Tips for Writing a History Paper / Essay

It's almost impossible to gain a qualification in history without writing some sort of essay / paper. This list of advice is targeted for people from high school / sixth form to undergraduate level.

Understand what your Teacher wants

Read carefully what your teacher wants from you and make sure you understand it, and then produce it. It might seem cynical, but the following advice is secondary to producing work targeted to your teacher and getting a good mark.
Individual teachers can have their own idiosyncrasies which you need to understand, although you might only realise once your class has their first essays back. Speaking to older students can help here.

Aim to Answer the Question

A history essay title is usually in the form of a question, and you can normally break this down into a series of further questions to be answered, giving you a structure. As a general rule, everything you include should be targeted to answering the questions, so spend time really breaking the title down and working out what you need to say to answer. It’s important to keep focused, keep on target and not get distracted by things you might find more interesting. You’re not aiming to show off your knowledge of the whole era, but display the ability to be analytical by weighing sources, as well as knowledge of the target area.

Read as Widely as Possible

While you have to balance reading with giving yourself enough time to write, it’s a general rule that the more you read about a subject, the better versed in it you become, and the better able you are to write on it.
Even if your teacher has only ever referred to one textbook, and it seems to contain enough information, your knowledge and paper will benefit from wider reading. Different historians can give different nuances to the same subject, and often outright different interpretations. The danger is going down side alleys and missing the focus of your work, so keep an eye out.

Research the Author as well as the Subject

When you’re well versed in a subject you’ll be able to analyse books or articles based on what’s written, but if you’re starting out you need some help.
Good book reviews - often found in journals of different levels of academic study – will fill you in on an author’s bias and strong points. Even the reviews on Amazon can be helpful because, while they tend to descend into ideological battles with the possiblity of friends saying things are good, you’ll get an idea of the differences of opinion a book creates and the battleground of ideas.

Make Careful Notes

Normally you will only have access to your sources – secondary or primary – for a short while, because they have to go back to a library. Even if you do have copies nearby for the whole process, careful note taking is important. Firstly because it helps you distil what each book or article is saying down for easy reference when forming your ideas, and partly because it’s much easier to do your references if your notes are good. If you’re working at degree level, you must, must, write down the page numbers next to everything you note, and at any level make sure you know what you’ve rephrased in your own words, and what you’ve quoted, by always using quotation marks.

Always Plan before you Start

Never sit down intending to write something off the top of your head. While inspiration can strike, and some people can do it, spending 5 – 10% of your writing time planning out each paragraph – what point you will address in it – and tracing your arguments through will help the writing go smoother and give you something to refer to if you feel you’re getting sidetracked.
Of course a little flexibility in the plan helps because you might develop an idea while you’re writing, but planning can really assist you.

Select Material Carefully and Keep to the Word Limit

If you’ve read widely, there’s a danger you have a lot to include, but it’s important to keep the word limit as some teachers deduct marks. Carefully make a judgement on what you want to discuss in detail and what you feel is outside the scope of your essay. I was once told you can get away with being 10% longer, but this isn’t a hard rule and teachers have a feeling for how long the ideal document should be just by reading a class load many times each year.

Form Arguments

Many teachers want to see more than a simple narrative, as historical research is about weighing sources. One key way to show off your analytical skills is to explain arguments and use your conclusion to pick a side. Some essays will ask you to argue a point, but it’s important to still mention (and refute) counter arguments. Find historians with different points of view, summarise them - ideally using quotes to give flavour - and then explain why you accept or reject them. This is one of the skills you need to develop over a history course, and one reason why employers like history graduates. Luckily, it isn’t usually hard to find historians who disagree! Of course, while it might not be true to yourself, it’s sometimes a good idea to agree with your teacher’s point of view, but hopefully you’ve good one who can be challenged, and who will accept a good argument from you if you disagree with them.

How to Write an Argument Essay

Make the Introduction and Conclusion Tie Together

One way to convey a coherent set of thoughts – or at least appear to - is to make sure your conclusion is basically a well worded response to the issues raised in your introduction. I was taught by one teacher that you could leave your introduction blank until the end, and write it specifically to introduce your essay once you’d written it and knew perfectly where you were going. I don’t advise that, but it gives you the right idea. Your introduction should tackle the question posed in the essay title and display an understanding of what you’re supposed to be doing, plus a little context. It can help to start with a ‘hook’, some sort of quick fact to lead a reader in. Your conclusion should produce a clear summary of your answers, a firm ending, and perhaps some wider relevance.

Writing a Hook for Your Essay

Don’t Plagiarise

Plagiarism is wrong, but you didn’t come here for the morals. While it might seem to help you in the short term, copying other’s work reduces your own knowledge of the subject and leaves you dangerously open in class and exams to tutors deducing what you’re up to. Anyone can now Google chunks of your essay and see if you’ve taken it from the net, and good tutors will know the key points from the books you’re likely to get. We’ve all seen it work occasionally for other people, but it’s not worth the risk.

Footnote and Quote Appropriately

While copying large chunks of another’s work isn’t going to help you, adding in properly quoted sections is not only recommended, it’s advisable. Generally in a history essay giving a sentence or two from a qualified historian to support and back up your work is a valid tactic, especially when that historian has gone from talking about something widely repeated – like a narrative –to their own interpretations and commentary, such as a value judgement. Always use quotations for this, and if you’re required to footnote, do so obsessively. Better to overdo it than get accused of plagiarism.

Footnoting in Turabian Style
Footnoting in MLA Style

Don’t be Afraid to Write Early and Revise Often

Some people can do all their reading, contain all the knowledge in their head, and then put it all together in one focused draft. There aren’t many of these people, and most of us need to draft things while they are still fresh in our heads. Don’t be afraid to write paragraphs, even a complete draft, after digesting only one or two key works, if you’re willing to revise, revise and revise again as your reading and thinking progresses. The danger is you produce a disjointed piece, but this can be overcome with care. Generally speaking the longer your essay, or even dissertation, the more you want to write before your final attack.

Don’t Leave it to the Last Minute

There are several reasons to try and complete your work ahead of time. Firstly, if you rush you cut down on thinking and editing time, and everything you write benefits from re-reading the next day, or even a couple of days mulling over what you’ve written. Leaving things late can stop you getting hold of the books you need at the library as other people get there first, and a good essay needs time to go through the necessary research and planning. Of course some people thrive on stress and produce good work near a deadline, but it’s a problematic habit which can be affected by surprises.

Proofread

It’s best to proofread a document several times to try and iron out all the mistakes, from major ones like contradicting yourself, to minor – but still important – mistakes in grammar, spelling and dates. The best results can come when you proofread a document several days after reading it, when you’ve had a chance to forget exactly what you’ve written, so you’re now reliant on reading what it does say, not relying on memory for what it should say.

Proofreading Do's and Don'ts