F. How to Write a Good History Essay

Some Suggestions for the Time-Conscious Student

The following outline is intended as to provide one example of how to write an essay. Treat it as food for thought, as providing a set of suggestions some of which you might incorporate into your own method for writing essays.

1. Why do historians set essays?

It is useful to begin by considering why essay-writing has long been the method of choice for assessment in history. The chief reason is that no other method provides as effective a means of testing a student's comprehension of a topic. We want you to show us that not only have you acquired a knowledge of the topic but also that you fully understand the topic and the issues raised by it. Essays test understanding by asking you to select and re-organise relevant material in order to produce your own answer to the set question.

An undergraduate essay need not be particularly innovative in its approach and insights, but it must be the product of the student's own dialogue with the subject. Essays which do not answer the question can only be regarded as demonstrating some knowledge of the topic, they cannot be said to show understanding of the topic. Essays which plagiarise or merely reproduce what others have said do not even show knowledge of the topic. Plagiarism is thus not merely a matter of theft, it involves an entirely unacceptable subversion of the learning process.

2. Is there a right and a wrong answer?

History essays are less about finding the correct answer to the set question than they are about demonstrating that you understand the issues which it raises (and the texts which discuss these issues). With most historical problems (certainly the most interesting ones) it is seldom possible to arrive at a definitive answer. The evidence almost always permits a variety of solutions, and different approaches generate divergent conclusions. There are, however, limits to the field of possible solutions, since they must fit in with 'the evidence'. Of course, exactly what constitutes 'the evidence' is almost invariably one of the issues under discussion among the historians who are most deeply engaged with the problem, but in general for each historical question there will be a body of evidence which is recognised as being relevant to it. This body of evidence will typically comprise what the primary sources tell us about the events and phenomena under discussion. A good answer will need to harmonise with all of this evidence, or explain why particular items have been dismissed as having no bearing on the problem.

It follows from all of this that there certainly are wrong answers — that is, answers which fall outside the field of possible solutions or which fail to take account of received evidence — even though there is no 'absolutely right' answer.

3. Analysing the Question

Essential steps: select a question; identify the subject of the question; what are you being asked to do - that is, what kind of information will you need to answer the question, and how will you have to treat it? Circling the key words in the question is sometimes a helpful first step in working out exactly what you need to do. It is useful to note that there is usually a natural way of structuring your answer: that is, a way of organising an answer which follows naturally from the format of the question and which will put the fewest obstacles in the way of the reader:

'Explain' and 'why' questions demand a list of reasons or one big reason; each reason will have to be explained - that is, clarified, expounded, and illustrated.

'Assess', 'evaluate' and 'define-the-significance-of' questions require judgements supported by reasons, explanation and evidence. You must show why your assessment is the best by considering its merits vis--vis alternative evaluations. It might be useful to define and defend the criteria on which your judgement depends. That is, to explain why they are the best criteria for judging the historical phenomenon at issue.

'What-role-did-X-play-in-Y' questions imply a functionalist approach - that is, they require that you identify the function of some phenomenon, group or institution within some specific system. Thus, the subject of the question is the 'Y' rather than the 'X' element. That is, the question requires a discussion of the system as a whole and the consideration of alternative explanations of how 'X' worked within it.

'To-what-extent' questions involve a judgement of measure. One way of answering the question would be set up a series of 'tests', as it were, that can be investigated in turn.

This essay will examine five spheres which cast light on the extent of Jewish influence in high medieval France: namely, their role in the commercial life of the towns, the role of Jewish banking in the agrarian economy, their influence on Christian intellectual life, .. [and so on].

The essay would need a conclusion in which you pulled together the results of your test cases:

It has been seen that the Jews exerted a profound influence on the intellectual life of the universities but almost none on that of the established monastic orders..

'Quote-and-discuss' questions require you to identify the issue at stake and to produce a reasoned response. You may respond, for example, by agreeing with the quotation in which case you will need to explain why agreement is the best response, why it would be wrong to disagree. You should consider the merits of a variety of responses. If possible you should always examine the book or article from which the quotation has been taken in order to discover what its author meant by it, to discover how the author has understood the issues.

'Compare-and-contrast' questions demand the identification of similarities and differences. One method of tackling such an essay would be to distinguish five or six areas of similarity and contrast, and to devote a section of the essay to each area - a section in which you would assess the degree of similarity and reach a sub-conclusion. The conclusion would then require a summation of the various 'sub-conclusions'.

