Posts Tagged ‘essay’

Proofreading 2: check those references!

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Last time out, I began to run you through my usual proofreading process. Step one was to give your work a quick read through, keeping an eye out for things like non-sequiturs, the flow of your essay, and misplaced or awkward sentences. The goal was not to fix or even identify all of the mistakes, typos, and omissions that have crept into your work, but rather to focus on how the essay reads as a work of historical prose.

Hopefully you have by now read through your essay, fixed any problems that were identified, and now are ready to move on to step two: checking your references.

Please note that at the proofreading stage you should be checking your references, not adding them! If you are still adding references to your essay it is far from complete and you are still writing it, not proofreading it. This stage of the process may identify places where you need to insert additional footnote, but the bulk of your referencing should be done as you write.

Again, this is a process that I use. Feel free to change it around and adapt it to the way that you yourself work.

When checking references, the first thing I do is to carefully work through all of my footnotes, checking that they are correct in form. Historical writing, like all academic disciplines, has particular standards and conventions that must be observed. The style most commonly used in historical writing is the Chicago style. Several variations of the Chicago style have been developed, but in essence they are the same. The examples below follow the Chicago style convention. You should check with your prof to be sure that this is the appropriate style for your essay. If it is not, ask him or her which style convention to follow, and whether you can have some examples of footnotes and bibliography entries to guide you.

Footnotes
The basic form for a footnote reference in the Chicago system is:
Author(s) name, title of the work, place of publication, publisher name [optional: check with your prof], date of publication, page number(s)

For example:
Chris Given-Wilson, Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413 (London, 1986), pp. 229, 312

Note that the title has been italicized. It is also acceptable to underline titles rather than italicize, but I strongly suggest that you get into the habit of using italics. Why? As footnotes increasingly make use of online sources there is increasing potential for confusion between book titles and URLs.

In footnotes, the author’s name (or authors’ names) follow the form First Name Last Name. Note that bibliography entries follow Last Name, First Name.

You will note also that my footnote above does not include the name of the publisher. This is an example of variation within the Chicago style. I normally do not include the publisher’s name, but would of course add it should a journal or book publisher require it. Similarly, you should add it if your prof requires it.

It is also acceptable to abbreviate second and subsequent footnotes that refer to the same source. These abbreviated footnotes follow the following form:

Author(s) Name(s), Title (an abbreviated version is acceptable here), Page Number(s).

For example if I were to make additional references to the above book, it would look something like this:

Given-Wilson, Royal Household, pp. 17-21.

Immediately following references to the same source can be shortened by using ibid. For example, if the second note above appeared in the footnote immediately following the first one, it would be acceptable to further abbreviate it thus:
Ibid., pp. 17-21.

However, I suggest that you avoid the use of Ibid altogether, and use abbreviated references instead. If you use Ibid for a number of footnotes, then make changes to your essay that adds or moves footnotes, you will then have to go through and change your footnotes from Ibid references to abbreviated references anyway. Save yourself the hassle, and get into the habit of just using abbreviated footnotes. It will save you much time, energy, and frustration.

At this stage, you should work through your essay, carefully reading your references, and ensuring that they are all correct in form. It may sound like a little thing, but shoddily done footnotes can at best loose you marks, and at worst open you to accusations of plagiarism.

  • Do all of your footnotes contain the required information?
  • Are your abbreviated references only in second or subsequent references to a particular source?
  • Are your authors’ names, titles, etc., spelled correctly?
  • Are any footnotes missing page numbers?
  • Have you been consistent? In other words, have you consistently abbreviated or not abbreviated subsequent references? Have you consistently included or consistently omitted the publisher’s name?

Having gone through these steps, you should be confident that your footnotes are at least correct in their form. The next step is to check your bibliography.

Bibliography

The bibliography is a list of *all* sources used in the writing of your essay. All sources that appear in your footnotes must also appear in your bibliography. Any sources that you read or consulted while working on your essay should also be included even if they did not make it into your footnotes. The bibliography is structured alphabetically, sorted by authors’ last names. The individual entries take the following form:

Last Name, First Name. Title. Location, Publisher [as with footnotes - optional]. Date.

If you have multiple entries for individual authors listed together, you can abbreviate your entries. For example these are the first eight entries in my PhD thesis bibliography. As it stretched over approximately 20 pages, I won’t include the whole thing here, but if you are interested, or want to see examples of how to list articles, theses, manuscripts, etc., I have uploaded a copy of it here.

ALLMAND, C.T.
Henry V. London, 1997.
The Hundred Years War: England and France at War, c. 1300-c.1450. Cambridge, 1988.
ARCHER, ROWENA.
Crown, Government and People in the Fifteenth Century. Stroud, 1995.
ARMITAGE-SMITH, S.
John of Gaunt. Westminster, 1904.
ARVANIGIAN, MARK.
— ‘Henry IV, the Northern Nobility and the Consolidation of the regime’. in Gwilym Dodd and Douglas Biggs (eds.) Henry IV: The Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406. Woodbridge, 2003. pp. 117-137.
ASTON, MARGARET.
— ‘The Impeachment of Bishop Despenser’, BIHR, xxxviii (1965), pp. 127-148.
AUTRAND, FRANÇOISE.
Charles VI, la folie du roi. Paris, 1995.
— (ed.) Saint-Denis et la Royauté. Paris, 2000.

As with footnotes, make sure that your bibliography entries are complete and accurate. Don’t mis-spell names or titles, don’t forget the publication date, and be consistent!

Proofreading 1: non-sequiturs and flow

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

A recurring theme on this blog and in any conversation I have ever had with students about their essays is proofreading. Proofreading is a very important step in the writing process, and one that is too often neglected by students. This will be the first in an ongoing series of posts about proofreading and editing your written work.

What is proofreading? Proofreading is simply a process in which one searches for, identifies, and corrects errors in written work. Taking the time to carefully go over your work before submitting it to your prof can make the difference between a pass and a fail, a C and a B, or an A and an A+.

