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31 Days of Teaching History: Writing Research Papers

Day 29: Writing Research Papers

Any good book on writing will contain the suggested basic steps for writing research papers. What follows are my variation on these steps–a process that has worked for the students in my research paper class, as well.

  1. Choose a topic. This should be a topic you are very interested in, and one that might provide ample material for an argument. Do not choose a topic as broad as WWII, or a topic so narrow that finding resources will be difficult.
  2. Read a great deal about your topic. As you read, think about what you might like to argue in your paper. Remember that some things are simply facts (dates, etc.) that will not be arguable. “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” may not be a persuasive paper. You could summarize the facts of his life, but you would be simply informing your audience instead of arguing a point. You could instead argue about whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a good president and present your reasons for why (or why not). As you read, consider whether your idea is reasonable, in light of what you are reading. “Abraham Lincoln was really an alien” is obviously something that will not be supported by any research you may do.
  3. Create a thesis statement. This is a one-sentence statement of your argument. It should be clearly and assertively stated. “Abraham Lincoln was an excellent president.” That is a clear statement. “In my opinion, Abraham Lincoln was an excellent president,” or “I think that Abraham…” are not assertive statements. State your thesis boldly and then present your reasons.
  4. Draw up a preliminary outline. Write your thesis statement at the top and then list the major points you can think of that support your thesis.
  5. Think of counterpoints. Carefully think of anything someone else could argue against your thesis. You will need to mention these potential objections and then explain why they are either untrue or unimportant in your paper.
  6. Do some hard-core research now. Your goal is now to find sources that support your major points as well as some that have to do with your counterpoints. For every point that you have, find a few instances where another author agrees with you or where a primary source backs up your claim. Carefully write down the citation information for these sources and keep track of the page numbers and quotes you find. You might want to keep a Word document for this purpose. Do NOT find some research and forget to write it down or forget to cite it or you will deeply regret it later.
  7. Write a more thorough outline. This outline should have several levels. You should even write down the sources you plan to mention under each point. By the time this outline is written, all of the hard work has been done!
  8. Format your paper. Go ahead and set up your MLA or Turabian format (margins, font, spacing, etc.) before you begin any writing. It is much easier to set it up ahead of time than to reformat it later.
  9. Write a rough draft based on your outline. You’ve practically written the paper already–you just need to state everything nicely and properly quote and cite all of your sources in your text.
  10. Revise, revise, revise. Rearrange things if necessary, fix spelling and grammar errors, read your paper aloud so that you notice any awkward phrasing, and ask other people to read over your paper.

Some people suggest that you think of a topic, then read a bunch for your research and write down all the random and interesting things that might pertain to your paper. They suggest you put each of these on notecards or a Word document and then rearrange them into a paper afterwards. I certainly do agree that you need to do a variety of reading in the beginning to become knowledgeable about your topic; however, I think you should wait to write down your research until after you have a preliminary outline. You need to have a focus for your research, and you need to specifically look for things that will relate to your points. If you do not have this focus as you research, organizing your paper will be a nightmare, you will have to cut many of the things you found (what a waste!), and some of the bits you are determined to mention in your paper might be a little unrelated to your overall goals. Organizing a bunch of unfocused research can be a recipe for stress and confusion. Instead, do two periods of research–one in which you learn about your topic and shape your ideas and another in which you comb your resources for quotes and statements that support your points.


31 Days of Teaching Homeschool History: Writing Research Papers

31 Days of Teaching History: Writing Opinion Papers

Day 27: Writing Opinion Papers

By the end of high school, your student should be able to write a lengthy persuasive research paper on some topic in history. If this is our goal, let us take a moment to plan backwards from this goal. Students are all-too-often prone to panic at the phrase “research paper.” The fact is, a research paper simply contains many aspects of writing that can all be practiced separately. I suggest you work on practicing each part separately so that the whole becomes less scary.

First, of course, the student needs to have a firm grasp of spelling and grammar. You have surely already covered this in language arts.

The student needs to have a lot of practice in organizing his thoughts and writing outlines. We talked about this already.

