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5 Steps to Writing an Historical Essay

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❶No matter how well-written, well-argued, or well-evidenced your essay is, if you don't answer the answer the question you have been asked, you cannot expect to receive a top mark.




Writing an essay for history is not necessarily the same as it may be for an English class. Create a Thesis Statement.

Strong thesis statements usually need to include about 3 points that you intend to prove through the essay. When coming up with your thesis for a historical essay there are a few things to keep in mind: Create an Introduction Paragraph.

Creating an introduction paragraph becomes more easy once the thesis has been determined. When writing your introduction there are a few ideas you need to keep in mind: Some people may prefer to write their thesis first as we have done here, or some may choose to begin writing their introduction paragraph and then figure out the thesis as they get there.

Neither way is wrong! The majority of your work will appear here, in the body of the essay. This will usually be a minimum of 3 paragraphs more or less depending on how many points included in you thesis. Between each major idea you need to use creatively phrased transition statements that allow the flow of the essay to not be disrupted. The key to a good body portion of your essay is to remember to only discuss 1 major idea per paragraph.

Make districtions between you major ideas in order to help support your thesis. Think about the specific key words and phrasing used in the question, and if you are uncertain of any of the terms, look them up and define them. Do this before you begin conducting your research to ensure that your reading is closely focussed to the question and you don't waste time. Consider what the question is asking you. With a history essay there are a number of different types of question you might be asked, which will require different responses from you.

You need to get this clear in the early stages so you can prepare your essay in the best way. Look at your set essay question and ask yourself whether you are being asked to explain, interpret, evaluate, or argue. You might be asked to do any number or all of these different things in the essay, so think about how you can do the following: Try to summarise your key argument.

Once you have done some research you will be beginning to formulate your argument, or thesis statement, in your head. It's essential to have a strong argument which you will then build your essay around. So before you start to plan and draft your essay, try to summarise your key argument in one or two sentences.

Your thesis statement should clearly address the essay prompt and provide supporting arguments. For example, your summary could be something like "The First World War was a 'total war' because civilian populations were mobilized both in the battlefield and on the home front".

Make an essay plan. Once you have evaluated the question, you need to draw up an essay plan. This is a great opportunity to organise your notes and start developing the structure which you will use for your essay. When drawing up the plan you can assess the quality and depth of the evidence you have gathered and consider whether your thesis statement is adequately supported.

Pick out some key quotes that make your argument precisely and persuasively. Distinguish between primary and secondary sources.

A history essay will require a strong argument that is backed up by solid evidence. The two main types of evidence you can draw on are known as primary and secondary sources. Depending on the essay you are writing, you might be expected to include both of these. If you are uncertain about what is expected be sure to ask your teacher well in advance of the essay due date.

Primary source material refers to any texts, films, pictures, or any other kind of evidence that was produced in the historical period, or by someone who participated in the events of the period, that you are writing about. Secondary material is the work by historians or other writers analysing events in the past. The body of historical work on a period or event is known as the historiography.

Typically a research essay would need significant primary material. It can be difficult to get going with your research.

There may be an enormous number of texts which makes it hard to know where to start, or maybe you are really struggling to find relevant material.

In either case, there are some tried and tested ways to find reliable source material for your essay. Start with the core texts in your reading list or course bibliography. Your teacher will have carefully selected these so you should start there. Look in footnotes and bibliographies. When you are reading be sure to pay attention to the footnotes and bibliographies which can guide you to further sources a give you a clear picture of the important texts.

If you have access to a library at your school or college, be sure to make the most of it. Search online catalogues and speak to librarians. Access online journal databases. If you are in college it is likely that you will have access to academic journals online. These are an excellent and easy to navigate resources. Try using free scholarly databases, like Google Scholar, which offer quality academic sources, but avoid using the non-trustworthy websites that come up when you simply search your topic online.

Avoid using crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia as sources. However, you can look at the sources cited on a Wikipedia page and use them instead, if they seem credible. Evaluate your secondary sources. It's very important that you critically evaluate your sources. For a strong academic essay you should be using and engaging with scholarly material that is of a demonstrable quality. It's very easy to find information on the internet, or in popular histories, but you should be using academic texts by historians.

If you are early on in your studies you might not be sure how to identify scholarly sources, so when you find a text ask yourself the following questions: Who is the author? Is it written by an academic with a position at a University? Search for the author online. Who is the publisher? Is the book published by an established academic press?

Look in the cover to check the publisher, if it is published by a University Press that is a good sign. If it's an article, where is published? If you are using an article check that it has been published in an academic journal. Once you found some good sources, you need to take good notes and read the texts critically. Try not to let your mind drift along as you read a book or article, instead keep asking questions about what you are reading.

Think about what exactly the author is saying, and how well the argument is supported by the evidence. Ask yourself why the author is making this argument.

Evaluate the text by placing it into a broader intellectual context. Is it part of a certain tradition in historiography? Is it a response to a particular idea? Consider where there are weaknesses and limitations to the argument. Always keep a critical mindset and try to identify areas where you think the argument is overly stretched or the evidence doesn't match the author's claims.

When you are taking notes you should be wary of writing incomplete notes or misquoting a text. It's better to write down more in your notes than you think you will need than not have enough and find yourself frantically looking back through a book. Label all your notes with the page numbers and precise bibliographic information on the source.

If you have a quote but can't remember where you found it, imagine trying to skip back through everything you have read to find that one line. If you use something and don't reference it fully you risk plagiarism. Start with a strong first sentence. When you begin writing up your essay, a strong introduction can set the scene, create interest in the reader, and provide an outline of what is to come in your essay. The first sentence or two can give a broader view of a problem which you will then focus in on in the rest of the introduction.

This first sentences introduces the topic of your essay in a broad way which you can start focus to in on more. Outline what you are going to argue. In your introduction you should give a clear outline of how you are going to answer the question, and what your argument is. You should give a brief overview of your main points and the type of evidence that you will use to support them. Try to explicitly answer the question in one sentence, and then expand on how you are going to argue your case.

Here you will explain the particular approach you have taken to the essay. For example, if you are using case studies you should explain this and give a brief overview of which case studies you will be using and why.

Provide some brief context for your work. Depending on the type of essay you are writing, it will be necessary to provide a brief overview of the main historiographical debates for your topic.

It is important to demonstrate that you have a good understanding of what other historians have written about your topic, and be able to situate your own argument within this broader context. Have a clear structure. When you come to write the body of the essay it is important that you have a clear structure to your argument and to your prose.


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First of all we ought to ask, What constitutes a good history essay? Probably no two people will completely agree, if only for the very good reason that quality is in the eye – and reflects the intellectual state – of the reader.

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