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Primary Source Essay Samples

Writing a Source Analysis Paper: The Ten-Step Process

There are many things that go into writing a good source analysis paper. One might compare it to building a house. Think about it: if you do not take the time to plan for construction, the house will fall. Writing a good thought paper is similar. Here is a ten-step process to help you write a better source analysis paper. These guidelines will help you in writing any short essay.

1) Before reading the documents, write down the assigned question that you are going to address in your paper. Read this question several times to yourself. The purpose of this exercise is to get you thinking about what your answer will be, before you begin reading.
2) Read the documents. Meanwhile, jot down any evidence from the documents that you might want to use in the paper.
3) Write a thesis statement that answers the assigned question.
4) Write down several sub-themes that you would like to address in the paper. Initially, write as many as you think of. Then pick the two most interesting subthemes that you would like to discuss.
5) Write an outline, like one listed below. After completing this outline, you'll find that the paper is virtually written. All you have to do now is write the first draft.

Suggested Source Analysis Paper Format:

A. Introductory paragraph

1. Write a lead sentence that gains the reader's attention. Example: When speaking of families, it is important not to neglect the issue of sexual behavior.
2. Introduce your thesis or primary argument. Example: The American Revolutionary War was less of a social revolution than it was a fight for economic autonomy.
3. Introduce sub-arguments or sub-themes that you are going to use to support your thesis.

B. Body of the paper

1. Discuss the sub-themes that you identified in the introductory paragraph, in separate paragraphs.
2. Write down page numbers of the book (document reader or textbook) that you're going to use to support these sub-themes.

C. Conclusion

1. Restate your thesis and sub-themes.
2. Write any closing comments.

6) Write the first draft of the paper.
7) After you've completed writing the first draft, the hard part begins. Yes, it's time to proofread.
8) When proofreading, you want to correct several things, which I've listed below:

Spelling—Most word processors have a spell-checking feature, but do not rely heavily on them. Use a dictionary, to correct any words that you are not sure about.

Usage—Be sure that you are using the word that you intend to use correctly.
Examples: there/their/they're, no/know, it's/its, lead/led, or any other homonym

Punctuation—Use periods, commas, semi-colons, colons, em-dashes (two hyphens), when necessary.
Verb tense—to improve the flow of your writing, choose a tense (i.e., past, present, future) and stick with it. Most historical writing speaks of figures from the past in the past tense ("John Hancock said...").

Paragraph construction—Think of each paragraph that you write as presenting a complete idea. Thus, you want to form a topic sentence that each subsequent sentence relates to. Then you want to make sure that the last sentence of each paragraph, flows into the first sentence of the following paragraph.

Words of hesitation—Try to eliminate words that connote a sense of hesitation (e.g., maybe, might, perhaps, possibly) unless you absolutely have to use them as qualifying language.

For more thorough editing, see the Style Sheet guidelines and the Paper Writing study aid.

9) After proofreading for these things, go back, and read your paper aloud. This process will allow you to hear any inconsistency that you did not pick up earlier when reading silently. Meanwhile, ask yourself the following questions:

a. Do my thesis, sub-themes, and conclusion make sense?
b. Do I support all of the statements that I've made with evidence from the readings?

10) This last step is probably the most important. Have someone else read your paper. Often a fresh eye will catch things that you did not. I will be happy to read drafts of your paper during my office hours.

Congratulations! You're ready to turn in your paper.

This paper authored by John Grant and modified by Sally Hadden and Robert Berkhofer.


[I. Picking a Source]
[II. Researching and Writing][Style and Grammar]
[III. Citation Standards and Academic Integrity]
[IV. Peer Review Assignments]

Your goal in this assignment is to write a short summary analysis of a primary document relevant to the course that you have picked out yourself from the historical record, and then place it in its secondary literature and historical context. Your essay should be between 400 and 470 words long, not including footnotes. It will need to have at least two scholarly sources (including one book) other than the original document. These will need to be cited in correct format (see below.) The submitted version should be typed, double or 1.5 line spaced, left-justified, with margins of at least 1.25 inches on the left and right sides. A copy of your primary source should be attached to the essay, but you will not need to attach copies of any secondary materials. Because the essay will have footnotes (or endnotes) it will not be necessary to include a separate bibliography of sources consulted. Your final essay will be shared with the other participants in this class and may be used as a component part of the final examination.

I. Picking a Source:

The primary source can be related to almost any topic that interests you and that is relevant to the course. You should look for areas that match your passions, career interests, hobbies, or "research questions of your life." You may find it helpful to look at the list of sub-genres of history that we used earlier in the term. There are all kinds of potential documents related to business, politics, the emergence of science, medicine, religion, technology, sports, family, and just about anything else you can imagine. The main restrictions are that the document has to come from North America, it has to have been created before the year 1877, and it cannot be a document that is already well-known or that has been written about extensively by historians. (See below for more detailed rules about permissible texts.) If you are unsure about what counts as a primary source it may prove helpful to review the Brief Guide to Sources that we read for the Mexican encounter primary source exercise.

