Information for Students

Writing Guidelines

When evaluating an essay, I look at each of these aspects:

Clarity of Thesis

All papers must have a purpose -- they must have something to say. Make sure that every writing assignment you submit has a clear statement of intent, early in the paper. State your argument or thesis; maintain your focus on that argument throughout the duration of the essay; and make sure that all aspects of the argument are supported with appropriate evidence. Always consider counter-arguments and other perspectives, and demonstrate why yours is better.

Assignment Objectives

Each assignment has specific guidelines, with regard to page length, sorts of evidence to use, questions to answer, or issues to consider. Papers that do not follow the specified guidelines, no matter how creative or inspired, will not earn good grades. Follow directions!

Use of Evidence

Everyone has an opinion on everything, but few can marshall evidence to support what they think. You must always demonstrate in each written assignment why you think the way you do, and you must persuade the reader that you have good reason for thinking in such a way. Never assume that your reader already knows all the evidence, or why it can be interpreted in the way you do. It is your job as a writer to support what you are trying to say, not the reader's to figure it out on her own.


This is often the hardest part of an assignment, but it is absolutely the most important. A historian's job is not merely to tell a narrative of the past, but also to explain why that story is important, why anyone should care, what the story means. In trying to understand the past, there are many things that must be taken into consideration in order to create an accurate depiction. Currently in the discipline of history, scholars must address issues of class/status, gender, or race in their analysis, as well as general social or cultural contexts.


People don't often think of history as a creative endeavor; rather, they think of it as more of a precise, "scientific" field (as if scientists can't be creative!). But historians all the time come up with innovative topics or methods, or ways of presenting historical information in imaginative ways. There are many potential ways to construct a viable topic or to present an interpretation. While there are certain expectations for each assignment that must be met, I am also open to alternative methods of presentation. I also reward topics that are genuinely original, things that are not obvious but worth exploring. Just to give you a hint: when I required students in my premodern Japan class to write their own plays, the best paper I received was about Janis Joplin.

Presentation (Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation)

You simply must pay attention to how your ideas are presented. I am distracted by frequent typos and grammatical errors and find it impossible either to pay attention to the quality of your ideas or even to take them seriously when they are presented in sloppy prose. You must proofread your essays carefully before submitting them. By all means use the writing resources available on campus to eliminate as many of these errors as possible.

Word Usage

Don't try using vocabulary words that you don't fully understand. Use language that is appropriate, even if not fancy. And by the way, peasants are farmers, pheasants are birds.

Sentence Construction

Make sure that all of your sentences have verbs and that the clauses all hang together right. Run-on sentences are common in my students' papers a run-on sentence is one sentence that actually consists of two sentences put together without punctuation between them (did you catch that?). DON'T DO IT.

Organization and Transitions

To be entirely persuasive and effective, papers must have a logical flow and progression of ideas. It is always a good idea to start with an outline, to get a feel for how assertions flow from one another, where the best place to put supporting evidence is, and how to transition from one thought to the next. It is frustrating to read papers that have genuinely good ideas which are placed randomly or haphazardly throughout the paper or in no clear sequence.

Sources and Citation Style

Each paper must make use of appropriate sources (textbooks are generally not appropriate sources -- always use primary sources whenever possible), and these must be cited in a consistent style using an approved format. I'm generally flexible as to which format you use, but most historians now use the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.

Writing resources

About grades

Grading rubric

Accumulate learning by study, understand what you learn by questioning.

—Mingjiao, Jiufeng Annals

Better than if there were thousands of meaningless words is one meaningful word that on hearing brings peace.

—The Buddha, Dhammapada 100

E. Taylor Atkins


E. Taylor Atkins
NIU Department of History
Zulauf 702
DeKalb, IL 60115



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