Example Of A History Research Paper Proposal

Effective Proposal-Writing Style (for History students)

Contributed by B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships, b-zakarin@northwestern.edu
Posted: 2010
Originally written for History students writing proposals for a senior honors thesis, but applicable to all proposal writing                  

                                                                                                                                                 printable file (Word)

Personal pronouns

Writers use first person (“I,” “my”) when discussing their own interests and plans.  This is appropriate in a research proposal because you will be admitted to the Senior Thesis Program and/or awarded a summer grant.

Well-organized paragraphs and headings

For the most part, writers use topic sentences to signal a paragraph’s key point.  That point often corresponds to a required element, such as “what I want to learn,” “what scholars have previously studied,” or “where I plan to find sources.”  Writers then add details that explain the topic sentence or argue the point it makes.  Also, paragraphs should not be overly long.

In addition to well-organized paragraphs, writers sometimes use headings to identify key sections.  Such organization is helpful because readers often skim the beginnings of sections and paragraphs to find a proposal’s main argument before they go back for details.  Headings and topic sentences highlight a proposal’s structure.

Action-Oriented sentences

A preponderance of sentences should use active voice.  In other words, sentences emphasize who (or what) performs the action:

  • My project will use…
  • The current literature does not show…
  • I contend…
  • I have prepared for this work by…
  • To answer these questions, I will analyze…
  • This project will allow me to…
  • This study focuses on…
  • Bibliographies mention…
  • I need to visit…

Active voice makes sentences shorter and clearer and makes writers sound confident.  Use passive voice when you have a legitimate reason for doing so, such as when the actor is not important or when passive voice promotes coherence.  Consider these examples from the model proposals:

  • Actor is not important
    • “Several Connecticut newspapers circulated in Windham were known for their extreme zealotry.”  It is not necessary for Alex Jarrell to say that the public knew these newspapers for their zealotry.
    • “In the 18th century, prostitutes were increasingly considered to be outside the sphere of womanhood. In the late 1760s, 2069 women were arrested.”  Who “considered” or “arrested” the women is obvious and unimportant for Arianne Urus’s purposes.
  • Promote coherence
    • “Elisabeth Julie Lacroix, for example, was a 49-year-old woman arrested in 1778, who had been abandoned by her husband, out of work four to five days, and without food for one day. Her story is replicated countless times…”  Arianne’s use of the passive voice allows her to keep the focus on Elisabeth’s story.

Active or passive voice is only an issue with action (transitive) verbs, which have objects.  Some sentences simply use state-of-being (intransitive) verbs, such as “is” or “was”:

  • “The New London Gazette is available at the Northwestern Library on microfilm.” (Alex)
  • “Martin Luther King’s status in the community was under fire.” (Casey Kuklick)

These intransitive verbs are often necessary, but in a well-written proposal, active verbs in the active voice will dominate.


Good proposal writers explain their ideas as succinctly as possible.  Most writers start with a proposal that is a little too long.  Then they solicit help from advisors and peer reviewers to trim the fat.  Along with unnecessary background information, you should be vigilant about clunky phrases and excessive qualifying words.  The following strategies for revision will help.

  • Change passive to active voice (see above) 
  • Eliminate “stretcher” sentence openings
    • Wordy: “It is these three facts that call Jones’s theory into question.”
      Concise: “These three facts call Jones’s theory into question.”
    • Wordy: “There were numerous laws in the 1890s that led to the arrests.”
      Concise: “Numerous laws in the 1890s led to the arrests.”
    • Wordy: “It is my contention in this proposal that…”
      Concise: “In this proposal, I contend that…”
    • Wordy: “It is the belief of most scholars that…”
      Concise: “Most scholars believe that…”
  • Avoid nominalizations (i.e., nouns comprised of “hidden” verbs)
    • Wordy: “This project focuses on the analysis of…”
      Concise: “This project will analyze…”
    • Wordy: “Identification and evaluation of the first problem are necessary for resolution of the second.”
      Concise: “We must identify and evaluate the first problem before we can resolve the second.”
    • Wordy: “Most critics are in agreement with this assessment.”
      Concise: “Most critics agree with this assessment.”
  • Eliminate wordy phrases that represent personal writing ticks
    • Wordy: “at this point in time”
      Concise: “now”
    • Wordy: “due to the fact that”
      Concise: “because”
    • Wordy: “at a later time”
      Concise: “later” or “next” or “then”
    • Wordy: “for the purpose of” (as in “for the purpose of determining”)
      Concise: “for” or “to” (as in “for determining” or “to determine”)
    • Wordy: “a majority of”
      Concise: “most”

