How Is Writing a History Paper Different Than Writing Other College Papers?

Writing a history paper shares some attributes with writing other sorts of college papers. For example, your chosen topic should ideally be something that resonates with you or that you feel some sort of connection to. Additionally, you will build your paper around a strong thesis statement and you will gradually flesh out your point of view within the supporting paragraphs that follow. Plus, as with all papers, you need to pay attention to flow, structure, grammar, and cite all source material correctly as per the guidelines of the paper formatting style your professor requests.

However, the similarities stop there. Here are some primary characteristics that come into play when you compose a history paper.

First, you will have to choose what type of history paper to write. There are various kinds, including narrative, analytical, intellectual, economic-focused, or a paper highlighting some aspect of social, cultural, political, or military history.

Second, once you select your paper type, you’ll need to pre-determine the structure of your paper. What sort of argument would you like to explore or put forward? There are some basic types of argument structures you can choose from that you can use effectively. For example, historical scholars may have generally disagreed about your chosen topic, and in your paper, you could explore the opinion you most agree with, fleshing out why you believe it is accurate. Or, you might feel that the whole debate thus far about your particular topic completely misses the point, allowing you to recast it in a more meaningful direction. Another approach could involve you putting forward an entirely new perspective you feel scholars haven’t addressed up to this point. Be aware that these last two directions you could take are generally more accepted by instructors at the graduate level. If you are working at the undergraduate level and want to take either of these directions be sure to discuss your ideas with your instructor.

Third, when writing your paper, be aware of the cultural climate and time period about which you are writing. What was considered “normal” in a previous time in history could be vastly different from what we consider normal now. Be mindful of these cultural differences and considerations when fleshing out your point of view and relevant arguments.

Fourth, you have two categories of sources for writing a history paper: primary and secondary. Primary sources are items such as actual letters exchanged by people from the era you are writing about or other original historical documents from the same time period. Secondary sources are writings such as books or critical essays about primary sources, comparing or contrasting them, drawing parallels or otherwise analyzing them.

Whether your history paper uses primary sources, secondary sources, or both, reliable source material is foundational to the success of your paper. You must cite source materials appropriately, with proper credit given for every reference you make within your paper. Be sure to complete your paper with a properly formatted Works Cited page.

Because of the historical focus of your class, you will likely need to follow the guidelines of the MLA format. If you are unsure how to properly format your paper to its latest revision, you can use formatting software to save you time while achieving formatting accuracy.

David Plaut is the founder of Reference Point Software (RPS). RPS offers a complete suite of easy-to-use formatting template products featuring MLA and APA style templates, freeing up time to focus on substance while ensuring formatting accuracy. For more information, log onto or write to:
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Reference Point Software is not associated with, endorsed by, or affiliated with the American Psychological Association (APA) or with the Modern Language Association (MLA).