Writing Academic Texts
Even before you begin the actual writing phase, you should have a clear idea of the form which the end product of your research (e.g. a (Pro)Seminar paper) should take. Do not leave it too late before you start writing, as the writing process requires you once more to engage deeply with your topic. Plan the structure of your text and, if necessary, discuss this with your lecturer before you commence writing. Writing is a fundamental skill for any historian. Above all, your writing needs to be precise and well-reasoned, but there is no one set method which must be followed when writing a text. Personal preference is important: some writers choose to construct a paper in a strictly linear fashion, beginning with the introduction and ending with the conclusion; others prefer to complete the various sections of their paper in no particular order until they have a complete text. There are concrete instructions, however, which govern the way in which a written assignment is to be presented.
Writing involves using language to record your thoughts in a permanent and logical form. This requires a set of skills which transcend the discipline of history. “Narrative competence” is an especially important skill for historians which should manifest itself in both your speech (e.g. in (Pro-)Seminar discussions) and written assignments. Numerous student handbooks have been composed on the topic of writing.
If your thoughts are muddled, this will be reflected in your writing – and vice versa. Only once your ideas have been expressed in precise language can they be objectively evaluated. Connections between different issues must be carefully explained, while terms and concepts – technical and nontechnical alike – should only be employed when you are fully aware of their meaning and how they differ from related expressions or ideas.
All in all, it is very important that you present a clear and well-reasoned argument in your writing. Different elements of your argument should be kept separate and remain clearly distinguishable. For example, it should be obvious whether a statement in your text pertains to background knowledge from the secondary literature or to empirical findings from your sources or whether it is an expression of your own judgement. You can become an expert in a historical topic by immersing yourself in it, but the ability to form independent and well-reasoned arguments and to reflect critically upon your claims is also required.
The more substantial your written assignment is, the earlier you should begin writing; writing requires you to engage in a deeper fashion with key themes, a process which may throw up new questions requiring further research within the limited timeframe available to you to complete your assignment. An introduction to a written paper can only take on its definitive form at the conclusion of the writing process, i.e. once it is has become absolutely clear what your findings are and how your argument is structured. The same applies to the structure of your text: certain paragraphs or sections which were included in your original research outline may no longer seem to fit once you have actually written them. If this is the case, it can be helpful to move around sections of text (usually individual paragraphs, but sometimes longer passages). Any resulting adjustments (adding connecting passages, eliminating contradictions and repetitions) are often less demanding than initially feared.
Writer’s block is an affliction which can sometimes affect writers. This is relatively normal but should be tackled head-on as soon as possible. The self-help books on academic writing in the departmental library provide some useful tips to counter this condition. For example, rather than starting from the very beginning of your paper, it can help to start by writing another part of your text first. Alternatively, try at first to write freely without worrying about making any errors in language or argument, or try regularly switching the location where you work.
It can also be helpful to discuss your work and exchange experiences with your fellow students. Ideally, once you think your text is complete, you should ask someone to proofread it. As an author, you are typically too close to your writing to be able to spot a wide variety of mistakes – whether in the form of typographical errors, inconsistencies in language, or gaps or contradictions in your argument. The curiosity and critical eye of a neutral reader can help you to identify these errors.
After you have finished analysing your sources and before you begin writing, you should outline a draft structure for your text. This should reflect both your conceptual preparatory reading as well as the findings of your literature and source analyses. The ability to structure a written text is an important skill for any author, because it not only requires important initial conceptual decisions to be taken, but also gives direction to any piece of writing. Furthermore, a structure which clearly spells out the course of your argument serves as a very useful guide for readers.
One method of ensuring that your text has a logical structure is to adopt the following approach: divide the different sections of your paper – whether they are still in planning or already written – into distinct thematic units and arrange these into the most logical sequence. This will help to reveal whether your argument is logically structured, or whether there are any passages which need to be supplemented, modified or removed.
The introduction is key to any written paper. It describes and explains the aims and interests of the text. It defines, delimits and problematises the focus of the investigation. It situates the research topic in its wider context and highlights its broader relevance. It explains the research question and clarifies its key terms and concepts. It substantiates the author’s methodological approach, particularly in relation to the secondary literature and source material which have been consulted. A section on the current state of research discusses relevant contemporary debates and theories. Finally, the introduction outlines and explains the text’s structure.
The main body of your text should concern itself with the results of your source and literature analyses. It can be structured according to linear criteria (the sequence of your argument or the chronology of the events it discusses) and/or by thematic criteria. The main body should not provide a step-by-step description of your research but should bring together in the most meaningful form the most significant findings from the secondary literature and sources which you have consulted. As such, you should only discuss or quote what is essential to your argument. As a general rule, sources and secondary literature should be examined concurrently in your text. Source analysis should thus be incorporated into the flow of your argument to avoid unnecessary repetition. In specific cases, however, it can make sense to devote a separate section to the analysis of a paradigmatic source.
The conclusion of a paper briefly summarises the main findings and provides answers to the questions which were raised in the introduction. Critical reflections on methodology can also be included here, while any questions requiring further investigation which may have arisen during the course of your research can be identified.