The Scholarly Voice:
Hints on Crafting Historical Prose
Clarity of language demonstrates clarity of thought. Your prose should be
precise. Never assume that the reader will know what you're talking about;
she or he never will unless you avoid all possible ambiguity. The meanings
of every word and phrase must be crystal clear; if they are not, you have
not explained sufficiently.
Avoid referring to yourself explicitly ("in this paper I will examine")
or implicitly ("it is interesting to examine").
Your paper is about the people in your sources, not the sources themselves.
Do not bring attention in your prose to your sources or the problems
they present (this is what notes are for). Avoid phrases like, "In the collection
edited by Ira Berlin, there is the story of a slave man who escaped to freedom."
Instead, just tell me the story of the man; if you've cited properly, I'll
be able to find your source. Avoid also phrases like, "This document shows
that planters abandoned their land with great reluctance." Just say "Some
planters abandoned their land with great reluctance."
It is important to keep your "voice" distinct from the "voice" of your subjects.
When working closely with the writings of a historical subject, it is easy
to forget to identify the author of a thought. Often, you wind
up looking like the author.
For instance, in explaining William Lloyd Garrison's views on African colonization,
your sentence should not read "Those who favored colonization were really
hostile to the interests of all black people." This looks like your thought
when it is really Garrison's. Identify it as such by adding, "According
to Garrison," immediately before.
Here is another example of incorrect use of voice causing confusion about
the author of an idea: "Black parents have complained about books containing
the word 'n_____' being read aloud in class, therefore Huck Finn
and other novels which use the pejorative term should be excluded from the
classroom as racist." The implication here is that black parents
think the book should be banned, but the sentence technically reads that
the author of the paper thinks this. This re-write clarifies things:
"Black parents have complained about books containing the word 'n_____'
being read aloud in class, therefore they think that Huck
Finn and other novels which use the pejorative term should be excluded
from the classroom as racist."
History takes place in the past. Use the past tense and avoid the present
tense. Keep tenses consistent.
A great scholar once told me that good writing is in the verbs. Use active
verbs rather than the verb "to be" (and its conjugations), and minimize
your use of adjectives.
Make sure you define important concepts. If you argue that Jefferson was
neurotic, make sure you define that term.
When introducing a person, identify her or him completely. Only after first
using "James Biddle, the president of the first national bank," should you
refer to him simply as "Biddle."
Avoid using rhetorical questions to introduce your subject, or for any other
reason. Instead, provide the answer to the rhetorical question you wish
Gendered language: Pay attention to gender-specific language. "The plague
killed half of Europe's mankind"? Well, womankind suffered as well. On the
other hand, there are times when it is not appropriate to use gender-neutral
language. In this sentence - "Catholic law declared that the priest was
required to keep his or her vow of celibacy, despite frequent lapses in
practice" - gender-neutral language makes no sense, as Catholic priests
are by definition men. Thinking about gendered language invites more analysis:
"All men are created equal." You might ask yourself if this meant all men
and women, all men except slaves, etc. Avoid overuse of male-gender pronouns
when their referents are not necessarily male. You may wish to alternate
use of "he" and "she" in your paper. Avoid "s/he" or "he/she." It is often
possible to make the noun to which a pronoun refers plural, thus obviating
the need for a gender-specific pronoun ("their" is gender neutral; "his"
Vague terms and over-generalizations: Terms like "now," "then," "later,"
"before," "in this period" should refer to clearly-defined dates. "The people,"
"the masses," and phrases like "white power structure" are vague and generalized,
as are "blacks" and "industrialists." Rarely can one generalization capture
the nuances of history. Work for specificity; it is more accurate, and much
more convincing. Avoid the article "the" that many writers us, for example:
"the whites" or "the blacks." This may seem to objectify your subjects and
introduce a distasteful tone.
Strive for conciseness. In general, use as few words as possible, but as
many as necessary. "His reasons for whipping her included such things as
letting her husband enter the army." Why not: "He whipped her for letting
her husband enter the army." Wordiness often results from overuse of adjectives,
as in "Former slaves were happiest and most content when living with their
fraternal and related families." This is redundant and wordy. "Former slaves
were happiest when living with their families."
Avoid the passive voice, as in "The bill was passed by Congress." Make active
by identifying the subject of the sentence and placing it before the verb,
as in "Congress passed the bill."
Choose active verbs: Good writing springs from lively verbs rather than
superfluous adjectives. Choose active verbs, and avoid whenever possible
dull verbs, like "was." Ask yourself, what was the subject of the sentence
When writing on topics in American History, avoid personalizing your analysis
by using words such as "we," "our country," and "in our culture." American
history, like all others, varies enormously over time and place, and it
is best to respect that variety in formal prose.
Avoid parentheses. Instead, set off parenthetical phrases in commas. If
this does not work, rewrite the sentence.
There is almost no place for the verb "to feel" in a history paper. The
phrase "I feel" is most often used when you are unsure of your evidence
and argumentation. Any insight you believe worthy of inclusion in a paper
should be stated with confidence.
Do not refer to people in the paper by using their first names alone. In
the first reference to a person, use the full name and clearly identify,
as in "Joe Smith, Senator from Wisconsin, argued the Republican position."
Avoid personal intrusions, such as "as stated earlier" or "as aforementioned"
from your writing.
A final note:
It cannot be stressed enough that writing is the product of dialogues, both
with yourself and between you, your professor, and your colleagues. Good
writers constantly play with language and ideas, and constantly explore
options and alternatives in their heads. Do not expect to write well without
engaging in this process.
Writing is re-writing. Good writers have simply internalized many of the
rules and idioms that young writers have yet to learn. Yet nobody in the
world -- not even the best writers -- can write well without editing. The
editing process in the best writers occurs before pen is even put to paper.
Allow yourself the time to rewrite, and edit your own work.