That sounds simple enough, but how does one actually go about proofreading an essay?

Methodically and very, very carefully.

If you ask ten writers how they proofread their work, you will likely get ten answers. Remember as always that the secret is to develop a system that works well for you. What follows here is an example of a proofreading process that I have made use of in the past.

The first step is to read through your essay from beginning to end. The goal here is not to find and correct mistakes so much as it is to see how the essay reads. Is it well organized? Does one sentence flow naturally into the next? Does one paragraph follow on naturally from the previous one? If anything is amiss, if a sentence seems out of place, if a paragraph seems to come out of nowhere, or if any part of your essay seems awkward and poorly written, mark it, and move on.

Some things to watch out for:

  • non-sequitur: [Latin: "it does not follow"] a non-sequitur can be many things, but in historical writing non-sequiturs normally takes the form of a logical mis-step. If A=B and B=C, you cannot then assume that A=D. For example saying that all Benedictine monks are human, and all Swedes are human, therefore all Swedes are Benedictine monks is a non-sequitur.
  • statements that simply do not follow on from what has been written before: For example: ‘Arsenal Football Club, formed in 1886 as “Royal Arsenal” enjoyed its first period of great success under manager Herbert Chapman in the 1930s. His tactical innovations, changes to the club kit, and alterations to the stadium took the club from mid-table obscurity to the top of English football. Alan Smith scored the winning goal for Arsenal in the 1994 Cup Winners Cup final in Copenhagen.’ The last sentence is true, it is vaguely related to the preceding two sentences as it is part of Arsenal’s history, but it simply does not flow smoothly. This is not a logical error, but a stylistic one.
  • lack of flow: this is related to the previous example, but may not be quite as jarring. When you read through your essay, ask yourself whether the text flows naturally from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.

Once you have read through your essay, it is time to start making repairs to the essay’s organization and structure. There are no shortcuts here. The only way to fix an essay with poor structure and organization is to methodically work through it and FIX the problems.

First, non-sequiturs must be eliminated! If your argument is based on a logical fallacy then no cosmetic repair will be able to gloss it over. If you discover a non-sequitur, you really have no alternative but to revisit your research, reconsider your conclusions, and give serious thought to how you can repair your argument. This is not a happy discovery to make, but it is much better that you find it in a draft essay rather than your prof finding it in your submitted work. If you are facing a short deadline, try talking to your prof to see if an extension is possible. Extensions are often given at the discretion of the prof (depending on the policy of your school/department), and if you take the time to carefully explain that you discovered a problem when proofreading your final draft, and that you would like some extra time to work it out, your prof may be receptive to an extension. It is one thing not to submit on time because you left everything to the last minute, quite another to discover an error in an otherwise completed work before the due date. Remember though that you are NOT owed an extension on your essay. Your prof is completely within his/her rights to deny your request.

Second, if you found any sentences that stick out like the Alan Smith example above, you can alter the structure of your paragraph to make them fit, you can change the sentences themselves, or you can delete them. This will depend on why the sentence is there in the first place. If in this example, I wanted to write about 1930s Arsenal, I would delete the sentence entirely. If I wanted to write about famous Arsenal goals, then I would have to introduce the subject, and no doubt introduce many earlier examples, before moving on to the 1994 CWC final. In this case it would be very difficult to make the sentence fit by changing it and not making extensive changes to the essay itself. However there are many instances in which a simple change to one sentence can greatly improve an essay.

Having eliminated non-sequiturs and removed or repaired sentences that do not fit, it is now time to make sure that your paragraphs flow naturally and that your essay reads as a coherent whole rather than a series of unconnected statements. The previous sentence is an example of one technique to improve flow. It is a connecting sentence that links this paragraph to ones that preceded it. Using sentences such as this is a simple but effective way to improve the flow of an essay. Paragraphs are used to group together similar ideas, concepts, or arguments within an essay, but that does not mean that you should ever forget that the individual paragraphs must come together to form a single coherent essay. If you find that a paragraph seems out of place, think about how you can make it fit. You can add an introductory sentence, rewrite the paragraph itself, or possibly move the paragraph to a different part of your essay where it fits more naturally.

Remember at this early stage of proofreading that you are focusing on structural and organizational problems. If at this stage a typo or mistake catches your eye, you can mark it quickly, but keep reading. If you recognize that a footnote is missing or incorrect, mark that too and move on. You will come back to these things later. The reason for this is simple: in the process of making changes to your essay’s structure and organization, there is a good chance that new typos and mistakes will be introduced. Don’t worry about that; it happens to all writers. For the time being, when you find a typo or other mistake, just mark it and move along, secure in the knowledge that you will fix it later. Also, a very thorough review of your references (footnotes, endnotes, etc) will be done before you submit your essay, so mark any such errors too, and remained focused on your structure and organization.

One last tip for this section that applies to all others as well: don’t be afraid to have someone else read your work. This can be a friend, classmate, parent, or historyhelp.ca. The reason for this is that once a person has written, re-written, edited, proofread, re-written, etc., an essay multiple times, his or her capacity for critical review is severely diminished. Put simply, we all lose the ability to spot errors in our own work after we have worked on it too many times. I guarantee that even if you think an essay is perfect, a critical reader with a good eye for detail will find errors that you have missed.

History and the movies

Monday, October 19th, 2009

A recent post on wondersandmarvels.com has reminded me about a topic I have been meaning to address for quite a while: history and the movies.

What role do movies play in the formation of our understanding of the past? Can movies be useful learning tools?

My personal belief is that the only way to approach historical film is as entertainment. When they are well done, they can certainly help give an impressionistic overview of a time and place, but to rely too heavily on them for ‘fact’ is an extremely bad idea.

My favourite example of this is Braveheart. It is a good movie, great entertainment, but absolutely horrible ‘history’.

It begins with a title reading: “1280 A.D.” and the narrator’s voice: “The king of Scotland has died without a son and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward longshanks claimed the throne of Scotland for himself.”

