how to write history essay

How to Write the Perfect History Essay

Using the Example of a 2,000 Word Essay

1. Argument

The most important element of a historical essay is argument: students commonly make the mistake of describing rather than analysing.

It is always better to analyse than describe, i.e., analyse the problem, don’t simply provide a description of what happened.

It is (almost) always better to discuss a problem thematically rather than chronologically (this will also help you to analyse rather than describe).

To illustrate the above two points: in History 101 1994 there was an essay question that asked students why the English lost the Hundred Years War. The resulting essays could be sifted easily into two piles, those who analysed thematically and those who described chronologically. The temptation for students was to walk the reader through the course of the Hundred Years War, battle by battle. This was a waste of valuable space and was not required by the question. It was better (for instance) to take one paragraph to outline briefly the course of the Hundred Years War, than spend the bulk of the essay analysing the various reasons why the English lost the war. Every year History 101 students tend to do the same with the question on the Black Death. Inevitably the question on the Black Death asks something regarding the effects of the Black Death on Europe (or European society). Equally inevitably some students waste space with lengthy (and vivid!) descriptions of the course of the disease itself-again, a waste of valuable space. So, analyse rather than describe, and always try to discuss a problem thematically rather than chronologically (not always possible, but it is most of the time).

When you read a question, you should always ask yourself, `what problem(s) does this question ask me to address?’, not `what does this question ask me to describe?’

To repeat: the most important element of a historical essay is argument. You should work out the basic thrust of your argument before you start to plan your essay (and certainly before you start to write it!). Ideally, you should have a reasonable idea of what your argument will be before you do the bulk of your research-if you know what you want to argue before you do most of your reading then you can do `selective’ reading rather than waste hours gathering material you will never use.

Your argument should be clear enough in your own mind that, should someone ask, you could describe it in two or three sentences.

For example, to the question, “Why did the English lose the Hundred Years War?” a basic argument could be, “The English lost the Hundred Years War due to a combination of several factors: a failure to push home their advantage, problems associated with fighting a war far from home, and sheer bad luck.” If this is clear in your head after only minimal general reading, then your subsequent research could concentrate only on the three factors mentioned in your general argument.

Once you have your argument clear in your head then you must be prepared to argue it as strongly as possible. Your reader might, for instance, believe that the English lost the Hundred Years War through poor battle techniques. Your job is to convince the reader that you’re right and he/she isn’t (or, at the least, that you have a convincing and well researched argument that deserves careful consideration).

A word of caution: there may be no right or wrong answers in history, only strongly argued cases, but if you are going to present an argument that defies conventional thinking, then make sure you argue your case well!

For instance, if you wanted to argue that Hitler had nothing to do with do with the outbreak of World War II then you would have to argue a case that defies conventional understanding of the outbreak of World War II. It can be done, but only with a strong argument based on careful research. If you are going to present an argument of this nature, do two things: 1) check it with your tutor or lecturer first; 2) make sure that somewhere in your essay (generally the introduction is a good place) you demonstrate that you are aware of the conventional understanding/theory regarding the problem you are addressing, but that you are going to present a different interpretation (if you don’t do this, you run the real risk that the reader will think you’ve done so little research you’re not even aware of conventional understanding).

2. Planning the essay

Once you have your general argument, then it’s time to plan out your essay. Write down the major points you wish to discuss in your essay (remembering that each major point will be another step or rung in constructing your convincing argument). The problem is that for a restricted word essay there is always a limit to how many major points you can discuss.

As a rough guide, a 2,000 word essay can have between six to eight major points. Why six to eight? In a well-constructed essay you would use one paragraph per major point, and to develop a major point properly you will need some 200-250 words. (Six to eight major points/paragraphs does not include the introduction and conclusion.)

As you must be able to describe in two or three sentences your argument for the essay, you must be able to state in a single phrase the point (or subject) of each paragraph. If you cannot do this, then you have not thought clearly enough about your major points or about how you want to argue your case through. On a single sheet of paper you should be able to write:
A. the question.
B. your argument (2 or 3 sentences);
C. the major points in your argument using a single phrase for each-
All of these points (each expressed in a single phrase) should proceed logically, each one a major stepping stone in your argument, and they should build toward your conclusion
*When you start thinking about your essay, start thinking in this structure.

As a good exercise – and one you should do because it will drive home the need to plan an essay effectively – is to go back to an old essay, number each paragraph (and if you’ve got more than 10 for a 2000 word paper you’re already in trouble) and then, on a separate sheet of paper, write down the point or subject of each paragraph. If you have to do use more than a single phrase to describe the content of the paragraph, then you do not have a coherent paragraph.

3. How to plan and write a paragraph

You must spend as much time planning the overall structure of your paragraphs as you do the overall structure of your essay. Paragraphs are, in a sense, mini-essays. The paragraph should contain:

an introductory sentence, perhaps two (a sentence that will give the reader a good idea what the point/subject of the paragraph is);
two or three examples, or illustrations, of the point you are making;
an argument in its own right (you will need to convince the reader of the importance of this point);
a concluding sentence. The concluding sentence, if possible, should also bridge the gap between the paragraph it concludes and the paragraph to follow (this is difficult and not always possible).
Two to three sentences do not make a paragraph – in two or three sentences you cannot even hope to develop fully a major point. Late twentieth-century newspapers and magazines are generally a good example of extraordinarily poor writing; many modern journalists assume their readers have an attention span of only three sentences at the most (to be fair to journalists, their poor paragraph construction is in part a result of the restrictions of the column formatting of newspapers).

