How to write a historical essay (with pictures)

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How to write a historical essay (with pictures)
How to write a historical essay (with pictures)

To write a historical essay, you need to include a lot of historical details and information within the required number of words or pages. It is important to provide all the necessary information, but also to present it in a cohesive and intelligent way. Learn to write a historical essay that demonstrates your writing skills and your understanding of the material.


Part 1 of 5: Prepare to write your essay

Write a History Essay Step 1
Write a History Essay Step 1

Step 1. Evaluate the essay question

The first thing to do if you need to write a historical essay is to take some time to evaluate the question that is being asked. No matter how well written, argued, or proven your essay is, if you don't answer the question they ask you, don't expect to receive a high grade. Think about the specific keywords and phrases used in the question, and if you are not sure about any of the terms, search for them and define them.

  • Generally, keywords will need to be defined at the beginning of the essay and will serve as your boundaries.
  • For example, if the question was "To what extent was World War I a total war?" The key terms are "World War I" and "total war."
  • Do this before you start doing your research to make sure your reading focuses carefully on the question and you don't waste your time.
Write a History Essay Step 2
Write a History Essay Step 2

Step 2. Consider what the question asks of you

With a historical essay, there are a number of different types of questions they might ask you, which will require different answers on your part. You need to clarify this point in the early stages so that you can prepare your essay in the best way. Review your essay question and ask yourself if you should explain, interpret, evaluate, or argue. You might be asked to cover one or all of these different points in the essay, so think about how you can do the following:

  • Explain: Provide an explanation of why something did or did not happen.
  • Interpret: analyze information within a larger structure to contextualize it.
  • Evaluate: present and support a value judgment.
  • Argue: take a clear position on a debate and justify it.
Write a History Essay Step 3
Write a History Essay Step 3

Step 3. Try to summarize your key argument

Once you've done your research, you'll start to formulate your argument or thesis statement in your head. It is essential that you have a strong argument that you later develop in your essay. So before you start planning and writing your essay, try to summarize your key argument in a sentence or two.

  • Your argument may change or become more nuanced as you write your essay, but having a clear thesis statement that you can refer to is very helpful.
  • The main point of your essay should be clear enough that you can structure your essay plan around it.
  • For example, your summary could be something like "World War I was a‘total war’because civilian populations mobilized on the battlefield and internally."
Write a History Essay Step 4
Write a History Essay Step 4

Step 4. Make a rehearsal plan

Once you've evaluated the question, you need to come up with an essay plan. This is an excellent opportunity to organize your notes and begin to develop the structure that you will use for your essay. By developing your essay plan, you can assess the quality and depth of the evidence you collected and consider whether your thesis statement has adequate support.

  • Pick a few key quotes that make your argument more precise and convincing.
  • When writing your plan, you should already be thinking about how your essay will flow and how each point will connect.

Part 2 of 5: Conduct the Research

Write a History Essay Step 5
Write a History Essay Step 5

Step 1. Distinguish between primary and secondary sources

A historical essay will require a strong argument backed by solid evidence. The two main types of evidence you can extract are known as primary and secondary sources. Depending on the essay you are writing, you may need to include both. If you're not sure what to expect, be sure to ask your teacher well in advance of the essay due date.

  • The primary source material refers to the texts, films, images, or any other kind of evidence that was produced in the historical period (or by someone who participated in the events of the period) that you are writing about.
  • Secondary material is the work of historians or other writers where they analyze events in the past. The body of historical work on a period or event is known as historiography.
  • It is not unusual to write a literary review or a historiographical essay that does not use primary material.
  • Typically, a research trial would need significant primary material.
Write a History Essay Step 6
Write a History Essay Step 6

Step 2. Find your sources

It can be difficult to get started with your research. There could be a lot of text that makes it difficult to know where to start, or you may have a very hard time finding the relevant material. In any case, there are some proven ways that you can find reliable material for your essay.

