Techniques of Historical Research and Writing

The Scientificity of History

Seminar Paper, 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1

Free online reading


The ultimate concern of a historian is the possibility of gaining the knowledge of events and actions (in the course of time) which are no longer available for direct inspection. These happening have been preserved in material (as archival, written, archaeological etch.) and immaterial (oral tradition) forms. A historian is therefore charged with the task of piecing this event and actions together for an understanding of the theme to which he/she is engaged. Through the descriptive and expository approach, this paper puts forth the inescapable techniques by which a historian can accomplish his/her essential function. It is found that the historian is the ultimate determinant of historical outcomes. The paper concludes that the techniques discussed herein are necessary precondition for the worthiness or otherwise of any historical discourse and should therefore be keenly observed.


All writing assignments are intended to be read, and the intended audience should always determine what is written. History is no different.[1] any account, report, or other piece of historical writing is intended to take effect on someone at some time. It must consequently meet someone’s demands. Those demands can for convenience be summed up in a pair of questions: Is the account true, reliable, complete? Is it clear, orderly, easy to grasp and remember? All the devices and methods that the researcher combines under the name of technique exist to satisfy these inescapable requirements.[2] an understanding of this technique comprises the steps taken in the process of writing history and the guiding principle albeit not codified in a single document. It therefore suggests that the task before a Historian is a big one, which starts with the conception of his subject idea and ends when the last word has been spelt out.

Definition of Terms

The primary object of research works is to effect understanding of a chosen theme. Consequently, some of the term used in this study would be defined below for an ease of analysis.


As a phenomenon, history has been severally conceptualized by scholars of history and cognate discipline as well. While none of these attempts has gained a universal acceptance, it need be said here, however, that Marwick’s[3] definition would serve the purpose (herein) intended. He conceives it as “the study of the present traces of the past” or better still, “the description and interpretation of past important activities of man”. For him, it is concerned with “study”-a venture to access certain information- and “description and interpretation”-an explanation of the information accessed. History may thus be taken as a venture to access certain important information about man and an explanation cum interpretation of the information accessed.

Historical Research

Historical research and writing on the other hand is concerned with the task of reconstructing the events of the past thereby helping us to have some experience of those events, which we would not otherwise have had. “Most of our life’s experience” noted Eluwa[4] “is vicarious, and if we depend on our direct experience our knowledge of life and the world would be minimal indeed. Hence the good historical writer fulfils a most vital function in our life. Similarly, the historian can with varying degree of accuracy, deduce the “actual” occurrence from various incomplete accounts or records of that occurrence. These accounts or records which may take oral written or material form are the relics or traces of the actual occurrence.[5]as such historical writing is not only an indispensable venture for a present understanding of the past but also a compass for the times to come.

The historian’s task of reconstruction involves his searching for these relics or traces, verifying and collating them when found, analyzing and making valid deductions from them and presenting the results of all this labour in a well-written work.[6] thereby fulfilling the ethics of the craft and satisfying his conscience. This however is for a conscious historian.

Towards an Identification of the Techniques of Writing History

Writing a history paper requires much more than just sitting down at a computer. It involves a lot of early planning, detailed research, critical thinking, skilled organization, and careful writing and rewriting. The first rule of essay writing is to start early so that you have plenty of time to follow these steps. An essay that is hastily conceived, researched, organized, or written will inevitably be lacking in essential components.[7]This necessarily makes historical research and writing a game of technique for which when the rules are strictly followed and steps taken, it’s winning all the way.

It however need be stated that difficulties are inseparable from research. The general “truth” is that reading, writing and thinking are the activities of research. In fact it has been observed that “thinking about one’s subject should be a frequent process, whether or not one is reading or writing”[8] To sum up, the researcher-reporter fashioning his subject may be likened to a sculptor in clay who is working from visual memory, he shapes his work by adding and taking away until the lump resembles the image he has carried in his mind’s eye. He is aided by his general knowledge of how objects looks but he must use trial and error to achieve the desired likeness. The reason why research is like sculpturing from memory is that, neither is there a concrete visible subject to copy directly. The subject exists only when the object is finished.[9]An aggregate of activities which forms the technique of historical research and writing starts from choosing a subject, acquisition of materials, critical reading note taking, translation/interpretation and rewriting and proof reading.

