How To Write Thesis Statements For History Papers

Thesis Statement[edit]

A thesis statement is generally a single sentence (The last sentence of Intro) within the introductory paragraph of the history (or thesis) essay, which makes a claim or tells the reader exactly what to expect from the rest of the text. It may be the writer's interpretation of what the author or teacher is saying or implying about the topic. It may also be a hypothesis statement (educated guess) which the writer intends to develop and prove in the course of the essay.

The thesis statement, which is in some cases underlined, is the heart of a history or thesis essay and is the most vital part of the introduction. The assignment may not ask for a thesis statement because it may be assumed that the writer will include one. If the history assignment asks for the student to take a position, to show the cause and effect, to interpret or to compare and contrast, then the student should develop and include a good thesis statement.

Following the introductory paragraph and its statement, the body of the essay presents the reader with organized evidence directly relating to the thesis and must support it.

Characteristics of a good thesis statement

  • Is a strong statement or fact which ends with a period, not a question.
  • Is not a cliché[1] such as “fit as a fiddle”, “time after time”, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, “all in due time” or “what goes around comes around”.
  • Is not a dictionary definition.
  • Is not a generalization.
  • Is not vague, narrow or broad.
  • States an analytic argument or claim, not a personal opinion or emotion.
  • Uses clear and meaningful words.

The History Essay Format[edit]

Essay is an old French word which means to “attempt”. An essay is the testing of an idea or hypothesis (theory). A history essay (sometimes referred to as a thesis essay) will describe an argument or claim about one or more historical events and will support that claim with evidence, arguments and references. The text must make it clear to the reader why the argument or claim is as such.

Introduction

Unlike a persuasive essay where the writer captures the reader's attention with a leading question, quotation or story related to the topic, the introduction in a history essay announces a clear thesis statement and explains what to expect in the coming paragraphs. The Introduction includes the key facts that are going to be presented in each paragraph.

The following phrases are considered to be poor and are normally avoided in the introduction: “I will talk about”, “You will discover that”, “In this essay”, “You will learn” or other such statements.

Body (Supporting Paragraphs)

The paragraphs which make up the body of a history essay offers historical evidence to support the thesis statement. Typically, in a high school history essay, there will be as many supporting paragraphs as there are events or topics. The history teacher or assignment outline may ask for a specific number of paragraphs. Evidence such as dates, names, events and terms are provided to support the key thesis.

The topic sentence tells the reader exactly what the paragraph is about. Typically, the following phrases are never part of a topic sentence: “I will talk about”, “I will write about” or “You will see”. Instead, clear statements which reflect the content of the paragraph are written.

The last sentence of a supporting paragraph can either be a closing or linking sentence. A closing sentence summarizes the key elements that were presented. A linking sentence efficiently links the current paragraph to the next. Linking can also be done by using a transitional word or phrase at the beginning of the next paragraph.

Conclusion

In the closing paragraph, the claim or argument from the introduction is restated differently. The best evidence and facts are summarized without the use of any new information. This paragraph mainly reviews what has already been written. Writers don't use exactly the same words as in their introduction since this shows laziness. This is the author's last chance to present the reader with the facts which support their thesis statement.

Quotes, Footnotes and Bibliography[edit]

Quotes

Quotations in a history essay are used in moderation and to address particulars of a given historical event. Students who tend to use too many quotes normally lose marks for doing so. The author of a history essay normally will read the text from a selected source, understand it, close the source (book for web site for example) and then condense it using their own words. Simply paraphrasing someone else’s work is still considered to be plagiarism. History essays may contain many short quotes.

Quotations of three or fewer lines are placed between double quotation marks. For longer quotes, the left and right margins are indented by an additional 0.5” or 1 cm, the text is single-spaced and no quotation marks are used. Footnotes are used to cite the source.

Single quotation marks are used for quotations within a quotation. Three ellipsis points (...) are used when leaving part of the quotation out. Ellipsis cannot be used at the start of a quotation.

Footnotes

Footnotes are used to cite quotation sources or to provide additional tidbits of information such as short comments.