  • The scenery resembles the western highlands of Scotland – an area that had really nothing to do with Wallace nor with the uprisings against English rule
    • This is like starting a film about a Manitoba wheat field with a panoramic shot of the Newfoundland coast
  • In 1280 not only was the Scottish king (Alexander III) very much alive, so were his sons and daughter
  • King Edward I of England never claimed the throne for himself and while he was many things, he most certainly was NOT a pagan
  • In the 13th century no Scots wore the kilts that everyone seems to favour in the film
  • The Scottish nobility was culturally very much like their English counterparts
    • they had common backgrounds
    • they were drawn largely from the same families
    • they spoke the same languages, read the same kinds of literature, and often held lands on both sides of the border
  • At no time did Edward invite the nobles to talks “no weapons, one page only” where he summarily executed the lot of them
  • And even if he had, he certainly would not have invited them to a place that looks suspiciously like Glen Nevis in the north-west highlands
    • Again, Manitoba/Newfoundland
  • Wallace’s father was no mere peasant farmer – he was a knight who held lands
    • Incidentally, his  father was killed in 1291 by which time William Wallace would have been around 20 years old
    • yet again, the setting for the Wallace farm itself is also completely wrong – gently rolling lowland country vs. Glen Nevis
  • The children of knights did not dress in rags
  • Even poor people knew how to look after their clothes – they had to after all as they couldn’t afford to let them disintegrate into rags through neglect
  • there is no evidence to sugget that 13th century men favoured mullets
    • but they did use combs!

These are some of the errors that appear in the first three minutes of the film! Sadly, it goes steadily downhill from there.

Here is a small sample of some of the historical lowlights of this film:

  • Marriage of Edward II and Isabella – much too early
    • in 1303 England and France secured a non-aggression pact. Part of this agreement was that Prince Edward and Princess Isabella would wed. The wedding took place in 1308.  Edward was born in 1284, Isabella ca. 1295. You can do the math re their portrayal in the film
  • Edward I: “Scotland – my land” – never really saw it as such
    • he wanted to control scotland, not become its king
  • “Prima Nocta”: thankfully this is a complete myth
  • Isabella and her lady in waiting spoke in French, apparently to keep secrets from the English
    • This is ridiculous as Anglo-Norman French was the first language of the English nobility.
  • The mad Irish guy didn’t exist
  • The battle of Sitling Bridge is all wrong
    • the topography is wrong wrong
    • the battle itself didn’t happen like that: where is the bridge??
  • Woad, the blue stuff on their faces, had probably not been used since 6th century
  • “Beg forgiveness for 100 years of theft, rape and murder”
    • I hate to break it to the nationalists on both sides of the border, but prior to the “Great Cause”, Anglo-Scottish relations were really very good.
    • they were close political and economic partners, and their rulers were often the closest of friends
  • English archers going into battle with 3-4 arrows each
    • archers were capable of having more than this number of arrows in the air at one time
    • sending archers into battle with such a small number of arrows would have been a complete waste as entire units of archers would have  been rendered useless in seconds
  • York: Wallace did not sack York. Ever. He probably would have liked to, but he didn’t.
  • Edward I didn’t throw Gaveston or Despenser from window – who is this “Phillip” guy anyway?
  • Isabella as diplomat and all that followed – this simply did not happen
    • see comment re. age above, not to mention the fact that sending her to meet his greatest enemy would have been a colossally stupid thing for Edward I to do. He was not a stupid man!
  • Wallace did not go on rampage assassinating members of scotting nobility. Again, at times he may well have wanted to, but he didn’t.
  • Bannockburn – as with Stirling Bridge, the setting is all wrong

In short, the physical setting is wrong, the political situation in the film is laughable, the personal relationships in the film are equally ridiculous. Characters are invented (mad Irish guy, ‘Phillip”), while others (where is Andrew Moray?) are omitted. Battles are wrong, clothing is wrong, knowledge of Anglo-Scottish culture is almost completely absent.

So should students of history watch Braveheart? Of course. What they should never, ever, do is assume that what appears on screen bears any resemblance to historical reality.

This is a pretty extreme example, and I use it partly for that reason and partly because it falls into an historical time and place with which I am well acquainted. Not all historical films are this wildly inaccurate. But the same advice applies: caveat spector. Watcher beware.

Before you start to write an essay

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Effective historical writing involves much more than simply sitting at a computer and typing. To write an excellent essay requires focus, planning, detailed research, critical thinking, writing, editing, and re-writing.  Here are some tips to get you started on the right track:

  • Start your research early. This is not a process that can be rushed, so the first thing you should do is give yourself plenty of time. Leaving an essay to the last minute will result in a poorly  researched and poorly written essay that will receive a poor grade. Yes, it is possible to write an excellent essay at the last minute, but it is not likely. A well-considered, well-written, and thoroughly edited and proof-read essay will always be better than a rushed job. Don’t force yourself into a corner: get started on it as soon as possible.
  • Choose your topic well. Always choose a topic that is interesting to you. If essay topics have been assigned but you have a particular interest in another topic, talk to your instructor. It may be  possible to write on a topic other than those assigned. This however is not always the case and you should not simply assume that choosing your own topic is acceptable. I know profs who will give a mark of 0 on an essay written on a non-approved topic. Don’t take that risk: ask!
    • It may be advantageous to narrow or broaden the scope of your essay. Again, check with your instructor as to whether this is acceptable, and don’t assume that you can narrow the topic as you wish without permission.
  • Be aware of your own biases. It is important to realize that everyone is biased. We are all the products of different cultural, social, political, family, educational, religious, etc backgrounds, and therefore will approach any topic with our own particular biases. Being aware of your own biases will make it much easier for you to write a balanced essay.
    • an example: a former student who was a devout Evangelical Christian wrote an essay about the mediaeval Church. This was in a period before Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and the Protestant Reformation. A period during which the established “Church” in Europe was by default the Roman Catholic Church. His first essay draft was completely overshadowed by his own personal faith, leading him to repeatedly state that the Roman Catholic Church did not exist. This completely ignored the historical reality of the time and place that was the subject of his essay. As such, it was anachronistic and not a valid historical enquiry. There was no attempt to understand past human society, which is the reason for ‘doing’ history in the first place. Two drafts later, he had tempered his polemic style and had made a genuine attempt to understand medieval religion without imposing his own views. He got an A.
  • Think! Always remember that the purpose of an historical essay is to put forward your interpretations and conclusions regarding your topic, and to back up these interpretations and conclusions with historical facts and evidence. Don’t simply parrot what has been written by others. Read what has been written by others, think about it, consider the evidence, then come up with your own informed opinion.
  • Context: Remember to consider historical context and consider past events on their own terms. A principal task of the historian is to understand the historical context of the topic being studied.
    • For example, any attempt to understand the origins of the Crusading movement without also understanding contemporary religious, political, social and economic factors would be doomed to failure.  Just as important is the necessity not to impose our own contemporary views and societal concepts on the past. To simply condemn the crusades on the grounds that they ignored the individual and collective rights of Muslims in the Holy Land to freedom of religion and self-determination would be anachronistic as such concepts simply did not exist at the time.