4. Introduction and Conclusion

Generally, the introduction and conclusion should be the last paragraphs you write. You can neither introduce nor conclude until you have written the major portion of the essay. An introduction should give your reader a good idea of your argument and the problems you intend to address in the body of your essay. Like the opening bars of a musical composition, you will win or lose the reader’s interest in the introduction. The conclusion should not simply be a summary of the points you have covered in your essay. This is your last chance to convince the reader of the validity of your argument-don’t waste this opportunity.

The introduction and the conclusion are the two most important paragraphs of the essay. The introduction has to grab the reader’s interest, the conclusion has to make sure that the reader has been convinced of the force of your argument.

5. To summarise: to plan effectively you start with the bare bones and flesh out

Decide your major argument;
list your major points (each a paragraph);
for each major point list
1) information you wish to include
2) points you need to make
3) examples to illustrate your points/argument.
(Write the information you want for each major paragraph on separate sheets of paper. It keeps all the information for a paragraph in one place, and, if you later decide to rearrange the order of your paragraphs, it is easy to physically shuffle your paragraphs about.)
The bonus that you can expect if you do take the time to plan carefully your essay, paragraph by paragraph, is that by the time you have finished your planning, your essay is virtually written. If you find writing hard, then it is probably as a result of poor planning skills.

6. Some extra hints to give your essay added lustre and depth

Sometimes you can work in contradictory views of different historians you have read. This will give your essay added depth, interest, and will demonstrate to your reader how much research you have done. If you do this, then you should also state which of the views/arguments you prefer and why.

For strength of argument, be positive. Some historians say that you should never use words such as `probably’ or `perhaps’ in a piece of historical writing – if you cannot state something positively, then don’t bother stating it at all. I don’t necessarily agree with this, sometimes it is hard to avoid `hedging’, but overall you should aim to be as positive as possible. While you must show that you are aware of other interpretations, be positive in your own interpretation. Remember, you have to believe in your argument-if you don’t, then neither will your reader.

Aim for perfect clarity in your writing style. Not only do the overall essay and paragraph structures need to be carefully planned, so does the structure of each sentence you write. As a general rule, the simpler the sentence structure, the more clarity you will achieve. If you have more than three major clauses in your sentence (more than two punctuation marks) then perhaps two sentences would be better. The more a reader has to read and then re-read a sentence to determine your meaning, the less likely you are to impress. It is not your reader’s job to try and decode your meaning, it is your job to make sure that the reader will understand instantly what you want to say.

When you revise your first draft, always consider each sentence. Ask yourself, “How can I write that more clearly?”

Buy a good style guide. You’ll never regret it. The international standard in style guides is The Chicago Manual of Style (14th edition. Uni. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993). If you can afford it, buy it.

A good essay goes through at least two drafts-which means you must start writing the essay at least a week before it is due.

Proofread your essay carefully (get someone else to do this for you, an author is the very worst person to proofread their own work). Misspellings, typographical errors and basic grammatical errors indicate careless proofing and will lose you marks. It is a good idea to read your essay aloud once you have finished it. If a sentence doesn’t make sense to you when you read it aloud then it certainly won’t make sense to your reader.

Finally, find an author you admire and aim to write like them. If you read a book and think it particularly well-written, then take the time to consider why it is well-written-what can you learn from the author’s writing style?

A good writing style is not a God-given talent, it is the result of thoughtful and careful structuring. Generally students who, on the foundation of some careful research, effectively plan and argue their essays enjoy a leap of at least one grade.

7. Some Common Mistakes to Avoid

This list could be alternatively entitled, “Things that will so annoy your marker it will be a struggle for her/him to pass you”.

Learn the difference between `affect’ (to influence) and `effect’ (a result or consequence of an action).

Do not contract in formal writing, i.e., do not use don’t, won’t, doesn’t etc. These must always be expanded (this paper is not an example of formal writing!).

Use the possessive apostrophe properly. Particularly note that ‘it’s’ is only a contraction for ‘it is’. The sentence,”The dog ran after it’s ball” is an utterly incorrect usage of ‘it’s’.

Watch use of tense – don’t mix tense within a sentence (especially, don’t use the present tense when referring to the past) and don’t mix use of singular and plural in a single sentence.

Headings have no place in a formal prose essay. Using point form to construct your prose or to list facts (as in this paper) is unacceptable as well.

Avoid the temptation to use obscure or complex words that you think might give your paper the gloss of `intellectualism’, you don’t want to send your reader scurrying to the dictionary!

Be precise rather than vague. Avoid phrases like “it is said that …”. Who says? Be precise, write “historians argue that …” or, more correctly, name the historians who argue, “Brown and Smith argue that …” (in which case you need a footnote to where Brown and Smith argue). In any case, if you use a construction like “it is said that…” you really need a footnote to where `it is said’. Vagueness is generally an indication of poor research and panicky writing.

©1995 Sara Warneke/Sara Douglass