This post is mostly for undergraduates, but also relevant for graduate students and those who teach writing & historical research. Others, read at your own risk!
I enjoy teaching history research and writing and, over the years, I’ve developed a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to doing it. I have a sequence of assignments that more or less mirrors my own research and writing process, but broken down into steps. Usually the steps are a little bit confusing for students, because I don’t describe them the way that other professors do. I embrace the confusion, because it often produces learning.
One of the things that students often find confusing is that I refuse to talk about thesis statements until after they have written the first rough draft of the whole paper.
Many professors, including esteemed colleagues whose teaching I respect, ask for a draft thesis statement early in the research process, perhaps even as part of a project proposal. I have found that this is counterproductive.
I used to be frankly baffled when students came to me early in the semester, unsure whether their preferred research topic was good because they didn’t know what they could argue about it. I always wondered: How could you possibly know what your argument will be before you’ve done the research and writing?
Likewise, students in the history survey courses come to discuss their papers, unsure what they should argue, even though they haven’t taken any notes or started writing. The first question should never be what will my thesis be? The first question should always be what do my primary sources say? If you start with that question, you will find an answer to the first question before you know it.
Students who assume that you need to know what you will argue before you start writing often have a really hard time starting to write. I think it’s fair to say that I rarely know what I want to argue when I start writing. When I think I know, I often change, refine, and rearrange my ideas in the process of writing.
My core assumptions about research and writing are twofold:
- writing is a crucial part of the thinking process; therefore we rarely know what we think until after we have started writing
- our arguments only emerge after we have deeply engaged with our primary sources
I almost never begin one of my own writing projects with either the introduction or the thesis statement. These only emerge in the process of describing my evidence and crafting a narrative. This is why it is so important to leave time for revisions. That great Aha! moment you have at the end of writing your paper can and should be woven back in to the introduction and the body.
The best starting place for a strong historical research project is a combination of a coherent set of primary sources and robust questions about those sources. In primary source driven research design, questions must guide the research process. Instead of writing a draft thesis statement, I ask students to develop significant historical research questions.
The answer to a significant research question will be—down the road—the thesis or argument for your paper. A significant question is one whose answer:
- is debatable
- is suited to the primary sources you have access to
- identifies a connection between multiple primary sources
- can only be answered by speculation, albeit speculation informed by your understanding of what other historians have already written on similar topics
- makes a connection between the primary sources and the broader historical context