Friday, December 10, 2010

How to write a brilliant history essay

1. Select your title with care making sure it gives you plenty of scope for discussion. Check with me of you're not sure. Then look at the title you have chosen. What is it asking? Underline the key words. These should appear throughout the essay.
2. The aim is to get beyond simple narrative and produce an argument or analysis. Sort out your views before you start.
3. The opening paragraph should refer directly to the question and should state what your argument is going to be.
4. The middle (and longest) section of the essay will be a statement of the argument. You will be making (probably) three or four main points. Your paragraphs should link. Use words or phrases like, ‘Another example of ...’, ‘However, it can be argued that ...’, ‘Nevertheless ...’

5. Ideally you should refer to the work of historians - either to agree or disagree with them. (For referencing conventions, see below.)
6. Your concluding paragraph should be a summary of your argument.
7. You should include a bibliography.

Referencing conventions (examples)
The conventions I suggest aren't universally adopted.  The point, however, is to be consistent.

There should be a clear distinction between bibliography and references. The bibliography is the final list of all the books you have consulted and is written at the end of the essay. The references refer to specific parts of these books and will usually occur as footnotes.


Book: Blanning, Tim, The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (London: Penguin, 2000).
Article in a periodical: Blanning, T.W.C. 'The Abortive Crusade', History Today, 39 (1989): 33-8.
Article in a book: 'The French Revolution and Europe', in Colin Lucas (ed.), Rewriting the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 183-206.

Note that titles of books and periodicals are in italic, titles of articles in Roman type. In articles in periodicals the abbreviation pp. isn't normally used. You will notice that Blanning uses a different name for his latest his book! You should use the author's name as given in the relevant publication.

These are found within the text of the essay. There are two referencing systems.
(a) Harvard: this is a system more favoured by scientists than historians, but it is perfectly valid to use and is very economical. An example would be: ‘It has recently been argued (Blanning, 2007, p. 190 ) that ......’. The bibliography then includes the full reference.
(b) Short title: ‘It has recently been argued...' then footnote the reference in full. Subsequent references to the same book are then shortened: (Blanning, Pursuit of Glory, p. 190).