Types of Writing Assignments
- Response Papers
- Creative Approaches
- Annotated Bibliographies
- Book Reviews
- Historiographic Essays
- Research Papers
Basic Considerations When Writing on History
- Cause and Effect
- Establishing a Broader Context
- Common Fallacies
Types of Sources
- Secondary Sources
- Primary Sources
- The Internet
- Evaluating Contradictory Data and Claims
Preparation and Writing
- Time Management
- Note-Taking Tips
- Developing a Thesis
- Formulating a Conclusion
Basic Quoting Skills
- Advanced Quoting Skills
- The Ethics of Quoting
Style and Editing
- Drafts and Revisions
- Common Stylistic Errors
Narrative history allows you to master the art of good storytelling that lies at the heart of most compelling history.
In a nutshell, narrative history asks you to tell a story: when, where, and (hopefully) why a certain event occurred, its larger significance or context, and who the important participants were. This is one of the more basic types of assignments you are likely to encounter, well-suited for (although not limited to) a short paper assignment.
Usually (in the context of a "W" class, for example) your professor has already covered the event. You have read about it and discussed it in class, and the assignment's objective is simply 1) to get you writing and, 2) to allow you to display, in writing, your mastery over the material.
Often - especially in a "W" course - the professor will ask you to limit your sources to those used in class, to use a system of annotation of his or her choosing, and to display basic quoting skills . Most likely, the professor will also require you to provide a "Works Cited"-page, or bibliography . (In the event that your professor asks you to access sources aside from those used in class, go to types of sources ).
Such an assignment will invariably require you to develop a thesis (a basic claim, or question, your paper seeks to prove or answer) and to formulate a conclusion . In between, in the main body of your paper, you will tell your story: what happened, when, and why.
Chart the foreign policy of Adolf Hitler from his appointment as German Chancellor in 1933 until the eve of World War II in 1939.
The events that marked the pre-WWII foreign policy of Nazi Germany, although complicated, are well-documented (they are listed below ). You will find them briefly explained in any standard textbook of European, World, or American history. Most likely, your professor expects you to introduce your topic, to establish a broader context , to place the relevant events into chronological order, to explain each one briefly, and to draw a conclusion.
A thesis, in the case of narrative history, can be modest: "The foreign policy pursued by the Nazi government under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1939 paved the way for World War II." A more ambitious thesis might add a statement along the following lines: "The unwillingness of the League of Nations or the United States to challenge Hitler's foreign policy may have emboldened him in his increasingly aggressive tactics. Ultimately these mutually reinforcing strategies culminated in the major confrontation that became World War II."
For more on this sample assignment, see Establishing a Broader Context .
- 1933 Hitler becomes Führer ("leader") of Germany; leaves the League of Nations.
- 1935 begins re-building the German navy and increasing troop strength of German army in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
- 1936 Hitler remilitarizes the Rhineland, placed under French control for 20 years in 1919's Treaty of Versailles.
- 1936 Hitler signs the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact, creating an alliance with Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
- 1936-39 Along with Mussolini, Hitler aids Franco's Nationalists (the "falange") against the Republicans (or "Loyalists") in the Spanish Civil War.
- 1938 Hitler annexes Austria in the so-called Anschluss ("annexation").
- 1938 September, Britain and France appease Hitler by granting him the right to occupy the Sudetenland, an ethnic German-populated western province of Czechoslovakia; Hitler asserts that his territorial claims in Europe are satisfied.
- 1939 March, Hitler takes the rest of Czechoslovakia.
- 1939 September 1, Hitler attacks Poland.
- 1939 September 3, Britain and France declare war on Germany: World War II officially begins.
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Truth and History: Historical Truth and Historical Narrative
Yoav Tenembaum is a lecturer in the Diplomacy Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. He obtained his doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University and his master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University. He did his BA in History at Tel Aviv University. His work has been published in journals, magazines and newspapers in the United States, Britain, Israel, Argentina and other countries.
Is there such a thing as objective truth in history? Is history a compilation of narratives advanced by different groups and nations? The influence wielded by historical narratives on international relations is such as to make it imperative to define conceptually the terms concerned and dwell, albeit briefly, on a few cases.
