Evidence is the foundation of all history papers. The responsible
historian does not formulate a thesis until the evidence has been studied.
Evidence for history papers is usually found in primary sources (texts
written during the period under study), but one may also write a history
paper based on secondary sources (texts written after the period). Which
of the two you use will depend on the level of your course and the nature
of the assignment. Ask your professor.
1. Your first job is to read the sources. They rarely present a single set
of ideas, or facts, and must be read critically, so that one can
determine what events were most important and which writers are most
trustworthy. Out of your evaluation and analys is of the sources, you
develop your thesis. A good thesis is valid and not simply correct. A
thesis is persuasive when it has been argued well and supported by
enough reliable evidence.
2. How you organize and present your evidence will be dictated by the
nature and internal logic of your thesis. In any case, the evidence
will not speak for itself. As the writer making an historical argument,
it is up to you to explain the significance o f your evidence, and how
it pertains to your thesis. Do not leave your evidence stranded.
3. Quotations allow the writer to present the original language of figures
under consideration. In a short paper, avoid long quotations. You lose
control of your paper when you give up to another writer for so long.
To avoid this, try to quote only the cr ucial phrases. Sometimes, a few
words prove sufficient to capture the essence of the passage.
Inevitably, there will be occasions which require longer quotations. If
the expression is longer than three typed lines, the expression should
be indented, strip ped of quotation marks, and single-spaced.
4. Generally, one should avoid quoting from secondary sources. Even though
a previous historian may have written exactly what you want to say,
paraphrase the remark (and cite the author in a footnote!) rather than
reprint a published statement. Also, make an effort to re-think and
expand that author's conception. Sometimes, a secondary source contains
such a delightfully polemical or delicious phrase that any attempt to
reword it would seem unfair. In this case, make sure to introduce the
author and expla in why the expression is worth repeating.
5. All evidence, quoted or paraphrased, must be cited as another author's
work. Whether you use footnotes or endnotes is determined by your
professor. The failure to note your source is plagiarism, and it also
makes it difficult for the reader to distingu ish between your evidence
and your own ideas.
6. The historian is limited by the available evidence. Do not go beyond
the evidence, either by being influenced by other interpretations, or
by misreading or exaggerating what your evidence means, such as:
Evidence: John Brown and his wife had nine children.
Invalid interpretation of evidence: John Brown was a male chauvinist
pig who denied his wife her lifelong dream of becoming an actress.
Even if your conclusion is correct, and even if the introduction to the
source said that John Brown was a male chauvinist, the evidence cited
above does not support that conclusion.