Writing Papers

by I.A. Isherwood

We are now officially at mid-term and that means grading. Papers have come in, been graded, and handed back. Now students are prepping for their mid-term examinations. We have covered a lot of ground in this class and I have been pleased. More students are participating in each class and it seems like our conversations have been getting more sophisticated.

I handed back essays this week. Students had a choice for their first essay assignments and I got a wide variety of papers. The assignment was to write a 6-8 page paper on a diplomatic, military, or social/political topic of their choosing. To say something in eight pages can be quite challenging because it forces students to pick their topics and evidence carefully. I prefer papers of this length for a 200 level (intermediate) class because I don’t like a lot of waffling in student writing.


Gunners of the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) near Hooge writing letters, 25 September 1917. Imperial War Museum. © IWM (Q 6007)

I give lots of writing advice to students, but the last group of papers made me think a bit about how to condense that advice into the fewest number of bullet points. So here goes.

  • Identify your quarry and go straight for it. One of the great sins of my undergraduate writing was beginning papers with sweeping contextual sentences. This is almost always a waste of ink and paper. Instead, for short papers, it is often better to begin by identifying your topic and engaging it from the first sentence. I call this the terrier approach: ever see a terrier run after a squirrel? They go straight for it and choose the shortest amount of distance to their prey. So if you are writing a paper on the development of infantry tactics in WWI, try not to start with ‘The First World War was a terrible and bloody war that killed millions of people’ and instead write something like ‘Infantry tactics changed significantly during the First World War.’ See the difference? Your introduction is your first impression for the reader, so make sure that you labor more on your first paragraph than all the others. Your meaning should be clear and concise from your first sentence.
  • Engage your sources more closely. If Horatio Nelson taught composition this would be his mantra. Teachers evaluate a wide spectrum of papers. We can usually tell when a student understands the sources they are quoting (or citing) or when they are just putting in a quote because they feel like they have to make a paragraph (or concept) seem to be based on evidence. The best way for you to write excellent research papers is by actually doing the research that is required for an excellent paper. This means reading the sources you are using, thinking about them, and then using their concepts to make an argument. The best undergraduate papers I have read in the last eight years have been from students that demonstrate their research by actually discussing the approaches found within the research. They have engaged their sources closely, understood them, and created original history through interpretation. This is not beyond the scope of undergraduates – in fact, it is what you should be learning to do in your four years here.
  • There can always be a better draft. I stole this one from one of my writing teachers, but they probably stole it from one of their writing teachers, who stole it from … and it is true. Keep revising until you can’t stand to look at your paper and simply have to turn it in. Print out your papers, read them aloud, mark them by hand, and revise each one of your sentences (this seems really old fashioned but it works).  Of course, revision takes effort, but if you want to do well, you have to dedicate the time to it. Writing is like all other skills – it requires practice – and though it never really get easier (or hasn’t for me at least), you become more efficient in your methods and more disciplined with practice.

None of these are terribly original points to make, but I wanted to go on record making them. Have a good Spring Break students of History 219.