Documentation and organisation

A generalisation alone will not convince anyone; it requires supporting evidence and arguments. A note, on its own, is not proof: it tells the reader where to go to check the source of your statement, but the paper itself must make clear to the reader why you argue as you do.

An important part of historical analysis is to put the source in its context. You should always be aware of who the writer or speaker is and of the circumstances in which he or she writes or speaks. This, of course, does not require you to supply a biography of each author as he or she appears, but where identity of the source bears closely upon its value as evidence, you should explicitly take account of this in your interpretation.

As you make the effort to prove your points, they will gain weight. Your first, tentative formulation of a point will lead you to search for supporting or contradicting evidence. You may find the idea contradicted and discard it in favour of another; or it may be strengthened and developed as you work it out.

One such coherent idea, or set or ideas, should serve as the basis of the essay. The essay will then be the consistent exposition of an idea, proceeding logically and never leaving the reader in the lurch. If you do not know what a paragraph contributes to your argument, leave it out.


Use quotations sparingly. Weaving a short phrase into your text, especially if it is characteristic or powerful, is the best way to quote. Quotations are useful for purposes of illustration, but generally do not constitute proof, which will be found in the construction you give of the evidence.

The most frequent justification for quoting is that the way in which something, usually from a primary source, is said constitutes part of your evidence; how a source articulates a point is often as important as what it articulates. In such cases, you will do best to give your quotation down to the essential position you wish to analyse and to follow it closely with analysis. Avoid long slabs of quotations.

Never assume that the quotation makes its point by itself, without your analysis. Resist the temptation to quote frequently or at length: an essay which consists of long quotations linked by short passages of connection prose wearies the reader and defeats its main purpose, which is to convey the writer's own thoughts on the subject. Sometimes you may quote especially important phrases from secondary sources, but remember that quoting historians or other secondary sources does not provide evidence for your arguments.

Errors that may seem erroneous to the reader should be indicated by [sic] (Latin for thus, that is, 'it really is so') in square brackets, eg "Gibbon's erudition are [sic] amazing."

Surround any words interpolated in a quotation with square brackets [], not round (), eg "Many men's cynicism amuses; Voltaire's astonishes" could be quoted thus: "Voltaire's [cynicism] astonishes."

If you omit any words from a quotation, indicate the omission by ellipsis, the insertion of three dots; eg 'The peasants fought hard, but . . . the lords had greater force on their side.' (In this case the ellipsis stands for the phrase ‘they were doomed because'.


The argument of an essay must be supported by exact reference to authorities. In the writing of history, these should take the form of footnotes. References in the text, such as the author-date or Harvard system, are not acceptable in history essays. Footnotes should always be placed at the bottom of the page of the essay to which they refer. [If your word processing program cannot do footnotes, end notes are acceptable.] Students are often uncertain how elaborate their footnotes should be. The following rules are a reasonable guide.

  • Common information that is obtainable in any standard work does not need a footnote, but unusual or curious facts do
  • The source of all quotations must be given
  • The source of all important or controversial opinions must be given
  • If you wish to quote primary material that you have found in a secondary source, you should state where it came from originally, and where you found it
  • Footnotes may be used to qualify, amplify or make incidental comments on discussion in the text of the essay, but this should be done very sparingly. Footnotes should not contain arguments that properly belong in the text
  • References in the text, such as the author-date or Harvard systems, are not acceptable in history essays. There are a variety of different citation styles in use; scholarly journals and academic presses may use their own particular style


Your essay should also include a list (bibliography) of the works you have used in preparing the essay. Sometimes your lecturer will ask you to follow each title with short critical comments, of one or two sentences in length. This is called an annotated bibliography. These critical comments offer an opportunity for you to indicate briefly the influence that the work in question has had upon the development of your own ideas and its special value or limitations as a source. Comments such as 'useful' are themselves of little use; instead you should explain specifically how and why the work was useful.

In setting out the bibliography of works used in the preparation of the essay, list primary (contemporary) sources first, then secondary sources. Within each section works should appear in alphabetical order, with the surname of the author or editor first. Anonymous or composite works bearing no author's name should appear in the alphabetical order of the title.

You must give complete information about each book, including the author's (or editor's) full name, the full title, the edition, and number of volumes where applicable, and the place and date of publication.

As in the following examples, place chapter and article titles in inverted commas, book and journal titles in italics. (Underlining in a handwritten or typewritten work is a substitute for italics in printing; this custom developed because underlining was used to show the printer that italics were needed and was taken over for the typewriter, which could not type italics. Now that word processors usually have the possibility of printing italics, use italics.)

For the organisation of a lengthy bibliography, including manuscript, official and other sources, consult the Style Manual, §9.55 and pp. 428-431, or a recent monograph in your subject.