Eligible primary sources for the project can be located on the Library of Congress American Memory Database, the American Periodicals Series, the National Archives Founders Online, or the Archives Canada collections. Participants with appropriate intermediate to advanced language skills are encouraged to consider materials from the Archive General de la Nación México, The Biblioteca Collection: "500 Anos de México en Documentos", the Bilioteca Digital Mexicana, or the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec. We have a library guide with lists of other primary source collections specific to this assignment that may also be used. You may identify and use a primary document from another source with advance permission from the instructor. Sources with a family connection or from your home town could potentially be candidates.

The source must be either an eyewitness account of some important event, process, or social condition in North America between 1400-1877, or an historically-relevant creative work from the period and places covered in this course such as artwork, maps, music, or economic data, that speaks to the processes and issues of the course. The publication date of the source must be within these dates. Examples of plausible primary materials might include a letter where someone describes a new settlement or some interesting event or happening, an extended diary entry describing daily life at some period in the course, an account of a traveller describing their visit to some community, a political cartoon depicting some important issue or conflict, a newspaper account of some major event or disaster, a photograph of some interesting subject, or some sheet music that speaks to the values, beliefs, or ideas of people from the period. Sources involving multiple countries might be especially worth considering. You may not use documents that are relatively common and widely known. The Salem Witch Trials, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, or Andrew Jackson's bank veto message will not make for a very original write-up. Seek instead to find something that you or the rest of the class would not have encountered in some other context. Your source should be relatively brief (no more than 10-15 pages, or perhaps a chapter from a book), but long enough and sufficiently detailed so that you can meaningfully describe and contextualize it. Be careful to avoid secondary or tertiary accounts, even those published in the period covered by the course.

You will be asked to come up with a list of three or four potential sources a week before the final assignment is due. This list will need to include a short description of each document, along with a complete citation to it in Chicago Style format, and a short statement of why it interests you or might be worthy for this assignment. You will get feedback about whether or not each of these are permissible and appropriate for the assignment. Once permission has been granted you may proceed with final work on the assignment.

II. Researching and Writing the Essay:

The essay should accomplish two goals. First, it should accurately describe the source contents to someone who cannot see or read the document in question. Review your notes from earlier in the term about things to think about when reading and describing primary sources. Be sure, too, to consider the questions you worked through in the Understanding How Primary Sources... were Produced handout from our Mexican encounters exercise. Who were the audiences? What goals was the author seeking to accomplish? What were his or her major points or emphases? What didn't the author say that might have been included? How did Wheel of Identity factors shape the contents? Second, you should place the document into its historical context. What was going on in North America at the time your source was written or created? (See this list of timelines or try typing in just the year as a Google search term.) What was going on in the community in which your source was created? What important themes, trends, concepts, or consequences does it illustrate? What do we know about the world from examining this source that we didn't know or understand before encountering it? What things make this document significant and worthy of someone else's attention? Tell us everything you can think of that makes this document historically significant, with some attention to priority and ranking of these factors.

The research steps you followed in the scavenger hunt assignment will be essential for contextualizing your source with the most authoritative secondary sources. You will need a minimum of two or more peer-reviewed scholarly secondary sources, in addition to your primary source. You will be graded on the relevance, quality, recency, and scholarly credibility of ones you end up using. You will want to find the best sources, in other words, not just the first one you happen to find that came up in your first keyword search. Before settling on any particular source, be sure to look at its first few footnotes. These will often point to the works that are most definitive in the field. If the work does not have footnotes or bibliography it is probably not credible. Be sure, too, to look at the "articles that cite this article" function for more recent works that may be far more up-to-date. Any secondary source dating from before 1975 will probably not be current. Be very confident that nothing newer exists before relying on these older materials.

Do not hesitate to take advantage of the services of Furman's Writing and Media Lab. Once you have completed a draft you are likely to find it useful to work through the performing a writing self-assessment process available on the Northwestern University writing center's website. Be sure, too, that you have worked through the brief Williams U. guide to "Quoting, Summarizing, and Paraphrasing" (Chicago Style version).

Below I have listed a few of my personal peccadilloes about style and grammar. Using your word processor's search function it should take no more than thirty minutes to check and correct any problems. I will examine each essay carefully for these problems.

