How to Write a Good History Paper

If you find yourself confronted with that first assigned history paper, that’s a good thing.  Researching and writing a history paper will help you understand history better.  The learning experience of writing your paper will pay off on tests and in subsequent papers.

Like any other project, a history paper takes some planning.  The first step is to make sure you understand the instructor’s requirements.  What should the paper be about?  How long should it be?  How should it be formatted?  If the instructor hands out a sheet describing the paper, read it carefully and clarify any points you don’t understand.  If there are no written instructions, and you have questions about the paper, be sure to ask them.

Every paper needs a main point that can be expressed in a statement.  Your instructor will probably give you a general subject to write about, and you’ll have to come up with your own main point.  For example, “Rasputin was a German spy working to destroy the Czar.”

Next you’ll have to provide evidence supporting your main point, kind of like a history detective.  So you’ll have to do research.  Look into every available type of source.  You’ll probably think of books, articles, and the internet, but don’t forget other sources, such as newspapers, pamphlets, masters and doctoral theses, interviews, diaries, videos, CD roms, and radio programs.  Be sure to check out your college’s scholarly databases through the college library; they have some great information.  Make sure all the sources you use in your paper are credible and they support your main point.

Your paper is still in the planning stages, so it’s always good to work from an outline.  Write down your main point at the top of the page.  Then write down your supporting points and the sources you’re using for them.  For example:

Main point:  The Vikings had a wide influence on European culture.
Supporting point 1.  The Danish Vikings settled in eastern England.  Source:  The Vikings in England by John Jones
Supporting point 2.  The Swedish Vikings settled in Russia.  Source:  The Vikings in Russia by Ann Johnson
Supporting point 3.  The Vikings settled in Normandy and that led to the Norman Conquest.  Source:

Your outline will be the blueprint of your paper.  If you make a good outline and follow it, you won’t get off-topic, which is the undoing of many papers.

But you can do more than just recording dry facts.  You can make your paper stand out by telling a story and engaging readers in your paper.  Remember, history was created by real people with ideas and emotions, desires and goals.  Try to present a picture of who the people in your paper were, what they wanted, why they did what they did.  Make the history in your paper come to life.  Your instructor will definitely appreciate this.

Make sure your formatting is the way the instructor wants it.  A great resource for all kinds of formatting is the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, or OWL, at

When your paper is done, run spelling and grammar check and read it carefully for typos.  It’s good to get someone else to look over it for you.  If you don’t have anyone, here’s a trick I use.  I put my writing into size 18 or 20 font and read it over; that makes it easy to find mistakes.

Whew!  That’s a lot to do for one history paper, but after you’ve done a few papers you’ll develop your writing skills.  Then writing will be easier, and maybe even fun.