Writing History: Some Hints and Tips

Family history – own it

Are you writing about your family history? If so, then YOU own the story. In my experience, I’ve found this to be a stressless way of writing history. It’s always enjoyable to reminisce. When I write my family history posts the words nearly always flow very easily once I’ve settled on a topic and this is because it is my story to tell. When I write about other peoples’ stories, sometimes the words don’t form so easily and this is probably because I am quite particular about factual information and referencing my posts. It does slow me down – but this is not a bad thing. That said, I don’t reference to an academic standard on my blog unless I’ve shared an academic article. I list my sources (photo and written) and offer suggested reading lists if the post allows.

I use the same tricks as I would for any post. If I don’t already have an introduction in mind I will write a list of bullet points covering all the pertinent snippets of information that I want for the post, and then fill in the gaps. Each bullet point may form its own sentence or even paragraph.

Nanna leaving Liverpool
The Gray and Boyland Family (1975)

When writing about people you know – show that you know them, personalise it. Offer tales that your readers will empathise with, or snippets of humour that will make them smile, give dates and share photos, everybody loves a sepia-toned photo. Don’t forget to enjoy the labour, smile when you are writing and your passion for your subject will shine through into your work.

If writing about ancestors you’ve never met, find information in the official record to bring them to life. Hopefully something I managed to do with Patrick Gray: Using Newspapers for Genealogy. Is there a place for family lore? Yes, but if your tale is apocryphal then state it is so, it can still belong in your narrative but allow for possible conjecture and ongoing research.

If you have used primary sources, such as census or birth, marriage or death records (BMD) don’t forget to list them for your readers. Family historians do like to glean as many tips from others as they can. It can be a lonely and sometimes costly hobby, therefore finding out that you can pay an online subscription or read a pay-per-view document will be of benefit if it is cheaper than a trip to the National Archives or other repositories.

Informal writing – public history

When writing informally, such as for a magazine or a blog, the author can choose a relaxed style of writing. The author can also write in the first-person if they so wish. It’s a perfect choice for a blog as it helps the writer connect with the reader as they convey their experiences.

The words used should be easy to read by the general public – don’t use words like historiography, contextualising or zeitgeist – they’re hard to pronounce without tripping over your tongue, let alone reading when you’re not used to them. Use accessible language so your prose will flow. If you bore your readers with words that will have them reaching for a dictionary it’s unlikely they’ll continue to the end of your post.

My book shelf
Public history books

If you want to use slang you can do so if that’s your bag. I follow a blog called F Yeah History, it’s a bit sweary, irreverent, and is super cool and I’m middle-aged and could never pull off the younger vernacular that they use, but I like it because it’s different to mine.

Some rules to follow:

  • Keep it small. If you choose too broad a topic – for example, The British Royal Family, you will need to reduce your goal or you will be writing for several years. Even The British Royal Family: the Diana Years would still be a massive topic to cover. It would work better as Diana: her First Year as Princess of Wales. Still a meaty topic but it has narrowed your focus to make it easier for you to research, write and the reader to read.
  • Always check your facts – don’t think because you’ve read it online that it must be true!
  • Try and read well-sourced books with extensive bibliographies. A bibliography is a list of books showing which books/papers/journals that the author has read to ensure that their story is a truthful interpretation of the past.
  • If your source is History Today then you can probably feel comfortable that the author has verified some facts for you. If it’s National Enquirer then I would definitely be dubious about quoting from that source!
  • True story: I found a nineteenth century broadside (pamphlet) that I needed for my undergraduate dissertation on Murderpedia. As you can imagine, the source was not one that I was happy to raise my head up and shout loud and proud. However, I then found a similar broadside on harvard.edu, that made me and my dissertation tutor feel a lot happier about its inclusion in my paper, for the source of the document carried a lot of respect.
  • If you’re happy that your research is complete you’re good to write – but wait! You still need to reference your work, even if it’s not academic, maybe you would like to refer back to it at a later date, or offer your readers some further reading that you did not want to cover as it was outside of your remit. It doesn’t need to be page number exact, but referencing your work tells your audience that you are serious about what you do.
  • If using web-based sources copy the URL so that the reader can fact-check if necessary.
  • If using sources from an archive name the archive and the reference numbers for fact-checking.
  • Don’t forget: if you quote anyone you should reference them, it’s only fair. Informally, you can use quote marks and state HistorianRuby noted that ‘…..’ in her article Diana: Her Fashion Story – the Kensington Palace Exhibition. You can provide a link at the bottom of the page – or hyperlink it if you are doing it on a blog.
  • Finally: don’t plagiarise. That is don’t use someone else’s work without referencing them, by design or accident. It’s cheating, unethical and very much frowned upon.

