Writing for History

Tips for Writing Papers in History Courses


Most college students should be familiar with the MLA format for writing papers and citations; some majors may also have some experience with APA. History uses a different format for citations: Chicago style or Turabian. In a General Education course, professors may not require Chicago, but Chicago is generally the safest default choice if your professor does not clearly specify his or her preference.

Chicago differs from MLA and APA in a number of ways, and you should consult the library or the Writing Center's resources when preparing your citations. (Your professor may also have assigned you a book or website to use when writing your papers.) The main feature of the style that you may not be used to is footnotes and endnotes. Instead of in-text citations, the entire reference is included at the end of the page or the end of the paper the first time you cite a particular resource, and in an abbreviated form thereafter. The format for this citation is very similar to the one you include in your bibliography, but it is not exactly the same. Be careful that you understand the difference between the two forms of citation, as well as the rules for abbreviating references you have used before in the paper.


History is a written discipline that requires evidence-based argumentation. Your papers should have a clear thesis statement, or argument, that appears early in the paper; the best place is usually at the beginning of the first full paragraph. The rest of the paper should follow that argument closely, and each paragraph should support the thesis statement.


As in many academic disciples, you should avoid personal pronouns in your history papers: I, me, we, you, our, and us. You should also avoid the continuous past tense. ("I was walking. We were walking. They were walking.") Instead, you should mainly use the simple past ("I walked. We walked. They walked.") and the perfect past ("I had walked. We had walked. They had walked."). The events you study in history have a beginning and an end, and your papers should reflect that. 

Avoiding the Passive Voice

Most importantly, you should avoid the passive voice and passive constructions in your papers. ("The war was won. The treaty was signed.") Often, this simply leads to unnecessarily awkward sentences ("The war was won by the Allies" vs. "The Allies won the war"). However, the passive voice can cause more serious problems in a paper. History is not only the study of what happened, but why, and the use of passive voice makes it too easy to leave out who won the war entirely.