Best Practices for Writing History on the Web

Tablet Reading. Source: Pabak Sarkar, Flickr Commons

Tablet Reading. Source: Pabak Sarkar, Flickr Commons

By Sean Kheraj

As more of our reading moves from print to screens, learning how to write on the Web will become an increasingly important part of history writing skills. Just as we teach fundamental research and writing skills for print essays, we will likely begin to teach digital writing skills for the Web. Writing for the Web will also become an important component of teaching public history (as it has already).

These are some of the assumptions that have informed my current course on the history of Toronto at York University. I have asked students to write a Web essay for their Fall semester assignment, using WordPress on a course site that I set up at DevelopmentofToronto.com. This is not a unique or revolutionary idea. I have known several colleagues who have had students write Web essays and I have had students write optional Web assignments in the past. This is the first time that I will be asking all students in the class to write Web essays. As such, it is an opportunity to think about how to teach specific Web-based history writing skills.

I chose WordPress for a number of technical reasons, but mainly because I have been writing and editing history on the Web in WordPress for several years now at SeanKheraj.com, ActiveHistory.ca, and NiCHE-Canada.org. In my experience, I have identified a number of key skills for history writing on the Web. However, I am still looking for more ideas to generate a good list of best practices (please post in the comments). Here are some best practices that I have developed over the course of my own experience writing history on the Web:

Fundamental History Research and Writing Skills Still Apply

As with traditional print essays or articles, fundamental history research and writing skills should still apply to writing on the Web. I will still require my students to conduct original primary source research, contextualize that research with high-quality scholarly secondary sources, and situate their arguments within the relevant scholarly literature. Their writing should still be clear, well-organized, and persuasive in its argumentative structure. The writer should present evidence in such a manner that conveys to the reader adequate context, chronology, and a sense of change over time. Writing should be free of grammatical errors.

Write in an Accessible Manner

Again, this is often something I try to stress for print essays, but the imperative to write in an accessible manner is all the more significant when writing on the Web for a broad audience. The assignments students write for history courses in university are generally intended for a single reader, the instructor. A Web essay potentially has a much broader audience. This affords the opportunity to teach students about how to think of their audience when writing.

How can one convey nuanced arguments and ample historical evidence in an accessible manner? The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to write for an intelligent reader who does not necessarily know many of the specific of your topic. George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” provides some additional good tips for accessible writing:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous. [1]

Hyperlinks as Super Footnotes

I wrote about this idea in a blog post a couple of years ago here. Writing on the Web provides historians with the opportunity to place their research sources directly before the reader through hyperlinks. With the abundance of digitized historical primary sources now available online, historians can link directly to the sources rather than just simply providing breadcrumbs in their footnotes. As I demonstrate below, when possible, historians should link their footnotes directly to their sources online. Rather than chasing down a copy of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to confirm the accuracy of my citation or to consult the complete source, history on the Web can bring readers to the source immediately. With the growing abundance of online storage options and institutional digital repositories, we may one day require graduate students to upload digital copies of all of their research materials to be linked directly to the footnotes/endnotes in their dissertations.

This approach to citation on the Web can bring research to the forefront and expose the work of historians in stitching together complex narratives from disparate historical documents. It unveils, in part, the historian’s craft, but in ways that might strengthen scholarship and better facilitate future research and knowledge production. My link to Orwell’s essay below might be the beginning of a new research project for another scholar or support ongoing work.

Visualizing History

Writing history on the Web obviously creates new opportunities to incorporate visual sources into research and presentation. If you have ever flipped through the pages of an old dissertation and come across a photograph awkwardly pasted onto one of the pages, you know how far we have come with the integration of visual sources into historical research and writing. History on the Web can (and probably should, when possible) include large, high-resolution, and full-colour images. If a Web article is focused on the interpretation of visual historical sources, rather than including just a few examples of those sources, the historian can include a complete slideshow of all visual sources that she/he analyzed.

The fidelity of digital images in a Web format can potentially far exceed that which is possible in print. Take for example the following photograph of a 1935 streetcar accident in Toronto at the intersection of Danforth and Glebemount:

Truck and streetcar accident, Danforth Avenue, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1156

Clicking through to this large-format image, readers can see not only that a streetcar collided with a truck, but that emergency workers were still struggling to retrieve something (or someone) from beneath the vehicle. They can also see that the truck and streetcar caught fire. The shock and excitement of this event can be read on the faces of the by-standers lining Danforth Avenue, including the young children standing at the front of the crowd. And if they want to access this image from the City of Toronto Archives, they can click on the image and go directly to the source.

Photographs are just one type of visual source one might include in a history Web essay. Simple online mapping software, such as Google Maps Engine, makes it possible to build and embed interactive maps into your writing. For example, this is a map I produced to accompany a book chapter I wrote on the history of domestic animals in nineteenth-century Toronto:


View Finding Animals in Nineteenth-Century Toronto in a larger map

Again, this is a type of visual source that can be used both for research and presentation in ways that are not possible in print.

