science that deals with facts, causes, effects and changes. The ethical and moral evaluation of the facts doesn’t belong to its domain, it is a subject of the theology of philosophy. Therefore, a question like “Was Julius Caesar a morally good man?” is not a historical question, while a question like “How did the assassination of Julius Caesar influence the history of Western Europe?” is valid.
A good rule of a thumb is to look for questions dealing with causes, effects and changes without drawing attention to moral or emotional side of things.
Here are some history term paper topics you can use as examples:
Ideally, you should already have at least a basic understanding of the topic you deal with. If you don’t, get a general source of information on the topic, preferably a recent one. If necessary, make changes to your topic based on the amount of info you’ve found.
While you read and collect basic information, note the sources mentioned in the books and articles you study. Even if you don’t use all of them extensively in your work, the more titles you have in your bibliography, the better.
Decide what kind of information you will need for your research and where you can obtain it. If you cannot immediately locate the sources of such data, don’t be afraid to ask. Your professor can recommend you where to begin; then there is always a reference librarian and other people who’ve written on similar topics in the past (or are writing right now). Ask around, be proactive in your search and you will find what you need. Make sure to prepare your questions carefully and be specific in your search – this drastically increases the likelihood of positive outcomes.
Some sources may crop up in the process of writing, sometimes quite unexpectedly, but at this point you should have already defined in what direction you are going to move and what the primary foundations of your paper are going to be. In addition to that, gathering up your bibliography before you start will allow you to further refine your question. You may find out that there is precious little info on the subject you intended to make the centerpiece of your paper and a lot more on a secondary point of interest. In this case, you may want to reorient your paper.
If possible, don’t rely on a single source of information on any subject, try to find several sources corroborating each other’s evidence.
After gathering your primary sources, it is time to do most of your research. Don’t get overenthusiastic, though – it is all too easy to get lost in details and keep on reading up on the topic, getting additional books through the bibliographies of the ones you’ve already went through. Usually it is done because you want to put off starting to actually write something.
Make sure you set a limit after which you will not continue reading. Once you feel you have enough information, just stop it, and start writing. You will have an opportunity to do extra research later if necessary.
Don’t forget to make notes throughout your research.
A term paper is a legitimate research assignment – it is more concerned with the facts than with catchy wording. Therefore, the only thing you should keep in mind when choosing the title is that you should make it as correct and consistent with the paper’s contents as possible. If you find yourself drifting from your original direction later on, return to the title and change it if necessary.
This is a preliminary outline where you define the major argument you are going to make in the paper. Don’t go into too much detail – simply delineate the general area of research, mention the main points and subpoints. Don’t worry if you have to change some of them in the course of work – it is only natural in a research assignment.
You paper is likely to go through a number of iterations before you can finally submit a finished version. Most often, we talk about three drafts.
You start writing the first draft immediately when you have the minimal sufficient amount of information. So far, don’t worry if there are gaps left in your argumentation – simply mark down places that need additional elaboration and return to them later. The important thing, for now, is to start writing and find the framework around which you will build the rest of your paper. The longer you put actual writing off, the more difficult will it be to start. Don’t bother writing an introduction for now – such things are best left until much later when you have a very clear understanding of what your paper is about. For now, concentrate on the “meat” of your paper.
After you’ve finished the first draft, you should set it aside for a couple of days – at least if you have time enough for that. This interval will allow you to approach your paper more objectively. You will, most likely, discover a number of flaws: that you don’t offer enough argumentation to support your viewpoint, that your thesis changes in the process of writing, etc. It is normal and reflects your changing perspective on the subject matter – so don’t try to fight it and instead adapt the paper according to how your perception of the topic changes.
Write another thesis statement for the paper, taking into account your experience when writing the rough draft. Ask yourself whether the paper structure you’ve adopted is as effective as you thought, whether your argumentation is sufficient, whether your starting idea still holds water. If at this point you find that something is lacking about the paper the way you built it so far, don’t hesitate to make fundamental changes in its structure – it is better to spend extra time and effort now than to get an insufficient grade later.
Then write the second draft, correcting mistakes, making sure your arguments flow naturally and logically and there are no gaps in them. This doesn’t, of course, mean that you have to rewrite the paper in its entirety every time – you can achieve much the same effect by rearranging, editing and adding to the original draft.
An important point is that you have to use topic sentences at the start of your paragraphs: that is, you should visually separate your arguments into paragraphs or groups of paragraphs and point out the argument you are about to make in the beginning of each such segment.
This can almost be considered the third draft. Although you aren’t supposed to make any drastic changes in your paper at this stage, it can still be considerably altered by the time you finish with it. What you have to do now is mostly ensure your paper both complies with the formal requirements of your educational institution and follows the best practices accepted in academia.
Check if you have been using any stylistically unacceptable words, structures or expressions. There shouldn’t be any slang or informal words, contractions and overly emotional expressions. Analyze sentence structures you’ve used and remove or alter poorly phrased ones.
Replace passive voice and bulky noun constructions with active voice and verbal constructions where possible, but don’t do it mechanically – sometimes a forced replacement of this kind looks even more forced than the original, so follow your common sense.
Remove repetitions. If you use split infinitives, check if they can be replaced (again, if you feel that in a particular case such a structure looks better, don’t go out of your way to eliminate it).
Try to make your writing simpler. A 50-word sentence of 8-syllable words where you can do with 10 two-syllable words is a sign not of wit and knowledge but of pomposity and lack of anything important to say. Break up sentences, eliminate unnecessary words, look for shorter and simpler words when possible, avoid trying to look more intelligent than you feel.
Check if arguments logically connect with each other, if there are logical transitions between them. Reread the paper critically, asking yourself if each subsequent argument really follows from the preceding one and whether you provide sufficient proof.
Text processors make this task much easier than in the past, but there are still many opportunities to make mistakes. Here are some things you should check:
There are many other common mistakes, but these are probably the most ubiquitous. Check their meanings and usage in dictionaries and textbooks if you feel unsure.
You should carefully study the style guide used by your educational institution before starting to write, but some mistakes are unavoidable. Take some time to reread the entire paper with it in front of you and check if you’ve done everything right. Pay special attention to quotations and bibliography.
No matter how careful and attentive you are, your paper is your paper, and you are bound to take some things for granted. Another person will provide a completely new view of your work and will help uncover potential problems, so try to find somebody whom you can trust to read the paper attentively enough and provide valuable feedback. Somebody well-versed in history is best, but anybody will do in a pinch – even if they won’t be able to point out the factual mistakes, they still can notice errors in reasoning or structure.