  • Start with the basic texts on your reading list or bibliography. Your teacher will have selected them carefully so that you can start from there.
  • Look for footnotes and bibliographies. When reading, be sure to pay attention to footnotes and bibliographies that can guide you to more sources to get a clear picture of important texts.
  • Visit the library. If you have access to a library at your school or university, be sure to make the most of it. Look up catalogs online and talk to librarians.
  • Access online databases of journals. If you're in college, you likely have access to online academic journals, which are excellent, easy-to-navigate resources.
  • Don't go directly to an internet search engine. If you are tempted to just type your topic in the search bar, you will find many results, but the academic value will be questionable and you will have to spend a lot of time on various sites before finding good sources.
Write a History Essay Step 7
Write a History Essay Step 7

Step 3. Evaluate your secondary sources

It is very important that you evaluate your sources critically. For a strongly academic essay, you should use and engage with academic material that is of demonstrable quality. It is very easy to find information on the Internet or in popular stories, but you must use scholarly texts produced by historians. In the early stages of your studies, you may not be sure how to identify academic sources, so when you find a text ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the author? Was it written by an academic occupying a position at a university? Look up the author on the internet.
  • What is the publisher? Is it an established academic publisher that publishes the book? Look at the cover to find out about the publisher, and if it's published by a college publisher, it's a good sign.
  • If it is an article, where was it published? If you use an article, check to see if it has been published in an academic journal.
Write a History Essay Step 8
Write a History Essay Step 8

Step 4. Read critically

Once you find some good sources, you will need to take good notes and read the texts critically. Stop your mind from wandering while reading a book or article, and instead keep asking yourself questions about what you read. Think about what exactly the author is saying and how well the evidence supports the argument.

  • Ask yourself why the author makes this argument. Evaluate the text by placing it in a broader intellectual context. Is it part of a certain tradition in historiography? Is it a response to a particular idea?
  • Consider where the weaknesses and limitations for the argument lie. Always keep critical thinking and try to identify areas where you think the argument is overly stretched or the evidence does not match the author's claims.
Write a History Essay Step 9
Write a History Essay Step 9

Step 5. Take meticulous notes

When taking notes, you must be careful not to write incomplete notes or misquote a text. It is better to write more in your notes than you think you need than not to have enough and to end up rereading a book in a frenzy.

  • Label all of your notes with page numbers and source-specific bibliographic information.
  • If you have a quote but can't remember where you found it, imagine trying to go back to everything you've read to find that line.
  • If you use something and don't refer to it completely, you run the risk of plagiarism.

Part 3 of 5: Write the introduction

Write a History Essay Step 10
Write a History Essay Step 10

Step 1. Start with a solid first sentence

When you start writing your essay, a strong introduction can set the stage, create interest in the reader, and provide a summary of what will be in your essay. Try to start with one or two sentences that announce the topic of your essay and indicate what you are going to write. The first sentence or sentences give a broader perspective on a problem that you will focus on later in the rest of the introduction.

  • For example, you could start by saying, "In World War I, new technologies and mass mobilizations of populations suggested that standing armies were not the only ones fighting the war."
  • The first few sentences introduce the topic of your essay in a broad way so you can focus on more.
Write a History Essay Step 11
Write a History Essay Step 11

Step 2. Summarize what you are going to argue

In your introduction, you should give a clear summary of how you will answer the question and what your argument is. You should give a brief overview of your main points and the type of evidence you will use to support them. Try to answer the question explicitly in a single sentence, and then expand on how you will argue your case.

  • This will result in a summary of the structure of your essay and your argument.
  • Here you will explain the particular approach you have taken to the essay.
  • For example, if you use case studies, you should explain it and give a brief overview of which ones you will use and why.
Write a History Essay Step 12
Write a History Essay Step 12

Step 3. Provide a brief context for your work

Depending on the type of essay you write, you will need to provide a brief overview of the main historiographic debates for your topic. It is important to show that you have a good understanding of what other historians have written on your topic and to be able to place your own argument within this larger context.

Part 4 of 5: Write the essay

Write a History Essay Step 13
Write a History Essay Step 13

Step 1. Develop a clear structure

When writing the body of your essay, it is important that you have a clear structure for your argument and prose. If your essay drifts, it will lose focus or become a narrative of events, causing your grade to drop. Your introduction can help guide you in case you have given a clear indication of the structure of the essay.