A Discussion of Five Selected Technique of Writing History

The steps in researching and writing the object of history are numerous. The most cardinal five shall be discussed for the purpose of this study as a provisional compass for any historical sojourn.

Choosing a Subject

Finding a topic to write on is often an ordeal, but there are some steps that every writer can take that should make the process easier. One would rather follow Richard Marius’ advice in A Short Guide to Writing About History [10]

Start with something that interests you. If King Solomon were to have written a proverb about choosing a topic, he might have said: "Woe be unto thee if thou choosest a topic that doth not holdeth thine interest." You must be curious about the people, events, documents, problems, or issues you are writing about in order to ask the questions that will enable you to write a good paper.

Ask questions that need to be answered. Why did Johnson get the United States involved in Vietnam? Should Affirmative Action continue? How should Welfare be reformed? Do not be afraid of issues that received a lot of attention. A good history paper might simply examine how various historians have interpreted an issue. How have historians interpreted the War Guilt Question of World War One?

Read and Write down your thoughts. Some of your best ideas for a topic will come from reading your textbook, a newspaper, or a magazine. You will see an issue that strikes your interest. Carry a notebook with you at all times to jot down ideas. As you do more reading, ask questions about your preliminary topic and then try to answer them. You may be able to start shaping the argument that you will be making in your paper.

By far the greatest flaw in most research papers is that students attempt to write on topics that are so broad that their paper lacks focus and originality. Your topic must be defined narrowly if you are to write an interesting, informative paper. You cannot write an interesting and original paper on topics such as "Martin Luther" or "Franklin Delano Roosevelt" or "The Causes of the Civil War" or "The Second World War." The most that you could do would be to write a summary of a person's life or of an event; you would not be able to write a thoughtful paper that tries to make a special point. You must write on something that you can study in depth and write about within the space you have available. Your topic must be defined according to the sources available.

Whichever subject one finds should be one that is interesting to the researcher. It has been supposed in A Short Guide to Writing History Essay of University of Calgary[11] that a topic that engages your interest will be more enjoyable to research and write about, will result in more valuable findings, and will sustain your enthusiasm for an extended period of time. If you feel compelled to choose a topic about which you have a strong moral or ethical opinion, be careful to gather materials that express opinions on all sides so that your own biases do not overwhelm the paper. After selecting a topic, ask yourself the following questions:

Is the topic sufficiently narrow? If not, you might not be able to do justice to the topic in the prescribed length or scope of the assignment. Is the topic feasible? If there are not likely to be enough sources available, or if you do not havethe necessary technical or language skills, think about another topic.

Does the topic have enough probative and provocative value? Because the key purpose of writing a history essay is to put forward an argument, a topic about which a lot has been written or about which there is no debate might not lend itself to these goals.

Can I use the subject to demonstrate my ability to research, interpret, organize, and convey important ideas? These, in addition to a good writing style and presentation, are the aspects of the paper that professors are evaluating. If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, consider revising your topic or choosing a new one. Most people will select and reject several topics before finding one that meets all of these criteria.

Acquisition of Materials

On whichever theme a historical research seeks to address it is usually based on primary sources and a thorough reading of secondary sources. The available materials are the huge mass of words bearing on innumerable topics and subtopics within the subject.[12] Whenever possible research should be traced back to the primary sources. Primary sources are the texts nearest to any subject of investigation; secondary sources are always written about primary sources.

The most common primary sources are written documents. But primary sources can also include photographs, paintings, sculpture, architecture, oral interviews, statistical tables, and even geography.[13]A thorough reading of secondary sources will equip the researcher with a sense of interpretation. Needful is it to say that one should not rely upon one secondary source, but to always incorporate the views of as many secondary sources as possible!

Many history essays will require the use of both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are unanalyzed, contemporary documents (that is, they were written in the time you are studying). These documents can be in manuscript (handwritten) form, which are sometimes assembled into microfilm collections or books; unpublished, typed documents (such as official letters and memoranda); or published documents, which are sometimes available as (or assembled into) books. Primary sources are not always easy to find and sometimes their availability will help to determine or narrow the specific nature of your project. The internet is sometimes a good place to look for primary sources, provided that they come from a reliable institution.[14]Examples of Primary Sources are diaries and journals, newspapers and magazines, census data and statistics, fictional Literature (poetry, novels, and plays), non-fictional Literature (scholarly treatises, propaganda, conduct books), official government records (memoranda, position papers, state letters), artifacts (coins, stamps, maps).