It needs to be stressed that none of these types of question calls for a narrative approach. You will never be asked to produce a narrative of what happened. In rare circumstances, a few sentences of narrative may form part of the evidence cited in support of a point, but the essay as a whole should be organised according to a logical structure in which each paragraph functions as a premise in the argument. The analytical and expository voice will always prove more effective than the narrative mode of writing.

4. Preliminary Reading

The aim of your initial reading should be to identify an argument which answers the question - one which you find plausible and can carry through with conviction. For this purpose, it will be useful to read at least two or three items, including a recent book covering the general area in which the topic falls. Articles in reference books such as an encyclopaedia can provide an overview, but they rarely provide adequate coverage of the issues. Citing such works will undermine the credibility of your essay.

Do not forget to make notes as you go. Making notes helps you to summarise arguments and ideas, to select points relevant to your essay, to clarify and adjust your understanding of the essay question and of the topic it bears upon. But your main priority should be to discover an argument.

5. Drawing up a Plan

Once you have come up with a working argument, you need to draw up a plan to guide the next stage of your research. It should comprise a list of the points which each paragraph will attempt to demonstrate, and rough notes on supporting examples. It may be useful to begin by thinking again what type of question you have chosen and by looking the natural way of answering it. In order to draw up a plan you will need to evaluate its merits:

  • What points will I need to make in order to sustain this argument?
  • Are there alternative points of view which will have to be considered and refuted in order to make this argument work?
  • Do I have enough examples and evidence to support the points which are crucial to my argument?
  • Do I need to know more about the examples I'm planning to use?
  • Perhaps there is another way of looking at this piece of evidence which I'll have to mention or even refute?

6. Directed Research

Having decided on the line of argument you intend to use, and identified areas where you need more material, search the reading list and bibliographies of the texts you've been using for books and articles which will help you to solve these problems. Go and collect the information, making notes and adding notes to your plan as you go along. Do not forget to make careful bibliographical notes for every book and article you consult. You will need this information when it comes to footnoting your essay.

7. Revising your Argument

Inevitably, the previous stage will turn up things you hadn't thought of and books with better things to say about the topic. Do not panic. Ask yourself: can your argument be saved with a few adjustments? Does the argument need to be re-constructed from scratch? If so, how can I recycle the information I've already begun to collect? Much will depend upon how confident you now feel about your argument. Follow your instincts: if the argument feels wrong, look for a better one. It is better to start again than to write an essay that lacks conviction. If complete reconstruction is unavoidable, go back to '5. Drawing up a Plan'.

8. Writing the First Draft

Having revised you argument (and plan), it's time to write your essay. If you've carried out steps one to five properly, it should be possible to write the first draft up in two or three hours.

(a) Writing an Introduction. An introduction should show how you intend to answer the question, by (1) indicating the line of argument you intend to take, by (2) giving an overview of the organisation of what follows, and by (3) indicating the sort of material or evidence you will be using. It is an effective strategy, especially when writing a short essay, to begin with a bold, attention-grabbing, first sentence which shows the marker that you know what you are doing: that is, answer the question as briefly as possible with your first sentence. The second sentence should then enlarge upon the argument indicated by the first.

(b) The body of the essay. Intelligent use of paragraphing is crucial to the success of an essay. Often, it is best to organise the paragraphs so that each makes and defends a point or premise essential the argument of the essay. (By 'premise' is meant a point which is part of and essential to the argument of the essay.) It must be entirely clear how your points fit into the argument: essays which meander around the topic leaving the marker to join the dots to comprise an answer are not acceptable, since they fail to demonstrate understanding.

It is a good idea to use 'topic sentences' to signal the subject and make explicit the point of each paragraph. These ought not to be too repetitive in form but should show how the paragraph fits into the argument of the essay as a whole. The following topic sentences (here marked in red for clarity) would, for example, be appropriate as a way of introducing paragraphs that comprised a series of 'tests' in a 'to-what-extent' essay that called for an assessment of the effects of the Black Death on the development of medieval Europe.

It is also possible to assess the extent of the catastrophe by looking at the level of demand for land in the major urban centres. In Genoa, for example, land prices fell sharply from a high in 1310 of.... [several sentences of examples] ....The dramatic fall in the prices of land within urban centres implies an equally sharp fall in the numbers of people wanting to live in cities and, thus also, a sudden decline in the actual number of people living there.

