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STYLE GUIDE AND WRITING RESOURCES
“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” ~Stephen King
“If you wait for inspiration to write you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” ~ Dan Poynter.
The Chicago Manual of Style is the preferred style guide for historians. It offers extensive information on proper grammar, usage, punctuation, and citations. The University of Chicago Press has published the guide since 1906, and the 17th edition (2017) is the most recent update.
History professors generally require their students to use Chicago style forma tting for footnotes and bibliographies. You can find examples of the this format in the menus below. You can also find additional information from the Chicago Manual of Style Online , the Purdue Owl , and the SBU Library .
Here are the general templates and examples of the most common types of footnote entries. For more information or other types of sources, consult one of the links in above or in the Additional Resources menu.
Book with a Single Author:
Author's First and Last Name, Title of Book: Subtitle of Book (City of Publication: Publisher, Date of Publication), Page number.
Joseph M. Adelman, Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 130.
Chapter in an Edited Volume or Essay Collection: Provide the author and chapter title as well as the editor and title of the book in which it appears.
Author's First and Last Name, "Complete Title of Chapter or Essay" in Names of Editor or Editors, Complete Title and Subtitle of Book (City of Publication: Publisher, Date of Publication), Page number.
Steve Stein, “Miguel Rostaing: Dodging Blows on and off the Soccer Field” in William Beezley and Judith Ewell, eds., The Human Tradition in Latin America: The Twentieth Century (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1994), 20.
Document or Primary Source in a Documentary Reader: Provide the author and title of the original document (but not the original source, since you did not locate it in its original context), followed by the information on the collection.
Author of Document [if known], "Title of Document" in Names of Editor or Editors, Title of Collection (City of Publication: Publisher, Date of Publication), Page number.
Theodore Roosevelt, “The Dominican Republic Challenge” in Robert Holden and Eric Zolov, eds., Latin America and the United States: A Documentary History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 103.
Scholarly Journal Article:
Author's First and Last Name, "Complete Title and Subtitle of Article," Title of Journal volume number, issue number (Month or Season and Year): Pages.
Paul Allen Anderson, "The World Heard: Casablanca and the Music of War," Critical Inquiry 32, no. 3 (Spring 2006): 482-515.
Author's First and Last Name [if known], "Title of Article," Title of Newspaper (City of Publication if it's not in the Title), Date of Publication, Page number [if known].
JoAnne Fisher, "The Chinese Cultural Revolution," New York Times, June 5, 1968.
"Cholera among the Emigrants," Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3, 1834.
Magazine Article: If the article is part of a regular recurring section, such as Film Reviews or Current Events, include that information after the title of the article. Note the difference between articles accessed in print and online.
Author's First and Last Name [if known], "Title of Article," Name of Section [if applicable], Title of Magazine, Date of Publication, Page numbers.
Luke Mogelson, "The Storm: Inside the Insurrection at the Capitol," A Reporter at Large, New Yorker, January 25, 2021, 32-53.
Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot, "It's the Inequality, Stupid: Eleven charts that explain what's wrong with America," Mother Jones, March/April 2011, Last accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph/.
Website: Internet sources can be tricky to cite because they do not always have clear publication information. As a general rule, include any detail that will help your reader find the correct website. If something is a blog, include that information in parentheses. Use a stable URL whenever possible.
Author's First and Last Name [if known], "Title of Webpage," Name of Website, Publishing Organization [if available], Publication Date [if available], Date of most recent access. URL.
Hannah Elder, "John Wilson & Son, Printers," The Beehive (blog), Massachusetts Historical Society, August 13, 2020, Last Accessed February 4, 2021, http://www.masshist.org/beehiveblog/2020/08/john-wilson-son-printers/.
"Old Hoss Radbourn," Baseball Reference, Baseball Info Solutions, Last accessed February 4, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/radboch01.shtml.
Film or Video:
Title of Film, Name of director or performer (Year of original release; City: Studio/Distributor, year of video/streaming release), medium.
Viva Zapata!, directed by Elia Kazan (1952; Los Angeles: 20th Century Studios, 2013), DVD.
Lectures, Presentations, or Class Notes:
First and Last Name of Presenter, “Title of Lecture or Presentation,” (Location, Date).
Eric Zolov, "Class Lecture Notes," (HIS 214: Modern Latin America, Stony Brook University, October 20, 2016).
Interviews and Personal Correspondence:
Name of Subject (Position or Title of Subject), Media [if applicable], Date of interview or correspondence.
