Writing Short Papers

The purpose of this article is to assist students who are faced with writing a short paper.  It occasionally will draw comparisons between short papers and both research papers and essay exams, so it might be helpful to read my articles on this web site about those two subjects.

A short paper in history of perhaps two to ten pages that answers a question a professor poses has some similarities with a research paper.  Both have a thesis statement and use historical evidence that supports the thesis.  Both have an introduction and a conclusion along with citations and a bibliography.  They each require high standards of organization, grammar, style, and formatting.  Yet, the differences outnumber the similarities.  Research papers are longer, consider a topic in greater depth, and have a more complex theses than short papers.  Research papers may require students to develop a topic and frame a question in order to arrive at a thesis statement, while short papers usually have assigned questions that easily lead students to theses statements.  Research papers require that a student find a multitude of secondary and primary sources on their own, while short papers have a limited number of sources that a professor assigns.  Finally, the nature of a research paper requires plenty of time, commonly an entire semester, but short papers me be done in a week or two.

Short papers and essay exams also have their comparisons.  Essays often are only half the length of a short paper, but like short papers, they are centered around assigned questions based on specific readings and lectures.  The biggest difference between the two, aside from length, is that students writing essays as opposed to short papers need not cite their sources of information or quotations.

As with any assignment, students must read and understand the directions for writing a short paper.  Aside from the question itself, look to see if the professor supplied parameters as to the length and format of the paper.  Note the due date, any special submission requirements, and penalties for being late.  If there is anything that is confusing, ask for clarification, which may benefit all the students.

It is impossible to write a research project without finding and critically reading the proper sources; similarly, one can not hope to achieve a good grade on an essay exam without having read the pertinent assignments and attend the lectures.  Short papers are no different.  Without reading all of the material associated with the assigned question for a short paper, the student will have an incomplete understanding of the topic and will write an inadequate paper.  Having classmates explain the content of readings is insufficient, as is relying only on a professor’s lecture or a classroom discussion of the readings.  One type of question for a short paper may focus on a particular reading, but often a professor will specify that students are to use several readings from the syllabus to answer a question.  In the latter instance, be sure to examine all the readings that might help supply the needed evidence.  Do not ignore a professor’s instructions should he or she prohibit the use of outside sources.  There may be several reasons for such a restriction.  For example, the professor may want the students to understand thoroughly a specific body of literature, or the professor may want the students to sharpen a given set of analytical skills.

The question for a short paper is similar to that of an essay exam question, so approach it in the same manner.  Consider all aspects of the question and all its nuances.  Determine whether the question requires the writer to compare and contrast, summarize an argument, gather evidence from a reading or readings to develop a thesis, prove or challenge a statement, or any number of other possibilities.  If the question has two or more parts, be sure to address all of them.  Each component of the paper and all the evidence must pertain to the question.  Remove what does not apply, replacing it with material that does.  Certainly, include nothing that merely touches on the assigned question.  After all, a professor does not present a question in order to give the student carte blanche to expound on any theme he or she desires.

Build an outline, even if it is rough, and devise a thesis statement that answers all aspects of the question.  Keep refining the thesis statement while writing the paper to account for all the complexities that the analysis of evidence reveals.  Since the paper only has few pages, be sure to place the thesis statement in the first paragraph.

Students often attempt to write a lengthy background investigation before they begin answering the question, leaving them little space to expand on the material that tackles the question.  Some students devote three pages out of six on background information and definitions.  The solution to such a problem is to write the introduction last, aside from the thesis statement.  While writing the paper, jot down bits of information that might apply as background material.  After the body of the paper is complete, select the most important items from the list, and knit them together to form a coherent and informative paragraph.  In most cases, that paragraph will contain the thesis statement.

Draft a series of paragraphs that form the body of the paper.  At times, the question may suggest the structure, that is, the division of paragraphs.  Other times, the student’s approach to the question will dictate the structure.  In many circumstances, the essay proceeds chronologically, with the analysis following the evidence.  Other times, a topical approach is in order, requiring that a sub-thesis, evidence, and analysis be combined into one paragraph.  Regardless of the structure the paper takes, be sure the material and the paragraphs are well organized.  Given the nature of the assignment, there is no room for excessive detail or tangents.  Subordinate all material to the question.

Take care in citing not only quotations but any unusual evidence or analysis that comes from another author.  Do not cite a professor’s lectures.  Instead, treat the information in them as common knowledge.  Otherwise, all usual rules of formatting, grammar, and style apply.  To improve one’s writing skills, consult various references for writers, including the “Grammar and Style Checklist” and “Miller’s Memo” that appear in this web site.

After devising and revising the thesis, writing the body of the paper, and drafting the introduction, it is time for the conclusion.  Summarize the thought process that is behind the various components in the paper to illustrate how they support the thesis.  Include no new arguments or evidence in the conclusion. Certainly, do not assume that a conclusion of a history paper is the last item in a cause-and-event sequence.  Instead, view the conclusion as a summary of the analysis in the paper.

Whether the professor provides a minimum number of words or pages, always use the amount of space that is available for text, making sure there are deductions for footnotes.  Do not include title pages, endnotes, and bibliographies in the page count.  Writing four pages when a professor asks for five guarantees a lower grade, even if those four pages are exceptional.  When a paper is too short, always ask if the thesis answers all aspects of the question, what additional evidence or analysis can support the points already contained in the body of the paper, and what additional factors might support the thesis.  By the same token, do not submit a paper that extends too far over the required length, which will prompt the professor to recommend cuts to better meet the assignment’s specifications.  When it comes to the length of an assignment, imagine yourself applying for a position with a firm that asks you to write 500 words about why you are suited for a particular job.  Were you to provide only 400 words, the managers likely would overlook your application in favor of someone who stated their case in 500 words.  It is not simply a matter word count alone, but the person who used all of the allotted space had the opportunity to better state their case.  Similarly, given the miracles of electronic forms, the computer program will delete anything over 500 words.

Finishing the conclusion does not mean the paper is complete.  In scheduling the assignment, be sure to allow time for revisions and corrections.  Most of the suggestions for revising a research paper apply to short papers: sharpen the prose; correct errors in grammar, style, and formatting; remove wordiness, bolster weak areas, and restructure to improve clarity.  When the paper is near completion, have someone read it, even if they are not enrolled in the class, and ask them to find errors and to evaluate how well the paper considers the question .

Understanding the parameters of the assignment, completing all the pertinent readings, dissecting the question and answering it with a concise thesis statement, developing a solid argument with evidence from the assigned sources, writing a good conclusion, and revising are the elements that go into writing an excellent short paper.  Cutting corners in any one of these areas will result in a lower grade for the assignment.  To accomplish all these tasks requires plenty of discipline, which is true of any intellectual endeavor.

Guides to Writing History Papers

There are many free guides to writing history papers on the Internet, and a simple search will reveal many useful hints. One of the better sites is the "Writing Guide" by Clifford Backman, Barbara Diefendorf, James McCann, Sheila McIntyre, and Diana Wylie with the Department of History at Boston University that is available at http://www.bu.edu/history/undergraduate-program/resources/writing-guide/.

Rev. 4.VIII.2013