The picture conveyed by these financial records is scarcely representative, however, of the situation throughout Europe as a whole. They bear witness to what happened in the more highly urbanised regions of Europe — that is, to what happened in northern Italy and in the Low Countries — and even in these regions, merely to the experience of those who dwelt in the towns themselves but not to that of rural people... [several sentences developing this point]

However, some of the gaps in the picture can be filled in, albeit somewhat sketchily, with the help of the rural parish records. Such records remain scarce for the fourteenth century, but those that survive allow us to see that the plague could have devastating consequences in the countryside as well as in the cities.... [and so on.]

Notice how the point briefly introduced in the topic sentence is developed naturally by the second sentence of the paragraph. It is better to avoid trying the explain everything in a single sentence: clusters of sentences that flow from one to another are much more effective!

Signposting your evidence will give the essay that all important sense of critical depth and originality:

Seapower was a crucial to European expansion. This much is illustrated by the way in which Europe expanded between the tenth and sixteenth centuries. Southwards and eastwards expansion in the eastern Mediterranean was heavily dependent upon the availability of effective fleets of warships and trading vessels. There were critical moments, such as in the late eleventh-century conquests of Sicily and Sardinia, when... [and so on.]

Even in the fifteenth century effective government depended on the personality of the king. For example, the English exchequer suffered a grave financial crisis when King Henry VI, acting on a personal whim, gave away...

For instance,...

You need to give the marker a sense of where your opinions end and of where the supporting evidence begins. But remember to vary your signposts: using the same phrase over and over again will distract and bore the reader. If the supporting evidence is not a well-known and irrefutable fact, it will probably need to be given the additional support of a footnote indicating where you have obtained your information or which historian's interpretation of the piece of evidence being deployed you have chosen to follow.

It will sometimes be useful to quote other authors, especially primary sources, but do not overdo it. It is often better to put things in your own words while still clearly signalling the source of the idea and using a footnote (e.g. 'According to Mayer the first crusade.'), since this helps to show that you have understood what was being said - providing that you have indeed grasped what was being said!

(c) The Conclusion. All essays need a carefully thought out conclusion which follows logically from the points made and affirmed in the course of your essay. It need not rehearse the points you have rejected. Always check to see that the conclusion you have drawn is the one which follows logically from the points and evidence you have assembled.

(d) Footnoting. Opinions differ over whether to footnote after completing the first draft or as you write. Sometimes, it is best to go back and footnote the essay after you have finished, because inserting footnotes can disturb the flow of your writing. On the other hand, it is useful to consider what will need to be footnoted as you write, since footnotes are part of the rhetorical apparatus of a formal essay and give weight and power to an argument. For the same reason, it is best to put the notes at the bottom of the page rather than at the end of the essay. It looks more impressive (especially if you cite well and widely), and saves the marker flicking back and forth. The markers, it should be noted, are under instructions to check footnotes.

(e) Once you have finished you should compile your bibliography.

(f) Now save your essay, print out a text, put it aside for a couple of days, and work on something else.

9. Revising your Essay

Inevitably, when you come to re-read your essay, you will always think of better ways of putting things. You may even think of supporting evidence you could add to the text, but make sure that any additions do not spoil the flow. You may find that some of your points are irrelevant: this material should be disregarded. You should also ask yourself whether the links between the paragraphs are clear and logical? Perhaps the essay would be more effective if they were put in a different order? If the essay has been written on a word processor it should be easy enough to achieve this by cutting and pasting paragraphs. Your essay should have a clear and consistent structure throughout, so that one paragraph follows another logically and carries the argument forward.

10. Editing your Essay

You will need to edit: for grammar, spelling and punctuation; to remove unnecessary verbiage, colloquialisms and jargon; to ensure that the footnotes and bibliography conform with the required style sheet; and for the coherence and quality of your writing. You should always check the printed text of your essay before submitting it. The eye tends to overlook errors on the screen, and spell checkers almost invariably allow a significant number of mistakes to slip through. 'Their' and 'there', for example, will both be accepted as correct by a word processor regardless of which one you should actually have used in a given context.

11. Final Thoughts

The ability to write good essays does not come to many people easily. It is a skill which requires constant attention and practice. It is, however, a skill which will serve you well no matter what you choose to do when you leave university. Effective communication is a key to success in many walks of life. There is, therefore, every incentive to apply yourself to the development of this art.

Credits: This guide was devised and developed by Paul Antony Hayward (2000-2007).

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