Formal writing – academic history

Formal writing is different from informal writing in several ways. It can be slower to write as you need to be sure that you reference to a very high standard. ALL sources that you have read must be referenced in a bibliography following the style chosen by your university or publisher. A well-written essay plan helps to form your thoughts before writing the main paper and gives your work structure.

You will also need to annotate salient points by using end or footnotes to direct the reader to the source of the information. There is only one way that I found successful in my academic career, do it as you go along. It is time-consuming and panic-inducing when you have a perfect quote or have found the perfect argument for your paper, to have then lost the source of your work and you have to edit out what you perceive to be the ‘best bit’ of your paper.

library high angle photro
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Think of it as sitting-up-straight writing. No slouching, no taking shortcuts and it is like speaking to the Queen and not your mates down the pub!

Some rules to follow:

  • With formal writing your vocabulary can be more complex, BUT, only as long as you understand the words you are using. Otherwise, do not bother and keep it simple, or you may end up looking foolish.
  • Generally, you should write in the third-person.
  • Be bold! Display your confidence in your narrative and this will convey your experience.
  • I was commended for introducing one paper with a quote as it conveyed my confidence and skills in relaying the subject to others.
  • If you have a word count – stick to it! Do not go 500 words over to show off – it only confirms that you cannot adhere to prescribed guidelines.
  • Do not use contractions. Don’t. Do not. They should be reserved for your informal writing unless you are quoting from a source.
  • Define your parameters. This is very important. If your title is Diana: her First Year as Princess of Wales do not mention events in subsequent years as stepping outside of your prescribed boundary will reduce your focus AND if you are a student writing a paper to be assessed you run the risk of reducing your final mark.
  • Get your argument straight. Don’t state in your introduction that Diana was happy in her first year and then contradict yourself by saying there were lots of rows.
  • Contextualise your topic. If you are looking at an event in Thatcher’s Britain, then add some background, discuss the first female Prime Minister, riots, IRA bomb and striking miners juxtaposed with the landslide 1983 election victory. It does not have to be much but it shows that you are well-read on the subject and have researched widely. This is not the same as going off on a tangent and ignoring your defined parameters.
  • Have a beginning, a middle and an end. Introduction: state what your parameters are and what you will be exploring and do not forget to refer to your title. Middle paragraphs: expand on points raised in the introduction, add contrasting arguments. Link to the title to demonstrate that you are still on track. Conclusion: ensure your conclusion rounds up all your middle paragraphs and link them to the title. Do not add anything new to the conclusion.
  • Examine the historiography. Look at what historians have said over the lifetime of your topic. Have historians revised your subject? Raise current arguments and disagreements between historians or commentators. If you have supporting evidence from your research include it in your discourse.
  • Follow the referencing guidelines scrupulously. If your tutor or institution insist on the use of Harvard or Chicago style, use it! Learn it, quote verbatim, as you may lose marks if you do not follow instructions to the letter. I witnessed a fellow student fail one subject because she did not reference correctly.
  • If you are told to use endnotes use endnotes. If you are told to use footnotes use footnotes. I preferred endnotes, but that is because that was what was expected from my institution. When I was given a choice I stuck with what I knew.
  • When looking at sources ensure that they are authentic and the veracity of the documents is not in doubt.
  • Researching primary sources from archives adds gravitas as it demonstrates your desire to source your own work and not just rely on secondary sources, plus they add an authenticity to your paper.
  • Remember biographies and autobiographies can espouse bias. You can still use them but note that this person stood on the said side of the fence and their stance differs from the other side. Note if your source is hagiographical or serves any political or propagandised purpose.
  • Do not plagiarise. Use your evidence to support your arguments, do not use someone else’s argument and fail to reference it.


Images author’s own unless stated

14 thoughts on “Writing History: Some Hints and Tips

  1. Many, many pieces of sage advice here!
    I know I should cite sources as I write my book draft, but knowing I will be cutting so much and revising makes me cringe at the thought of doing so. I do keep all my source material and try to keep it organized enough to find when I need to create the citations later (I sure hope so!)

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It was a valid broadside but the source doesn’t carry the gravitas as Harvard.edu – and of course on a dissertation bibliography source is all important.
        Psst! I really am unnaturally interested in true crime!

        Liked by 1 person

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