Writing by Formula: Primary Source Analysis

It’s no secret that historical writing, or indeed structured analytical writing, can be formulaic. Sure, as historians we tell stories, and that is an important part of our relationship to the public, each other, and our students.

But when it comes to teaching writing to undergraduates, it’s also no secret that imparting the skills of analytical writing can be daunting, demanding, and sometimes downright frustrating and futile. Having conducted countless in-class writing workshops, I nevertheless always receive student essays that exhibit little to no semblance of the skills and methods I tried to impart.

In a fit of frustration having graded yet another round of papers — where the students were interested in the subject but struggling with mechanics of essay writing — I spent Christmas Eve 2011 (I know, I know…) coming up with a formula for a simple 3-4 page primary source analysis. I included a detailed process, and even wrote a sample essay.

The Process

Step One:

Select a Primary Source from the list of sources handed out in class.

Read through your primary source. What does it say? Are there quotes or images that stand out to you? List key examples and quotes you find interesting. Where does the author or artist make his/her key argument? (These will become Examples 1 – 7 for your paper. You should list more than 7 in your list to have a decent selection from which to choose in Step Three).

Step Two:

Review your list of examples and brainstorm the connections you can make to the historical context. What larger themes or ideas that you’ve studied in class connect to the image? Identify other sources to help explain the text (consult your textbook and class notes, or other primary sources from the era). Create a page of notes (with citation information) to help analyze the primary source.

Step Three:

Identify three connections between the primary source and the historical context.

    • (Example: The Tarzan cover reflects several impulses that lay behind America’s experiment with Imperialism: (A) the idea of the white man’s burden, (B) a fascination with primitive masculinity, and (C) helps explain why leaders like Teddy Roosevelt believed that the United States should take an active role in world affairs alongside other great powers).

Create an outline of these ideas (A, B, and C). Go back to your list from Step One and identify which examples will best support each of these points. Consult your list of resources from Step Two and add these sources to your outline.

Step Four:

Write the paper according to the formula provided

The Formula

The formula was specific, detailed, and elaborate. It featured a sentence-by-sentence structure, and included where to use primary source evidence, where to bring in the secondary sources, and where to cite. I even specified style settings and fonts. See the Primary Source Analysis Formula document itself.

Doubt Ensues

Having spent a few hours crafting this document, I was then seized by several anxieties about actually using it in the classroom. Wouldn’t this impart the wrong lesson to my students — telling them that there is only one way to write, to think, and that it has to be MY way? Wouldn’t it squash any creative thinking they might have had about a subject to begin with? Most of all, maybe my formula stinks. Maybe it’s not the best way to even go about this assignment — I could envision myriad versions of this formula, each as useful (or limiting) as the next.

What to do?

I decided I couldn’t give up — something had inspired my creation, and I decided it was worth pursuing.

So I printed it up and handed it out to students, indicating it was a guideline, or handbook, to writing the first paper. I didn’t require that they use it, but I used an in-class writing workshop to go through the process steps as outlined.


Well, it was my own fault. I didn’t require that they use the formula — so guess what? They didn’t use the formula.

But. I did receive better papers. The least successful papers resembled those I had received in the past, but the better papers were, well, better. And the students that did use the formula (there were a few) turned in the most creative and most specific papers I have ever received. Even the papers that diverged from the formula came out better than papers in past.

I asked a few students who used the formula religiously for some feedback. One student wrote:

The guide was extremely helpful for me, especially the format for the introduction and thesis which I generally have trouble with. It was great to know exactly what we were to be graded on and how you preferred the paper to be set up. …I also found the example paper you posted on Blackboard and the Tarzan example that was presented in class to be very useful as models for the paper.

Yes, the feedback indicates that students just want to “do what we want,” suggesting a sense that professors have arbitrary hoops for students to jump through. But, her thesis was good; it did the job and clearly structured her paper. And she was able to break through a past roadblock to writing: creating an introduction and thesis. Her thesis:

“The lyrics of the song “The Temperance Army” reflect the swell of support received by the movement to “march on” towards total prohibition. The music exposes the Christian context of the temperance effort, emphasizes the new role of women as leaders within the movement, and displays the advancement of temperance as an unstoppable force. The lyrics do not display the negative implications of the elimination of alcohol, but show an overall promotion of the temperance movement and its growing strength.”

The paragraphs followed this structure, and used specific evidence from the song she chose as well as clear contextual information and analysis to support her reading of the source. One supporting paragraph included the following:

“Led primarily by members of religious organizations, the anti-alcohol movement utilized Christianity as a motive for convincing citizens of the evils of the drink and its parallel damages to society. The first lyrics of the song proclaim “Now the temp’rance army’s marching/With the Christian’s armor on/Love our motto, Christian Captain/Prohibition is our song!”[1]. There is a blatant emphasis on the guidance of God in the temperance supporter’s quest to rid our nation of the sin of intoxication. The “Christian Captain” is a reference to God as a leader-figure of the temperance army and the reason behind their actions. People of faith believed that salvation was the solution to the evils of the drink, and that by enacting laws to prevent its consumption, we would perfect a moral society that lacks the violence and disarray that results from intoxication[2].”