Historical truth is objective by its very nature. It is there, so to speak, to be discovered and unearthed. Certainly, there may be occasions in which the truth cannot be discovered. However, the inability to discover the truth does not negate its objective existence. In this context, a distinction ought to be drawn between Historical truth and interpretation. The first is objective and the latter is subjective. The first refers to a fact, which can be determined as true, at least in principle, by empirical study, whereas the latter entails an explanation of the fact in question. To be sure, the lack of historical truth may lead to an act of inference, accompanied by interpretation, designed to assess what the truth might have been.
Thus, “narratives”, a commonly-used catch-phrase, to afford legitimacy to historical interpretations are, at best, an attempt at explaining historical events from a subjective perspective. Their importance resides in the influence they wield in shaping the perception of reality by groups or nations. Narratives may determine historical truth insofar as they describe the perception of groups or nations as they exist objectively, but the historical veracity of the facts which those narratives depict do not derive necessarily from them. They may be objectively true or false.
This is not to belittle the importance of historical narratives. Their emotional impact may determine the manner by which decision-makers interpret the external environment in which they operate, and make decisions affecting the group or nation they represent.
Still, historical narratives are not a synonym for historical truth. However powerful historical narratives may be in shaping the actions of a certain group or nation, they do not, per se, reflect historical truth. A historical narrative may be based on historical truth, but to believe that historical truth may not be objectively determined and thus one is left only with historical narratives is to confuse the objective existence of truth with its subjective interpretation.
The assumption that the subjective interpretation of history is automatically rendered into a historical truth on account of its historical impact is clearly wrong.
We can witness the effects of historical narratives on the nature of contemporary international relations.
Suffice us to glance at the differing narratives by the Turks and the Armenians of the Armenian Genocide and their effects on international relations. Indeed, the term “Armenian Genocide” is part and parcel of the fierce dispute between the two sides about the events surrounding the murder of around one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, starting in 1915. While the Armenians contend that the Ottoman Turks perpetrated a well-prepared and thought-out act of genocide, the Turks argue that the Armenians were a hostile element within the Ottoman Empire and that the events concerned reflected a violent conflict between two contending sides, and not an organized effort at genocide. Any attempt by a third party to recognize the Armenian Genocide is immediately followed by strong protests by the Turkish Government. Governments and parliaments assess the pros and cons of recognizing the Armenian Genocide on the basis not only of moral but also of pragmatic considerations as to its effect on bilateral relations with Turkey.
The differing accounts by the Palestinian Arabs and the Israelis about the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a further example of historical narratives that still wield a strong influence on the character of an international conflict. Thus, for instance, the Palestinian Arabs refer to the events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel as a Nakba, or Catastrophe in Arabic, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their homes, whereas the Israelis stress the refusal of the leadership of the Palestinian Arabs to accept the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which could have led to the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state alongside Israel, and their subsequent decision to launch an all-out attack against the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, followed by an attack by the Arab countries against the newly-established State of Israel. For the Palestinian Arabs the establishment of Israel led to the Nakba; for the Israelis, the Nakba was the result of the refusal of the Palestinian Arabs to accept a compromise solution and the decision to launch an all-out attack, without which there would have been no war and no refugee problem.
A further example relates to the tensions prevailing between Russia and Poland about the events surrounding the start of the Second World War and the role played by the Soviet Union in it. Russia stresses the role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany and liberating Poland from the yoke of German occupation, while Poland puts as much emphasis on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 1939, which stipulated that Poland would be divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For Poland, the Soviet Union was as much a liberator as an oppressor.
Historical narratives may reflect historical truth or not. Their aim is not necessarily to ascertain what actually happened in the past, but to justify what happens in the present. Narratives are important to understand the attitudes that form part of the decision-making process of the sides involved in an international dispute. A clear distinction ought to be drawn between historical narratives as a tool to comprehend the mind-setting behind the positions adopted by the sides concerned, and historical truth as such. The historical narrative of one side may reflect historical truth more than the historical narrative of the other. Indeed, in general, one may be subjective and right. Still, conceptually, the two are not necessarily related. Historical truth stands alone, in its own right. Historical narratives may reflect historical truth, but, however influential they may be in historical and contemporary parlance, they occupy a separate place.
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Reading Historical Narratives
Before you recreate a historical moment, you'll want to see examples from other students. This lesson shows you a sample historical narrative paragraph and essay. As you read them, think about how the writer made the people, places, and events come to life through description, action, and dialogue.
