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Writing an Historical Research Paper

Updated on October 6, 2017
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience. She holds degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

If you are about to write an historical research paper, you need to be aware that this is not a literature paper or a paper for a business law class. Each area of academia has its own way of writing and presentation. What can be acceptable in one department is taboo in another. Even professors within departments can vary greatly. A set of general rules to follow can be very helpful.

Third Person

Always write your historical paper in third person. Never use first (I, we) or second (you) person. Typically, historical research papers are written to a specific yet faceless audience. Keep everything in third person using “it or they.” Instead of saying “we see Caesar as a great man” word it like this, “Caesar has been seen as a great man down through history.” The same message is conveyed without the first person tone and a much more fluid and professional style. In truth, first person can sound elementary.

Verb Tense

Since this is an historical paper, it makes sense that you are writing about the past. Therefore, the verb tense should be past and not present. Avoid saying, “Richard III is seen stealing the crown.” Instead, try, “The actions of Richard III have been seen as a form of theft as he took the crown from his nephew.” He is not currently doing the act. He supposedly did it hundreds of years ago. Only use present tense when stating something similar to this, “Scholars today see Richard III as a troubled man.” The scholars of today are of today not of Richard’s time. Pay very close attention to your verb tenses and keep them consistent.

Rhetorical Questions

In everyday speech and writing, rhetorical questions are the norm. We use them without realizing it. Many instructors do not like to rhetorical questions in papers. These sentences come off as sounding like a marketing ploy or copies of a speech instead of a well-developed historical research paper for the academic world. The reader wants information that is well-supported and not full of rhetorical questions that only hinder their information gathering process. Don’t we all like things given to us straight? (I could not resist.)


A teacher once told me that a contraction is a lazy person’s part of speech. Instead of saying “cannot” it comes out as “can’t”. Since this is such a common way of speech for us, we do not think anything of it. Yet, the reader or listener might have a different stance. If you are familiar with the movie “Singing in the Rain”, you might remember a scene where one of the actresses is being given speech lessons. Her attempt at saying “can’t” will have you cringing. Avoid contractions and write out the words. If you still do not see the reasoning for this, look at it as a way to extend your paper by a few words.

Your Audience

As you write a paper, keep your audience in mind. You are writing to your classmates, teacher, and others in the field. This means that you do not have to write the entire background on the subject. Writing a book about the holocaust might mean a detailed background of it. Writing a research paper on an aspect of it means that your audience already knows what the holocaust is and most of what it entailed. Your goal is to write on a specific aspect. That is where you want to focus your writing. Do not waste time on background information that is not needed to support your thesis.

Proper Citation

Always cite your paper. You are writing an original paper, but you have to be pulling facts from somewhere. Reference where you are getting your facts. If you are stating that the American Revolution was fought between the American colonies and Britain, you do not have to site sources as this is common knowledge and can be found in thousands of sources. On the other hand, if you state a fact that is statistical or is not common knowledge, proper citation should follow. If you write word for word from another source, place the words in quotes and give proper credit to the original author. Plagiarism is a serious subject and can damage your credibility. Some instructors will tell you to overcite rather than undercite.

Explore Topics

An historical research paper is not for restating facts. It is to explore topics and unique stances on subjects. If you firmly believe that Greece had to go through the Dark Age to bring the world Classical Greece, then your paper should not be just a fact based jumble of words on Greece’s Dark Age. Show why it was necessary. Prove your thesis. Do not waste words. Make them count.

These are just a few things to help you with an historical research paper. As stated earlier, every instructor is different. Some will require subtitles in your paper. Others think that they are useless unless you are writing a book. Touch base with your instructor at the beginning of the term and find out their expectations if it is not clearly laid out in a syllabus. Take pride in your work.


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