Internet sources are treated in the same way printed sources are. Footnotes or endnotes are used in a history essay to document all quotations. Footnotes normally provide the author's name, the title of the work, the full title of the site (if the work is part of a larger site), the date of publication, and the full URL (Uniform Resource Locator) of the document being quoted. The date on which the web site was consulted is normally included in a footnote since websites are often short-lived.[2]

Bibliography

Unless otherwise specified by the history teacher or assignment outline, a bibliography should always be included on a separate page which lists the sources used in preparing the essay.

The list is always sorted alphabetically according to the authors’ last name. The second and subsequent line of each entry of a bibliography is indented by about 1 inch, 2.5 cm or 10 spaces.

A bibliography is normally formatted according to the “Chicago Manual of Style” or “The MLA Style Manual”.

Plagiarism[edit]

History and thesis essay writers are very careful to avoid plagiarism since it is considered to be a form of cheating in which part or all of someone else’s work is passed as one’s own. Useful guidelines to help avoid plagiarism can be found in the University of Ottawa document "Beware of Plagiarism".[3]

Formatting Requirements[edit]

  • Letter-sized 8.5”x11” or A4 plain white paper
  • Double-spaced text
  • 1.5” (3 cm) left and right margins, 1” (2.5 cm) top and bottom margins
  • Regular 12-point font such as Arial, Century Gothic, Helvetica, Times New Roman and Verdana
  • A cover page with the course name, course number, group number, essay title, the teacher’s name, the author's name, the due date and optionally, the name of the author's school, its location and logo
  • Page numbers (with the exception of the cover page)
  • No underlined text with the exeception of the thesis statement
  • No italicized text with the exception of foreign words
  • No bolded characters
  • No headings
  • No bullets, numbered lists or point form
  • No use of the these words: “Firstly”, “Secondly”, “Thirdly”, etc.
  • Paragraph indentation of approximately 0.5 inch, 1 cm or 5 spaces
  • Formatting according to the “Chicago Manual of Style”[4] or the “MLA Style”.[5]

Basic Essay Conventions[edit]

  • Dates: a full date is formatted as August 20, 2009 or August 20, 2009. The comma and the “th” separate the day from the year.
  • Dates: a span of years within the same century is written as 1939-45 (not 1939-1945).
  • Dates: no apostrophe is used for 1600s, 1700s, etc.
  • Diction: a formal tone (sophisticated language) is used to address an academic audience.
  • Numbers: for essays written in countries where the metric system is used (e.g., Europe, Canada), no commas are used to separate groups of three digits (thousands). For example, ten thousand is written as 10 000 as opposed to 10,000.
  • Numbers: numbers less than and equal to 100 are spelled out (e.g., fifteen).
  • Numbers: round numbers are spelled out (e.g., 10 thousand, 5 million).
  • Numbers: for successive numbers, digits are used (e.g., 11 women and 96 men).
  • Percentages: the word “percent” is used instead of its symbol % unless listing successive figures. When listing many figures, the % symbol is also used.
  • Pronouns: the pronoun “I” is not used since the writer does not need to refer to him/herself unless writing about “taking a position” or making a “citizenship” statement.
  • Pronouns: the pronoun “you” is not used since the writer does not need to address the reader directly.
  • Tone: in a history or thesis essay, the writer does not nag, preach or give advice.

Use of Capital Letters[edit]

A history or thesis essay will make use of capital letters where necessary.

  • Brand names, trademarks or product names
  • First word of a direct quotation
  • First word of a sentence
  • Name or title of a book, disc, movie or other literary works
  • Names of distinctive historical periods (e.g., Middle Ages)
  • Names of festivals and holidays
  • Names of languages (e.g., English, French)
  • Names of school subjects, disciplines or specialties are not capitalized unless they happen to be the names of languages
  • Names of the days of the week and of the months of the year (e.g., Monday, January)
  • Pronoun I (e.g., “Yesterday, I was very happy.”)
  • Proper names (e.g., John Smith, Jacques Cartier)
  • Religious terms (e.g., God, Sikhs)
  • Roman numerals (e.g., XIV)
  • Words that create a connection with a specific place (e.g., French is capitalized when it is used in the context of having to do with France)
  • Words that identify nationalities, ethnic groups or social groups (e.g., Americans, Canadians, Loyalists)

Miscellaneous Characteristics[edit]

  • A word processor such as Microsoft Word[6] or a free downloadable processor such as Open Office[7] could be used to format and spell-check the text.
  • An essay plan or a graphic organizer could be used to collect important facts before attempting to write the essay.
  • Correct use of punctuation; periods, commas, semicolons and colons are used to break down or separate sentences.
  • Paragraphs are not lengthy in nature.
  • Street or Internet messaging jargon such as “a lot”, “:)”, “lol” or “bc” is not used.
  • Text that remains consistent with the thesis statement.
  • The essay has been verified by a peer and/or with the word processor's spell-check tool.
  • The same verb tense is used throughout the essay.