The student also needs practice in engaging with a text and analyzing someone else’s arguments. We’ve talked about discussing books as one way to analyze someone else’s argument. We’ve also talked about this with primary source analysis assignments.

The student needs practice developing his own arguments, organizing them, and writing them. This is what we’ll cover today.

Finally, the student needs practice in research, as well as practice in the finer points of formatting papers and citing sources. We’ll talk about this in the next post.

All of these parts can very naturally come together in the end to make the process of writing a research paper much smoother.


Your student should get plenty of writing and argumentation practice by writing opinionated essays. At this point, he doesn’t have to worry about backing up his opinion with research. Simply have him write his opinion on a historic topic he is reading about. Pay attention during your book discussions. If any topic particularly seems to excite your student, or make him mad, or fill him with admiration, it might be an ideal topic for which he can write an argumentative essay. He can argue that a certain leader was good or bad, that a certain war was necessary or unnecessary, that something caused something else, or any number of other potential opinions.

Make sure you cover the difference between opinion and fact. That a leader grew up in a certain place, knew certain people, had certain jobs in his early life–these things are facts. Unless we have conflicting information about such facts and they are in dispute among historians, mere facts do not work for this kind of essay. You do not want to write a mere biography of this leader. That a leader was a good leader, or that he made mistakes, or that he was evil–these are all pure opinion.

An opinion paper will start with a thesis like “X leader was ill-intentioned from the beginning of his reign.” Then it will list several reasons why the audience should agree.

Whole books could be written on the whys and hows of argumentative essays. My point today is that you should have your student write plenty of them. For more about how to write them, I will direct you to two really wonderful books that are packed with practical instruction. The one I most highly recommend is The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay by Scott Crider. It is worth every penny and more. It is also quite readable and interesting! Another book I recommend is The Lively Art of Writing by Lucille Vaughan Payne. She offers plenty of practical advice on working out a thesis and many other topics.


31 Days of Teaching Homeschool History: Writing Opinion Papers

31 Days of Teaching History: Learning How to Research

Day 28: Learning How to Research

We’ve been talking lately about how our goal is for our students to be able to write a well-researched, solidly-argued persuasive paper. The ideal paper will have a strong organization and argument, and it will also be backed up with solid research. In the last post, I suggested that you spend a great deal of time teaching your student to write argumentative essays. I suggested that you focus on organization, logic, and rhetorical devices without worrying about research yet.

In today’s post, I suggest that you now focus on the research side of things, without worrying about doing much writing.

By now, your student is probably already familiar with using your local public library. It may still be worth spending a day at the library learning the ins and outs of the catalog system, learning to put books on hold, learning to find old newspaper articles using microfilm or microfiche (if you library has them), etc.

See if your nearest college will allow your student to get a library card. Even if not, spend some time learning about the differences between the Dewey Decimal system and the Library of Congress system. Explore the many resources in the college library, especially any reference sections, special collections, government document collections, and scholarly journal collections.

Spend some time familiarizing your student with scholarly journals–how they are published and why they are well-regarded sources.

Learn how to use advanced features on search engines and how to use boolean search terms.

Your local library or college library may even offer introductory classes or tutorials on most of these things.

Purchase the latest MLA or Turabian style manual and learn how to cite books, journal articles, magazine articles, newspaper articles, online articles, and many other sources. Have your student practice finding sources and putting together a bibliography page for them. Practicing citation and bibliographies well before writing a full research paper will make the research paper much, much less scary for your student. I suggest you have your student do at least 5-10 practice bibliographies before even beginning a research paper. You might have the student find the sources, or you might wish to provide a list of sources or a stack of books for him to cite.

The MLA and Turabian manuals both contain lots and lots of helpful tips for researching and finding quality sources.

After your student is familiar with writing regular bibliographies, have him write an annotated bibliography–a bibliography with a short paragraph analysis for each source. Writing such analyses will be simple for the student who has already done many primary source analysis essays. For information on what these are and how to write them, check out these three pages for Purdue’s Online Writing Lab:


31 Days of Teaching Homeschool History: Learning How to Research

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