History-How to Write an Essay [PDF 106.80KB]

History-How to Write an Essay [PDF 106.80KB]
How to write
a history essay
How to write a history essay
How to write a history essay
This guide was produced on the basis of the History QAA Benchmark, and while
consulting in particular helpful guidelines by the universities of Aberdeen and
A History essay is a piece of written work in response to a particular question or issue.
It requires students to demonstrate a number of skills in combination, including
knowledge and understanding of a specific topic; the ability to gather and deploy
evidence and data; the ability to understand arguments advanced by other academics
including methodological issues; the ability to produce reasoned and sustained
historical arguments and to demonstrate coherently and imaginatively individual
thought and judgement. Essays may be long, reflecting depth of scholarship, or short,
requiring precision of focus. They may be written to a target length, or under time.
Essays written under exam conditions also afford safeguards against plagiarism and
give students the opportunity to develop relevant life-skills, such as the ability to
produce coherent, reasoned and supported arguments under pressure. Because of the
integrative high-order skills which they develop, essays are therefore an essential
element of all History assessment at the undergraduate level. The following guide is
meant to offer helpful advice and assist you in producing a good History essay and
developing your own style and thought. In some courses you will be given additional
and more specific guidelines. Of course, you can always discuss any question with
your tutor.
It takes time and thought to write a good History essay. Make sure you allow yourself
enough time to read, prepare, and write up. When writing under exam conditions, you
should do your best to allocate to each question the time required.
Choosing the Question
An essay question will ask you to focus on one particular area or topic, and to pursue
a line of argument. You should choose your question with care. Make sure you choose
the question that most interests you, rather than the one you think might be easiest,
closest to the lecture topic, or to what your friends choose to do.
Make sure you understand the question and its precise wording. If necessary, ask your
tutor. It is always a good idea examine the question in your mind, in order to
understand its point. Your essay will be assessed according to the quality of its
engagement with a set title, so your understanding of the title is crucial for the quality
of your answer. While preparing and doing your reading, you may also want at times
to go back to the set question and reflect on it. Try to see to what extent your
How to write a history essay
understanding has changed. It is very likely that as you go on with your reading and
writing, your understanding of the question and its ramifications will be enriched.
In the second or third year, students may also be asked to set their own question. In
doing so, they should make sure they consult their tutor and follow the course
Reading and note taking
Get hold of the relevant texts and make sure you have time to read them. Remember
to take notes. Don't simply rely on highlighted lines and marginal comments,
produced by yourself or others. As you write your notes, be careful to distinguish
between your own summaries and direct quotation. Copy quotations accurately, and
use quotation marks. This will be crucial in order to avoid plagiarism at a later stage.
Remember to note down page numbers: this will save you a great deal of frustration
and extra work in the writing stage. It is worth investing some time early in your
studies to plan how you are going to keep track of reading notes: you can do so by
hand, electronically, or by using combined methods. There are various forms of
software available to help you collect, organise, and search through notes, as well as
set out footnotes and bibliographies. The programme 'Endnote' is supported by the
University's Computer Services.
What to read
If you are researching a new subject, it might be a good idea to start by reading a
summary of the basic information in perhaps one or two text-books. This will give
you a basic understanding of the topic and, sometimes, a summary of historical views
and debates. Be wary, however, of overly simplified or generalised arguments and
outdated approaches. You should then proceed to investigate more specific scholarly
works. Recent articles (which can often be obtained on-line) are often very helpful.
Recent works may provide a good assessment of the state of the debate. Some reading
lists also contain references to particularly important classical books and articles,
which have made a special impact in the field – in some cases it may be a good idea to
familiarise yourself with them. You can ask your tutor which books and articles are
particularly recommended, but try also to explore on you own. To maximise your
productivity, try to diversify your reading skills. Some items should be read and
summarised with care, others could be more selectively explored, and while using the
content pages and index.
While pursuing your reading, you may want to consolidate your thoughts. As you
make notes and process your ideas, you will also create better order in your mind and
will be able to identify those areas on which you need to read more or do more work.
Some students find it useful not to delay the writing but combine it with the reading
process. At any rate, you should strive to establish and cultivate working patterns that
enable you to manage well your time and thought and maximise your ability.