Do you trust your spell-checker?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Something that I have always tried to instill in my students is a healthy skepticism of the abilities of the spell-checker. Having a button that will catch most spelling mistakes in a document is a wonderful thing. It saves time and improves accuracy, both of which are good. But it is far from infallible, and far from perfect.

For example, it will not differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ or from ‘they’re’. It will not be able to tell a ‘councillor’ from a ‘counsellor’. It will not be able to tell you that Jack Kerouac was ‘on the road’, not ‘on the rode’. Similarly, it will not tell you that you wrote ‘dog’ when you meant to write ‘god’, which can make for interesting theological discussions. There are many, many examples of such words that sound alike but have completely different meanings, or which are one misplaced keystroke away. If you are lazy with your proof-reading, it is very easy for these errors to slip through into your written work. Even the New York Times is not immune from making such errors.

So how can you avoid these mistakes?

  • Most importantly: proof-read your work carefully. By this I do not mean simply skimming over an essay before it is submitted. I mean taking whatever time is necessary to carefully and methodically read through your essay:
    • Go word by word. When we read, our eyes naturally skim, taking in several words at once. Try to avoid this when proof-reading, focusing instead on each and every word.
    • Many people find it helpful to use some kind of marker (finger, pen, whatever – it doesn’t matter) that moves along under the words as you read. This will help prevent your eyes from jumping ahead
    • Remember that you are focusing on accuracy here, not speed – do not try to proof-read in record time!
  • When proof-reading make sure that you are armed with the necessary tools and information:
    • As suggested here, you should always have at least a couple of good reference works handy when writing such as a good dictionary and a guide to English usage.
    • That way, if you are unsure whether you mean to write ‘eminent’ or ‘imminent’, you can quickly find out
  • If your word processor has a grammar-check feature, use it.
    • Grammar-checks will catch some, but nowhere near all such errors.
    • Grammar-checks can also be deeply annoying, finding errors where there are none, so use it as a tool, but do not let it re-write your essay
    • Incidentally I lost a little faith in grammar checkers when one told me that a chapter from my PhD thesis was written at a grade 7 level. That was not encouraging.
  • Have someone else proof-read your work
    • There is often no substitute for fresh eyes
    • If you have written, edited, re-written, proof-read, re-edited, etc., your essay, you will miss mistakes. Having someone look at your work with fresh eyes will usually catch mistakes that you have seen and ignored multiple times. Don’t feel bad about this – it happens all the time and is one of the reasons why authors work with editors
    • If you do not want a friend or family member to see your writing, historyhelp.ca offers a proofreading service.

To sum up:

  • Be aware that all writers make mistakes – to borrow a line from the Blues Brothers, this includes me, you, them, everybody.
  • Before submitting an essay, take the time needed to carefully proof-read it
  • Arm yourself with the tools necessary to answer questions about spelling, meaning, and usage of words
  • Give your grammar-checker a shot. It may help, it may not
  • Have someone proof-read your work for you. If you want a professional opinion, historyhelp.ca can help.

Quotations in historical writing

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Note: “Quote” is a verb. “Quotation” is a noun. Therefore, while you may quote someone in an essay, the actual passage of text that you insert is a quotation. It is therefore incorrect to speak of “quotes” in essays.

For some reason many students assume that writing a history essay involves nothing more than stringing together a bunch of quotations. This is nonsense and it makes for very bad essays. Remember that what your prof wants to know is what you think about your subject, not what other historians have already written about it.

“But”, you may ask, “don’t I base my conclusions on the works of others?” Yes, you do. But this involves much, much more than cutting and pasting a series of quotations. What you have to do when researching and writing history is read, understand, and analyze what others have written, then come to your own evidence-based conclusions which are presented in your essay. When you reduce your essay to nothing more than a series of quotations, you fail to demonstrate the second, third, fourth, and fifth of these parts of this process. In short, you are telling the person reading (and probably marking) your essay that you have done nothing more than find a source that you have copied from without taking the time and effort to fully understand and analyze it, let along coming to your own conclusions. This will lower your mark!

What did I mean when I said that what you think is what matters, not what others think? Let’s say for example that you are writing an essay about the WWII battle of Kursk, and you have found a book about the article. The temptation is to simply take a number of quotations from the book, and then arrange them into an essay with a handful of words of your own thrown in. If you do this, even if you give full credit to the book that your quotations are taken from, then you are not submitting an essay that is the result of your own historical research. You are simply demonstrating your ability to copy and type.

What you should do is find several different primary and secondary sources, read them, understand them, think about their arguments, consider which ones you agree with, which ones you do not agree with, and why you agree or disagree, then present your analysis backed up with references to your sources.

