Process of writing an art history paper
notetaking outlining

The question which forms the title of this section is perhaps the one that brought you to this website in the first place. But in the following paragraphs we will discuss the actual mechanics of paper writing. Before you are ready to ponder the business of actually writing your paper, you should already have chosen your topic. Then, you should have done a good deal of your initial RESEARCH on that topic (for tips on this process, click here). If you have completed these steps, you have assembled a lot of information, and you need to move to the next stage: organizing and interpreting your information.

Writing is a creative process, and your professors will adore you if you produce a paper built around a series of original thoughts. But a good art history paper usually adheres to a fairly standard format, which is discussed elsewhere in this site (click here). Knowing and using this format can free you up to plug your creativity in at the appropriate moments. But how do you get from a pile of information to a concisely written essay?

The first matter of concern is digesting the information you've found in your research. You cannot do this without taking notes on what you read-- it's impossible to remember where you read something and find it again later when you need it. Notetaking will also probably help you better understand what you are reading, as well as stimulate you to record your own ideas, thoughts, and insights as you go along.

There are several different strategies you might consider for notetaking. Some people like to write ideas on index cards, with the full citation and page number on the back of each card. You might also take notes on sheets of paper, with the citation of the source written at the top and the page number noted in the margin beside each thought. If you're really organized or this is a long project, you might even organize a computer database into which you plug your individual notes, which can then be sorted and rearranged with ease. Whichever method you devise, be consistent, and don't forget to WRITE DOWN any good insights that occur to you as you read. You will not remember them if you don't, and your successful paper will rely heavily on those insights.

Once you have a good grasp of the literature on your topic and you feel ready to begin writing, your next task is to come up with a thesis. This is the hardest and most important part of the paper process. When we say "you must have a thesis," we don't mean a general take, or a broad point of view, or a collection of insights-- no, we are very literal. We mean a single sentence, one that is nearly always in the first paragraph. Here's an example of a thesis: "I will argue that Helena-Judith, the conjoined twins who generated so much interest in 1708 London, were 'wonders taken for signs,' or more accurately, wonders overwhelmed wih signs at a time when the metropolis was overwhelmed with wonders from around the world." (Cited from Maja-Lisa von Sneidern, "Joined at the Hip: A Monster, Colonialism, and the Scriblerian Project," Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 30, no. 3 [1997]: 213-231.)

That thesis is perhaps a bit more obscure than we'd like you to produce, but it is definitely a thesis; after reading that sentence, you know that the rest of the essay will be devoted to proving that claim about the cultural importance of freak-shows in 18th-century London (yes, it really is an article on a pair of 18th-century Siamese twins). The proof may succeed or fail, but you've set up the terms of your argument right in the first paragraph, in one distilled sentence.

How do you get a thesis? You must think. Start out by getting your information together and reading over all the notes you've taken from articles and books you've read on your topic. Perhaps you have some gem of an idea written down on one of your pages that will get you started. You might even begin writing-- making notes from your notes, starting to draw connections between different authors' insights, scrutinizing the artwork and linking its details to ideas you've read, and so on. This is the most mystifying part of the process, but you must keep poring over and writing through the material until you have an idea-- a good idea, one that gives your reader new insight into a particular moment in history or art object from the past.

Many times a student will come up with a good thesis by the time he or she gets to the end of the paper-- the process of writing and thinking has produced this new insight. Fine-- but that's work you should do BEFORE you write the final draft. If writing is how you get ideas, by all means, write a first draft, and when you discover your thesis, start anew by placing that thesis in the first paragraph and restructuring your essay to support it.

This brings us to the last key step: outlining. Again, we are not looking for stream-of-consciousness texts, or "Agatha Christie" texts that secretively lead us, the reader, to a grand finale that exposes all. No, we want to be led through your analysis step by step. Your thesis contains a claim, and your essay will prove that claim. Break down those steps of proof. For the thesis cited above, these might be: 1., explain the terminology of "wonders" and "signs," which obviously figures heavily in the analysis; 2., describe the phenomenon of the Siamese twins' popularity; 3., re-introduce (since you would have mentioned it in the first paragraph) the particular print depicting the twins which you are going to discuss; 4., Describe 18th-century colonialism and its perception by Londoners; 5., Discuss the particularities of your print in relation to the "wonders" imported from the colonies.

Your notes from reading and researching will come in handy here, too. Once you've decided on a basic armature for your outline-- the thesis and three to five supporting ideas-- you can go back to your notes and sort the ideas and sources into piles that might fit into each supporting section. If you've used notecards, this will be simply a matter of putting all the ideas related to "Colonialism," for instance, into a pile that you'll use when writing that portion of your essay. If you've written on sheets of paper, you might copy the ideas onto a different sheet, organized by subject, or even cut the sheets apart with scissors and sort the pieces into piles (be sure to note the source on each little piece). Again, however you choose to do it, go back to your notes and reorganize all that information you spent so much time finding.

Outlines are wonderfully malleable. It is much easier to move ideas around and keep your eye on the big picture when you're dealing with an outline, rather than a fully written text which you are trying to edit. Work with your outline until it flows well from one idea to the next, and until you have solid support for all your major ideas lined up. In making your outline, you might discover holes in your research and decide to go back to the library. The outline might even show you that your thesis is too weak, or too vague, or too specific to be sustainable over the course of the essay-- better to find that out now, when you have time to revamp it. Keep working with it, because the key to a good essay is a good outline.

Another virtue of a good outline is that it makes the final paper much easier to write. You know where you're going, and can stress points appropriately, so that you're telling your reader a coherent story. You have all your sources, quotes, and ideas at hand, and in order, which saves you from running all over the place and to find them, or spending brain power remembering details instead of putting your ideas into words. You will also not need to do much editing if you write with a good outline.

One way to test the quality of your essay once it's written, is to work backward from the text to an outline: can you underline the thesis (a single sentence) in your first paragraph? does each paragraph deal with a separate idea? is there a topic sentence introducing that idea and explaining its relevance to the thesis? If you can go through the paper and pull out all the topic sentences, and they all follow from one another and support your thesis, then you have a well-organized paper ready to go. If you have trouble doing this, you probably need to do some fine-tuning before you turn that paper in. You might need to write several drafts to get it right.

These suggestions might seem a bit dry and mechanical. But remember, the excitement will come from your insights, which will be clearer and better organized if you hold off on writing till you've already done this "thinking" work with notetaking, thesis and outline.  We want a clean, well-organized, finished product, one which you've honed and refined over time and with thought. If you produce such a text, you will be a joy to your professors!

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