PublisHistory has now been successfully running for almost four months, regularly sharing fantastic history essays for all to enjoy. This post is not about a particular subject. Rather, here I would like to focus on some of the key features which, in my opinion, make a great History article. I believe most of the essays shared on PublisHistory tick all of the following boxes, which is why they are so interesting and exciting reads. Here are 6 steps towards a great History article..
1) Your own ideas – No one wants to read your recap of Gibbon’s theory on the fall of the Roman Empire. This doesn’t mean that Gibbon’s work is worthless, but simply that if one wanted to read it, they would look at Gibbon’s book, not your article! Do not waste your time (and indeed your readership’s) endlessly summarising notorious historians’ work and playing it safe. Instead, you should read and understand the great works, but be risky and put your own ideas into your work. Ask yourself: how is my article contributing to existing knowledge?
2) Strong evidence – Use a strong body of evidence in your article. History books offer a huge quantity of anecdotes, quotes, statistics, etc. Combine different types of evidence to show how thorough your research is, and use the strongest, most relevant points to support your thesis. Demonstrating why your evidence is more reliable and valid than that raised by alternative arguments is also a great way to strengthen your work.
3) Use primary sources – It is a common mistake when writing history simply to read books about a particular subject, and draw your conclusions from them. However, history books are the product of independent research, and reflect the opinions of those who write them. Hence the best way to truly explore your own convictions is not to simply go through other people’s books. Use archives, public records, diaries, newspapers, biographies, intellectual works of the time, etc. They can help you understand past events and ideas for yourself. Note: primary sources do not have to be 500 year old manuscripts, hidden away in restricted collections!
4) Know the historiography – Whilst it is essential to contribute your own ideas, knowing the historiography within your field of study is essential. Historiography can help you understand the different schools of thought, arguments and assumptions you can either build on or challenge. You should see historiography as good foundations to build your house on, the house being your article. Whilst it is of limited interest on its own, it is the first, essential building step. To put it another way: If you don’t know what has already been written, how can you tell your own contribution is new/valuable?
5) Don’t go off on one! Anyone who’s ever written a history article will know that one of the trickiest steps in research consists of cutting down the huge amount of literature you have to go through into concise, relevant information. As an academic, this is a concern because you are often restricted to a strict word count limit. Most importantly, “going off on one” and discussing everything you’ve read about a particular subject is the best way to end up off topic, and not addressing the questions you originally wished to answer! The best way to avoid this is to keep a structure in mind from the start, and of course adapt it depending on your findings.
6) Finally, write on something you’re passionate about! It’s simple – the more you are interested about something, the more you read and remember about it. Quit putting pressure on yourself and writing for a good grade, or positive reviews. Do so for the sake of historical accuracy and originality. Which is what it’s all about..
Do you agree with this list? What would you add to it? Share your thoughts!