Let’s take this example a step further. Let’s say for the sake of argument, that your one sources argues strongly that the only reason the Soviets won the battle of Kursk was the tactical superiority of their officer corps. Your essay will therefore do nothing more than parrot this one interpretation. When you read more widely you will find that there are many other possible explanations. Different historians have argued that factors as diverse as terrain, timing, strategy, quality of armour, quantity of armour, weather, and luck all combined to influence the outcome. By reading these other historians, as well as contemporary first-hand accounts, you will be able to come up with your own analysis, and this analysis will be much better informed, much more complete and much more suble and nuanced than simply saying that it was down to officers.

Now, having done all of this reading and analysis, you may still come to the conclusion that the Soviet officer corps was the decisive factor, but having considered these other explanations, you will be able to say why it was the defining factor.

This is how historical research moves forward. As people reinterpret the historical evidence, reconsider what has been written before, and then come up with their own original analysis, we gain new and deeper understanding of the past.

You should therefore try to limit your use of direct quotations, particularly quotations of secondary sources. Your essay will flow much more smoothly if you paraphrase what your sources have written and put it in your own words. Quotations of secondary sources should be limited to instances when you want to emphasise an author’s particular use of words.

You may want to make more extensive use of quotations from primary sources, but be sparing in this case as well. As a rule of thumb: only quote when you plan to analyze or interpret the quoted passage. Otherwise, you should paraphrase.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. For example, if you find a passage that has a wonderful turn of phrase, a passage that comments on or sums up something so beautifully that it deserves to be repeated verbatim, then feel free to include it as a quotation. How rare is this? My Ph.D. thesis was 118,000 words long, and I included two such quotations. This is one of them:

“No Crecy or Poitiers shed their lustre on the later period; no captive kings paraded through London, and the Tower was very nearly empty of French aristocrats for the entire twenty years.” [J.J.N. Palmer, England, France and Christendom, 1377-99. London, 1972, p. 2.]

The reason I decided to include this quotation was that Professor Palmer managed to beautifully, eloquently, and concisely sum up the worsening military situation and the resulting frustration and darkening mood that prevailed in Westminster during the late 1370s. I could have paraphrased this passage, but I doubted my ability to equal the eloquence of Professor Palmer’s language, and so I quoted the passage.

Another exception occurs when you want to include evidence to support your argument. For example, if you were writing an essay about the US Civil Rights movement, and you said that Paul Robeson was an eloquent, influential, and passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, you may then want to include a quotation or two illustrating your point. Remember though that the quotation is there to support your essay, not the other way around. Do not structure your essay in a particular way simply to allow for the inclusion of quotations.

What then should you do when it is necessary to include a quotation?

Shorter quotations must be put into quotation marks and be given their own direct reference. This will be in the form of a footnote. It is essential that EVERY quotation have its own footnote reference.

Longer quotations, of five or more lines, should be set apart from the main body of your essay, indented on both sides and single-spaced. In this format, quotation marks are not needed, but a footnote is.

If you need to omit words from a quotation, either to shorten it or to make it fit into the grammar of your own sentence, indicate the omission by using three periods (aka an ellipsis). For gaps at the end of a sentence, use four periods.

If you insert a word into a quotation, either to add clarity or again to fit it into your own grammar, put the inserted words into square brackets.

“Doing this will clearly indicate… which parts [of the quotation] have been added and where any words have been removed.”

In this example, one or more words have been omitted between ‘indicate’ and ‘which’, while the words ‘of the quotation’ have been added to the sentence.

Be careful when adding or subtracting words from quotations. It is easy to alter the meaning of a passage beyond recognition if you make too many changes. Film ads have occasionally been expert at using these techniques to turn a poor review into a glowing one. For example “This was not the best film I have ever seen” can easily become “This [is]… the best film I have ever seen”. There is, I would argue, an ethical and moral as well as historiographical duty on the part of an historian to never change the meaning of quotations in this way. Moreover, if your prof catches you doing this, your marks will suffer severely – as they should! Altering the meaning of a quotation in this way is simply wrong. Don’t do it!

Also, double and triple check the accuracy of your quotations. Missing out a word or words can render a quotation meaningless. It can also completely change its meaning which, as noted above, you must never do.

Finally, if you are struggling to meet a mandatory word count, don’t give in to the temptation to pad your essay by throwing in a bunch of quotations. Odds are your prof will see right through this, and your mark will suffer.

To sum up:

  • Do not rely on quotations to form the bulk of an essay or to pad out an essay to meet a word count.
  • Use quotations sparingly
  • When you do use them, do not change their meaning
  • Be extra certain that your quotations are accurate.

Keeping things honest pt.2: note-taking how-to

Friday, April 10th, 2009

Last time I wrote about note taking: what to do, what to avoid, some pitfalls to avoid, and suggested some tools that can help. Today I want to get a little more into the nuts and bolts of note-taking. It is easy for me to advise you to take good, accurate and reliable notes, but how should you actually do that?

Something I mentioned several times was paraphrasing. Simply put, paraphrasing is putting another person’s words into your own words. This is not quite the same thing as summarizing. Paraphrase tends to use a similar number of words to convey the same message as the original text, just with different words. Summarizing, as well as re-wording the statement, also condenses it.

This example should illustrate the difference:

Original text:
“The use of pointed arches in Gothic architecture allowed the builders of cathedrals to conceive of taller structures with thinner walls and a greater number of windows. This allowed more light to stream into the cathedral, the desire for which was a reflection of the neoplatonic emphasis on the divinity of light.”

Paraphrase:
“By using the pointed arch, which allowed for taller and thinner walls with more windows, builders of Gothic cathedrals created structures that catered to the neoplatonic desire for more ‘divine’ light to be allowed into the cathedral.”

Summary:
“Pointed arches led to brighter interior spaces.”
Depending on what you want to take from the original passage, you could also summarize it thus:
“Neoplatonic belief held that light was divine.”

Note that my paraphrase not only rewords the passage, it also changes it from two sentences to one. This is fine.