Harvey Wallbanger (Director of Collections, Smithsonian Institute), interview by author, tape recording and notes from conversation, Washington, D.C., March 15, 2012.
Charles Montgomery Burns (Owner, Springfield Nuclear Power Plant), Letter to the author, December 17, 1989.
Repeated Citations: You will often need to cite the same source multiple times in your essay. The first time you cite a source, you must provide a full citation, as seen above, but when you cite it again you can use a short citation. Provide the author's last name, an abbreviated version of the title, and the page number (if applicable).
Adelman, Revolutionary Networks, 72.
Gilson and Perot, "It's the Inequality, Stupid."
The Chicago Manual of Style now discourages using the abbreviation "ibid." (Latin for "in the same place") instead of the author's name and title when you cite the exact same source twice in a row.
Here is a sample bibliography using the same sources cited in the footnote section. The general rules for a Chicago style bibliography are:
It is organized alphabetically by the author or editor's last name. Do not number the entries.
For multiple authors or editors, list the first author/editor by last name and subsequent authors/editors by first and then last name.
For entries without an author, use the first significant word in the title.
When citing a chapter or document in an edited volume, provide the title of the volume itself instead of the document or chapter title.
Unlike in footnotes, bibliography entries use periods instead of commas to separate the various parts of each entry.
Adelman, Joseph M. Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
Anderson, Paul Allen. "The World Heard: Casablanca and the Music of War." Critical Inquiry 32, no. 3 (Spring 2006): 482-515.
Beezley, William and Judith Ewell, eds. The Human Tradition in Latin America: The Twentieth Century. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1994.
"Cholera among the Emigrants." Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3, 1834.
Elder, Hannah. "John Wilson & Son, Printers." The Beehive (blog). Massachusetts Historical Society, August 13, 2020. Last accessed February 4, 2021. http://www.masshist.org/beehiveblog/2020/08/john-wilson-son-printers/.
Fisher, JoAnne. "The Chinese Cultural Revolution." New York Times, June 5, 1968.
Gilson, Dave and Carolyn Perot. "It's the Inequality, Stupid: Eleven charts that explain what's wrong with America." Mother Jones, March/April 2011, Last accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph/.
Holden, Robert and Eric Zolov, eds., Latin America and the United States: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011 (Second Edition).
The Legacy of Mao (Boston: WGBH Productions, 1997), video recording.
Martin, Cheryl and Mark Wasserman. Latin America and its People, v. 2. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.
The Mexican Revolution, Pt. 1. Boston: WGBH Productions, 1997.
Mogelson, Luke. "The Storm: Inside the Insurrection at the Capitol." A Reporter at Large, New Yorker, January 25, 2021, 32-53.
"Old Hoss Radbourn." Baseball Reference. Baseball Info Solutions, Last accessed February 4, 2021. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/radboch01.shtml.
Vásquez Perdomo, María Eugenia. My Life as a Colombian Revolutionary: Reflections of a Former Guerrillera. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.
Viva Zapata! Dir. Elia Kazan, 1952.
Wallbanger, Harvey. (Director of Collections, Smithsonian Institute), interview by author, tape recording [or “notes from conversation”], Washington, D.C., 15 March 2005.
Zolov, Eric. "Class Lecture Notes." HIS 214: Modern Latin America. Stony Brook University, October 20, 2016.
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.
If you are writing about the past, use the past tense! Avoid unnecessary shifts in tense.
As a general rule, it is better to use active verbs than passive verbs. This means that the subject of the sentence should perform the action rather than have the action performed upon it.
Incorrect Example: "The paper was written by the student" (passive voice draws attention away from the student's action).
Correction: "The student wrote the paper" (active voice emphasizes the student's action).
When discussing causes of events, remember the difference between the verb "to affect" and the noun "effect."
Example: "The Taiping Rebellion affected the course of Chinese history."
Example: "One effect of the Black Death in Europe was that people fled to the countryside."
Be aware that primary sources are original documents written or created during the time period one is studying, whereas secondary sources are later discussions of what happened during that time period.
Primary Sources: The Declaration of Independence, diaries and letters, ledgers and business records, newspapers from the time period and relevant to the topic, government documents, etc. from the time period that you are studying.
Secondary Sources: Textbooks, monographs, encyclopedia articles, scholarly journal articles, newspapers from after the time period you are studying.
Make verbs agree with their subjects.
