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The Importance of Writing in History

Good historical writing is analytical, precise, accurate and interesting. Once they have completed their research, the best historians are able to construct a compelling narrative that makes sense of the evidence they have gathered without forcing the facts to fit into a predetermined analytical structure. The hardest part of this process is deciding what to include and what to leave out, because there is usually far too much evidence and not nearly enough space on the page (or in the book).

In a typical history course you will have several opportunities to confront this basic dilemma faced by all historians--in essays, in-class writing assignments, and on examinations. Most faculty members teaching history expect you to use these opportunities not to repeat what you find in other sources, but instead to think critically about the material you are working with (primary sources, secondary sources) and construct a compelling argument from that material that answers questions central to the course.

Why do history courses place such an emphasis on writing? Writing is both an essential part of the learning process and one of the most important ways that historians communicate their ideas and conclusions to one another. The act of writing forces you to take your knowledge of a subject and other information that is available to you on that subject and organize it all into a coherent and concise presentation. Moreover, when you argue something in print, you must convince your reader of the validity of your argument through clear prose and the careful use of fact rather than with eloquent speech or the conviction in your voice.

There is another very practical reason why you must learn to write well. After you graduate from the University, many of those with whom you will have contact in your professional life will judge you and your work based upon your writing. Whatever career path you select, you will have to write letters, reports, applications for funding, speeches, proposals and even books that others will read before they ever speak to you personally. These individuals will develop their first and often most lasting impression of you based upon your writing skills.

Remember, writing is a skill and like any skill is sharpened through practice.

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