Writer's Studio

Han Xiaorong

Department of History

History means collecting materials, analyzing materials, and then writing.

What's the process for writing a research paper in a history class? How do I start?

First you need to pick a topic. And then you need to go to check the sources to make sure that you will have enough. Sometimes you have an excellent topic, a very interesting topic, but if you don't have enough sources then you cannot write a paper.

How do you find good sources?

You may check WorldCat. That's a good place to look for books. For journal articles I think the databases that our library has should be sufficient. Start from there. And another trick is to find one source that is relevant to the topic and then check the bibliography because any real academic article or book has to cite related works.

Pick a topic. Check the sources.

And then the next step is a thesis. A short paragraph would be enough. A very brief description of your major argument, your most important argument. And then work out an outline.

What content belongs in the introduction?

I know here teachers who teach writing always tell their students that in the first part of your paper you have to present your thesis. Right? But I prefer, I think, a free style. I mean, whatever you want to present is fine with me as long as are making a coherent argument.

How do you determine what's good?

Normally I would just read it through and then see what is presented in the paper, whether it is presented in a coherent way, whether the arguments are solidly based, clear, persuasive, consistent, whether the sources used are appropriate and are relevant to the arguments.

It's all about the argument?

For me it is. I know in American universities students are sometimes taught that there is a formula you can follow in writing. In China, in the traditional period, people had to take the imperial civil service examinations and there was a very strict formula as to how you should write an essay. I think it's called the eight-legged essay. So the essay was supposed to consist of eight sections and there are very specific instructions as to what you should write in each of the eight sections. And then in the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals started to attack this system. They believed that it worked against free thinking.  I went to school in China and was taught to write when I was in China. So it's kind of ironic that the teachers there place a greater emphasis on this freedom in writing. You can write in any style. You don't have to follow a formula or a set of rules as long as you present your ideas in a beautiful way.

What's the difference between an argument and a fact?

Facts, I would say, are what you take from the sources. Something that has been proven. And an argument is something that you have to make yourself. But sometimes you also find arguments from articles and books. So it is important to make a clear distinction in a research paper about what are what are your arguments and what are other peoples' arguments. And you make that distinction with your citations. I think it is a very common practice among historians as well as other disciplines that in every academic work you discuss other peoples' arguments and then you present your own.

The argument can be a synthesis?

Yes, that is acceptable. Or you can say, "I agree with one of these arguments." I mean, it's not that easy to always make your own argument.

What do you do if you can't make an argument?

My suggestion would be to read several sources, and then to compare and contrast the perspectives or the views presented by each author. And see what the agreements are and what the disagreements are. And then I would suggest that you pick one of the disagreements to work on. And that will lead you to read more articles or books and then to form your own ideas about that controversy. Right? So eventually you will have to decide which author you would support, or maybe you would make your own argument, the third argument. You might find that neither of the perspectives is persuasive. At least you have to tell me which author you support. For example, Mao. Some people would consider him an evil person. But for others he's the great leader. Right? Why? Why the difference?

What common errors should we avoid while writing research papers?

Okay. I have found that the biggest problem for students in my classes is that they tend to chose very broad topics. So I always tell them to narrow it down, narrow it down, narrow it down. Sometimes I would ask them to focus on a particular year, or a particular event, or a particular person.

Are any of the skills gained by learning how to write a good research paper transferrable?

I think it depends. If you go to graduate school, especially if you continue to study history in graduate school, I think it will help because that's what historians do - present ideas in a clear, organized way. Some people tend to write more than others. But I think writing should constitute a very important part of the career of a professional historian. For me, history means collecting materials, analyzing materials, and then writing--it's an integral part.