Audio and Video Sources

Finally, I think writing history on the Web should integrate audio and video sources, when possible. Oral history is an increasingly important part of historical scholarship. With permission from the interviewees, a historian could include audio or video clips from her/his oral history work in a Web essay. The complete archive of oral history interviews could also be linked to the essay online. This would provide an incredible resource for future researchers.

Video and audio sources could also include the growing archive of radio, television, and film as historical documents. For example, one could easily analyze the following 1975 PBS interview with Donald Rumsfeld as a historical document and present the full interview to the reader/viewer:


Or, one could include digital audio of the Nixon tapes directly in a Web essay on the history of the administration of Richard Nixon and its overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1973:

Sample from NixonTapes.org [Download here]

I am looking forward to seeing what my students come up with for their Web essays for DevelopmentofToronto.com later this year. There are numerous possibilities for history writing on the Web and I would also love to hear from readers of Active History about their own approaches and best practices. Please leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments section below.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor of Canadian and environmental history at York University. He writes at seankheraj.com.

[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” Horizon (April 1946): 264.

15 thoughts on “Best Practices for Writing History on the Web

  1. Great post, Sean. One aspect of this assignment that I really like is that your students will suddenly have a large (or at least larger) potential readership for work that previously had an audience of 1. So an online assignment is also a way for them to get a bit more recognition and feedback on a research project they are likely investing quite a bit of time in. I know as a Toronto historian I’m going to keep tabs on your students dig up.

    Which makes me think that an additional part of your guide to writing history on the web should be “promote what you’ve written on social media so people read it!” And perhaps a few details on how to do that effectively.

  2. Thanks, Daniel!

    That’s a great point about promoting or disseminating writing on the Web. Social media plays a big role in that.

    By the way, I saw your article in Spacing recently. Congratulations!

  3. Another thing to think about when teaching students how to write for the internet is audience. This is not something that they are writing for just their class or just their professor. The world wide web is a scary place sometimes and both students and professors need to keep this in mind as they experiment with it. You done gone and opened an old wound, Sean. Here is a post I wrote a few years ago about my experiment with using a blog in my teaching and how, sometimes, things can go wrong – for a course on nuclear history: http://nuclearhistorymatters.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/on-learning/

  4. I think we need to consider carefully where and how often we use hyperlinks. Links are enriching, but also distracting–maybe more so for a general audience with a wider age range. Rather than embedding the hyperlink in the text every time, there might be occasions when a hyperlinked footnote number would be better. (The footnote would hyperlink to the source.) It would be interesting to see if fewer links in the text mean that more readers get to the end of the essay.

  5. Interesting piece. The power dynamics of the response function needs to be addressed. I just cut and paste something as well as tried to use the italicize function on my keyboard, but it doesn’t work. If you wish to receive fair responses than the “leave a reply” function has to have the same writing capabilities as the author of the blog/article. Just a suggestion.

  6. Lisa:

    You are absolutely right about the big, wide, and scary Internet audience. I remember your experience and (hopefully) I will avoid some of those outcomes (I still think you should have got a public history or active history award for that course).

    The first thing I am doing is keeping the website closed to just students in the course. Only after review and agreement with the students will any of the essays go online.

    We will certainly need to discuss the possible negative repercussions of engaging with hostile online audiences. And, I will have to be prepared to intervene on behalf of my students if I run into a similar situation as your class.

    The Internet can be a powerful and wonderful tool for the purposes of public history. It can also be a very hostile and confrontational space. That’s the disappointing side of it.

  7. Nadine:

    Very good point. I too have found it frustrating that I don’t have the same kind of WYSIWYG editor in a comments field as I do in the author field on a blog post. As Ian notes, of course, there are some technical and security limitations to consider. The simple HTML text field is a compromise between openness and security. A full WYSIWYG editor in a comment field might open up the possibility of inserting malicious scripts onto a blog. And judging by the volume of spam I get on my own WordPress comments, malicious scripts are not an idle threat.

  8. I asked students to write blog post papers in an online course on the First World War last year, and wish we’d had your piece as a resource for students, Sean! I’m quite interested in how you are creating a digitally public side to the course too. I’ve had this vision for a course too, but haven’t been able to pursue it. I look forward to seeing the site progress over time.

  9. Great article Sean. I’m looking forward to reading the essays from authors who agree to make their pieces go public.

  10. Great article- especially as students write more and more for digital audiences. I also find Jane’s comments about the best ways to use hotlinks of interest. Using them as a form of footnote might enusre the entire article is read.

  11. Also a great set of comments. Lisa, I’ve looked over your course blog and the (extensive) comments that followed it. There is really a difficult line to tread with putting work up on the internet, between exposing students to a larger audience and making sure they have a safe space to share their work. Food for thought!

  12. Nathan and Jay:

    Check back on our website in the New Year to (hopefully) see the results of this project. I think with something like this, the instructor must make the public part of the assignment optional. It should really be the student’s choice

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