Departmental Style Guide

1) Clearly make your main point (also known as "thesis statement" or "argument") in the introduction to your paper, and support it throughout the paper's body into the conclusion.

2) If you are writing about the past, use the past tense! Avoid unnecessary shifts in tense.

3) As a general rule, it is better to use active verbs than passive verbs.

—example: "The paper was written by the student" (passive voice: weak).
—correction: "The student wrote the paper" (active voice: strong).

4) When discussing causes of events, remember the difference between the verb "to affect" and the noun "effect."

—example A: "The Taiping Rebellion affected the course of Chinese history."
—example B: "One effect of the Black Death in Europe was that people fled to the countryside."

5) Be aware that "primary sources" are original documents written during the time period one is studying, whereas "secondary sources" are later discussions of what happened during that time period.

—example A: the Declaration of Independence; a diary; a ledger (primary sources)
—example B: a textbook or encyclopedia article on a given topic (secondary sources)

6) Make verbs agree with their subjects.

—example: "Many staple crops in Latin America, like sugar, was labor-intensive."
—correction: "Many staple crops in Latin America, like sugar, were labor-intensive."

7) Avoid incomplete sentences (also known as "fragments").

—example: "A swamp that was full of crocodiles" (incomplete sentence).
—correction: "The swamp teemed with crocodiles."

8) Avoid run-on sentences (also known as "comma splices").

—example: "The caliph was powerful, his officials ruled a large empire."
—possible correction: "The caliph was powerful. His officials ruled a large empire."
—or: "The caliph was powerful; his officials ruled a large empire."
—or: "The caliph was powerful, and his officials ruled a large empire."
—or: "The caliph was powerful, since his officials ruled a large empire."
—or: "Because his officials ruled a large empire, the caliph was powerful."
—or: "His officials ruled a large empire, so the caliph was powerful."
or: "The powerful caliph ruled a large empire through his officials."
or: "Through his ruling officials, the caliph had power over a large empire."

9) Don't use "it's" when you mean "its." The latter is the correct possessive of "it," while the former is the contraction of "it is," and should be avoided anyway, given that contractions are generally too colloquial for college papers. For the same reasons, know the difference between "there" and "their," and avoid "they're."

10) Titles of books and films always need to be italicized (i.e., Gone with the Wind), whereas titles of articles or book chapters always go in quotation marks.

11) Never trust your spell- and grammar-checks on your computer to leave your paper mistake-free, because they won't. They may even lead you to accidentally create new mistakes. Nothing beats a pair of eyes for proofreading. Also try reading your paper out loud to yourself.

12) "Based off of" is bad English. Use "based on" instead.

13) Because history books are non-fiction, it is incorrect to call them "novels."

Websites on Historical Writing

• Writing a History Paper: The Basics (College of William & Mary)
• Writing a Good History Paper (Hamilton College)
• Carlton College History Study Guides (Carlton College)
• Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates (Rutgers)
Brief Guide to Writing the History Paper (Harvard)
• History Writing Handout (University of North Carolina)
• Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students (Bowdoin)
• History Writing Guide (Boston University)
Learning to Do Historical Research (William Cronon)

General Resources on Writing

• Writing Center (Stony Brook)
• Online Writing Lab (Purdue)

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