Effective use of transitions

Transitional words and phrases show how sentences and ideas are related to each other.  Used correctly, they make it easier for readers to follow your argument.  The following transitions at or near the beginnings of sentences will make your logic come through clearly and coherently to readers. 

  • To show results—“therefore,” “as a result,” “consequently,” “thus,” “hence.”
  • To show addition—“moreover,” “furthermore,” “also,” “too,” “besides,” “in addition.”
  • To show similarity—“likewise,” “also,” “similarly.”
  • To show contrast—“however,” “but,” “yet,” “still,” “conversely,” “nevertheless,” “on the other hand” (if you have used “on the one hand” previously).
  • To show examples—“for example,” “for instance,” “specifically,” “as an illustration.”
  • To show sequence or time—“first,” “second,” “third”; “previously,” “now,” “finally,” “later”; “next,” “then.”
  • To show spatial relations—“on the east,” “on the west”; “left,” “right”; “close up,” “far away.”

Repetition and parallelism

As the model proposals show, it is often effective to repeat key terms and phrases:  “I will pursue research in three areas…; I will travel to X in July in order to…; I will then go to Y so that I can…“  The repetition in these sentences helps readers focus on the student’s proposed actions.



Remember, this is just a sample--don't treat it as a template or as a model that you must follow blow by blow.

The important point is that it has the 5 elements that must be in your proposal:

1. The precise question you will address in your research

2. How your question relates to issues raised/discussed by other historians who have worked on similar/related topics (what do the secondary sources say?)

3. Why this question is worth answering (from an historian's viewpoint)

4. What primary sources you will use to answer this question

5. What methods of analysis will you use to draw answers out of the primary sources.


This sample proposal does not have a bibliography--your proposal must include a bibliography (see the instructions in the syllabus!).  Also, I have formatted this so that it reads more easily on line; YOUR paper must follow the formatting guidelines in the syllabus.

This is a research proposal


Memory, Paper Trails, and the Strength of a Good Story:  How Smolensk Got Its “October”

Michael C. Hickey  

            Telling the story of Russia's October 1917 Revolution was an important instrument in the legitimation of Soviet power.  As early as the Revolution's first anniversary, a highly politicized process of myth-making had emerged.  Central to this process were the recollections of participants in the Revolution, whose stories emphasized the Communist Party's "heroic" leadership of the working class.  The importance of memoirs to revolutionary mythology has begun to draw historians' attention.  I propose to look into how a "master narrative," or put another way, an "official historical memory" of the October Revolution emerged from memoir literature in one Russian city, Smolensk.

            Published memoir sources on the 1917 Revolution in Smolensk paint a starkly different picture than that depicted in archival and contemporary press materials.  Based upon my own archival research, for instance, it is clear that soldiers loyal to the Smolensk Soviet battled troops loyal to the municipal council for control over the city on 30-31 October 1917, that the fighting ended in a draw, and that the two sides formed a coalition that ruled Smolensk through December.  Yet in memoir literature--and as a consequence in Soviet era historical writing--the events of 30-31 October 1917 became transformed.  Already by 1921, recollections of Communist functionaries had morphed this indecisive clash into a heroic victory of the proletariat over the forces of counter-revolution, which resulted in the immediate consolidation of Soviet power locally.  In 1922 the local Communist Party Historical Commission (Ispart) began collecting and disseminating such remembrances.  In 1926 Istpart drew up a program for the compilation of memoirs in preparation for the Revolution's 10th anniversary; the task of collecting participants' accounts continued through the 1930s.  From these efforts emerged a dominant master narrative--a way that the story was supposed to be told--one function of which was to legitimize Soviet rule.  This master narrative had such power that even today it structures accounts of local historians who, having rejected Communism, seek to discredit Smolensk's October as the birth of totalitarianism.