Write a History Essay Step 14
Write a History Essay Step 14

Step 2. Develop your argument

The body of the essay is the place where you develop your argument and where you will use the evidence correctly. Think carefully about how you will write your paragraphs, and consider each paragraph as a miniature version of the essay structure. In other words, choose to have a topic sentence that introduces each paragraph followed by the main part of it where you will explain and use the relevant evidence.

  • Try to include a sentence that concludes each paragraph and links it to the next.
  • When organizing your essay, consider that each paragraph addresses one element of the essay question.
  • Having a deep focus like this will also help you avoid drifting off the topic of your essay and will encourage you to write in precise and concise prose.
  • Don't forget to write in the past tense when you refer to something that has already happened.
Write a History Essay Step 15
Write a History Essay Step 15

Step 3. Use the source material properly

How you use the evidence will play a big role in how convincing your argument is and how well-written your essay is. You can introduce evidence by citing it directly or by summarizing it. Using evidence strategically and intelligently will greatly improve your essay. Try to avoid long quotes and use only those that best illustrate your point.

  • Don't cite a primary source in your prose without introducing and discussing it.
  • If you refer to a secondary source, you can usually summarize it in your own words rather than citing it directly.
  • Make sure to fully reference anything you talk about, even if you don't quote it directly.
Write a History Essay Step 16
Write a History Essay Step 16

Step 4. Make your essay fluid

Text fluency is an important element in writing a good historical essay that can often be overlooked. Think carefully about how you get from one paragraph to the next and try to connect your points by developing your argument as you go. It is easy to end with an essay that reads as a series of more or less disconnected points rather than as a developed and connected argument.

  • Think about the first and last sentences in each paragraph and how they connect to the previous and next paragraph.
  • Avoid starting paragraphs with simple sentences that make your essay look more like a list. For example, limit your use of words like "Likewise," "On the other hand," or "In addition."
  • Provide an indication of where your essay is going and how you develop what you have already said.
Write a History Essay Step 17
Write a History Essay Step 17

Step 5. Conclude succinctly

A good conclusion should accurately and succinctly summarize your argument and key points. You must ensure that the conclusion reflects the content of your essay and refers to the summary you made in the introduction. If you read your conclusion and it doesn't directly answer the essay question, you should think again.

  • Briefly summarize the implications of your argument and its significance in relation to historiography, but avoid overly radical statements.
  • A conclusion also provides an opportunity to point out areas beyond the scope of your essay where future research might develop.

Part 5 of 5: Review and Evaluate Your Essay

Write a History Essay Step 18
Write a History Essay Step 18

Step 1. Review your essay

After writing the essay, it is important that you put it aside for a while to review it well and make any corrections. Proofreading is not about detecting misprints and grammatical errors, but it can be a good opportunity to evaluate your work more closely, both in terms of style and content. As you read, think about the language you use as well as the construction of the sentences.

  • Try to cut down on excessively long or poorly formulated sentences. Instead, write in clear and precise prose avoiding unnecessary words.
  • Focus on developing a clear, simple, and easy-to-read prose style before you think about developing your writing further.
  • Reading the essay out loud can help you get a clearer picture of inappropriate phrases and excessively long sentences.
Write a History Essay Step 19
Write a History Essay Step 19

Step 2. Analyze rather than describe

One thing to keep in mind when reading your historical essay is whether there are any highly descriptive passages that you need to modify. Remember that a historical essay is an analysis and not just a narrative of events. History students might end up retelling a series of events rather than analyzing them and the related historiographic debates.

  • As you read your essay, look at each paragraph and ask yourself the following: "What emphasis does this paragraph make?"
  • You could have produced good narrative writing, but if you don't answer the question directly, it won't earn you a good grade.
Write a History Essay Step 20
Write a History Essay Step 20

Step 3. Check your references and bibliography

Your essay is not complete until you have included and reviewed all the references along with your bibliography. There are many different style conventions for your formatting, so be sure to review with your teacher which style to use in case you don't already know. While it may seem like a tedious task, if you don't use the proper style, the person grading your essay will think you are lazy.

  • Generally, a bibliography will list the primary sources first and then the secondary sources.
  • Check several times to make sure you have included all the necessary references in the text. If you forgot to include a reference, you run the risk of being accused of plagiarism.

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