― How to write an essay as an undergraduate history student
These are general guidelines to help undergraduate students write better essays. *Note that every assignment is different. You should take the time to closely read the instructions and meet with your Professor if necessary. I hope you will find these useful and good luck writing your papers!
B E F O R E Y O U S T A R T
- Make sure that you have closely read the instructions as presented by your Professor. There are many different types of historical essays (argumentative essays, historiographical reviews and so on). It is imperative that your style is adapted to the type of essay you are required to write.
- Gather all your information. Some Professors want students to write essays using only class material, others expect them to do more research. If the latter, make sure to gather all (most) of your information beforehand. If you are a university student, you have access to a library and many academic journals. Use this access and make sure to ask librarians for help when needed.
- Take careful notes as you are reading in preparation for your essay. If your Professor provided a specific question, make sure to read critically for information that is susceptible to help you answer this question. If your Professor has not assigned a question, you should still read carefully and try to find the different ways in which historians address certain issues.
- Some students prefer not to plan essays, others do. I suggest planning as it may be the best way to map out your ideas and begin forming an argument. It is impossible to cover all the facets of a problem in one essay, therefore, planning your essay may be the easiest way to make sure your work covers important aspects of a given issue. Planning will also help ensure that all your arguments remain connected and support a central claim.
- Find a few (preferably history) essays that you find well-written and pay special attention to their structure. While you should be careful never to be so inspired as to be tempted to copy (this is a very serious academic offence) the goal of this exercise is to find more academic vocabulary and see how it is used by actual scholars.
W H E N W R I T I N G
- If your Professor gave you a question to answer in advance, make sure you answer this question and this question only. While you should always supply your arguments with pertinent examples, these should be succinct and focus on the main contention debated in your essay.
- Make sure your essay has a thesis statement (yes, even when you are asked to answer a question). Your Professor should know from the very beginning of your essay what you will be arguing and what position you will take. All subsequent paragraphs until your conclusion should serve to better make the case for your thesis.
- Try to follow the “classical” essay model, that is: introduction, body and conclusion.
- Began each paragraph with a topic sentence announcing the focus of the next few lines. Conclude the paragraph by rephrasing the main idea and possibly by trying to make a connection with the next body of text.
- Always bring evidence to support your arguments. This evidence may come from the work of other historians are from a passage of a primary document. Whatever the case may be, make sure that your arguments are solidly built and “defended”.
- Introductions and conclusions are (usually) not optional. Your introduction should help the reader understand what the text will argue and how it will proceed to do so, while your conclusion finishes the text by summarising key points and perhaps even making a suggestion for future studies. (An additional tip may be to write a simple introduction at the beginning and then rewriting it when the essay is finished. Once you are satisfied with your introduction, you may copy and paste it as your conclusion making necessary adjustments and avoiding copying the exact sentence structure. The point here is to use your introduction as a guide to write your conclusion.)
- Be precise, you are writing a history paper, dates and names matter.
- Be clear and concise but make sure that all your points are well-developed.
G E N E R A L T I P S
- Locate your argument in historiography. As a historian in training, it is important that you show your Professor that you understand there are debates regarding specific interpretations. It is also important that you demonstrate that your line of argumentation is supported by the work of experienced researchers. Even if your essay primarily focuses on primary document analysis, surely some have analysed this text or object before, make sure to mention these scholars and their contributions to the debate.
- Citations should be used wisely. As said before, it is important to ground your argument in the work of other historians. In this sense, citations are immensely useful. That being said, depending on the length of your paper, too many citations may suggest laziness as you have made little efforts paraphrasing. A few carefully selected and well-integrated quotes in your paper should do the trick.
- Unless prohibited (for some odd reason) by your Professor, use footnotes to give additional information. Using footnotes to engage in discussions that are important but that otherwise cannot find their place in your text will show your Professor that you had a strong command of the topic at hand. It is also the best place to suggest further readings.