How to Write a History Essay

writingIn the UCL History Department, we’ve been trying to work out how best to support the often difficult transition from school to university study. We’ve come up with (what I think is) an exciting new curriculum which is being introduced for new first years in September. I’ll be convening one of the new first year courses, Writing History. Its aim is to help students reflect on how to write in an effective way. With the help of some colleagues, I’ve just put together some advice on how to write a good essay. This is the sort of thing I say:

Structure

Tutors always claim to know when they see a well-structured essay, but you are not alone if you find the term confusing. You probably understand that an essay needs to begin with an introduction (‘what the essay is about’), should then build a logical argument and end with a conclusion, but that basic framework only gets you so far. You need to recognize that different essays (and different tutors, courses, and types of history) lend themselves to different approaches. So there is no one-size-fits-all approach that you can adopt. It may help to think about essay writing in a metaphorical way – as like constructing a building (which can be ornamental or purely functional), or drawing a map to get from A to B.

·      Always begin with the question. The question should give you a steer towards what kind of structure will work best. Is it asking you to compare two things, to describe and account for change over time, to explain why something was at is was? Each of these approaches may require a different structure.

·      Try talking through your ideas before finalizing your essay. Either talk to a friend, or just an imaginary friend.

·      If you have difficulty working out how to structure an essay try writing out a dozen or so key sentences, embodying the development of the argument in its barest form. These sentences may well form the first sentences of each of your paragraphs. This ‘key sentence’ approach can also be useful when you’ve written your essay to test whether or not you have a successful structure: try reading only the first sentences of all your paragraphs in sequence. They should all logically build on each other.

Argument

In practice argument is sometimes hard to separate from structure. A good structure will support a good argument. But the important point to make very clear is that while tutors will mean different things by ‘argument’, none of them mean ‘argumentative’. We are not asking you to write a polemic. By argument, we mean a well-supported and thoughtful analysis. It doesn’t have to ‘come down on one side or the other’. In fact, most often, given the complexity of life, a good argument will offer a nuanced line that rejects any simplicity. At the top end of the mark range we’re looking for arguments that display what we call ‘intellectual independence’, which basically means you’re showing in your writing that you’re working this out for yourself, not just parroting what someone else has to say. The key thing to remember is that you don’t use a History essay to tell a story for the sake of it. Knowing stuff is essential, but it’s what you do with it that counts. We want to know what you think about historical problems.

·      Make sure you ‘hit the ground running’ in your first sentence. Avoid preambles that set the scene. When you’ve finished your essay go back to your first sentence and read it. If you deleted it, would the essay still make sense? If so, delete it. (You may need to do the same for the whole first paragraph if you have a tendency to take a while before you really engage with the question.)

·      Remember the basic rules about sentences and paragraphs. Each sentence should contain one idea; each paragraph should make one point. (You can break these rules if you like, but make sure you don’t do so at the expense of clarity).

·      A few well chosen examples are a more effective way of making your point than a clutter of detail.

·      If you have trouble formulating a thought on paper, it may be because you’re trying to express two or three ideas at once. Try breaking it up into several sentences instead.

·      One way of thinking about argument is to imagine a conversation you might have with someone who asks you why you came to study to History at UCL. One possible way of answering would be to tell your life story, from the moment you first read a Horrible History to your inspiring teacher in Year 6, through to when you couldn’t decide whether to apply for English or History in Year 12, the terrible interview you had at Oxford at so on. This could take some time. An alternative answer would be to say something like ‘I guess there are five main reasons, some positive things, some accidental, but the one that’s most important is…’ The second approach may make you seem a rather odd, nerdy person. But on paper it constitutes something like what we mean by ‘argument’.

Historiography

This is a term that can sometimes strike fear – or at least confusion – into first year students. You may find that your tutors assume you know what it means when in fact you’ve never come across it before. As with all these terms, it can, in practice, have a variety of meanings, but in terms of essay feedback it usually simply means ‘how well has this student engaged with the works of the historians she’s read?’ We do not want you to ‘name-check’ historians just for the sake of it. Think of this as being about ‘showing your working’. If you are answering a question like ‘What were the causes of the Wars of the Roses’ in the context of a first year survey course, you are really answering the question ‘What, based on your understanding of the reading you’ve done and the lectures you’ve been to, were the causes of the Wars of the Roses?’ You weren’t there at the time, and nor have you examined the primary sources. So the only way you can answer the question is by drawing on what we call secondary sources, or ‘historiography’ – books and articles by historians. So historiography is not something additional that you have to shoe-horn into your argument; you’ve read the books, just show us that you’ve done so, by making clear where you’ve got your ideas from.  That’s it, really.

 Quality of Writing

One of the authors of The Elements of Style wrote:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outlines, but that every word tell.

This is good advice. All good writing is clear. You can make a complex argument in a clear way; clarity is not the same as simplicity.

·      Don’t try and sound clever for the sake of it. Don’t use complex phrases that you wouldn’t use in real life because you think that when you’re writing you need to write in a different way.

·      Imagine that you’re writing for an intelligent Great Aunt who never went to university. She’s really interested in understanding what you have to say and has a general background of knowledge and is certainly highly literate. But you’ll need to make your case clearly.

·      Don’t be afraid of ‘I’. This is your essay. We want to hear your voice. Too often, academic writing is sterile and dull to read because the writer has ‘hidden’ behind careful circumlocutions, guarding themselves against anticipated criticism. Pick up most history books and compare the style of writing in the Preface with the rest of the text. 9 times out of 10 you’ll find that the Preface is much fresher and clearer because it is there that the author explains how she came to write the book and what she was setting out to do. Then, somehow, an academic shadow falls and the rest of book could almost be written by a different person. How much better to be brave and clear and fresh from the beginning to the end.

One thought on “How to Write a History Essay

  1. No matter how I try to alter my writing, I always seem to end up sounding like a reporter. And you’re correct – I do tend to try to express more than one point at a time. I have to print this post out!!

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