References[edit]

Example of a bibliography
  1. ↑A cliché is an expression or saying which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning; something repeated so often that has become stale or commonplace; "ready-made phrases".
  2. ↑“History and Classics: Essay Writing Guide” (on-line). Edmonton, Alberta: Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta. uofaweb.ualbert.ca (January 2009).
  3. ↑Uottawa.ca
  4. ↑More information on the “Chicago Manual of Style” can be found at chicagomanualofstyle.org
  5. ↑More information on the “MLA Style Manual” and “Guide to Scholarly Publishing” can be found on the Modern Language Association web site at mla.org Guides can be ordered online.
  6. ↑Office.microsoft.com
  7. ↑Openoffice.org
What is a thesis statement?

Your thesis statement is one of the most important parts of your paper.  It expresses your main argument succinctly and explains why your argument is historically significant.  Think of your thesis as a promise you make to your reader about what your paper will argue.  Then, spend the rest of your paper--each body paragraph--fulfilling that promise.

Your thesis should be between one and three sentences long and is placed at the end of your introduction.  Just because the thesis comes towards the beginning of your paper does not mean you can write it first and then forget about it.  View your thesis as a work in progress while you write your paper.  Once you are satisfied with the overall argument your paper makes, go back to your thesis and see if it captures what you have argued.  If it does not, then revise it.  Crafting a good thesis is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process, so do not expect to perfect it on the first few tries.  Successful writers revise their thesis statements again and again.

A successful thesis statement:

- makes an historical argument

- takes a position that requires defending

- is historically specific

- is focused and precise

- answers the question, "so what?"

How to write a thesis statement:

Suppose you are taking an early American history class and your professor has distributed the following essay prompt:

"Historians have debated the American Revolution's effect on women.  Some argue that the Revolution had a positive effect because it increased women's authority in the family.  Others argue that it had a negative effect because it excluded women from politics.  Still others argue that the Revolution changed very little for women, as they remained ensconced in the home.  Write a paper in which you pose your own answer to the question of whether the American Revolution had a positive, negative, or limited effect on women."

Using this prompt, we will look at both weak and strong thesis statements to see how successful thesis statements work.

1. A successful thesis statement makes an historical argument. It does not announce the topic of your paper or simply restate the paper prompt.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution had little effect on women because they remained ensconced in the home.

While this thesis does take a position, it is problematic because it simply restates the prompt.  It needs to be more specific about how the Revolution had a limited effect on women and why it mattered that women remained in the home.

Revised Thesis: The Revolution wrought little political change in the lives of women because they did not gain the right to vote or run for office.  Instead, women remained firmly in the home, just as they had before the war, making their day-to-day lives look much the same.

This revision is an improvement over the first attempt because it states what standards the writer is using to measure change (the right to vote and run for office) and it shows why women remaining in the home serves as evidence of limited change (because their day-to-day lives looked the same before and after the war).  However, it still relies too heavily on the information given in the prompt, simply saying that women remained in the home.  It needs to make an argument about some element of the war's limited effect on women.  This thesis requires further revision.

Strong Thesis: While the Revolution presented women unprecedented opportunities to participate in protest movements and manage their family's farms and businesses, it ultimately did not offer lasting political change, excluding women from the right to vote and serve in office.

This is a stronger thesis because it complicates the information in the prompt.  The writer admits that the Revolution gave women important new opportunities, but argues that, in the end, it led to no substantial change.  This thesis recognizes the complexity of the issue, conceding that the Revolution had both positive and negative effects for women, but that the latter outweighed the former.  Remember that it will take several rounds of revision to craft a strong thesis, so keep revising until your thesis articulates a thoughtful and compelling argument.

