Thinking Aloud: Writing History

May 2, 2015 by Darius 

I spent part of the day today as a judge for a student history contest, evaluating historical research papers.  Here are a few lessons any student of history, young or old, would do well to keep in mind when doing historical research.

  • Understand the historical context of whatever you’re trying to learn about.

Nothing in history happens in a vacuum.  People and events are strongly influenced by people and events of the past as well as by the people and events of their own time.  History only becomes three-dimensional with an understanding of the factors that shaped it.

  • Wikipedia is a great starting point for research, but don’t let it be the end point.

No source is complete.  Every source selects things to include and things to leave out, and every source has a bias of some sort.  The more sources you consult, the more complete an understanding you develop of your subject.  Different viewpoints provide different insights into the true shape of the elephant.  

  • Cite your sources and their credentials.

Not all information is created equal.  It’s important for others to be able to trace your research, evaluate the credibility of your sources, and even verify your claims.  After all, 68.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot :).

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