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How to Write a History Essay

What is a history essay?

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Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates
Hints on how to start a history paper

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? Because the thesis is so critical, small changes in it will have a big impact. Don't be afraid to refine it as often as necessary as you continue reading and writing.

Thou shalt begin with an outline that buildeth thy entire paper around thy central ideas. In any case, whether you organize by thesis-subthesis, topic, or narrative, your central task is to ask penetrating, interpretive questions of your sources.

Therefore structure your outline to let incidental facts recede as supporting evidence, and to emphasize answers to intelligent questions. Thou shalt avoid self-conscious discussion of thy intended purposes, thy strategy, thy sources, and thy research methodology.

Keep the focus on what you have to say, not on the question of how you hope to develop and say it. Do not parade around in your mental underwear. Show only the well-pressed and well-shined final product. Avoid self-conscious-sounding phrases such as: If you must discuss methodology, do it in a preface; discussing sources is fine, but in a bibliographical essay.

Phrases that tell your reader explicitly what you intend to do or to do next, or that tell explicitly where to see emphasis, are crutches.

The above does not mean that you offer the reader no cues and clues. Yes, it is important, in the opening paragraph or two of a paper or a section, to lay out the essential question s you will address and often to hint at the answers you may find. But do it artistically, not with a heavy hand. In the cases of historiographical papers and book reviews you may of course discuss sources.

Those cases are exceptions. There may be other exceptions. Document those facts which you cannot consider common textbook knowledge—especially those which could be controversial or which are crucial to the development of your argument, analysis, or narrative. If there get to be too many footnotes, combine some or all that refer to a given paragraph.

However, never make one footnote cover material in more than one paragraph. Thou shalt strive for clarity above cuteness; thou shalt not use jargon when common language will serve, nor a large word when a small one will serve, nor a foreign term when an English one will serve, nor an abstract term where a vivid one is possible.

Learn first of all to write lean, tough, logical, precise prose. After you have learned that, you may begin to experiment with metaphors, allusions, and fancily turned phrases.

But use these only if they add to communication and do not clutter it up. Trying to impress your reader with obscure vocabulary, erudition in foreign or specialized verbiage, and all such pretension, is absolutely out. Remember thy paragraph to keep it a significant unity; thou shalt not fragment thy discussion into one short paragraph after another, and neither shalt thou write a paragraph that fails to develop a topical idea.

Think of the paragraph as an instrument to develop an idea. 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. If your essay drifts, loses focus, or becomes a narrative of events then you will find your grade dropping. Your introduction can help guide you if you have given a clear indication of the structure of your essay.

The body of the essay is where your argument is really made and where you will be using evidence directly. Think carefully about how you construct your paragraphs, and think of each paragraph as one micro-sized version of the essay structure. In other words, aim to have a topic sentence introducing each paragraph, followed by the main portion of the paragraph where you explain yourself and draw on the relevant evidence.

When you are organising your essay think of each paragraph as addressing one element of the essay question. Keeping a close focus like this will also help you avoid drifting away from the topic of the essay and will encourage you to write in precise and concise prose. Don't forget to write in the past tense when referring to something that has already happened. Use source material as evidence to back up your thesis. Your evidence will be the heart of your history essay.

Introduce your different pieces of evidence by directly quoting them, or by summarising them. Then, analyze them in a way that ties back to and supports your thesis statement.

Use only the quotes that best illustrate your point. If you are referring to a secondary source, you can usually summarise in your own words rather than quoting directly. Be sure to fully cite anything you refer to, including if you do not quote it directly.

Make your essay flow. The fluency of your text is an important element in the writing a good history essay that can often be overlooked. Think carefully about how you transition from one paragraph to the next and try to link your points together, building your argument as you go.

It is easy to end up with an essay that reads as a more or less disconnected series of points, rather than a fully developed and connected argument. Think about the first and last sentence in every paragraph and how they connect to the previous and next paragraph. Try to avoid beginning paragraphs with simple phrases that make your essay appear more like a list.

For example, limit your use of words like: Give an indication of where your essay is going and how you are building on what you have already said. A good conclusion should precisely and succinctly summarise your argument and key points.

You need to make sure your conclusion reflects the content of your essay, and refers back to the outline you provided in the introduction. If you read your conclusion and it doesn't directly answer the essay question you need to think again.

Briefly outline the implications of your argument and it's significance in relation to the historiography, but avoid grand sweeping statements. Once you have written up essay, it is important that you set aside sometime to proofread it thoroughly and work on any revisions. Proofreading is not just about picking out typos and grammar mistakes, but can be a good opportunity to evaluate your work more closely, both for style and content.

As you read through, think about the language you use as well as your sentence construction. Try to cut down any overly long sentences or run-on sentences. Instead, try to write clear and accurate prose and avoid unnecessary words. Concentrate on developing a clear, simple and highly readable prose style first before you think about developing your writing further.

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. Remember a history essay is an analysis and not just a narrative of events.


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All history students should swear a similar oath: to answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question. This is the number one rule. You can write brilliantly and argue a case with a wealth of convincing evidence, but if you are not being relevant then you might as well be tinkling a cymbal.

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Historical essay writing is based upon the thesis. A thesis is a statement, an argument which will be presented by the writer. The thesis is in effect, your position, your particular interpretation, your way of seeing a problem.

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Writing an essay for history is not necessarily the same as it may be for an English class. Through the next few pages we will cover a basic overview of the process while also pointing out some "do's and don'ts" of writing an historical essay. Some of the examples of historical essays that you may be asked to write on include: Agrarian revolution; Evolution of man; World war one; World war two; Colonization and acquisition of independence; Creation theory; You should get familiar with the above topics to be safe when it comes to writing historical essays.

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Ten Essay Tips 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. Writing of past events in the present tense is usually evidence that the author lacked appreciation for historical setting. Historical essays and book reviews present special problems. But even the author’s act of writing a book took place in the past, even if only a year or two ago. Thus, Hofstadter ARGUED, not “argues”, in his Age of Reform. Hofstadter is now dead, and presumably cannot argue (present tense).