Secondary sources are scholars’ interpretations of primary sources or critiques of other scholars’ ideas. Secondary sources can be found in the University library and the internet using various search engines, such as JSTOR, Humanities Index, and Historical Abstracts which may be accessed through the University of Calgary library website (as elsewhere). Examples of Secondary Sources are journal articles provide the results of research on a focused subject, monographs are books that address, in detail, a single subject, edited collections are essays bound in a book covering a single subject, book reviews are historians’ critiques of monographs and collections, University of Calgary The History Student’s Handbook.[15]

The invariable first step in carving out the substance of one’s report is to find whether someone has already dealt with its subject in print – in an article, it may be , or in a book. At this late date in the world’s history very few subject of research can be entirely original. Even the newest experiment in science as Barzun and Graff[14] submitted, has been led up to.

Critical Reading and Note Taking

After choosing a research topic and the acquisition of materials, the next stage in the technique is the art of critical reading and note taking. One of the finest ways of doing this systematic reading has been spelt out in Guidelines for Historical Research and Writing [17]

1. Read enough background material in order to understand what questions need to be asked and to recognize the answers. This is not to say that you start with a pre-conceived notion of the questions or that you are looking for specific answers.
2. Take the time to read thoroughly and make sure that you understand the vocabulary being used.
3. As you read, ask questions not only about content, but also about the author’s conclusions. What evidence does the author rely upon? Primary or secondary sources? Does the author consider counter-evidence? Are the author’s conclusions presented in an objective fashion?
4. Keep an open mind and look for counter-evidence.
5. Take notes as you read, using headings and subheadings that could easily be incorporated into an outline.

Historians read source material carefully and smartly. It is not always necessary to read every word, nor to read an entire book or article if the material you require is represented in a small portion of the complete work. Good writers will have their argument and structure laid out in the introduction and conclusion and will begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. These will help you determine the usefulness of a source or portion of a source quickly. While reading, take notes that will help you understand, evaluate, and synthesize your subject. Although some students prefer today to take notes on a computer, a pad of paper or an index card is best, because this will reduce the recording of irrelevant information and will be easier to organize later. Above all, your notes should focus on answering your research question. Direct quotations should be recorded sparingly, because they will be used sparingly in the essay. Instead, paraphrase and summarize the author’s argument. Before moving on to the next source, jot down your own ideas about the source, so that you can build on this in the essay. Remember to record the complete citation (author, title, place and date of publication) and page numbers of all quoted and paraphrased materials. Failure to do so may result in a desperate return to the library to find a source you should have recorded in the first place.[18] these source as experience has shown is not usually available again thereby leading to an agonizing rack of one’s brain or aborminable plagiarism!.

What note taking seeks establish is a regular procedure that will enable you turn to a given note without having to rifle through sheaf and stuff.[19]. Index Cards: 4 X 6 or 5 X 8 is preferred. They are easy to manipulate and make organizing and reorganizing easier. Index Cards can however become cumbersome, intimidating, and easily misplaced. Notebooks are easy to carry from place to place and make it easier to include commentary with your information. It’s just that notes are not as easy to manipulate. Computerized Notes has four advantages: first, they will be legible; second, the search function of your word processing program will help you locate key words quickly; third, you can move notes into the text when writing; and fourth, you can place the bibliographic information into a header, thus insuring that you do not lose your source. The disadvantages are that You don’t always have a computer with you and even if you do you can see only one note at a time unless you print them off. Always have at least one, if not two backups! “Based upon my personal experience” declared Marius “I prefer taking notes on the computer, then printing them on index cards.”[20] obviously, the nature of the subject may also dictate a choice. For these purposes experience shows that one must take notes in a uniform manner.

