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How to Write a History Essay

Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates

❶The difference between competent and excellent work is difficult to define. One thing to look out for when you read through your history essay is whether or not you have allowed any overly descriptive passages to creep in.

What is a history essay?

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Hints on how to start a history paper

Underline, highlight or annotate keywords or terms in the text of the question. Who or what does it want you to concentrate on? Does it state or imply a particular timeframe? What problem or issue does it want you to address? Every essay should begin with a written plan. Prepare for research by brainstorming and jotting down your thoughts and ideas. What are your initial responses or thoughts about the question?

What topics, events, people or issues are connected with the question? Do any additional questions or issues flow from the question? What topics or events do you need to learn more about? What historians or sources might be useful? Consult your teacher, a capable classmate or someone you trust.

Bear in mind too that once you start researching, your plan may change as you locate new information. Most will start by reading an overview of the topic or issue, usually in some reliable secondary sources.

This will refresh or build your existing understanding of the topic and provide a basis for further questions or investigation. Your research should take shape from here, guided by the essay question and your own planning. Identify terms or concepts you do not know and find out what they mean.

Be creative with your research , looking in a variety of places. If you have difficulty locating information, seek advice from your teacher or someone you trust. All good history essays have a clear and strong contention. A contention is the main idea or argument of your essay.

It serves both as an answer to the question and the focal point of your writing. Ideally, you should be able to express your contention as a single sentence. For example, the following contention might form the basis of an essay question on the rise of the Nazis:.

At some point in your research, you should begin thinking about a contention for your essay. Writing in history requires deep research of information since these events are activities that happened in the past and therefore you cannot have testified the same, you only rely on information from other written records.

Before you get to writing a history paper, you should learn to express yourself well using good language that is appealing to the reader. History is more of narration, so you need to perfect your descriptions to satisfy your audience. Some of the basic tips that you should beware of when it comes to starting of historical paper include:. Ensure that every argument is brought out clearly without mixing up the point to cause misunderstanding. It is good to have an overview of how your paper will look like before you proceed to write.

The format for a history paper is fundamental as it will determine how you are going to accomplish your writing. Here are some of the tips on how to write a good history paper:. Just like other essays, a historical paper is divided into three main parts: The introduction — the introduction is where you start your writing. You should include there brief background information about the topic to educate the reader on what they are reading.

The introduction should be brief and precise as it is the first appeal of your work and the reader should not lose interest in your paper. Immediately after the introduction, you should write a thesis statement. A thesis statement is a short sentence that states what your essay is going to cover.

The body — the body is actually the main agenda in your essay. The thesis is in effect, your position, your particular interpretation, your way of seeing a problem. Resist the temptation, which many students have, to think of a thesis as simply "restating" an instructor's question.

The writer should demonstrate originality and critical thinking by showing what the question is asking, and why it is important rather than merely repeating it. Your own informed perspective is what matters.

Many first-year students ask whether the "thesis" is not just their "opinion" of a historical question. A thesis is indeed a "point of view," or "perspective," but of a particular sort: The truism that we each have "our own" opinions misses the point. A good critical essay acknowledges that many perspectives are possible on any question, yet demonstrates the validity or correctness of the writer's own view.

To make a good argument you must have both a strong central thesis and plausible evidence; the two are interdependent and support each other. Some historians have compared the historian's craft to assembling and presenting a case before a jury. A strong statement of thesis needs evidence or it will convince no one. Equally, quotes, dates, and lists of details mean nothing by themselves. Your task is both to select the important "facts" and to present them in a reasonable, persuasive, and systematic manner which defends your position.

To support your argument, you should also be competent in using footnotes and creating bibliographies for your work; neither is difficult, and both are requirements for truly professional scholarship. The footnote is a way of demonstrating the author's thesis against the evidence. In effect, it is a way of saying: By keeping your notes accurate your argument will always be rooted in concrete evidence of the past which the reader can verify.

See below for standard footnote forms. Be aware also that "historical" writing is not exactly the same as writing in other social sciences, in literature, or in the natural sciences. Though all follow the general thesis and evidence model, historical writing also depends a great deal on situating evidence and arguments correctly in time and space in narratives about the past. Historians are particularly sensitive to errors of anachronism—that is, putting events in an "incorrect" order, or having historical characters speak, think, and act in ways inappropriate for the time in which they were living.

Reading the past principally in terms of your own present experience can also create problems in your arguments. Avoid grand statements about humanity in general, and be careful of theories which fit all cases. Make a point of using evidence with attention to specificity of time and place, i. Pay attention to the way it is worded and presented. Can you properly define them? What sort of evidence is required to respond effectively? If you are developing your own topic, what are the important issues and what questions can you pose yourself?

Begin reading or re-reading your texts or documents. Remember however that merely "reading everything" doesn't guarantee you'll do good writing. Some students rush through assignments, others highlight every line, both thinking that by counting pages or words they are doing well. As you read the important point is to identify critical arguments in the texts.

Don't just read for "information. What is the author saying? What are his or her stated and unstated assumptions? What kind of evidence supports the arguments and how is it used? What do particular documents or texts tell you about the time in which they were written? Your questions will be the beginning of your own thesis.

As noted above, all serious writing is done in drafts, and not the night before. Even if you are pressed for time as, of course, you will be give yourself enough time to review and revise your own writing. Students will sometimes turn in papers they have never actually read themselves; this is a mistake which shows. Think of the first or "preliminary" draft as a detailed outline. Establish your thesis and see how it looks in writing. Is it too general or specific? Does it address the questions asked by the instructor?


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There are an infinite number of ways to write an essay because any form of writing is a means of self-expression. Your essay will be unique because you are unique: it’s up to you to ensure that it’s uniquely good, not uniquely mediocre.

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Writing a historiography essay is key when it comes to analysis of past events and occurrence. Unlike a historical paper, a historiography paper focuses on how other scholars viewed history and interpreted it, so the main task here would be to analyze different works recorded at different times of history then provide critique on the same.

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An essay is a piece of sustained writing in response to a question, topic or issue. Essays are commonly used for assessing and evaluating student progress in history. History essays test a range of skills including historical understanding, interpretation and analysis, planning, research and writing. The purpose of this guide is to walk a high school student through an easy step-by-step process of writing an historical essay. Writing an essay for history is not .

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The purpose of this guide is to provide you with the basics for writing undergraduate history essays and papers. It is a guide only, and its step by step approach is only one possible model; it does not replace consultation with your professor, TA, or instructor about writing questions and getting feedback, nor the excellent tutoring services. Essays are no longer the be-all and end-all of history assessment; but the ability to write a good essay is still vital. Robert Pearce gives some advice.