Metahistory Writing Guide

Metahistory, as you all already know, is an introductory guide to historiography in the form of essays on various historiographical topics. Some essays talk about broad historiographical change over a long period of time, others focus on a particular idea or person that shaped the research and writing of history. Whatever the topic of the essay, and however broad or narrow the scope, you should make sure the historiographical significance of the topic is clear throughout the essay.

Contributing an essay to the collection is not only an exercise in historiography but also an exercise in public history. Reducing a complicated set of ideas (indeed, historiography can be an abstract subject that’s hard to grasp at first) to their essence and presenting them to a general audience is a widely applicable skill in any career. Your target audience is someone looking to learn about “the history of history”, but doesn’t necessarily know anything about historiography in the way we’ve discussed it. Make sure you keep your target audience in mind and indicate the significance of people, places, ideas, and institutions, etc, that you bring into your essay.

This writing guide is a basically a checklist of things to keep in mind while you’re writing and revising. It is also a kind of checklist to use during the peer review process.


  • ~2300–2500 words
  • ~3-5 appropriate and well-captioned images
  • ~10–12 relevant sources, with correctly formatted citations and bibliography
  • Shows significant research on your topic outside of course sources
  • Written in a clear, accessible style (no jargon) that follows the Readability Checklist
  • Submitted (via pull request) By December 13.

General writing advice

  • Have a clear beginning and end in mind. Divide up everything in between into discrete steps (paragraphs) that logically move from one to the next to advance the story, inform the reader, and hold their interest.
  • Focus your paragraphs: Paragraphs are visual representations of ideas, so each paragraph should have one main idea that is connected to what comes before and after it.
  • Weed out the fluff! Remove extra words or sentences that don’t really add anything new or serve a necessary purpose.
  • Give specific examples to illustrate your broader points.

So What Question

Make sure your essay both very near the beginning and at the end makes it very clear what the reader is meant to take away as the main point(s). In other words, the essay needs to very obviously answer the SO WHAT question. Your essay probably already has a clear statement to this effect somewhere in the essay although it might be a bit buried or needs some clarification.


Accessibility of these essays for the average college student learning about historiography is our main goal. When revising your own or someone else’s essay, rephrase any sentences that are too long or too hard to follow. That said, we don’t want overly simplistic writing, either. You don’t have to write the perfect sentence (although that’s always the goal), but when revising or editing, make sure you’re thinking about EVERY sentence and whether it could be a little clearer. Just leave it better than you found it. Sometimes stepping back and rewriting a sentence or two and paraphrasing is the fastest way to improve clarity.

Let’s assume that potential readers are going to quickly skim the page to decide if it’s worth reading. A few things can help draw readers in:

Meaningful headings

Overly general or clever headings are usually more confusing than helpful. If you find a heading that is more a pun than a guide to the main concept in the section, opt for clarity!

First sentences

Informative first sentences in each paragraph helps give the reader a quick overview. If the gist of the essay isn’t clear from just skimming the first sentences, there is room for improvement. The first or second sentence of each paragraph should make it clear what idea will be developed in the paragraph. Paragraphs are visual representations of ideas, so each paragraph should have one main idea connected to what comes before and after it.

Paragraph lengths

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with long paragraphs, but long paragraphs are quite difficult to read on a screen. Giant blocks of text are also rather off-putting to new readers. It is often very easy to make one large paragraph into two or three without much or any additional editing.

Attention to detail

Make sure your essay is free of typos, sentence fragments, and simple sentences. These make your essay harder to read and calls your authority and trustworthiness into question. If you can’t be bothered to write clear sentences, maybe you didn’t do very good research, either.

Clean typography

Most of the typography is standardized, but be careful of too much bold or italics. Remove anything that doesn’t need to be there and/or is distracting. Sometimes bolded statements could be moved into a pull quote.

Avoid exuberant linking

Reading an essay with lots of links to external websites is distracting and generally unhelpful. People know how to search for what they want to learn more about.

Be explicit

Every person, place, thing, concept mentioned in the essay should be there for a reason, and that reason should be explicitly spelled out. Make sure all people get a very brief introduction (even in passing); you should assume that readers don’t know anyone you’re talking about. Use links to trusted academic sources or even good Wikipedia pages, but links are no substitute for basic introductions.

Here’s an example of expanding an important point that is way too compressed into something longer but much clearer. Obviously you’re not going to do this sort of thing for every sentence, but if you can do it for the most important points, readers will get a lot more out of your essay and come away with a very different perspective and appreciation of history!


Augustine’s City of God made history of human affairs seem less important because we are all simply living out God’s preordained plan.


St. Augustine (354–430), regarded as one of the most important Church fathers and early Christian theologians, suggested that the history of human affairs was less relevant than Biblical history because humans are simply living out God’s preordained plan. This view emerges in part from his classic work City of God, written to show that Christianity was not responsible for the fall of Rome, and that we are merely passing through the temporal and corrupt Earthly City on our way (with proper behavior) to the eternal and perfect City of God.


Even if somewhat gratuitous, images make the essays WAY more interesting. Include 3–5 relevant images that you can freely use (from sites like Wikimedia Commons).

Don’t worry about images when doing the revision assignment, since we’ll cover those later.

Image Captions

For all images (new or existing), make sure they have informative captions that explicitly connect the image to the topic of the. Good captions might be two or three (short) sentences long and make an important point that is fleshed out in the essay. Readers should be able to understand some of the most important points in your essay just by reading captions! And hopefully they will be intrigued enough to read the essay itself.


Metahistory is meant to be a trusted academic resource. Historical summary or historiographical claims must include parenthetical citations to reputable sources with precise and unambiguous citations. Reputable sources means academic peer-reviewed publications. I don’t need to tell you not to use random websites, but I’ll mention it just to be thorough.


  • Use the format of (Author-last-name, page-number). No p. or pg. or pp. or any other abbreviations; just put the page number.
  • Make sure the author name is spelled correctly!
    • EXAMPLE: His drive to list his sources was “not moved by ‘scientific’ motives but by his respect for the authority of the source and the awareness that… to distort a document would damage the truthfulness expected of a writer on sacred subjects” (Breisach, 96).
  • When an electronic source lacks page numbers, try to include information that will help readers find the passage being cited. Use a section name, or a paragraph number (para. 1), or a combination of these. If there are too many paragraphs to count, just cite the author’s last name.
    • EXAMPLE: According to Smith, blah blah blah (Smith, Mind Over Matter section, para. 6). According to Jones, yadda yadda yadda (Jones).
  • Note that even if you mention the author by name in your prose, you should still repeat it in the citation.


  • Use standard Chicago style citations for your bibliography. See the bibliography entries at the Chicago Manual of Style Online.
  • The bibliography should include only those sources directly cited. If something is important, find a way to cite it.
  • DO NOT include URLs or DOIs, unless the original is only online and there is no print version.
  • EXAMPLE: Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • The newest guidelines specify that place of publication (usually a city) is OPTIONAL, so let’s leave them out. They aren’t really important for modern books, which what we’ll be using.