01 Apr Writing Good History Essays
History is based on mainly written sources, though archaeological evidence is used when available. So at some point in your studies you will need to take part in this process by writing an essay. Essays are a good way to test understanding, but also skills of analysis, argument, selection and organisation of material. You’ll have written essays for English and your History teacher may have set you short essays in Years 7-9. From GCSE onwards essay writing will become more important. At GCSE you’ll write a mini-essay, but at A Level or IB you’ll write a full or extended essay. Below is some advice for writing good History essays. I am thinking about writing essays under exam conditions, so the process of research has already been done.
A lot of students stress or panic because they are worried that they will write the ‘wrong’ answer. Let’s put your mind at rest straight away by saying that within the word History is the word ‘story’. In other words there is no right answer. As long as you can support your view with credible evidence, you’ll be OK. History is constructed in a similar way to a fictional novel. That’s why many authors often work in the British Library, looking at historical sources for their stories. Although there are some things that are commonly accepted, History is all about interpretation or even overturning commonly held assumptions. You won’t be expected to overturn assumptions until post-graduate level, but you will be expected to form your own opinions. That’s what I love about History: you’re in control, you create the narrative.
Analysing the Question
Firstly, look at the questions on offer and decide which you can answer. Settle on one and then start identifying key words in the question. In the run-up to exams when you’re looking at past papers, you need to learn this skill. This will help you understand what the question requires from you. This is an essential step: if an essay scores badly, it’s normally because the question has been misunderstood.
Planning and Selecting Information
Ever sat with a blank piece of paper thinking what to write? That’s where a plan comes in. It doesn’t have to be long, just good enough to be a guide for your essay structure. You can feed in from your question analysis to help form the plan. Once you create a basic skeleton, which ensures you’re answering the question, you can add information that supports your view. Number your points, as in the exam you only get one chance to get it in the right order. Try to put related points close to each other. If it is a source based question, number the sources according to the point(s) they relate to.
Writing the Essay
Once you have your plan done, which should take 5-10 minutes at the most, you can start writing. Begin with a short introductory statement on your opinion, so it’s apparent what your view is straight away. Each paragraph should make a separate point or be adding to the key points you’re making. First, make a clear statement in the first sentence that directly answers the question. This is called ‘signposting’ and it helps the examiner understand the point you are making clearly. Examiners won’t spend hours reading your essay; perhaps 15-20 minutes at most, so make your point as plain as possible. That way you’ll be sure they don’t miss it.
Next, support your assertion with relevant information in the rest of the paragraph. Don’t be tempted to show off all your knowledge: selection of appropriate material is what’s wanted. If it’s a source-based question, add precise information from the sources to illustrate your point. At the end of the paragraph, have a mini-conclusion that links back to the question. If you’re making new or additional points, use link words and phrases (e.g. firstly, next, finally, in addition, moreover, etc.). This highlights that you’re making a new point. This technique can be repeated throughout the essay.
Did you expect this point right at the end? No! The best time to re-read your essay is just before you write your conclusion. Reviewing is not just a time to make corrections. It’s a chance to reassess and add overall points that can make a good conclusion.
Writing the Conclusion
The conclusion is very important. It should not just repeat what you say in an introductory statement. In the bulk of your essay you’ve been making individual points to support your view. The conclusion is where you tie it all together with an overview. It should be clear, relevant and convincing. Remember that it’s the last thing the examiner will read.
The skill of essay writing takes both time and practice. Practice makes perfect, they say. My A Level teacher made us write an essay every two weeks. I cursed him for that at the time, but thank him for it now. At first, you should write your essay at home, at leisure. As you get closer to the exams, you should write with a time limit. That will make you more self-assured in the real exam and produce a better result. Good luck!