  1. The essay asks and answers a good question. A clear, original, non-obvious, and defensible interpretive viewpoint is essential.
  2. Write concisely.
  3. Avoid passive constructions such as "it was," and "it has been." You must tell explicitly who is doing the thing you describe.
  4. Like hot pepper sauce, quotations should be used wisely and sparingly.
  5. Normally, you should paraphrase rather than directly quote scholarly secondary sources.
  6. Normally, do not use "I" in formal writing. Declarative sentences are more effective. We will know from the essay format that this is your own viewpoint.
  7. Sentences that combine commentary or analysis with precise descriptive information are a plus.
  8. Strive for gender-neutral phrasing.
  9. Do not start sentences with the word "however."
  10. The following words or expressions are powerless and inaccurate. Do not use them:
    1. obviously
    2. in terms of
    3. certain, certainly
    4. basically
    5. "on a ____ basis"
    6. feels, felt
    7. in-depth
    8. deals with, dealt with
    9. dominate (adjective), when you mean dominant
    10. Throughout history
  11. Avoid qualifiers. Words such as "somewhat," "literally," and "definitely." are right out.
  12. Centuries ("the 1700s") are plural, not possessive. Do not use an apostrophe.
  13. Do not say "SUccession" when you mean the SEcession of the Confederate states.
  14. Do not use postal abbreviations for states (write "North Carolina," not NC).
  15. Woe and doom unto essays that include text messaging abbreviations.
  16. Always use the past tense when describing events in the past.
  17. Be accurate in your terminology.
  18. Do not use offensive, pejorative, or outmoded terms such as "linthead," "redneck," "Yankee", "wetback," "chink," "Redskin," "Wussy," or "Negro" unless directly quoting a source. It may be better to avoid them entirely.
  19. Before critiquing the author's argument be sure you understand it.

III. Citation and Academic Integrity

Both primary and secondary sources must be properly documented using the Chicago Humanities Notes style (author name in normal order) for endnotes. All of the standard academic integrity guidelines for this course and for Furman University are in effect for this assignment. You will fail the assignment if there are any problems with plagiarism, inadequate documentation, or any other academic integrity problems, and you may be subject to other penalties as well. If you have even the slightest question about what constitutes plagiarism, please consult Furman's Integrity website. We expect that you will get most of your ideas from other people, and that is a good thing. Just do not copy or take credit for it without correct acknowledgment.

Correct formatting of notes is critical. Most importantly, proper footnoting helps focus your attention on how you think and what brought you to the conclusions you arrived at. It also helps you to give appropriate credit for the work of others. Below is a quick reference list of example footnotes that may prove helpful. Footnotes need to be numbered sequentially, using arabic numerals. Notes can be placed at the bottom of the page or the end of the paper. Additional works cited or bibliography pages are neither needed nor wanted for this assignment.

For this type:Use the Footnote Citation Form in this column:
Book1Kent Masterson Brown, Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander, (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1993), 142-156.
Same book, next footnote2Ibid., 256-267.
Same book, later note, not immediately following (the short book or article title is mandatory)13Brown, Cushing, 154.
Scholarly Article4Bruce Tap, "'These devils are not fit to live on God's earth': War Crimes and the Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1864-1865," Civil War History 42 (June 1996), 116-132.
Primary source, in collected letters or papers5Abraham Lincoln to Charles D. Robinson, 17 August 1864, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (11 vols., New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 7: 500.
Primary source, accessed from a digital collection or database6"Speech of Gov. O.P. Morton, at Rockville, Indiana," The Liberator, 30 August 1861, (American Periodicals Series).
Primary source, accessed from a digital collection or database (example #2)7Sam Aleckson, Before the War, and After the Union. An Autobiography (Boston: Gold Mind, 1929), 34-56. (digital version at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South).
Newspaper8Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury, 17 March 1857.
Source quoted in another source9Edgefield, South Carolina, Advertiser, 28 May 1856, quoted in Elizabeth Varon, Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 270.
Internet10Smithsonian Institution, "1846: Portrait of the Nation," http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/1846/index.htm; accessed 24 January 2013.
(The date should be the date you consulted the source. Use your browser's information function to determine this. Because sites change frequently this date is mandatory.)
Multiple references
combined (typically
for a note at the end of a paragraph.)
11Ibid.; Tap, "Committee on the Conduct of the War," 130-32; Brown, Cushing, 45-56; Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury, 17 March 1857.
12"Stevens, Thaddeus," s.v., Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=S000887, accessed 16 April 2011.
(Note that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source. Where possible and appropriate, you should consult the sources the encyclopedia writer used, rather than relying on these third-hand sources.)

IV: Peer Review Process:

Once your essay is in final form will be evaluated by two of your classmates in a peer review process. You must complete the peer reviews of your classmate's work in order to pass the assignment.

