Professor Putman’s Writing Tips

 Introduction and Thesis:

 Perhaps the most difficult and also most important task is to develop a thesis statement which serves as the focus of the rest of the paper.  Your introduction should do two things: State what the general question being addressed is and clearly state the thesis.  A successful thesis directs the reader through your paper and helps you maintain your focus.  A good way to construct your introduction is to think of it as an upside down pyramid, thus start with a broad, general statement and then narrow your subject until you get to the main argument of your paper. For example:


              Throughout the twentieth century, the left has waxed and waned in the American political system.  Peculiar historical circumstances have occasionally compelled organizations, political parties, and entire generations to challenge the status quo.  From the early suffrage and feminist movement at the turn of the century to the birth of the New Left in the 1960s, the left has transformed not only politics but also the social and economic fabric of American society.  This essay will examine the rise and fall of the left during the twentieth century through the pages and words of several exceptional historical studies. [1]



In the last half of the twentieth century, American foreign policy has been shaped significantly by the cold war.  In the decades following World War II, American leaders viewed international events and conflicts through cold war lenses.  With the emergence of containment policy the United States reacted vigorously and quickly to any perceived expansion of communism in the world. [2]   In Korea American leaders successfully, though with significant costs, contained communism above the 38th parallel.  When North Vietnam forces under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh drove the French colonial government from Vietnam in 1954, American leaders once again invoke containment policy to deal with this situation.  Beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower through the administration of President Richard Nixon, American presidents continued to struggle with containing communism and defending the “free world.” This paper explores the attitudes and policies of American leaders during the Vietnam War from the mid 1950s through the early 1970s.   In particular, it will analyze how the various presidents viewed the Vietnam situation and how their cold war mentality shaped their responses and policies. [3]


Quotes and Evidence:

 (1) One of the keys to developing a strong, persuasive argument is to provide evidence that supports your point or argument.  Paraphrasing a thought, idea, or statement and/or providing a direct quote are both appropriate ways to accomplish this.  However, when using the exact words of another author you must use quotation marks to indicate that these are not your words.

 For example:  In a meeting with his advisors, Johnson declared that “Vietnam would not be another China.” Now you could have also paraphrased this using your own words. [4]  

 For example: Johnson argued in a conference with his advisors that he did not want the Vietnam War to mirror the fall of China. [5]  

 Either way you also need to provide proper footnotes for each even if you are not directly quoting Johnson because you are citing specific information taken from a document or other source.


(2) When using quotes you need to be careful not to thoughtlessly throw them into your paper.  First, be sure the quote you use is meaningful and supports your argument.  Also try to avoid excessively long quotes because this often means that you are letting the quote do the work and thus your voice is lost or muted.  If you have long quotes, try to paraphrase them in your own words and quote only the most pertinent and powerful parts of the quote.  If you do use a quote longer than 4 lines, then you need to block quote it as shown below.

Hulet Wells, a leading socialist figure in the prewar years, initially favored Titus' revolutionary wing when he joined the SPW in 1905.  As he saw it:

 there were two types of socialist philosophy, a sentimental appeal to all mankind to wipe out poverty, waste and war, as against the dynamic class-angled   philosophy of Marx.  I chose the latter without hesitation, for I had no faith that preaching the brotherhood of man would have any effect on the politically     entrenched interests of a powerful propertied class.  The quickest way to change was surely to convince the mass of the people that the prevailing system worked them an economic injury for the benefit of a comparatively small class.

While Wells found working-class revolution as the most promising way to change the world, many other Socialists remained open to inter-class alliances.


(3) In addition to offering a meaningful quote, you also need to make sure that you introduce the quote and properly integrate it into your sentence so that the sentence is grammatically correct.  By introducing it I mean to indicate who said it so that the reader knows how to judge and evaluate the statement.  For example:

In his 1901 report, the State Labor Commissioner likewise complimented Local 240 as the "best  conducted union in the state." 

Beginning a sentence with a quote is OK as long as you still indicate who made the statement.  For example:

“Best conducted union in the state,” noted the State Labor Commissioner in his 1901 report.


(4) Finally, be sure to set up the quote or explain it to the reader.  Often students will provide a good quote but will fail to indicate to the reader how it supports your argument.  You can do this either before the quote or after the quote. Notice the example below.  The author notes that suffragists’ ideas had a regional flavor and then the quote follows supporting this argument.  At the end of the paragraph the author again notes the regional or western tone of suffragists’ appeal following the quotes.  If the author had left out the first sentence and the last two sentences of this paragraph, the importance of the quotes would not be so apparent.

