Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing

Historical Woodcut Having a double-major in history and anthropology one of my writing goals is to remain true to good historical writing.  To update my knowledge of the topic I went searching on the internet (and if it’s on the internet, it must be true!). Much of the information I found to be guidelines for the college student writing for senior level or graduate classes – been there, done that.  I did find a nice little gem and I give thanks and recognition to Theron F. Schlabach, a professor of history at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.  He provided the following Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing and gave permission to reproduce his document with him to receive credit.  I have provided key points (topic sentences) he included, so I encourage you to read his entire article at: http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/gwschlabach/10commnd.htm

Many of these commandments apply  to any writing genre.

I. Thou shalt begin with an outline that buildeth thy entire paper around thy central idea.

An outline built around a THESIS AND SUBTHESES will do the job much better than one that only categorizes information or puts it into chronological order — although topical analysis and narrative also have their uses.

II. Thou shalt avoid self-conscious discussion of thy intended purposes, thy strategy, thy sources, and thy research methodology.

Draw your reader’s attention to the points you are making, not to yourself and all the misery and sweat of your process of research and writing.

III. Thou mayest covet other writers’ ideas but thou shalt not steal them.pen and books

Document EVERY quotation, paraphrase, or crucial idea that you borrow from a source.

IV. Thou shalt strive for clarity above cuteness; thou shalt not use jargon when common language will serve, nor a large word when a small one will serve, nor a foreign term when an English one will serve, nor an abstract term where a vivid one is possible.

Learn first of all to write lean, tough, logical, precise prose.  After you have learned that, you may begin to experiment with metaphors, allusions, and fancily turned phrases.

V. Remember thy paragraph to keep it a significant unity; thou shalt not fragment thy discussion into one short paragraph after another, and neither shalt thou write a paragraph that fails to develop a topical idea.

Think of the paragraph as an instrument to develop an idea.  The paragraph should have a recognizable idea, usually as a topic sentence.

 VI. Thou shalt write as if thy reader is intelligent–but totally uninformed on any particular subject;  hence, thou shalt identify all persons, organizations, etc., and shalt in every way try to make thy paper a self-sufficient unit.

Here, the chief temptations are:  to plunge into a subject without adequately establishing time, place, and context; and, to refer to authors and t obscure historical events as if everyone knew of them.

VII. Thou shalt use quotations sparingly and judiciously, only for color and clarity; if thou must quote, quotations should not break the flow of thine own language and logic, and thy text should make clear whom thou art quoting.

Effective quotation is a literary device — not a way to transfer information unprocessed and undigested from your sources to your reader.

VIII. Thou shalt not relegate essential information to thy footnotes.

Normally, discursive footnotes should be very few.  If the information is important enough to print, get it into the text; if not, save the paper.

IX.  Thou shalt write consistently in past tense, and in other ways keep thy reader firmly anchored in time.

The “historical present” causes more confusion than it is worth.  Sense of time and context is first among the historian’s contribution.  Writing of past events in the present tense is usually evidence that the author lacked appreciation for historical setting.

X.  Thou shalt not use passive voice.

Passive voice destroys clarity because often it does not make clear who did the acting. (“The order was given.”) In such cases, it fails to give complete information.  Or even if it does give the information (“The order was given by Lincoln.”) it gives it back-end-forward.  Why not:  “Lincoln gave the order.”?

These commandments provide excellent points to review on a regular basis during your writing process.

Donna Otto




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