Barzun and Graff advice appears indispensable here:

In short if you will have an eye to the obvious, foreseeable uses to which you are going to put your notes, and also observe your preferences or peculiarities. You can put together a system that will suit you. Once you adopt it stick to it, for it will serve you best from the moment you no longer think about it but use it automatically.[21]

Translation/Interpretation (using Modes of Historical Writing)

Literally a change to a different substance, form, or appearance,[22]change or conversion to another form, appearance, etc.; transformation[23] or an interpretation from one language or situation to another,[24] translation in historical sense connotes an interpretation of historical trend using an understandable mode of historical writing and explanation viz: narrative, descriptive, expository, argumentative, content approach analysis, and so forth. It is only instructive to know that an interpretation is a way of making sense or understanding of a particular event. The Historian must therefore develop an interpretative concept since the evidences which history requires to hold cannot speak by itself but needed to be enacted through inferences by the Historian.

Depending on the point to be made, a particular author might use only of these forms or might use different ones at various points in the work.[25] you do not have to limit yourself to one or another; the best papers will use all four. For example, a paper on the Battle of the Somme might use all four. A narrative paragraph (paper) may tell how British soldiers huddled in their trenches for days as a preliminary barrage pounded the German frontlines and then climbed out and advanced across no-man's land. A descriptive paragraph might give details of no-man's land--the huge crater holes, the barren landscape, the sea of mud. A brief exposition might consider how demoralized British infantry became when they bogged down in mud and could not bring heavy equipment forward. A writer might then argue that the lengthy preliminary barrage served only to give the Germans ample notice that an attack was coming and to make it impossible for troops to advance, therefore leading to the deadliest battle in history--1.2 million casualties. The British army lost almost 60,000 men on the first day alone (almost 20,000 of them dead), or one casualty per yard of front.[26] in this brief account, it has been demonstrated that a narrative gives a portrayal, a descriptive tells how, an exposition states the rationale behind certain human action in historical context and an argumentative presents an understanding of what.

Eluwa[27] indeed commented that “the narrative deals with the whats in history, the descriptive with the hows and the analytical with the whys.” He further that a systematic presentation of historical of historical data and the blending of all three modes, or at least of the analytical with either narrative or descriptive, will produce a work of lasting value and interest, granting the authenticity of the factual content of the work. It is therefore our contention here that scarcely can any historical work employ a single mode of writing and effect a fruitful outlook, but a blend of several would definitely do the job.[28]

Rewriting and Proofreading

“No one, however gifted, can produce a passable first draft. Writing means re-writing” declared Barzun and Graff.[29] Rewriting implies dissatisfaction with what was put down in the first grapple with an idea, dissatisfaction with diction, coherence and logic. For one’s self criticism to be rapid and effective, the Historian must live to a great many distinct faults and master an equal number of corrective devices.[30] some of these devices are explicit in University of Calgary’s The History Student’s Handbook: A Short Guide to Writing History Essays 28 and Richard Marius’ A Short Guide to Writing About history. [31]

Once the draft paper is complete, rewriting begins. If possible, set the draft aside for a few days and return to it with a fresh eye. Read the paper over slowly – some authors prefer to read the paper aloud – and identify and correct weak grammatical constructions, illogical statements, poor argumentation, or lack of evidence to prove a central idea or thesis statement. You might find that one paragraph belongs in a different place, or that the introduction does not lay out the argument very clearly. Take this opportunity to correct these errors. Check your diction to ensure that every word you have used is the right one. In English, very few words have exact synonyms, so select the correct word and not one that is merely close in meaning. The re-writing process is vital to the success of an essay because, when properly and carefully done, it usually results in the reduction of non-essential prose, leading to more clarity and precision and a taut, logical argument that has no superfluous elements. After rewriting the paper (twice, if time allows), proofread it carefully to identify and correct spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors and pass the paper to a friend who can find other mistakes.[32]

With the aforementioned in mind, it is no fallacy to suppose that “revising is part of writing.” Albeit, Eluwa[33] argued that “few writers are so expert that they can produce what they want at the first attempt.”It appears his conception on the theme is not universal, as it reflects utopianism which has not been realizable in the past, far from what we have in the present and there is no hope of having such in the future. To this, one would rather oblige that the technique of rewriting and proofreading in the art of historical research and writing is to the historian what the furnace and bellows is to the blacksmith.