Though many of the ideas and arguments espoused by Seattle and state suffragists differed little from similar debates throughout the nation, they did add a particular regional flavor.  In the inaugural issue of Votes For Women, the editor proudly proclaimed the “Spirit of the West.”  Freedom, she argued, “has always come out of the West--the West which has always been peopled by those free souls who gladly gave up the luxuries of the East in order to escape its slavery.”  The editor concluded with the hope that the West would grant equal opportunity to all and that this would be “washed back over the East with the returning tides of humanity.”  This idea that the American West was special or exceptional was pervasive among both suffrage leaders. In Washington they understood the power of this line of thought and made sure to include women in this image of the West. 


Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph structure is another issue to which good writers pay attention. First, be careful about the length of your paragraphs. Generally, most paragraphs should not be more than 1/2 to 2/3 of a page in length. If your paragraph is longer than that you should try to find a place to divide it into two or more smaller paragraphs. Second, be sure to construct strong, effective paragraph transitions that help direct readers from one paragraph to the next. Usually this can be done by tying the issue or idea from the first paragraph to the next.


Citations and Footnotes:

Finally, follow proper footnote format.  Notice the footnotes from the first page. Each source has its own footnote and the numbers do not repeat.  That is, do not list your sources at the end of the paper and give each a number and then use that number throughout.  You need only provide a full citation for a source the first time you cite it.  After that use an abbreviated form, usually the author’s name (White in this case) or if no author a title. For more see the Department of History writing guides.


Grammar and Punctuation:

Following the following grammar and punctuation advice will definitely improve your writing.  You must remember that, for the most part, papers in history classes are formal writing assignments and thus must adhere to certain rules. 

1)       Avoid using I, we, us, our, and other pronouns that emphasize you rather than the subject.  Writing “I think” or “I believe” weakens your analysis because it comes off as mere opinion.  For example, dropping “I think” from the sentence, “I think President Roosevelt proposed his New Deal to save capitalism,” forces you to write “President Roosevelt proposed the New Deal to save capitalism” and thus you establish an assertive, specific argument.  Likewise, don’t put yourself in other historical periods by saying, “We defeated the British in the Revolutionary War.”  You were not there, rather state the Americans did or the colonists, etc..

2)      Please be sure to use the proper verb tense in your papers.  Remember, this is a history class and everything happened in the past so write it as so.  The one exception to this is if you are referring to the author of a book or document written in the past.  In this case it is appropriate to use the present tense only when referring to the author’s work, not the events or topic itself.  For example: “Frederick Douglass writes about how slave owners whipped and bloodied their slaves.”  Note that that the present tense is only used in this sentence when writing about the specific author’s statement, but that the action of the slave owner is in the past.   This can be confusing so my advice is that you simply write the entire sentence in the past tense.  Remember, Douglass wrote it 100 years ago and he is dead. “Frederick Douglass wrote about how slave owners whipped and bloodied their slaves.”

3)       Avoid the use of the passive voice as much as possible.  Notice the difference in the following sentences: “The song was performed by the Eagles.”  “The Eagles performed the song.”  The first is the passive voice where the subject (Eagles) follows the verb and in the second it precedes the verb. The active voice is stronger and more persuasive.  One way to notice this is the use of “is” or “was” before a verb ending in –ed. 

4)       In formal writing do not use contractions.  Spell out the contraction so that don’t is do not.

5)      Watch your paragraph structure.  Paragraphs rarely will exceed one page.  A paragraph should not contain several different ideas or thoughts unless related in some clear manner.  Also, one sentence does not make a paragraph.  Also, try to avoid beginning a paragraph with the word “another.”  For example:  “Another murder Charles Manson committed occurred the following day.”  Instead, just start with the main thought: “Charles Manson committed another murder the following day.”

6) Transitions between paragraphs are important to effective writing. Be sure to carry the reader from one paragraph to the next. Also, make sure the first sentence or topic sentence acts like a mini-thesis for the rest of the paragraph. Avoid using quotes as topic sentences.

7)      Punctuation is still important.  One of the most common errors is to place the period or exclamation point outside or after the quotation mark instead of inside.  The quotation mark always goes last.  For example: The turnout by more than 20,000 Seattle women and the successful recall of Mayor Gill, McClure’s magazine proclaimed, “must be regarded as a triumph for woman’s suffrage.”  Notice that the period appears inside or before the quotation mark.  Also, when writing dates it is best to drop the apostrophe from the date.  For example, the 1930’s should be written 1930s.  The same goes for footnote citations. Be sure that the period comes inside the quotation mark and the footnote number at the end (."2)

8)      Avoid use of sub-headings in most papers.  Instead, devise a proper transition from one section of a paper to another.

9)      Finally, please put page numbers in your paper.

[1] “Watts in Flames,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1965, sec A, p. 8.

[2] Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman, Okla., 1991), 4.

[3] Abigail Scott Duniway, Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States (New York, 1970), 34.

[4] White, 45.

[5] Watts in Flames”