Once you’ve collected your primary sources and matching secondary materials, it’s time to write your episodes. Episodes are not like term papers; they should tell a story rather than make an argument. Search the database to see the various ways former students have approached writing an episode.

How do I start an episode?

Think of your first sentence as an introduction to a short news article. You want to grab the reader’s attention, but remain factual. For example, say your primary source is a page six newspaper article from the Raleigh Register in May 1870 that tells of falling cotton prices and local North Carolina farmers’ growing concern about their crop. You can’t grab the reader’s attention if you simply report the news (“In May 1870 the Raleigh Register wrote on page six that cotton prices were falling.”). But you don’t want to exaggerate the situation or use modern language to describe history (“Everyone in Raleigh was freaking out about the falling cotton prices!”). Instead, build suspense by using the facts: “Raleigh farmers were starting to worry. Cotton prices had begun to fall, and according to the Raleigh Register …” Be creative, but don’t stretch the truth.

How do I incorporate my secondary source?

Your primary source should be the focus of the story in your episode. Your secondary source serves three roles. First, books and articles help you fill in missing information from the primary source. For example, let’s say your primary source is an October 1840 letter from an Illinois corn farmer to his father. Among other issues, the farmer talked with his father about the upcoming presidential election and his enthusiasm for the Whig candidates: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” A secondary source can explain that the campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” stood for William Henry Harrison of Ohio (who’d been dubbed “Tippecanoe” for his success in the battle of the same name) and John Tyler of Virginia.

A second role for your secondary source is to provide the context for your primary source. A book or article on the election of 1840 could tell you that Whigs Harrison and Tyler defeated Democrat Martin Van Buren, the incumbent, in the November election by an overwhelming majority.

Finally, the most important role for your secondary source is to explain the significance of your primary document to larger historical themes. In this case, a secondary source would help you to explain that farmers in Illinois—which had typically been a Democratic state—and others throughout the Midwest helped to elect the first Whig president in history.

Writing tips for the secondary source

  • Make a smooth transition from primary to secondary. Don't write “the letter is significant because…” Instead, try: “_________ was like many Illinois farmers in 1840 who helped elect the first Whig president…”
  • Only spend a few sentences on your secondary source unless you need a lot of clarification; the focus should be your primary source.
  • Always give appropriate credit to your source. If you quote the author or closely paraphrase, be sure to include his or her name in the text. For example, “as Whig historian Michael Holt writes…” or “according to Whig historian Michael Holt…”
  • Don’t just tack on your secondary source at the bottom. Weave it into the second half of your text, but always come back to your story (and primary source) at the end of the episode.
  • Don’t put the citation information (even the page number) in the body of your episode. You can put the page numbers in the citation at the end.

Are there any other writing rules for these episodes?

One way in which episodes are like term papers is that they should be written with proper grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation. Follow the basic rules of format like indenting each paragraph. In addition to basic style rules, follow the rules on the Style Guide for formatting and spelling. Your episode should not have any Style Guide errors.

What other information do I need for my finished episodes?

You should determine a title, start and end date, location, and set of tags that apply to each episode in addition to your primary and secondary source citations before turning your final product into your instructor. Be sure to check out the database to get a sense of the standard episode format.

Title. The title of your episode should be a short (less than a sentence) description of the episode. The best titles grab the reader’s attention but are also directly relevant to the content of the episode.

Start and end date. In your submission, you will need to enter the date the episode began and, if applicable, ended. For one-day events, no end date is necessary. For others, however, the episode will have occurred over the course of several days, weeks, or even months. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, for example, occurred over several days. If you can’t figure out an exact date, do your best to estimate.

Location. Episodes often happen in several different locations. For example, a newspaper article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune about the gold rush in northern California could include both locations. The article is about California, but the perspective is strictly from New Orleans. The location of some episodes might be somewhat vague (e.g. west of Chicago) or very specific (a particular house in Chicago).

Tags. Pick at least two tags, i.e., a word or two that identifies the issue or issues at the center of your episodes.

Citations. Refer to the Citation Guide to be sure you have correctly cited all of your episodes. The citation should go at the end of your episode.