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Writing history essays at university

  • 12.02.2019
Writing history essays at university

A thesis is a statement, an argument which will be presented by the writer. The thesis is in effect, your position, your particular interpretation, your way of seeing a problem. Resist the temptation, which many students have, to think of a thesis as simply "restating" an instructor's question. The writer should demonstrate originality and critical thinking by showing what the question is asking, and why it is important rather than merely repeating it. Your own informed perspective is what matters.

Many first-year students ask whether the "thesis" is not just their "opinion" of a historical question. A thesis is indeed a "point of view," or "perspective," but of a particular sort: it is based not only on belief, but on a logical and systematic argument supported by evidence.

The truism that we each have "our own" opinions misses the point. A good critical essay acknowledges that many perspectives are possible on any question, yet demonstrates the validity or correctness of the writer's own view.

Thesis and Evidence To make a good argument you must have both a strong central thesis and plausible evidence; the two are interdependent and support each other. Some historians have compared the historian's craft to assembling and presenting a case before a jury. A strong statement of thesis needs evidence or it will convince no one. Equally, quotes, dates, and lists of details mean nothing by themselves. Your task is both to select the important "facts" and to present them in a reasonable, persuasive, and systematic manner which defends your position.

To support your argument, you should also be competent in using footnotes and creating bibliographies for your work; neither is difficult, and both are requirements for truly professional scholarship. The footnote is a way of demonstrating the author's thesis against the evidence. In effect, it is a way of saying: "If you don't accept my thesis, you can check the evidence yourself. By keeping your notes accurate your argument will always be rooted in concrete evidence of the past which the reader can verify.

See below for standard footnote forms. Historical Writing Be aware also that "historical" writing is not exactly the same as writing in other social sciences, in literature, or in the natural sciences.

Though all follow the general thesis and evidence model, historical writing also depends a great deal on situating evidence and arguments correctly in time and space in narratives about the past.

Historians are particularly sensitive to errors of anachronism—that is, putting events in an "incorrect" order, or having historical characters speak, think, and act in ways inappropriate for the time in which they were living. Reading the past principally in terms of your own present experience can also create problems in your arguments.

Avoid grand statements about humanity in general, and be careful of theories which fit all cases. Make a point of using evidence with attention to specificity of time and place, i. Understand the question being asked. Pay attention to the way it is worded and presented. Can you properly define them? What sort of evidence is required to respond effectively? If you are developing your own topic, what are the important issues and what questions can you pose yourself? Prepare the material. Begin reading or re-reading your texts or documents.

Students often ask: "How can I give you a thesis or write an introduction before I have done all the reading? The introduction is important for several reasons. It is where you begin to signpost the direction your essay will take.

Aim for an introduction that is clear, confident and punchy. Get straight to the point — do not waste time with a rambling or storytelling introduction. Write fully formed paragraphs Many history students fall into the trap of writing short paragraphs, sometimes containing as little as one or two sentences. This sentence introduces the paragraph topic and briefly explains its significance to the question and your contention.

Good paragraphs also contain thorough explanations, some analysis and evidence, perhaps a quotation or two. Finish with an effective conclusion The conclusion is the final paragraph of your essay.

A good conclusion should do two things. You should always avoid introducing new information or evidence in a conclusion.

Reference and cite your sources A history essay is only likely to succeed if it is appropriately referenced. Your essay should support its information, ideas and arguments with citations or references to reliable sources. Referencing not only acknowledges the work of others, it also gives authority to your writing and provides the teacher or assessor with an insight into your research. More information on referencing a piece of history writing can be found here. Proofread, edit and seek feedback Every essay should be proofread, edited and, if necessary, re-drafted before being submitted for assessment.

Essays should ideally be completed a few days before their due date, then put aside for a day or two before proofreading.

Look first for spelling and grammatical errors, typographical mistakes, incorrect dates or other errors of fact. Think then about how you can improve the clarity, tone and structure of your essay. Does your essay follow a logical structure or sequence? Is the signposting in your essay clear and effective? Do you repeat yourself? Do paragraphs need to be expanded, fine-tuned or strengthened with more evidence? Read your essay aloud, either to yourself or another person.

Drawing up a Plan'. Writing the First Draft Having revised you argument and plan , it's time to write your essay. If you've carried out steps one to five properly, it should be possible to write the first draft up in two or three hours.

An introduction should show how you intend to answer the question, by 1 indicating the line of argument you intend to take, by 2 giving an overview of the organisation of what follows, and by 3 indicating the sort of material or evidence you will be using. It is an effective strategy, especially when writing a short essay, to begin with a bold, attention-grabbing, first sentence which shows the marker that you know what you are doing: that is, answer the question as briefly as possible with your first sentence.

The second sentence should then enlarge upon the argument indicated by the first. Intelligent use of paragraphing is crucial to the success of an essay. Often, it is best to organise the paragraphs so that each makes and defends a point or premise essential the argument of the essay. By 'premise' is meant a point which is part of and essential to the argument of the essay. It must be entirely clear how your points fit into the argument: essays which meander around the topic leaving the marker to join the dots to comprise an answer are not acceptable, since they fail to demonstrate understanding.

It is a good idea to use 'topic sentences' to signal the subject and make explicit the point of each paragraph. These ought not to be too repetitive in form but should show how the paragraph fits into the argument of the essay as a whole. The following topic sentences here marked in red for clarity would, for example, be appropriate as a way of introducing paragraphs that comprised a series of 'tests' in a 'to-what-extent' essay that called for an assessment of the effects of the Black Death on the development of medieval Europe.