2.  A succesful thesis statement takes a position that requires defending. Your argument should not be an obvious or irrefutable assertion.  Rather, make a claim that requires supporting evidence.

Weak Thesis: The Revolutionary War caused great upheaval in the lives of American women.

Few would argue with the idea that war brings upheaval.  Your thesis needs to be debatable:  it needs to make a claim against which someone could argue.  Your job throughout the paper is to provide evidence in support of your own case.  Here is a revised version:

Strong Thesis: The Revolution caused particular upheaval in the lives of women.  With men away at war, women took on full responsibility for running households, farms, and businesses.  As a result of their increased involvement during the war, many women were reluctant to give up their new-found responsibilities after the fighting ended.

This is a stronger thesis because it says exactly what kind of upheaval the war wrought, and it makes a debatable claim.  For example, a counterargument might be that most women were eager to return to the way life was before the war and thus did not try to usurp men's role on the home front.  Or, someone could argue that women were already active in running households, farms, and businesses before the war, and thus the war did not mark a significant departure.  Any compelling thesis will have counterarguments.  Writers try to show that their arguments are stronger than the counterarguments that could be leveled against them.

3.  A successful thesis statement is historically specific. It does not make a broad claim about "American society" or "humankind," but is grounded in a particular historical moment.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution had a negative impact on women because of the prevailing problem of sexism.

Sexism is a vague word that can mean different things in different times and places.  In order to answer the question and make a compelling argument, this thesis needs to explain exactly what attitudes toward women were in early America, and how those attitudes negatively affected women in the Revolutionary period.

Strong Thesis: The Revolution had a negative impact on women because of the belief that women lacked the rational faculties of men.  In a nation that was to be guided by reasonable republican citizens, women were imagined to have no place in politics and were thus firmly relegated to the home.

This thesis is stronger because it narrows in on one particular and historically specific attitude towards women:  the assumption that women had less ability to reason than men.  While such attitudes toward women have a long history, this thesis must locate it in a very specific historical moment, to show exactly how it worked in revolutionary America.

4.  A successful thesis statement is focused and precise. You need to be able to support it within the bounds of your paper.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution led to social, political, and economic change for women.

This thesis addresses too large of a topic for an undergraduate paper.  The terms "social," "political," and "economic" are too broad and vague for the writer to analyze them thoroughly in a limited number of pages.  The thesis might focus on one of those concepts, or it might narrow the emphasis to some specific features of social, political, and economic change.

Strong Thesis: The Revolution paved the way for important political changes for women.  As "Republican Mothers," women contributed to the polity by raising future citizens and nurturing virtuous husbands.  Consequently, women played a far more important role in the new nation's politics than they had under British rule.

This thesis is stronger because it is more narrow, and thus allows the writer to offer more in-depth analysis.  It states what kind of change women expected (political), how they experienced that change (through Republican Motherhood), and what the effects were (indirect access to the polity of the new nation).

5.  A successful thesis statement answers the question, "so what?" It explains to your reader why your argument is historically significant.  It is not a list of ideas you will cover in your paper;  it explains why your ideas matter.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution had a positive effect on women because it ushered in improvements in female education, legal standing, and economic opportunity.

This thesis is off to a strong start, but it needs to go one step further by telling the reader why changes in these three areas mattered.  How did the lives of women improve because of developments in education, law, and economics?  What were women able to do with these advantages?  Obviously the rest of the paper will answer these questions, but the thesis statement needs to give some indication of why these particular changes mattered.

Strong Thesis: The Revolution had a positive impact on women because it ushered in improvements in female education, legal standing, and economic opportunity.  Progress in these three areas gave women the tools they needed to carve out lives beyond the home, laying the foundation for the cohesive feminist movement that would emerge in the mid-nineteenth century.

This is a stronger thesis because it goes beyond offering a list of changes for women, suggesting why improvements in education, the law, and economics mattered.  It outlines the historical significance of these changes:  they helped women build a cohesive feminist movement in the nineteenth century.

Thesis Checklist

When revising your thesis, check it against the following guidelines:

1.  Does my thesis make an historical argument?

2.  Does my thesis take a position that requires defending?

3.  Is my thesis historically specific?

4.  Is my thesis focused and precise?

5.  Does my thesis answer the question, "so what?"

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