How to write a history essay
Planning your essay
An essay is expected to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The introduction can
take various forms and depends on individual style. Some students, while carefully
planning their essay, still find it useful to draft or edit their introduction at the end of
the writing process. The main body of the essay consists of the argument, which is
developed and extended sequentially throughout. Before writing, consider the order of
your argument and the weight which different points require in the overall structure.
Make sure you have sufficient evidence and examples to demonstrate your point. You
might also need to consider alternative points of view, or think how to counter them.
When processing your work electronically, you can of course alter the structure. As
you write your essay by hand, remember always to ask yourself whether your writing
proceeds in a logical order, and whether what you are writing helps to answer the
question. The final part of the essay (that is, the conclusion), should weigh up the key
points of your argument and offer a judgement in relation to the set question and the
work you have done in the essay itself.
The essay is yours and should be written by you in your own words and on the basis
of your own reading and analysis. You should aim to consolidate your essay to carry
the points of your argument and avoid bitty lines and a patchwork of paraphrases and
All quotations and paraphrases should be acknowledged with conventional footnote
references according to the guidelines below. Failure to acknowledge your sources
may lead you to be charged with plagiarism, a serious offence bound to lead to
punitive action. The only exception is when writing in an unseen examination, in
which reference materials cannot be consulted and footnotes therefore are not
expected to be made.
A quotation may be short or long. Short quotes can be integrated in the text in
inverted commas and long quotes conventionally appear in indented lines. Use
quotations sparingly, and only when appropriate. A paraphrase does not appear in
inverted commas, but you must nonetheless acknowledge your source.
In order for your argument to be convincing, it needs to be well-researched, reasoned,
and sustained with evidence and examples. In order to communicate your ideas, you
must also strive to convey them with a fluent and coherent style. This means that you
need to pay attention to grammatical conventions. Make sure your sentences are
complete, avoid cumbersome and lengthy sentences, and check your punctuation and
spelling. Consolidate paragraphs, and learn to employ 'topic sentences' as signposts. It
is normally best to write in the third person and to aim for conciseness and clarity.
How to write a history essay
Strive to be elegant without being pompous, and lively without being flippant. Clarity
is more important than complexity. Avoid jargon, slang, bland generalisations,
unsubstantiated arguments, and hackneyed phrases. Make sure not to lose track of the
argument and never turn your essay into a lengthy narrative of events. All History
essays aim to be analytical and offer evidenced and reasoned critical discussions and
conclusions, based on learning and research, rather than mere narratives or statements
of personal opinion.
Before submitting your essay, try to leave a day or two to re-read it and enter
corrections. Many students benefit from asking a friend to go over their essay, spot
weaknesses, and make sure their essay makes sense.
All typed essays should be made in a 12pt font, double spaced. In many courses you
will be required to submit essays electronically, although Tutors may require a paper
copy. Non-assessed essays should be submitted clipped with an appropriate cover
sheet. Assessed essays should be submitted by the deadline as notified to the students
or stated in Sussex Direct. University guidelines for presentation can be also found in
the Undergraduate Examination and Assessment Handbook:
Remember, presentation matters! The following notes will help you to ensure the
quality of your submission.
Spelling: are there any spelling errors? If so, do your best to detect and correct them.
If you tend to make repeated errors (such as their/there, principle/principal, its/it's), try
to seek clarification.
Grammar, syntax: are there any errors? Read carefully and check. It is sometimes a
good idea to read sections aloud.
Punctuation: are the errors (i) very few? (ii) Systematic ones of minor kind (for
example, on unpaired commas only)? (iii) Systematic of a major kind (for example,
incorrect use of full stops, or failure to distinguish plural and genitive)? Go over your
submission and check.
Reference and/or bibliography: are they provided? Are any details missing, incorrect,
or incomplete? Do your best to check and aim for consistency according to the
conventions explained below.
General carelessness: are there lapses not covered above, such as illegibility, missing
words, incomplete sentences? Examine your work and do the best you can to improve
the quality of your submission.
How to write a history essay
If you feel you need help, don't hesitate to ask. You may start by contacting your tutor
and student advisor.
Please see the “History Referencing Guide”, which is on the department’s website.
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