Here are some basic things to avoid when writing about history. We refer not to the "don'ts" of style and grammar (on which, see Style and Editing and Basic Quoting Skills) but, rather, to larger "mindset"-related issues that can undermine the effectiveness of your writing, the validity of your claims, or the honesty of your work. There are many such "don'ts" (see also Common Fallacies, The Ethics of Quoting, and Plagiarism) but we will here highlight only three:
- Don't ignore research or evidence that runs counter to your working hypothesis. Imagine you have spent days researching a topic on which you have developed a thesis and feel just about ready to write, only to discover evidence that seriously challenges your thinking on the subject. You may be tempted to ignore this new information, to act as if it didn't exist, and to proceed with your paper just as you'd planned all along. Don't. Ignoring evidence that runs counter to your thesis is intellectually dishonest and invalidates your claims. Furthermore, engaging such contradictory evidence will have one of two desirable effects:
Either way, acknowledging and engaging inconvenient data will benefit your writing on history far more than ignoring it - which you should never do.
- it will change your way of thinking on the subject altogether (in which case, your working hypothesis was wrong - good thing you found that counter-evidence before starting to write!), or
- it will force you to acknowledge the challenge it poses to your view of things, and encourage you to strengthen your argument.
- Avoid displaying bias or prejudice in your writing. For reasons explored in our section on Bias/Prejudice, the use of epithets, slurs, and inflammatory language of any kind is of course unacceptable, as are claims designed to elevate (or demean) one social, ethnic, national, religious, or gender group as compared to another, or all others. As importantly, the use of falsified evidence, the manufacture of evidence, or - as discussed above - the omission of evidence is equally unacceptable, and often represents an attempt to justify or conceal a biased or prejudiced perspective. If you must operate from a biased perspective (which we discourage on principle) we recommend that you disclose your bias up front, in your introduction. Ideally, however, you should strive to remain open to all sides and interpretations of an issue, argument, or event.
The above two "don'ts" are matters of principle. Avoiding such behavior will protect you from being criticized for your methodology, reasoning, or ideological beliefs. (For more on such general rules, follow the link to our section on Common Fallacies.) Our final "don't" on this page is of a different sort, however, less concerned with methodological integrity than basic academic honesty (related "don'ts" are explored in the sections on The Ethics of Quoting, and Plagiarism):
- Don't hand in the same work in two (or more) different classes. Handing in the same work on multiple occasions is a common form of academic dishonesty that carries the same penalty as plagiarism. Basic rule: you can only receive credit for an assignment once. Trying to pass off a paper written (and handed in) for one course as a paper written for another is not only dishonest, it is also transparent: your professor will almost always be able to tell that such a paper was in fact not written for the class he or she is teaching. Note that a few changes to an existing paper's introduction and conclusion, and a slight change to its main body, do not make it a different paper. Remember: you can only receive credit for an assignment once.
To explore other issues related to academic honesty, go to the The Ethics of Quoting, and Plagiarism sections; to explore other "mindsets" that are best avoided when writing on history, such as those described above, go to Common Fallacies.