How To Write a History Essay

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A history essay sounds simple, right? The information is available, the events have been reported, and potentially analysed or evaluated already, so all you need is the right quotes, the right sources and your essay should receive top marks. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, a good history essay takes time, thought and clear evaluation of the evidence. Our tips and guidelines on structure will give you the right foundation to produce the perfect history essay. But first, let’s look at the kinds of questions you may have to answer.

Types of History Essay

There are 3 main types of history essay :

  • There is major debate about historical accuracy in the topic area, and the aim of the essay is to prove one perspective and refute another.
  • There is major disagreement in the topic area, and the aim of the essay is to present the arguments in a new light, giving meaning and direction to the understanding of the historical perspective.
  • There is general agreement about the topic area, and the aim of the essay is present a convincing argument about a better way to interpret historical events.

Key Tips for Writing A History Essay

Understand (and deconstruct!) the question

This tip may seem obvious, but many students answer the question they think has been asked, but in fact have failed to break the question down to ensure they understand accurately what is being asked. The first stage is to look for instruction words such as “in what ways” which means you are being asked an implicit question about how a historical event occurred. Or “Assess…” questions which require you to analyse and evaluate available evidence.

For example, if you are asked to examine why Stalin came to power, you need to ensure you define the process of coming to power, identify specific events (nationally and globally), and historical figures, as well as ensure his own background and motivation are all considered. With this wide information, you can be clear about the timeline and process of Stalin’s rise to power, and which facts are essential to your argument, and which are not. So, deconstruct the question and be clear about what is being asked. Really think about your answer. Look at your arguments, identify any issues or potential areas for criticism or debate about your reasoning, and examine credible sources to back up (or refute your thoughts and viewpoints).

Write in the past tense.

This is vital in a history essay because the events have already happened.

Be specific.

Avoid vague phrases such as “at one time”, “people say that”. Be bold, be brave and make your essay stand out with clear statements that are always backed by credible sources.

Be logical and coherent :

The past should be investigated and reported on in its own right, be sure you are chronologically correct when reporting or discussing events, and do not try to relate historical arguments to the present. It can be tempting to view history with 21st-Century eyes, but to really understand historical events, it is necessary to put yourself into the time being discussed and the context in which the event(s) occurred.

Be respectful.

The aim of historical analysis and essays is to understand, not sit as judge, jury, and executioner. So again, remember the context and contemporary values of the historical period under review and try to avoid present time bias.

Write your own words:

Quotes can be a powerful support to your argument but if they are overused, they become a crutch for a poorly analysed history essay. Reference any quotes, identify context and explain why you have chosen to use the quote, rather than paraphrase. Quotes should be an enhancement to your essay, not the foundation.

Choose the right setting.

Make sure you essay provides your reader the relevant context for your arguments. This means identifying important sources, interpreting available evidence, and presenting a clear and concise report that incorporates both sequence of events and the context in which they occur.

Citation Conventions:

A superlative history essay will include footnotes and /or endnotes to give their reader additional information or signposts to further reading on specific events or historical perspectives. Check your university’s citation requirements and ensure you adhere to these throughout your essay.

Be formal and academically accurate:

Never use the “I” or “we”, the first person construction and where possible avoid the passive voice. Academically proficient writers write in an authoritative, clear, coherent, and well-referenced style, backing up their arguments with evidence from credible sources.

These tips will ensure your essay is planned to perfection, so now all you need to consider is how to structure the paper.

The Structure of the Essay

Introduction

Cecil B. DeMille the film maker said that you should “start with an earthquake and work up to a climax.”. This is a good rule for a history essay introduction, you need to ensure that your introduction clearly and definitively shows that you understand the question, the issues you will discuss and how you will resolve them. You need to demonstrate that your essay will be relevant, analytical, and based on strong sources.

Body Text

This section is the meat in your essay sandwich. It should be separated into logical, chronologically correct paragraphs, each dealing with a different aspect of your argument. Frequently, a good structure is to make a statement that opens up the area or event under discussion, which will be a sub-element of your main topic, and then defends or refutes existing views based on credible, reliable sources. In these sections, avoid losing your thread, link your paragraphs together with a coherent and academically proficient approach so that the reader can see your overall argument growing and expanding as the essay progresses.

Conclusion

The conclusion of your essay can be viewed as the hammer falling to close your argument. This section should not give any new information, but rather should bring together all the points you have made to show a clear opinion or perspective on the topic under discussion. One way to illustrate how this should be achieved is to consider that in the body text you are giving evidence in court for-or-against a view and that in the conclusion you are judge, weighing up the historical evidence presented and delivering a judgement.

Above all, in your essay, be relevant, accurate, answer the question and ensure any arguments are well backed by credible, reliable sources.

Key Useful Phrases for History Essays

  • In order to understand… it is first necessary to recognise / understand
  • This question deals with …
  • The principal issue raised by this question …
  • The main issue is whether…
  • The issues to be considered are …
  • The problem also raises the issue of
  • On the facts presented, it can be argued that …
  • It would seem, (therefore), that …
  • It is possible that …
  • It could be argued that …
  • It would appear that…
  • Historical evidence indicates that

For your conclusion, here are some additional phrases that can aid in your summation of the evidence presented.

  • On balance, it seems that.
  • It is therefore concluded that…
  • It is submitted that …
  • In conclusion, it can be stated that …
  • In consideration of the facts presented, it fair to conclude that …

 

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