Reading a Historical Narrative Paragraph
A historical narrative paragraph has three main parts. The topic sentence states the topic and focus of the story. The body sentences explain the main actions of the story. The ending sentence wraps up the historical narrative in an interesting way.
Listen to "Standing Up"
Topic Sentence I never much liked crowds, but I always liked trees. That's why I wasn't thrilled when my mother woke me up before dawn, told me to put on my Sunday dress and shoes, and walked me seven miles to join a million other people on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Body Sentences She said that what we were doing was important because we were standing up for our rights. As I sweated in the hot sun, surrounded by strangers, I felt like I was just standing up. One by one, adults that I couldn't see spoke into the microphone, their voices ringing from loudspeakers like sermon after sermon. I asked Mom when we could go. "We have to hear Dr. King speak, first." I told her I needed to use the bathroom. She said, "Don't be long." But instead of going to the bathroom, I went to a nearby grove to be alone. There was a tree there, and another girl in it, who motioned me upward. I climbed up beside her and suddenly could see over the heads of the crowd to the gleaming white Lincoln Memorial. I could see Dr. King standing there. And, best of all, I could hear him when he spoke those amazing words: "I HAVE A DREAM . . ." Ending Sentence Suddenly, I knew just what I would be standing up for.
Respond to the paragraph.
Answer these questions about the paragraph. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template .
© 2023 Thoughtful Learning. Copying is permitted.
- Nieman Foundation
To promote and elevate the standards of journalism
March 15, 2002.
Historical Writing and the Revival of Narrative
‘…the line between scholarly and popular writing is now much more difficult to discern.’.
Beginning in 1979, not coincidentally the year the first Pulitzer was awarded for feature writing, British historian Lawrence Stone heralded the revival of narrative in academic history writing. The story was back. Stone defined narrative as the organization of material in a chronologically sequential order and focusing the content into a single, coherent story. Now this represented a departure from common historical writing and should give you a sense of just how inhospitable to plot that genre had become.
Unlike structural or scientific history, which is analytical, narrative history, for Stone, is descriptive. From most historians’ point of view, to call a piece of writing “descriptive” is the worst kind of damnation. But far from lamenting descriptive narratives, Stone celebrated them. Narrative history, he suggested, is by no means lacking in interpretation, so long as it’s directed by what Stone called a “pregnant principle.”
Stories with pregnant principles are hard to write and especially difficult to write artfully. Many narrative histories written by academics take readers on sea-sickening sails that endlessly tack back and forth between story and argument. How to tell a story that does more than describe what happened is not immediately obvious, at least to most academic historians.
RELATED ARTICLE “The Immersion Experience In Historical Narrative” – Jill Lepore In a perceptive essay written in 1992, Cambridge historian Peter Burke suggested that historians ought to borrow the anthropological notion of thick description—a technique that interprets an alien culture through the precise and concrete description of particular practices and events—and write thick narratives that seamlessly integrate story and context. The problem for historians, Burke suggested, is making a narrative thick enough to deal not only with the sequence of events and the conscious intentions of the actors in these events, but also with structures, institutions, modes of thought, whether these structures act as a brake on the events or as an accelerator.
In practice, since the 1960’s thick narratives with pregnant principles have often taken the form of what historians somewhat ambivalently call “micro-histories”: stories about a single, usually very ordinary person, place or event, that seek to reveal the society’s broader structures. This work rests on the central premise that ordinary lives, thickly described, illuminate culture best.
Telling small stories, writing micro-histories, does not inevitably produce important scholarship. Just the opposite, alas, is far likelier. As Peter Burke warned, “The reduction in scale does not thicken a narrative by itself.” When micro-histories are good, they’re breathtakingly brilliant. When they’re bad, they’re pretty much worthless.
Now consider the history of journalism. If 20th century academic historians turned their backs on storytelling in the early part of the century, only to return to it in the late 1970’s, journalists trudged along a similar path. They scorned storytelling in favor of fact-finding, and then changed their minds.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, according to journalist Jon Franklin, the best American writers, reporters included, began their careers and received their literary training writing short stories. The short story in its heyday was the universal school for writers, Franklin argues. The short story demanded the utmost of the writer, both technically and artistically. It served as the great eliminator of mediocre talent. When short story writers turned to reporting, they brought a desk drawer full of literary devices, an economy of prose, an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and a keen sense of plot and resolution.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s Franklin asserts, “The quality of journalistic writing was devastated by the demise of the short story apprenticeship. When journalism turned away from literature, newspaper and magazine writing lost its luster. Nonfiction wasn’t as good a training ground as the short story had been because it emphasized subject over form and rewarded reporting skills at the expense of writing technique.”