History is a discipline based on interpretation, debate, analysis, and synthesis[34] which is also expected to come up in the form of a well argued and readable piece. It is only instructive to note that the making of any historical venture and resultant content as shown thus far is a product of a thorough pursuit of a set of technique which is though not codified in a single universally recognized document but scattered across several scholarly works (a number of which the present study has borrowed from). Any historical work as fine or otherwise as it might be has no exception to an engagement of these techniques, a process of which begins with an interest in a topic and ends only when the last thought on the theme engaged has been stated in words. This in effect is what is meant by the techniques of writing history. A keen observation of these techniques produces but a good historical work thereby appealing to a sense of standard.

Notes and References


[1]. J. Barzun and H.F. Graff, The Modern Researcher(Third Edition), New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1957, p. 15.

[2]. This information is obtained from www.Historical_Research_Guidelines.pdf on 12/16/2016, 8:20 pm., p. 1.

[3]. Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History, London: Macmillan Press, 1981, 100.

[4]. G.I.C. Eluwa, Introduction to Historical Research and Writing, Onitsha: Africana-Fep Publishers, 1988, p11.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. The Department of History, The History Student’s Handbook: A Short Guide to History Essays, Calgary: University of Calgary, 2009, p.2.

[8]. J. Barzun and H.F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (Third Edition),… p.18.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Studied in R. Marius and M.E. Page, A Short Guide to Writing About History (6th Edition), London: Longman Publishing Group, 2016.

[11]. The Department of History, The History Student’s Handbook: A Short Guide to History Essays, Calgary: University of Calgary, 2009, op. cit.

[12]. This information is obtained from www.Historical_Research_Guidelines.pdf on 12/16/2016, 8:20 pm., p. 1.

[13]. The Department of History, The History Student’s Handbook: A Short Guide to History Essays … p. 5.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Field Investigations and laboratory experiment are in part exception to this generalty, though, they also involve in laboratory research. Barzun and Graff also shares this opinion.

[16]. Studied from Barzun and Graff, The Modern Researcher (Third Edition), Chapter Two.

[17]. This information is obtained from www.Historical_Research_Guidelines.pdf on 12/16/2016, 8:20 pm, p.8.

[18]. The Department of History, The History Student’s Handbook: A Short Guide to History Essays,… pp. 4-5.

[19]. J. Barzun and H.F. Graff, The Modern Researcher(Third Edition) … p.20.

[20]. This argument is inferred from R. Marius and M.E. Page, A Short Guide to Writing About History (6th Edition), Op. cit.

[21]. J. Barzun and H.F. Graff, The Modern Researcher(Third Edition) … p.23.

[22]. This information is obtained from on 01/07/2016 at 12:40am.

[23]. This information is obtained from on 01/07/2017 at 12:41 am.

[24]. This information is obtained from › Dictionary Definitions › translation on 01/07/2017 at 12:42 am.

[25]. This information is obtained from on 16/01/2016, 7:40 am

[26]. This information is obtained from www.Historical_Research_Guidelines.pdf on 12/16/2016, 8:20 pm, p.4.

[27]. G.I.C. Eluwa, Introduction to Historical Research and Writing,… p. 48.

[28]. J. Barzun and H.F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (Third Edition) … p. 31.

[29]. Ibid.

[30]. A Short Guide to Writing About History Essays is a History Handbook of the Department of History, University of Calgary published in 2009. It presents an explicit content on the techniques of writing history with lights shed on the pre-writing process, the writing process, reviews and analysis, style and referencing guide. It is a good reference material for history students.

[31]. Richard Marius was an American academic and writer. He was a scholar of the Reformation, novelist of the American South, speechwriter, and teacher of writing and English literature at Harvard University. He was widely published, leaving behind major biographies of Thomas More and Martin Luther, four novels set in his native Tennessee, several books on writing, and a host of scholarly articles for academic journals and mainstream book reviews.

[32]. The Department of History, The History Student’s Handbook: A Short Guide to History Essays,… p. 11.

[33]. In His Introduction to Historical Research and Writing … p. 52.

[34]. The Department of History, The History Student’s Handbook: A Short Guide to History Essays,… p.1.

14 of 14 pages


Techniques of Historical Research and Writing
The Scientificity of History
Cultural History
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ISBN (Book)
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Basics of History, History, Science, Work, Historian Tasks
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Raji Afeez Tope (Author), 2017, Techniques of Historical Research and Writing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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