The first thing to do if you have a history essay to write, is to really spend some time evaluating the question you are being asked. No matter how well-written, well-argued, or well-evidenced your essay is, if you don't answer the answer the question you have been asked, you cannot expect to receive a top mark.
Think about the specific key words and phrasing used in the question, and if you are uncertain of any of the terms, look them up and define them. Do this before you begin conducting your research to ensure that your reading is closely focussed to the question and you don't waste time. Consider what the question is asking you. With a history essay there are a number of different types of question you might be asked, which will require different responses from you. You need to get this clear in the early stages so you can prepare your essay in the best way. Look at your set essay question and ask yourself whether you are being asked to explain, interpret, evaluate, or argue.
You might be asked to do any number or all of these different things in the essay, so think about how you can do the following: Explain: provide an explanation of why something happened or didn't happen. Interpret: analyse information within a larger framework to contextualise it. Evaluate: present and support a value-judgement. Argue: take a clear position on a debate and justify it. Try to summarise your key argument. Once you have done some research you will be beginning to formulate your argument, or thesis statement, in your head.
It's essential to have a strong argument which you will then build your essay around. So before you start to plan and draft your essay, try to summarise your key argument in one or two sentences. Your thesis statement should clearly address the essay prompt and provide supporting arguments.
For example, your summary could be something like "The First World War was a 'total war' because civilian populations were mobilized both in the battlefield and on the home front". Make an essay plan. Once you have evaluated the question, you need to draw up an essay plan.
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This is a great opportunity to organise your notes and start developing the structure which you will use for your essay. When drawing up the plan you can assess the quality and depth of the evidence you have gathered and consider whether your thesis statement is adequately supported. Pick out some key quotes that make your argument precisely and persuasively. Distinguish between primary and secondary sources. A history essay will require a strong argument that is backed up by solid evidence.
The two main types of evidence you can draw on are known as primary and secondary sources. Depending on the essay you are writing, you might be expected to include both of these. If you are uncertain about what is expected be sure to ask your teacher well in advance of the essay due date. Primary source material refers to any texts, films, pictures, or any other kind of evidence that was produced in the historical period, or by someone who participated in the events of the period, that you are writing about. Secondary material is the work by historians or other writers analysing events in the past.
The body of historical work on a period or event is known as the historiography. Typically a research essay would need significant primary material. Find your sources. It can be difficult to get going with your research. There may be an enormous number of texts which makes it hard to know where to start, or maybe you are really struggling to find relevant material.
In either case, there are some tried and tested ways to find reliable source material for your essay. Start with the core texts in your reading list or course bibliography. Your teacher will have carefully selected these so you should start there. Look in footnotes and bibliographies. When you are reading be sure to pay attention to the footnotes and bibliographies which can guide you to further sources a give you a clear picture of the important texts.
Use the library. If you have access to a library at your school or college, be sure to make the most of it. Search online catalogues and speak to librarians.
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Access online journal databases. If you are in college it is likely that you will have access to academic journals online. These are an excellent and easy to navigate resources. Try using free scholarly databases, like Google Scholar, which offer quality academic sources, but avoid using the non-trustworthy websites that come up when you simply search your topic online. Avoid using crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia as sources. However, you can look at the sources cited on a Wikipedia page and use them instead, if they seem credible.
Evaluate your secondary sources. It's very important that you critically evaluate your sources. For a strong academic essay you should be using and engaging with scholarly material that is of a demonstrable quality. It's very easy to find information on the internet, or in popular histories, but you should be using academic texts by historians. If you are early on in your studies you might not be sure how to identify scholarly sources, so when you find a text ask yourself the following questions: Who is the author?
Is it written by an academic with a position at a University?
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Search for the author online. Who is the publisher? Is the book published by an established academic press? Look in the cover to check the publisher, if it is published by a University Press that is a good sign. If it's an article, where is published?
If you are using an article check that it has been published in an academic journal. Government sources with. Read critically. Once you found some good sources, you need to take good notes and read the texts critically. Try not to let your mind drift along as you read a book or article, instead keep asking questions about what you are reading. Think about what exactly the author is saying, and how well the argument is supported by the evidence. You will know what paragraphs you are going to write and what information you are going to use.
However, remember that you are making an argument, not narrating a story. You have already identified the key words in the question — now is the time to use them. Every paragraph must refer in some way to the key words or it will be irrelevant. Be ruthless — you will have far more information than you need and must select carefully only that which you need to support your argument.
However, you must equally avoid an essay consisting only of argument — you must not make unsubstantiated claims. For everything you say you must have a supporting fact or example — otherwise your essay will be just so much hot air. This balance between analysis and supporting detail is what makes up the skill of' essay writing, and takes time to learn. Once you have done so, success will be yours.
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After all your efforts making notes, you will naturally want to use some of them in your essay — that is why you made them. However, you must be very careful how you use quotes. They can only be used in a discussion of various historians' paints of view, i. The most common use of quotes is 'Wilkinson says that This does not prove your point.
A quote from an historian, however well respected, is not proof. Saying that Wilkinson has said something does not prove that what he has said is true. If you are going to use a quote you must support it with the relevant facts or examples, just as if' it was your own words, or you will gain no marks for your carefully memorised notes.
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The conclusion is where you sum up what you have said in your essay. It is absolutely vital — never fail to write one. This is the last thing an examiner reads and counts for a great deal: a good conclusion can rescue an indifferent essay and set the seal on a good one. It is here that you draw together the threads of your argument and hammer home your points, leaving the reader in no doubt as to your answer. You should refer explicitly to the key words of the question and reinforce the points you made in the main body. Above all it should contain nothing new — it is simply a restatement of your argument.
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