You may find that summary is used more often in your writing than paraphrase. This is not unusual. After all, keeping your language simple and concise is a key element of successful writing. But there are times when paraphrase is extremely useful. For example if you are using a source written in an old, archaic style, paraphrase can be extremely useful as it allows you to bring it up to date, so to speak.

Let’s say for example that you are using the diary of Samuel Pepys to write about life in 17th century London. I this case you will want to paraphrase in your notes. Why? Partly to make sure that you actually understand what he wrote (to paraphrase one must first understand the thing being paraphrased!) but also partly so that when you go back to use your notes, you won’t have to paraphrase then.

An example from 343 years ago:
“Up betimes, and with my Joyner begun the making of the window in my boy’s chamber bigger, purposing it shall be a roome to eat and for having musique in. To the office, where a meeting upon extraordinary business, at noon to the ‘Change about more, and then home with Creed and dined, and then with him to the Committee of Tangier, where I got two or three things done I had a mind to of convenience to me. Thence by coach to Mrs. Pierce’s, and with her and Knipp and Mrs. Pierce’s boy and girle abroad, thinking to have been merry at Chelsey; but being come almost to the house by coach near the waterside, a house alone, I think the Swan, a gentleman walking by called to us to tell us that the house was shut up of the sicknesse. So we with great affright turned back, being holden to the gentleman; and went away (I for my part in great disorder) for Kensington, and there I spent about 30s. upon the jades with great pleasure, and we sang finely and staid till about eight at night, the night coming on apace and so set them down at Pierce’s, and so away home, where awhile with Sir W. Warren about business, and then to bed.” [9 April 1666. This excerpt and many, many others can be found here. His amazing diaries stretch over many years, but if you are interested in exploring the world of Pepys, you can start off with books like this one.]

It is highly unlikely that any of the above sentences would appear verbatim were I to be taking notes on this source. Even if I wanted to take extensive notes, they would be heavily paraphrased, updating the language and style to be more contemporary and, to me, more immediately meaningful. Naturally, when taking these notes and paraphrasing and summarizing as appropriate, I would also be carefully citing the original source so that I could quickly return to it as needed.

Remember though that you are taking notes for yourself here. You don’t need to use full or formal sentences to paraphrase or summarize in your notes. Shorthand and abbreviations are perfectly fine as long as you know what your notes say. For example, my thesis was on Henry Percy, first Earl of Northumberland. There was no way I was going to write that out in full every time he appeared in my notes. He therefore simply became “HPnum”, whch in time was shortened to just “HP”. His son, another Henry Percy was initially referred to in my notes by his nickname “Hotspur” which eventually was shortened to “HS”. HP’s brother Thomas was simply “Thos”. Westminster became “W.Min” Northumberland became “Numb”, and so on.

Sources were abbreviated as well. For example, the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton became “TW” and “HK” respectively, while the Calendar of Patent Rolls became “CPR” and TW’s chronicle Historia Anglicana became “HA”, his Chronicon Angliae, “CA”.  The point is that these were my notes for my use, so as long as the abbreviations made sense to me, they worked. Naturally when it came time to actually write my thesis, these abbreviations stayed in my notes and were replaced by the full text, but for note-taking they served me very well.

In addition to abbreviations, developing your own system of shorthand (or learning an established one) can also be a great help. As with abbreviations, you can use whatever system of shorthand works for you, as long as it really does work for you. For example, going back to the first example above, I could summarize it like this:
“p.arch –> tall, thin walls, + windows; linked to N.Plat div light”

This wouldn’t make much sense to most people, but that doesn’t matter because it makes sense to me. Again, remember that these are YOUR notes for YOUR use, so come up with a system that makes sense to YOU.

So to summarize note taking so far:

  • collect, records and track your sources very carefully
  • include a citation with all notes so you won’t forget what your notes were taken from
  • Don’t confuse your words and the sources words
  • Don’t cut and paste blindly
  • Keep notes and essays separate
  • be open to trying new and different tools and techniques for note taking, but use what works for you
  • summarize and paraphrase carefully
  • feel free to use abbreviations and shorthand as long as it makes sense to you

Keeping things honest pt.1: note-taking basics

Monday, April 6th, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, a good historian will approach his or her work with integrity and honesty. Saying that is all well and good, but how does one actually put that ideal into practice?

The first thing to do is do develop good habits when you are actually ‘doing’ your research. Many of the students that I have ‘busted’ for plagiarism in the past have found themselves in hot water simply because they did not take care when doing their research. Here are some tips for avoiding this kind of trouble:

  • Collect, record, and track your sources with great care!
    Just wanting to be a good historian is not enough. You have to be a good historian, and this starts with the careful recording of your sources. When you are doing your research, pay attention to your note-taking habits. Sloppy note-taking can prove fatal to an essay. It can cause you to misrepresent the past. It can cause you to incorrectly identify your sources (or worse, fail to give credit to your sources at all). In short it can make your essay inaccurate, poorly written or simply unacceptable.
    Things to remember when taking notes:

    • Do not confuse your words with your source’s words
      • if you include a direct quotation in your notes, clearly indicate in your notes that it is a quotation. Enclose the quotation in quotation marks, and make sure you have a precise citation (author, book/article, page) so that if you use the passage in your essay you do not have to search it out
      • if you paraphrase in your notes (ie if you take what your source has said and put it into your own words) make sure that your paraphrased version is different and distinct from the original. If it is not, then use a quotation as above
        • if you don’t pay attention to this, it is easy to fall into one of the most common traps that catch students: inadvertent plagiarism. If you use someone else’s words without proper acknowledgement – even if it is unintentional – then you are plagiarizing.
      • early on, settle on a system. For example, when I take notes it is assumed that I am paraphrasing unless my notes clearly indicate a quotation. Your approach may differ, just come up with a system that works for you, stick to it, and be consistent. You don’t want to go back to notes at a later time and be unsure as to whether you paraphrased or not!
    • Include a citation in every note
      • citations are especially important when recording quotations in notes, but to save yourself a lot of work later, include citations in all of your notes. This does not mean full bibliographic details every time you jot something down. What you need to do is to give yourself enough information so that you can quickly and easily locate your source.
      • For example, if I am taking notes from a particular book, I will include full bibliographic information (author, title, publisher, date) at the beginning of a section devoted to that book and that book alone. Then, as I work though, I only have to add page references in the margin.
        This takes very, very little time to set up, but it can literally save you hours in the long run.
    • Don’t cut and paste blindly
      • For those of you who use computers for note-taking as well as writing, pay attention!
        It is so very easy to cut and paste a passage from your notes to an essay or from one essay draft to another, that it is also very very easy to make simple but costly mistakes.
        When cutting and pasting, think about the things I have mentioned above. Are these my words or someone else’s? Is it a quotation or a paraphrase? Where did it come from? Do I need to acknowledge my source?
        In other words, don’t cut and paste without thinking about what you are cutting and pasting!
        Again, the importance of accurate note-taking comes into play here. If you follow the suggestions above you will know what is yours, what is not, and where it came from.
    • Keep notes and essays separate
      • it can be tempting to take a ‘one big file’ approach to essay writing. Using this approach, you would keep everything related to an essay in one big file. This could include your notes, links to online sources, text copied from those sources, and of course your essay itself. This is generally a bad idea! Not only will you spend more time jumping back and forth within a file than you will actually working on the file, you may find it difficult to keep track of what came from where, what represents your own thoughts and what represents your sources’ thoughts, etc. Do yourself a favour and try to keep your essay itself separate from other related materials.

One thing I noticed over the last several years is the huge increase in the number of students using their laptops to take notes in class. I want to talk briefly about what kinds of software tools they are using to do this.

While it is possible to jot down notes in a simple text file or a Word document, there remains the problem of organization. how do you keep all of your files related to a subject or to an essay organized in such a way that they are easy to find?

There are many software packages out there that help to streamline this process. Remember, it remains your responsibility to keep accurate and reliable notes, but these can at least help to keep things organized:

  • Microsoft OneNote (Windows)
    • if you already have MS Office installed, you may already have OneNote
  • Evernote (Windows, Mac, Linux*)
    • has the advantage of online syncing, can access files/notes from any computer, some phones
    • was the runner-up behind pen and paper in a recent Lifehacker Hive Five poll, which is generally a very good sign!
    • Evernote can also be installed on many (Blackberry, iPhone, Palm Pre, and Windows Mobile) mobile phones
    • *By default it is intended for Windows and Mac only. Google “evernote linux” to find instructions for linux installation. I have it installed under Ubuntu 8.10 and it works great. I have installed and used it under Ubuntu 8.10 and 9.04 and it works great.
  • Basket Note Pads (Linux – KDE)
    • Runs on KDE, so Gnome users (ie Ubuntu) may find the odd problem with it
  • Tomboy Notes (Linux – Gnome)
    • If you are on Ubuntu and run into issues with Basket Note Pads, try Tomboy
  • Pen and Paper (they still work!!)
    • cheap, portable, really fast boot-up times, extremely flexible, may encounter occasional (or in my case frequent) legibility problems

Whether you use a pen and paper, one of the software packages mentioned above, or another system altogether, remember to be a mindful note-taker. A little care at the outset of your research can save a great deal of time and many headaches down the road.

Some thoughts on software for writing essays

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

As I mention on the main historyhelp.ca site, academic writing has become highly dependent on technology. This means that as a student you will need to be comfortable with computers. What it does not mean is that you have to shell out hundreds of dollars for your software. This post is not intended to slag off Microsoft, Apple, or any other particular company. The fact that MS and Apple are the two dominant forces in computing is due at least in part to the fact that they make some pretty good products. But there are alternatives, and this is what I want to write about today.

Apart from the physical hardware (ie your laptop or desktop system) two things are essential to academic writing:

  1. An operating system. This is the software package that controls how your hardware actually works. The most well known current examples are the various versions of Microsoft Windows (XP, Vista, and coming soon Windows 7), and Mac OS X.
  2. A word-processor. The most widely used example is MS Word, a Microsoft product that has come to dominate the field in recent years.

Operating System

When it comes to your operating system, you may have little choice or you may have no inclination to change your system. Don’t worry about it – if your system works well for you, why change it? If you are happy with your operating system, skip ahead to the part about word processors below. But if you are unhappy with your system or if you are just curious about what alternatives are available, read on as I introduce an excellent alternative: Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is one of many available distributions of what is known as Linux. A distribution is simply a particular version of Linux. Linux is free. You do not have to pay to get and use Linux. You can if you so choose pay to get versions of Linux distributions shipped with manuals, technical support, etc. (click here for an example), but this is not necessary. There are many completely free and legal distributions, and I am going to focus one one particular one: Ubuntu.

I was first introduced to Ubuntu through Lifehacker. If you are at all interested in computers and productivity ideas, I cannot recommend Lifehacker highly enough! Incidentally, Gina Trapani, the founder of Lifehacker, has a new blog: smarterware.org.

When I first heard about Ubuntu, the story caught my eye because my computer was developing serious problems that would necessitate a re-install of my operating system, and it was not powerful enough to run the then new version of Windows, Vista. The upshot is that I downloaded Ubuntu, installed it ‘for fun’ and have been using it alongside Windows for the past two years.

Advantages to Ubuntu:

  • it is completely free and legal
  • it is very regularly updated (there are two versions released every year)
  • it WORKS and does not crash (ie. no ‘blue screen of death’) as often as Windows has in my experience
  • it is very secure: for example you do not have to worry about viruses when running Linux

Disadvantages to Linux:

  • some of your favorite Windows or Mac software may not run on Linux (although there are usually excellent alternatives available). From a productivity point of view, this can actually be an advantage. For example if I log on to my desktop using Linux, I am not tempted to play games that only run on Windows!
  • you may have to do some tweaking to get your particular hardware working perfectly. Luckily there are many forums filled with extremely helpful people who are happy to lend a hand
  • not so much a disadvantage as a word of caution: be careful whenever you are messing around with operating systems. Back up your important data before doing anything to your system! It is possible to completely wipe everything from your system if you are not paying attention.