Peer pairings are as follows:

The essay written by:Will be reviewed byAnd will also be reviewed by
Gordon AbercrombieJulia GranatoHolden Jain
Mac BarrettLogan HallHaley Mills
Hannah BartonKeller HarperMadi Neesmith
Caleb CrowePatrick HerefordSavannah Plemmons
Jay DesaiIzzy HernandezSpencer Richardson
Rob EdmondsonKevin HoffmeisterBrady Schuck
Caroline FlemingGentry HuddlestonMadeline Schumaker
Julia GranatoHolden JainVanessa Torres-Santana
Logan HallHaley MillsAnnie Weaver
Keller HarperMadi NeesmithSarah Wilson
Patrick HerefordSavannah PlemmonsGordon Abercrombie
Izzy HernandezSpencer RichardsonMac Barrett
Kevin HoffmeisterBrady SchuckHannah Barton
Gentry HuddlestonMadeline SchumakerCaleb Crowe
Holden JainVanessa Torres-SantanaJay Desai
Haley MillsAnnie WeaverRob Edmondson
Madi NeesmithSarah WilsonCaroline Fleming
Savannah PlemmonsGordon AbercrombieJulia Granato
Spencer RichardsonMac BarrettLogan Hall
Brady SchuckHannah BartonKeller Harper
Madeline SchumakerCaleb CrowePatrick Hereford
Vanessa Torres-SantanaJay DesaiIzzy Hernandez
Annie WeaverRob EdmondsonKevin Hoffmeister
Sarah WilsonCaroline FlemingGentry Huddleston

To review an author's primary source essay, copy and paste the following checklist into a word processing file. Then complete the questions. Once you have reviewed each document, please e-mail a copy of your review to the author. Please e-mail copies of both of your reviews to the instructor. Please complete these in time for your authors to make appropriate revisions.

Peer Review:

  1. Your name, the author's name, and the document title are:

  2. The essay is properly cited using the Chicago Notes style. Either footnotes or end-notes are acceptable.
    Circle one: [no; needs some improvement; satisfactory; exceptional].
    List all specific problems:

  3. The author consulted at least two or more peer-reviewed scholarly secondary sources. At least one of these was a book-length monograph (not a book review) from a university press or its equivalent. These appear to be the most recent, relevant and high quality sources available in Furman's article, book, or e-book collections.
    Circle one: [no; needs some improvement; satisfactory; exceptional].
    List all specific problems:

  4. The first sentence of the essay tells a compelling story about or from the primary source that makes you want to read more. This opening sentence relates in some way to the document's historical significance, to a human interest angle, or to how people encountered history as lived experience.
    Circle one: [no; needs some improvement; satisfactory; exceptional].
    Tell what you liked best about the opening sentence :

  5. The essay is well-organized, has clear prose, and has paragraphs that are coherent and focused.
    Circle one: [no; needs some improvement; satisfactory; exceptional].

  6. The essay gives a clear and complete summary of what the source was about. It explicitly states who it involved, what happened, when it took place (and, if relevant and different, when it was written), and where it took place. Where relevant, the essay explains who the key decision-makers were, what problems they sought to solve or goals they sought to accomplish, what actions they took, and what the outcomes were. The essay gives a good sense of the soul, style, spirit, tone, mood, or rhetoric of the source.
    Circle one: [no; needs some improvement; satisfactory; exceptional].
    List any major analytical aspects of the document summary that need to be revisited:

  7. The essay provides a good sense of historical context. It speaks to how the source was shaped by its moment in time and its geographic place. It explains why the source contained the content it did, and explains its broader historical implications. It makes good use of the secondary literature to explain the source's why and so-what.
    Circle one: [no; needs some improvement; satisfactory; exceptional].
    List any major analytical aspects of the source's contextualization that might need to be revisited:

  8. Compare the overall essay quality  to your expectations for what Furman students ought to be able to produce for this kind of assignment.
    Circle one: [not acceptable; needs some improvement; satisfactory; exceptional]
  9. In a single sentence, say what you like most about this essay from the HST-121 perspective.

V: Evaluation and Academic Integrity:

Essays will be evaluated on the accuracy and sophistication of their summary and contextualization. Essays that use clear scholarly language, that present original, testable arguments, and that are well-supported with high quality scholarly sources will be preferred over essays that are simplistic or obvious in their analysis or are purely descriptive and not backed with sound evidence. Traits listed in the peer review process will also be assessed in the instructor review. The grading standards listed in the Furman catalog for various letter grades will be considered normative.

The normal guidelines for citation and academic honesty are in effect for all work related to this assignment. Please consult the instructor if you have any questions about how to maintain Furman's high standards in this regard. You are expected to be familiar with the academic integrity guidelines for this course.

Note: The instructor reserves the right to change any provisions, due dates, grading percentages, or any other items without prior notice. All assignments on this schedule are covered under the university's policy on plagiarism and academic integrity. See the syllabus statement for further details. This page was last updated on 2/8/2017.

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