LMU’s Academic Resource Center has a Writing Center that offers peer tutoring for students working on all sorts of projects, in any subject, and at any stage in the writing process; you can make an appointment to meet with a writing tutor on the center’s website. There are also a variety of print and online resources to help you strengthen your writing skills.
Writing & Style Guides
I strongly suggest that you invest in one or two good books about writing (in history), as well as a style guide (Turabian or Chicago). I recommend the following:
- Katherine Pickering Antonova, The Essential Guide to Writing History Essays (Bookshop, Amazon)
- Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History (Bookshop, Amazon)
- William Kelleher Storey, Writing History: A Guide for Students (Bookshop, Amazon)
- William Germano, On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts (Bookshop, Amazon)
- Jack Dodds, The Ready Reference Handbook: Writing, Revising, Editing (Amazon)
- Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Bookshop, Amazon)
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Bookshop, Amazon)
General Writing Resources Online
- LMU LibGuide on Writing
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL)
- UW-Madison Writer’s Handbook
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips
- Grammar Girl’s Editing Checklist
Verbs & Voice
For the most part, you should write history in the simple past tense. Most of you have learned how to write papers in your English classes, where you are encouraged to use the present tense. History, however, is by definition concerned with the past. In history-writing, then, we use the past tense to discuss historical events and primary sources (e.g., “Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492” or “da Gama described the Indians in his journal”). We use the present tense only to discuss the interpretations of our fellow historians (e.g., “Drummond argues that 1492 was a major turning point in global history”).
While there are times when it makes sense to use the passive voice, in general historians use the active voice. The passive voice (e.g., “Many programs were created during the New Deal to put Americans back to work”) fails to identify who or what performed the actions being described. Because history is concerned with the concept of agency, it is important for historians to identify who or what was acting. As such, use the active voice (e.g., “The government created many programs to put Americans back to work”) as much as possible. To test for active versus passive voice, try inserting “by zombies” after the verb; if the sentence still makes grammatical sense (e.g., “many programs were created by zombies,” as opposed to “the government created by zombies many programs”), then you are using the passive voice and should try to recast it in the active voice.
Pay attention to sentence structure. Ensure that you are using proper syntax – i.e., the grammatical rules that govern sentence structure, including the arrangement of words and clauses. Vary sentence structure: blend brief, direct statements with longer, more complex sentences. Too many short sentences make your paper choppy and difficult to read. An endless string of long sentences confuses the reader. Check noun-verb agreement. Be sure that pronouns agree with their antecedents: if a pronoun replaces a singular noun, use a singular pronoun; if a pronoun replaces a plural noun, use a plural pronoun; if you mention several people in a previous sentence, be careful not to use a pronoun that could apply to any one of them, as the reader will not know to whom you are referring.
Words & Phrases
Use definite, specific, and concrete language and avoid abstract, vague, and general terms. Avoid absolutes and over-generalizations: qualify your claims where necessary (e.g., “most,” “few,” “usually,” and “rarely” are safer than “all,” “none,” “always,” and “never”). At the same time, avoid speculative language (e.g., “it seems,” “maybe,” “probably,” “possibly,” “might,” etc). Such terms indicate weaknesses in your argument. In some cases, where evidence is lacking, such words can be used to highlight that you are speculating about possible explanations. In cases when the preponderance of evidence points in one direction (and strong arguments rely on a preponderance of evidence), avoid such speculative terms. Omit needless words: state your ideas as directly as possible. Excessive use of adverbs, adjectives, and prepositional phrases can clutter a sentence, obscuring rather than amplifying your main points. It’s better to use additional evidence rather than additional words. Avoid slang: unless you are using a direct quotation that employs slang, do not use it.
- Merriam-Webster: When to Use “Then” and “Than”
- Grammar Girl
- The Oatmeal
- OWL’s Punctuation pages
- Commas: Despite the comma’s reputation as the second most feared item of punctuation (after the semi-colon), it is a useful tool in making sentences easier to read and understand. Commas are most commonly used to enclose parenthetical expressions, to enclose a name or title in direct address, after abbreviations, to set off non-restrictive elements (i.e., words, phrases, or clauses that modify a word whose meaning is already clear), in a list, before a conjunction (and, but, nor, or, for, so) joining two independent clauses, after an introductory phrase or clause that precedes an independent clause, or to indicate tags and interjections. Be sure to use commas appropriately, using them when necessary and omitting them when unnecessary.
- The Oatmeal: How to Use a Semicolon
- Grammar Girl: Are You Using Hyphens Correctly?
- Grammar Girl: Dashes, Colons, and Commas