If you are looking to set up a new computer or are considering making a change, give some thought to Ubuntu. There is even now an option whereby you can install and run Ubuntu without making any changes to a Windows installation. That means that you can check it out without harming or changing in any way your current system. And if you decide to take the plunge and install it on your system, you can set it up so that your original operating system is still available. This is called dual-booting and it is what I currently do on both my desktop and laptop.

Word Processor

Whatever operating system you choose to use, you will need a word processor to actually get words on pages. As mentioned above, MS Word has come to dominate the market over the last several years. MS Word is an excellent word processor, and it makes up part of the Microsoft Office suite. MS Office is very good. If it comes bundled with your computer, by all means use it – it will serve you well.

But if your computer does not have a word processor installed, you will have to install one. And with current prices running from approximately $140.00 for a student edition to nearly $900 for the ‘Ultimate” edition, this is not exactly cheap. For a variety of reasons beyond cost, some people also simply want to avoid using commercial software products such as MS Office.

Whatever your motivation for seeking an alternative, you should at least check out OpenOffice.org. Like Linux, it is free. You can even download a portable version to install on a flash drive so you can take your word processor with you and not have to rely on a computer having the software you need in a lab, for example.

Advantages of OpenOffice.org:

  • it is completely free and legal
  • you can get a portable version
  • it offers full compatibility with Word documents
  • it does everything you need to write academic essays and much more
  • it is an office suite that includes software for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations (ie like PowerPoint) and databases
  • the ability to produce PDF files is built in

Disadvantages of OpenOffice.org:

  • the interface is slightly less polished than the newest MS Office products (ie no ‘ribbon’ interface)

If you don’t believe that Ubuntu is a viable alternative to Windows or Mac, check out these guys. All that System76 sells are computers with Ubuntu pre-installed.

Key Points:

  • use whatever software works for you
  • do not assume that you have to use particular software just because it has market dominance
  • don’t pay for commercial products until you at least check out free alternatives
  • Ubuntu offers a stable, secure, viable, productive, very user-friendly alternative that works
  • OpenOffice.org offers a stable, portable, cross-platform (ie you can use it on Windows, Mac or Linux), compatible, user-friendly alternative that works

Primary vs. Secondary Sources for History

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Sources for history: primary vs. secondary sources

As will become clear over time as I add more posts about historical sources, there are many different types of sources. Historical sources are the foundation upon which all historical enquiry is built, and so it is well worth the effort to give some thought to their selection and evaluation. I will begin by talking about the two main categories of historical sources.

For the sake of convenience, historians tend to break down sources into two main categories: primary and secondary.

Primary Sources:

Primary sources tend to originate in or near the period that you as an historian are studying. This category includes a bewilderingly wide array of documents. Personal letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, contemporary histories, and government documents are but a few examples of primary documents. Archaeological evidence, legal records, works of art and oral traditions can also be primary sources for the study of history.

Note that I said that they “tend” to originate in or near the period that you are studying. This is a necessarily fuzzy definition that occasionally needs to be stretched depending on the period or topic that you are studying. For example, if you want to study the rise of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, you will encounter a wealth of primary sources that were produced during or near the events themselves, often by people who were personally involved in the events. But if you are studying the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, you will find that contemporary British accounts simply do not exist. In cases such as this, your primary sources may not be exactly contemporary to the events they describe.

Secondary Sources:

Secondary sources are books or articles written by authors who have interpreted primary as well as other secondary sources in order to study the past. Your history textbooks are secondary works, as are scholarly journal articles and monographs (books that deal in detail with one particular subject).

Potential Confusion:

Secondary sources can also sometimes function as primary sources!

In 2004 an article I wrote about events that took place during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was published in this book. If you were to use my article as a source for an essay about the Peasants’ Revolt, you would be using it as a secondary source. Why? Because I gathered all available primary and secondary sources, evaluated and analyzed them, came to my conclusions, then presented in the article my interpretation of events that took place during the revolt. It is this interpretation of past events that makes it a secondary source.

However, if you were writing about early 21st century research into the Peasants’ Revolt, you could then use my article as a primary source. Why? Because the topic of study is no longer events that took place in 1381, but rather attitudes and ideas that were developed in the early 21st century. My interpretation of past events has itself now become the subject of your study, and so my article would serve as a primary source.

Another example:

If you were writing about the Roman Empire, you might make use of Edward Gibbon’s classic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a secondary source. Although you should not do so blindly as it is a very dated source that has been superseded by more recent research! It would be a secondary source as it presents Gibbons interpretations of the past based uon other historical sources.

But if you were writing about how people wrote history in the late 18th century, you would use Gibbon as a primary source. Again, this shift has occurred because the topic has changed from Roman history to 18th century historiography. The source (Gibbon’s book)  is no longer just a source, it has itself become the subject.

Why does this matter? In part it may matter to you simply because your prof has told you that you need X number of primary sources and Y number of secondary sources in your bibliography. But it is also important because the way that you make use of different sources will shape the way that you approach your study of the past.

Primary sources represent the most direct link to the past and to the people whose lives and societies we are studying. By all means, you can and should make use of secondary sources to inform your interpretation of primary sources. But do not simply rely on others’ interpretations and analysis.

Use primary sources whenever possible, even if your prof has not explicitly told you do to so. This will make it possible for you to be more effective in forming your own ideas, analysis, and interpretation, which is of course the whole point of writing an essay in the first place!

Key Points:

  • make sure you understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. If you are unsure, talk to your prof. If you are then still unclear, send me an email and I’ll be glad to help you out
  • whenever possible, make use of primary sources in your research – don’t just rely on textbooks, monographs and journal articles