            This project addresses three issues:  the function of memoirs and official historical memory in the legitimation of Soviet power, the importance of local contexts in shaping master narratives, and the malleability of historical memory.  Only one other study has addressed the function of revolutionary memoirs in legitimizing Communist rule, Fred Corney's 1997 Columbia University dissertation.  But Corney does not investigate the role of official historical memory in asserting Soviet authority in the Russian provinces, where the Party's hold was often quite shaky.  Moreover, studies of Soviet historiography have focused almost exclusively on how national politics and official ideology influenced historical writing and have ignored local contexts.  Local issues, though, often were critical in shaping the myth history of the October Revolution in the provinces.  To understand how the story of Smolensk's October came into being, I am looking at local contests over the legitimacy of memory and personal authority and at gaps in the documentation available to local historians.  Finally, this research fits into broader discussions of the nature and malleability of historical memory.

            Ispart materials in the Center for Documentation of the Recent History of the Smolensk Region (TsDNISO) make it possible to explore these three issues.  In summer 1998 I worked with local Ispart materials at TsDNISO, as part of my large project on the 1917 Revolution.  I found more than 50 files containing manuscript drafts of memoirs, as well as correspondence detailing ongoing conflicts over collecting and editing memoirs.  But I had time to read only half of these.  I intend to complete work in these files on a research trip to Smolensk in July 1999, during which I will also order microfilm copies of several memoirs for later review.  This research will involve close reading of manuscript drafts and published versions of memoirs to determine what sorts of editorial changes were made, when, and by whom.  It will also involve analyzing Ispart correspondence to determine how directives from above influenced the collection and publication of historical memoirs, and scrutinizing internal Ispart correspondence to determine how issues such as the personality and personal authority of memoirists shaped this process.  In particular, I will address the following questions:  What guidelines for the collection and editing of memoirs did Communist Party officials provide to Smolensk Ispart, and what editorial guidelines were determined locally?  What kinds of editorial changes did Ispart make to manuscript drafts of memoirs and why?  To what extent did issues of personality and the political authority of various memoirists influence the Ispart committee's editorial decisions?  How did published memoirs differ from their manuscript versions and what changes appeared in the course of republication in other venues at other times?  And finally, how did the Smolensk Ispart committee address problems created by "blank spots" in documentation?

            This project involves two components:  research in Ispart archival records, and writing up the results.  I will conduct research in Smolensk during a single week in July 1999.  As I have already worked in local Ispart materials and have the relevant file (delo) numbers for TsDNISO fond 7 (the Ispart record group), I can begin work on the project immediately upon arriving in Smolensk.  Given the close reading that I am proposing, I will need to have microfilm copies made of several longer handwritten memoir manuscripts.  Microfilm (about 50 cents per page) is far more cost effective than photocopying at the archive (a minimum of $2 per page).  I have good relations with local archivists, and access to materials and provision of microfilm copies is assured.  The archive will deliver microfilms to me via the International Research and Exchanges Board in Washington DC, as it has routinely over the past five years.  I will begin writing in September 1999, and I am scheduled to deliver a version of this paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies conference in November 1999.  I will then revise the paper for submission to the journal Revolutionary Russia in January 2000.

REMEMBER that you must include a bibliography that follows the guidelines in the syllabus and the follows the bibliography format in the Rampolla book!







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