Uses of History
Questions Good Historians Ask
Potential History Products
General History and Archives Web Sites
Questions Good Historians Ask
What is the story I want to convey?
A well-written history should have a beginning that
sets the context, a middle where the substantive bulk of the story
is told, and an end that brings out the larger lessons learned or
What is my argument?
Good historical writing should present the indisputable
facts, but it should also go beyond these to create a debatable,
defensible point of view. If there is no clear argument, then it
is likely to be simply a descriptive history, rather than a more
sophisticated analysis. Description is less useful than analysis
because it lacks a comparative context.
What has been done before on similar topics or using
A basic literature review is helpful to conceptualize
or frame how your story will be a new contribution to existing knowledge
by building on pieces of the story that other historians have addressed
already. This helps put your story in context.
What is new and noteworthy about my topic?
In other words, why should outsiders care? What is
the broader significance or importance of a particular program?
Historians need to think hard about the (in)famous “So what?”
What kind of argument or approach best suits my topic?
Historians use many methodological approaches, conceptual
lenses, or tools. Some of the most common are political, social,
economic, and statistical.
What are the best primary and secondary sources to
Analytical history must be fully researched and documented,
with its claims supported by solid evidence. This means that careful
citations (footnotes or endnotes) must be included for all appropriate
materials. Footnotes are also a very useful guide to finding further
information, including various and sometimes opposing viewpoints,
often opening up whole new avenues of research.
Is a participant or an outside observer best suited
to tell a particular story?
Someone who was directly involved in significant events
or a major program may have the knowledge and the personal desire
to see a story told. However, an outside historian may have a more
impartial perspective. Historical writing is also very different
from technical engineering or natural science writing. Thus, an
outside historian or other social scientist, such as a political
scientist or sociologist, presumably would be more experienced in
nontechnical historical writing.
What format and length is most appropriate to tell
a particular story?
The NASA History Series consists mainly of analytical,
full-length books and shorter, more focused monographs. There are
other publication formats, such as heavily illustrated books and
journal articles, that may be worth consideration. Please see the
list of potential history products for more ideas.
Who is my intended audience?
Usually the audience for NASA History Series publications
is the educated, lay (nonspecialist), adult reader. This means that
the author needs to explain technical concepts and their significance,
but also that the reader has a basic grasp of aerospace history
or can easily pick it up elsewhere.
Will my writing pass muster with peer reviewers?
Analytic historical writing is always reviewed by
other historians, and often by participants with special knowledge
of the topic at hand, to ensure overall quality. While the peer
reviewers are not as expert in the specific topic as the writer,
they serve as a “sanity check” to make sure that the
writer hasn’t committed any egregious errors. In other words,
your writing should stand up to scrutiny by those who are reasonably
familiar with, but not necessarily experts in, your topic.
What can be learned from my specific story?
One of the purposes of history is to understand what
happened in the past so we can try to repeat successes and avoid
failures. The lessons learned can be overt or implied, but the history
should be more than entertaining; it should be informative.
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