Incorrect Example: "Many staple crops in Latin America, like sugar, was labor-intensive. ("Staple crops" is the subject, so "was" is the incorrect verb form.)
Correction: "Many staple crops in Latin America, like sugar, were labor-intensive."
A complete sentence has a subject and predicate, and expresses a complete idea.
Example: "A swamp that was full of crocodiles." Even though is has a subject and verb, it does not express a complete idea.
Correction: "This swamp was full of crocodiles."
Common word confusions:
"Its" is possessive (This pencil is missing its eraser), while "it's" is the contraction of "it is."
"There" refers to a location, or to the existence of something, "their" is possessive, and "they're" is a contraction of "they are." (They're going to park their car over there, where there are no parking meters.)
Avoid using contractions (it's, won't, can't) in formal writing.
Titles of books and films always need to be italicized ( The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction , Gone with the Wind ), whereas titles of articles and book chapters always go in quotation marks.
The grammar and spell check on your computer will not catch every mistake, and may create new mistakes. Always proofread your paper yourself as well.
"Based off of" is incorrect. Use "based on" instead.
Because history books are non-fiction, it is incorrect to call them "novels."
The following four components are central to good writing:
Before you can write a thesis statement, you need to know what your thesis question is. What is the problem (i.e., question) you are trying to figure out about your topic? In other words, what is motivating you intellectually to write the essay in the first place? This is often the hardest part of writing an essay, but also the most fun. Do not be shocked if your thesis argument (the response to your thesis question) turns out to be very different in the end from what you thought it would be initially.
A word of caution: Your thesis statement should not be a descriptive assertion (i.e., what happened) but rather framed as an argument (i.e., why it matters that something happened).
Tight organization is essential to good writing. There are a few rules of thumb:
First, no paragraph should be shorter than five sentences and no longer than about 2/3rds of a page of text.
Second, every paragraph must start with a topic sentence and end with a concluding/transition sentence. The topic sentence should be succinct, encapsulate the argument and/or content of the paragraph, and be in your own voice (no direct quotes). Think of topic sentences as “mini-thesis” arguments that set up each paragraph to unpack one key facet of your broader thesis argument. The last sentence of a paragraph can work either as a conclusion to the paragraph (“bookending” it) and/or (if you can pull it off) a hint to the reader of what ideas will be introduced in the subsequent paragraph.
Third, always keep your arguments (i.e., your analysis, historical claims) at the forefront and use your evidence (i.e., examples) to support your arguments. If you simply describe or narrate an event in history, that is not an argument. An argument is using an example (sometimes a direct quote) to back up your argument. Lead by argument, not by example.
Finally, it is often useful to start off your essay with a narrative “hook” to draw the reader into the essay itself. This might be a sentence or two (not more!) that entices the reader to keep going, and then the trick is to link that “hook” (story anecdote) to your thesis argument. That’s how you catch a reader!
Always keep in the mind the following principle: The burden of understanding what you are trying to say lays with you (the author), not the reader. If your writing is not clear (and grammatically clean), do not expect the reader to understand what you are trying to say. The following are a few basic rules to follow for good writing:
First, try to write in short sentences. No sentence should contain more than one idea at a time.
Second, when quoting from another source only take a piece of a direct quote (usually, a key phrase or term) and integrate that element into your own sentence structure. Relatedly, avoid using long (“block”) quotes. Integrate key elements of the quote into your own words instead.
Third, avoid using the first person unless you are explicitly writing an opinion piece.
Fourth, do not use contractions (e.g.,“don’t,” “isn’t”) in professional writing. Always spell those terms out (“do not,” “is not”).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, read your paper out loud (even if you have to mumble it) to see how it flows. This will allow you to hear the flow of your sentences and find flaws in the rhythmic structure. Then you can make corrections—breaking up long sentences, fixing run-on sentences, clipping dangling phrases, and so forth—before turning it in. And needless to say, revise, revise, revise!
All source evidence, direct quotations, and ideas that are not originally yours or part of common knowledge, e.g., “The Rolling Stones are the greatest rock and roll band ever,” require a footnote citation. In history, these citations must conform to the Chicago Manual of Style, colloquially known as “Chicago Style.” See the above drop-down links for proper footnote citations.
Resources for 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)
Resources for General Writing
Useful Books about Writing and Grammar
Booth, Wayne. The Craft of Research. Fourth Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016
Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009.
Thurman, Susan, and Larry Shea. The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2003.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Seventh Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.