Feedback from students included the sense that the formula, rather than being restrictive, gave them a better ability to think more creatively about the materials, and most of all helped with writer’s block. One student remarked that she would spend what seemed like hours staring at a blank Word document lost about where to start. Another student said that he found it much easier to focus on fixing his grammar with this formula.

I found that the grammar and word usage remained the same for these essays, still needed work, but that with their ideas more easily structured, these essays were easier to grade. At first, I was surprised at receiving such well structured papers that I almost didn’t see some of the errors. After a second reading it became easier, however, to focus more on the content of their essays.

This last result suggested that my experiment might be more useful than my doubts suggested: by helping students overcome the structure roadblocks to writing, I was better able to hone in on the specific historical skills I was trying to get at in the first place. It became easier to point out facile connections or where analysis could be enhanced or more nuanced.

Thus, my experiments with writing by formula will continue. The formula itself could use some revisions, as could the sample paper I wrote. But as a tool for survey students, I think the formula has merit, though in limited application. I would hate for students to think that all writing can be accomplished by formulas such as this, but if they can’t formulate a workable thesis based on connections they make between sources and context, then the space for creative thinking is much smaller. Later posts will examine how I built on these skills in later assignments.

[1] Kieffer, The Temperance Army, (Cleveland, Brainard’s Son’s, 1874) pg 1

[2] Katherine Jewell Class Lecture 2/13/12

7 responses to “Writing by Formula: Primary Source Analysis”

  1. This is really excellent, Kate. I think I’ll adapt it for my students struggling with their first (or second, or third…) essays in philosophy. Although I appreciate your concerns about stifling creativity, I also think you’re absolutely right that our first and primary responsibility is to teach our students how to write clear, coherent, well-supported argumentative essays. I also found it telling that many of your students found the explicit guidelines ‘liberating.’ Anyway, thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks, David! It will be interesting to see how the students react when I require the formula. I look at this exercise like writing free verse (wasn’t it T.S. Eliot who made a comment like this? e.e. cummings?) — that to write free verse you must write a thousand sonnets and throw them away. You have to master the “rules” in order to break them. Again, I get nervous about stating the rules SO specifically, but if it clears through blockages in skills quickly and moves them more towards the content and critical thinking, I think there is value here.

  2. I just found your blog and this piece. Best thing about it? I and several of my colleagues have been working on similar ideas and ours is almost exactly as you’ve written yours. Brilliant! In regards to your “doubt” section – when teaching historical writing skills to my students, I call it the Craft and the Art. Like many skills, learning the craft of the skill is an important basic, and for some people, it is all they will ever need. But, once one has learned the craft, then the art can take hold and the formulas become fantastic. I’m in Colorado, so I use snowboarding as my example – anyone can learn to snowboard in about 3 days – this is craft. But to be truly good, to be an artist, one needs years of practice and study – but at the heart of every trick, every fantastic spin and flip is still the craft of the sport. Good historical writing is like that for me.

    Thanks for this; it was really wonderful to find!

    1. Thanks so much! I’m glad to hear the formula was in line with what you all came up with, and it was good to hear your thoughts on craft. I may incorporate some of that this next semester!

  3. as a student who has been struggling to write this paper (now due tomorrow) this was a life saver. in high school I was very good at writing essays but mainly because I knew exactly what was expected, no one in college ever said hey is you structure it like this and use these things you will get an A. and have been searching for something like this all week to help m thank you so much for the advice!

  4. Hi Katherine, I came upon your website while looking for an alternative assignment to the usual extended book review essays I assign — unfortunately the last batch I graded this fall were depressingly bad. Your structured approach makes a lot of sense and hopefully can eliminate some of the problems my students seem to be having in writing about history. I’m eager to see what effect a more guided approach will have — I hope you don’t mind if I poach and adapt this. Thanks! 🙂

    If you don’t mind me asking, could you possibly provide a little more detail about the in-class document example and example paper that you provided your students? I assume you incorporated an image or a short document into your regular lecture, yes? Did you compose a complete paper and did you read through it with the students or did you just direct them to read it on their own?

    I’m already getting excited about mixing things up in my spring courses and can envision a number of great documents to use with this assignment. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Hi Ken — I gave them the sample paper I wrote and highlighted some of the features that structured it. (It was on a New Deal cartoon). And please, feel free to adapt and implement!

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