An essay is a piece of sustained writing in response to a question, topic or issue. Essays are commonly used for assessing and evaluating student progress in history. History essays test a range of skills including historical understanding, interpretation and analysis, planning, research and writing. To write an effective essay, students must examine the question, understand its focus and requirements, acquire information and evidence through research, then construct a clear and well organised response. Writing a good history essay should be rigorous and challenging, even for stronger students. As with other skills, essay writing develops and improves over time. Each essay you complete helps you become more competent and confident. The drop down links on this page contain some general advice for writing a successful history essay. You may also find our page on writing for history to be useful.
Study the question
An obvious tip but one that is sadly neglected by some students. The first step to writing a good essay, whatever the subject or topic, is to give plenty of thought to the question. An essay question will set some kind of task or challenge. It might ask you to explain the causes and/or effects of a particular event or situation. It might ask if you agree or disagree with a statement. It might ask you to describe and analyse the causes and/or effects of a particular action or event. Or it might ask you to evaluate the relative significance of a person, group or event. You should begin by reading the essay question several times. Underline, highlight or annotate key words or terms in the text of the question. Think about what it requires you to do. Who or what does it want you to concentrate on? Does it state or imply a particular timeframe? What problem or issue does it want you to address?
Begin with a plan
Develop a contention
Q. Why did the Nazi Party win 37 per cent of the vote in July 1932?
A. The Nazi Party’s electoral success of 1932 was a result of economic suffering caused by the Great Depression, public dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic’s democratic political system and mainstream parties, and Nazi propaganda that promised a return to traditional social, political and economic values.
An essay using this contention would go on to explain these statements in greater detail and justify them with evidence. At some point in your research you should begin thinking about a contention for your essay. Remember, you should be able to express it briefly, as if addressing the essay question in a single sentence, or summing up in a debate. Try to frame your contention so that is strong, authoritative and convincing. It should sound like the voice of someone well informed about the subject and confident about their answer.
Plan an essay structure
Write a compelling introduction
Create fully formed paragraphs
Finish with an effective conclusion
Reference and cite your sources
Proof, edit and seek feedback
Some general tips on writing
- Always write in the third person. Never refer to yourself personally, using phrases like “I think…” or “It is my contention…”. Good history essays should adopt the perspective of an informed and objective third party. They should sound rational and factual – not like an individual expressing their opinion.
- Always write in the past tense. An obvious tip for a history essay is to write in the past tense. Always be careful about your use of tense. Watch out for mixed tenses when proof reading your work. One exception to the rule about past tense is when writing about the work of modern historians (for example, “Kershaw writes…” sounds better than “Kershaw wrote…” or “Kershaw has written…”).
- Avoid generalisations. Generalisation is a problem in all essays but it is particularly common in history essays. Generalisation occurs when you form general conclusions from one or more specific examples. In history this most commonly occurs when students study the experiences of a particular group, then assume their experiences applied to a much larger group – for example, “All the peasants were outraged”, “Women rallied to oppose conscription” or “Germans supported the Nazi Party”. Both history and human society, however, are never this clear cut or simple. Always be conscious about avoiding generalisation – and be on the lookout for generalised statements when proof reading.
- Write short, sharp and punchy. Good writers always vary their sentence length – but as a rule of thumb, most of your sentences should be short and punchy. The longer a sentence becomes, the greater the risk to its effectiveness. Long sentences can easily become disjointed, confused or rambling. Try not to overuse long sentences and pay close attention to sentence length when proof reading.
- Write in an active voice. The active voice is preferable to the passive voice in history writing. In the active voice, the subject completes the action (e.g. “Hitler [the subject] initiated the Beer Hall putsch [the action] to seize control of the Bavarian government”). In the passive voice, the action is completed by the subject (“The Beer Hall putsch [the action] was initiated by Hitler [the subject] to seize control of the Bavarian government”). The active voice helps prevent sentences from becoming long, wordy and unclear.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Writing a history essay” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/writing-a-history-essay/, 2017, accessed [date of last access].
- И откуда мы знаем, что именно ищем. Одно различие от природы, другое - рукотворное. Плутоний впервые был открыт… - Число, - напомнил Джабба.