Knapp’s Rules of Thumb for History Writing

 

1. Avoid contractions:

Get rid of “can’t”, “doesn’t”, “wouldn’t”, etc., unless you are using these words in a quotation of direct speech.

 

2. Put sentences into the active voice; avoid the passive voice:

Alexander the Great was the conqueror of Asia (Bad).  Alexander the Great conquered Asia (Good).  Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo (Bad).  Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo (Good).

 

3. Move prepositions to the front of sentences:

The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 at Runnymeade (Bad).  In 1215 at Runnymeade, King John signed the Magna Carta (Good).

 

4. Use tense consistently, the past tense is preferred:

During his reign, Qin Shihuang burns all books and buries alive all scholars he deemed useless (Bad).  During his reign, Qin Shihuang burned all books and buried all scholars he deemed useless (Good).

 

5. Make sure you have pronoun agreement: A gentleman wears clothes proper for each occasion; they do not wear underwear as a headdress (Bad).  A Muslim worships Allah; he does not worship Mohammed (Good).

 

6. Be specific, who is doing what to whom?  In industrializing England, the working classes were oppressed and exploited (Bad).  In industrializing England, capitalists oppressed and exploited the working classes (Good).

 

7.  Number your Pages!

 

8. When inserting quotations into your text, be sure to cite the author, book, and the page number you got it from:

“They (the SS guards) had orders to fire on any who could not keep up.  Their fingers on the trigger, they did not deprive themselves of the pleasure” (Elie Wiesel, Night [New York: Bantam Books, 1960], p.81).

 

9. Start paragraphs with topic sentences.  Do not start off paragraphs with quotations:

Good

Hammurabi’s code inflicts many cruel punishments.  Artisans who made mistakes paid dearly for them.  For example, “If a builder caused the son of the owner of the house to die, they shall put to death the son of the builder” (Eugen Weber, The Western Tradition, p.27).

Bad

“If a builder caused the son of the owner of the house to die, they shall put to death the son of the builder” (Eugen Weber, The Western Tradition, p.27). Hammurabi’s code inflicts many cruel punishments.  Artisans who made mistakes paid dearly for them.

 

10. Make sure you have a thesis statement (i.e. something that your paper is trying to prove:

In Sophocles’ “Antigone” features a king named Creon (Bad).  In Sophocles’ “Antigone”, the character Creon represents tyranny (Good).  The former statement is bad because it is a fact—it can’t be disproved.  The latter statement is better because it is an interpretation that can be either proved or disproved.

 

11. Either italicize or underline book titles!  Never leave a book title in a normal font, or enclose it with quotation marks. Similarly, put the names of either essays or chapters from books in quotation marks.  Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel makes fun of clerics, theologians, lawyers, judges, and hypocrites of any kind (Bad).  The famous summation of Hindu beliefs, “The Bhagavad Gita” is merely part of a chapter of the huge epic the Mahabharata.