It is also possible to assess the extent of the catastrophe by looking at the level of demand for land in the major urban centres.

In Genoa, for example, land prices fell sharply from a high in of The dramatic fall in the prices of land within urban centres implies an equally sharp fall in the numbers of people wanting to live in cities and, thus also, a sudden decline in the actual number of people living there.

The picture conveyed by these financial records is scarcely representative, however, of the situation throughout Europe as a whole. They bear witness to what happened in the more highly urbanised regions of Europe — that is, to what happened in northern Italy and in the Low Countries — and even in these regions, merely to the experience of those who dwelt in the towns themselves but not to that of rural people Such records remain scarce for the fourteenth century, but those that survive allow us to see that the plague could have devastating consequences in the countryside as well as in the cities It is better to avoid trying the explain everything in a single sentence: clusters of sentences that flow from one to another are much more effective!

Signposting your evidence will give the essay that all important sense of critical depth and originality: Seapower was a crucial to European expansion. This much is illustrated by the way in which Europe expanded between the tenth and sixteenth centuries. Southwards and eastwards expansion in the eastern Mediterranean was heavily dependent upon the availability of effective fleets of warships and trading vessels. There were critical moments, such as in the late eleventh-century conquests of Sicily and Sardinia, when For example, the English exchequer suffered a grave financial crisis when King Henry VI, acting on a personal whim, gave away For instance, You need to give the marker a sense of where your opinions end and of where the supporting evidence begins.

But remember to vary your signposts: using the same phrase over and over again will distract and bore the reader. If the supporting evidence is not a well-known and irrefutable fact, it will probably need to be given the additional support of a footnote indicating where you have obtained your information or which historian's interpretation of the piece of evidence being deployed you have chosen to follow.

It will sometimes be useful to quote other authors, especially primary sources, but do not overdo it. These should underlie your reading for your essay and should guide your preparation, and it is in their light that facts are to be assessed. They must contribute to the critical argument, and that requires an ability to engage with three elements if the essay is to be a good one: Conceptualisation Methodology Historiography. I will go through all three, but do not worry.

At this stage, for most students, these are an aspiration and not an achievement; but the aspiration is important as it shows you, first, how your degree course is different from A level and, secondly, what you will be expected to be able to do by the end of your university career.

To do well, you should make an effort to begin including each of these elements in your essays. Conceptualisation Many questions relate to key concepts in history. What do you mean by the French Revolution? Is it primarily the violent challenge to royal authority in , the creation of a new political order, a marked ideological discontinuity, the process of socio-economic change, or, if a combination of all of these, which takes precedence and requires most explanation?

What do you understand by causes? These issues need discussing explicitly, out-in-the-open. That is key to a good essay at university level.

Writing history essays at university

Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates

Butters and George D. Purpose The purpose of this guide is to provide you with the basics law like love essay writing writing undergraduate history essays write paper computer science papers. It is a guide college, and its step by liberally approach is only one possible model; it does not replace consultation with your professor, TA, or instructor about writing questions educated getting feedback, nor the excellent tutoring services provided for the Rutgers Writing Center person roomMurray Hall, College Avenue Campus and the Douglass Writing Center roomSpeech and Hearing Essay, Douglass Campus. Writing is a craft. All serious writing is done in drafts with many hesitations, revisions, and new inspirations.
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The dramatic fall in the prices of land within urban centres implies an equally sharp fall in the numbers of people wanting to live in cities and, thus also, a sudden decline in the actual number of people living there. History essays are less about finding the correct answer to the set question than they are about demonstrating that you understand the issues which it raises and the texts which discuss these issues. If you've carried out steps one to five properly, it should be possible to write the first draft up in two or three hours. Remember to handle the concepts in the question and in your answer clearly. Not primarily in terms of more facts, because university history degrees are not essentially a test of knowledge, not a question of remembering dates or quotes. It is better to avoid trying the explain everything in a single sentence: clusters of sentences that flow from one to another are much more effective!
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Your research should take shape from here, guided by the essay question and your own planning. Treat it as food for thought, as providing a set of suggestions some of which you might incorporate into your own method for writing essays. Go and collect the information, making notes and adding notes to your plan as you go along. Avoid grand statements about humanity in general, and be careful of theories which fit all cases.

It is better to start again than to write an essay that lacks conviction. Begin with a plan Every essay should begin with a written plan. Take time with your conclusion, which should close and summarize your arguments.
Writing history essays at university
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Comments

JoJogore

Signposting your evidence will give the essay that all important sense of critical depth and originality: Seapower was a crucial to European expansion. Are there alternative points of view which will have to be considered and refuted in order to make this argument work? The truism that we each have "our own" opinions misses the point. Thesis Historical essay writing is based upon the thesis. Conclusion As noted in the introduction, this guide is a very general formula for writing essays. It is useful to begin by considering why essay-writing has long been the method of choice for assessment in history.

Voramar

Be creative with your research , looking in a variety of places.

Durn

Don't forget to put your name, the class name, and the title of the paper on the first page. Such records remain scarce for the fourteenth century, but those that survive allow us to see that the plague could have devastating consequences in the countryside as well as in the cities That is, the question requires a discussion of the system as a whole and the consideration of alternative explanations of how 'X' worked within it. Good history essays should adopt the perspective of an informed and objective third party. Analysing the Question Essential steps: select a question; identify the subject of the question; what are you being asked to do - that is, what kind of information will you need to answer the question, and how will you have to treat it?

Nikorg

Are there alternative points of view which will have to be considered and refuted in order to make this argument work? This follows the previous point closely. Remember that no quote "speaks for itself. As with other skills, essay writing develops and improves over time.

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