But when “In Cold Blood” was published in 1965, it melded the accuracy of nonfiction with the dramatic force of fiction and ushered in the new genre of nonfiction—a genre that today dwells in a foggy frontier between journalism and literature.
RELATED ARTICLE “Journalists and historians can learn from each other.” – Adam Hochschild What’s to be gained by comparing the history of history with the history of journalism? A few critical insights. The revival of narrative in historical writing parallels the emergence of narrative journalism. In narrative history’s most celebrated invention, the micro-history, there is a passing resemblance to narrative journalism’s favorite form, the nonfiction short story.
Micro-histories and nonfiction short stories have a good deal in common. Both genres emerged in the 1970’s in response to professional trends, especially prevalent in the 1950’s, that valued accuracy and analysis more than literary flair. Micro-history and the much-vaunted revival of narrative in historical writing were responses to structural or quantitative history. Narrative journalism and the nonfiction short story were reactions against investigative journalism’s emphasis on fact-finding over prose style.
Both micro-histories and nonfiction short stories tend to concern themselves with the everyday experiences of ordinary people; a means of offering broader cultural interpretations, moving from events to structures. Both genres selfconsciously employ the techniques of dramatic fiction, including character development, plotting and conflict resolution. Most micro-historians and narrative journalists aspire to write narratives thickened with the butter of detail and the flour of implication.
Micro-histories and nonfiction short stories also fall prey to the same dangers. Peter Burke considered small stories’ greatest pitfall to be their tendency to focus attention on the sensational. Both academics writing micro-histories and journalists writing nonfiction short stories are drawn to the drama of murder trials, suicides, kidnapping, rapes and other miscellaneous crimes and disasters.
It’s easy to push this parallel too far. Crucial differences separate these two genres. Micro-histories are not non-fiction short stories; they are micro in focus, not in length. Journalists sometimes write about the past, but most narrative journalism, of course, is not historical.
Still, the similarities are intriguing and they raise a key question. If narrative history and narrative journalism use similar devices, consider similar subjects, and are the consequence of related trends in the politics and the arts, why then are historians and journalists not on better terms? It must be said that a great deal of the animosity so commonly expressed by academic historians towards popular history boils down to this: History books are selling like hot cakes, but journalists are making all the money.
To be fair, most historians have few intellectual objections to a rattling good history, so long as the story is told in the service of an argument. Often it isn’t. In 1992 Peter Burke warned that the revival of narrative might lead to a return to pure antiquarianism; to storytelling for its own sake. Part of what grates academic historians is that many popular histories are, from their point of view, actually miscarried micro-histories. That is, they tell a small story but fail to use that story to interpret larger historical structures. At their worst, popular histories are all headlines. They gesture at significance but fail to demonstrate it.
Far from thickly narrating a life, the worst popular histories also tend to rip people out of the past and stick them to the present. These people from different places and times, they’re just like us, only dead. Bad popular history, like bad historical novels and films, manages at once to exoticize the past. Descriptions of clothes, hairstyles, houses and the minutia of daily life are always lovingly recreated while rendering familiar the people who lived in it. Fashions changed, but complicated, historically specific ideas like sovereignty or progress or childhood magically transcend history.
It’s just this kind of writing that [Princeton University historian] Sean Wilentz condemns as passive nostalgic spectacle. But is narrative and are journalists to blame? Since both historians and journalists have embraced narrative, the line between scholarly and popular writing is now much more difficult to discern. Truman Capote is not responsible for David McCullough, but he’s not irrelevant, either.
Much history today is written under the banner of narrative. Does it inevitably render its readers passive? No, but perhaps it should. One kind of passivity, or maybe we should call it enthrallment, is a measure of success. Readers can be nearly paralyzed by compelling stories confidently told. In the hands of a good narrator, readers can be lulled into alternating states of wonder and agreement.
Storytelling is not a necessary evil in the writing of history. It’s a necessary good. Using stories to make historical arguments makes sense, because it gives a writer greater power over her reader. A writer who wants to can pummel his reader into passivity, but a writer who wants to challenge his reader betters his odds to success by telling a story.
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