Tips for Writing a Good History Essay

Consider these following points before writing an essay, and check your draft against them before writing the final version.

A. Organization

1) Write your essay as if it were going to be read by someone who is intelligent, but who knows less about the subject than you do.

2) Your first paragraph must have a clear thesis statement that explicitly states your argument, your interpretation of the topic at hand. A full thesis statement will explain in a few words what the thesis of your essay is and how you will substantiate it. Here are a few things that a thesis statement is not:

a) A thesis statement is NOT a statement of the topic [e.g. “This paper is about...”]
b) A thesis statement is NOT a statement of intention [e.g. “In this paper, I will look at...”]
c) A thesis statement is NOT a statement of some blindingly obvious truth [e.g. “This paper will show that Nazis were antisemitic”].

3) Make sure that every subsequent paragraph expands and clarifies the thesis stated in your introductory paragraph. Support your generalizations with specific historical evidence, gathered from your primary sources in the Censer & Hunt collection.

4) All essays must have a clear organizing principle. Effective ways to organize them include (a) chronological organization, (b) thematic organization, (c) organization by geographical region (d) organization by social group, etc. Whichever organizational principle you choose, use references to dates and time periods to structure and clarify your arguments.

5) In your concluding paragraph, briefly recapitulate your argument and then indicate its wider historical significance.

B. Editing and Style

1) Write in the past tense when describing events that occurred in the past. For example: “Lincoln delivered [not ‘delivers’] the Gettysburg Address in 1863.”

2) Use verbs that are in the active voice (not the passive), so that the reader knows who or what is causing action to occur. For example, write that: “Both the Russians and the Germans invaded Poland” (active voice--tells the reader who did the invading). Do not write: “Poland was invaded” (passive voice-does not tell the reader who invaded whom).

3) Separate your voice from the voices of the persons whose experiences or arguments you are analyzing, even when you agree with their arguments.

For example, write that: “The Continental Congress declared that the Creator required men to obey his laws. It added that it was justified in declaring independence from the King because he had violated these laws.” Do not write: “The Continental Congress declared that our Creator requires men to obey his laws. The King has clearly violated these laws and thus the Congress’s declaration of independence is justified.”

4) To increase the clarity and specificity of your sentences, always follow the words “this” and “these” with a noun. For example, after a statement such as “The stock market dropped 1,000 points,” write “This decline increased the bankruptcy rate” not “This increased the bankruptcy rate.”

5) Edit your first draft carefully for content, clarity, and style. Reading your draft aloud to a critical friend who is not taking the class is the best way to identify errors and obscure passages. You must always spell-check your essay, but you must also proofread it, because a computer will not catch all errors of style and substance. A spell-checker is no substitute for proof-reading! A few common and notorious errors include:

a) Confusing singular and plural in the same sentence: For example, write that “The Nazi party was increasingly popular, and it gained new members daily.” Do not write either: “The Nazis were increasingly popular, and it gained new members daily” or “Nazism was increasingly popular, and they gained new members daily.”

b) Confusing possessive and plural pronouns, especially “it’s” and “its”.

C. References to Sources and Plagiarism

1) Quoting from historians or from historical characters can help you to illustrate your arguments, but you must make sure that your own voice dominates your essay. Avoid long block quotations whenever possible, especially in short papers. Never string two or more quotes together without intervening analysis of commentary in your own words.

2) A writer’s facts, ideas, and phraseology should be regarded as his or her property. Any student who uses another writer’s ideas or phraseology without giving due credit is guilty of plagiarism.

Many students think that the only references you must cite are direct quotes.

This is completely and totally mistaken.

You must cite another writer's ideas, whether you quote them directly or not. To do otherwise is to commit an act of academic dishonesty.

Generally, if you write while looking at a source or while looking at notes taken from a source, a footnote or reference should be given. Students should explore, appreciate, and use the ideas of others, but must also give proper attribution to those ideas. Anything less is a form of academic dishonesty. Even when describing the arguments or opinions of others entirely in your own words, you must give credit to the original author. All direct citations must be enclosed in quotation marks or indicated by appearing as a block quotation. Brief phrases and even key words that are used as they appear in a source should be in quotation marks.

3) Information may be put into a paper without a footnote or an alternative kind of documentation, such as a parenthetical reference, only if it meets the following conditions:

a) It may be found in several books on the subject;
b) It is written entirely in the words of the student;
c) It is not paraphrased from any particular source;
d) It therefore belongs to common knowledge.

4) Paraphrasing is the expression of another writer’s words and ideas. A paraphrase “preserves the sense” but not the form of the source. A paraphrase does not just replace some words with synonyms or change the sentence pattern; it briefly states the original document’s core meaning in your own words.

D. Primary Sources and Secondary Sources

A primary source is a document or artifact written or created during the period you wish to study; secondary works are books or articles written after the fact. For example, the “Declaration of Independence,” issued in 1776, is a primary source. Carl Becker’s historical study of that document, entitled The Declaration of Independence, published in 1960, is a secondary source.