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Writing a History Essay

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Writing a History Essay—The Basics

1. Identify the assignment’s goals. 

The first thing you should do is identify what you should and should not be focusing on—in other words, answer the question that is actually asked! 

For example:  Let’s assume that the question is “There are several interpretations for what caused the French Revolution, but which interpretation(s) to you believe are the most credible?” You should…

1) Determine what you believe were the causes of the French Revolution.

2) You should not focus on what happened after the French Revolution began; the question concerns its causes, not its subsequent development.  Nor should you focus on the wars of the French Revolution, or the philosophy of the French Revolution—make sure you answer the question that is asked!

2. Review the available material on the question. 

Reread the information about the topic in your textbook as well as any other class materials, including handouts and your class notes that might be helpful. 

For Example:  If the question concerned the what caused the fall of the Roman Empire, you should review the materials on the various possible reasons why the Roman Empire fell.  This will help you…

3. Formulate a thesis. 

A thesis is the central argument of your paper based on the evidence you have discovered in your research.  Weigh the evidence and decide what you believe is the truth—then state it, clearly and precisely, in the first paragraph.  Remember that a thesis statement may be longer than a single sentence, and in a complicated question, the answer will likely have to be more than one sentence.

For Example:  Let’s assume the question concerned whether or not the New Deal was effective.  After reviewing and rereading the material on the New Deal, you could decide that

a)      the New Deal policies were effective,

b)      the New Deal policies were not effective,

c)      the New Deal policies were effective in a limited way, or

d)      the New Deal policies were effective for certain people but not others.

Clearly, there are numerous conclusions that are possible.  In this case, let’s say that you concluded that the bulk of the evidence demonstrates that the New Deal did help to restore public confidence, promoted a partial economic recovery, and created many beneficial programs.  You could then state your thesis as follows:

“The New Deal did not end the Depression, and many programs were either unsuccessful or struck down by the courts.  Yet the New Deal was effective because it restored public confidence and created new programs that brought relief to millions of Americans.  Roosevelt’s policies proved especially effective in promoting economic recovery.” 

Notice that the “thesis statement” was more than one sentence.  In high school, many teachers insist that the “thesis statement” should only be one sentence—indeed, many teachers require you to underline the sentence (sound familiar?)  The reason they do this is to get you accustomed to making a simple argument; the problem is that few arguments are ever simple.  In almost all circumstances, it will require several sentences (and, as you progress into upper-level classes, several paragraphs) to fully explain your argument or thesis.  In this course, there will be no way to write an effective thesis in a single sentence—it will require a paragraph to do so in all cases.

4. Organize the supporting evidence for your thesis. 

After writing your thesis paragraph, you need to support it with evidence and arguments.  You should have done most of the work in this area already when you went back to the textbook and class materials.  You may, however, wish to do a little more checking now that you have settled on a thesis.  You want to use the information that will best strengthen your argument, or, adjust the thesis to accommodate any new information you uncover.

For example:  If the question concerned who will win the Super Bowl, and you concluded that it will undoubtedly be the Philadelphia Eagles, you may have found the following evidence in support of your thesis:

1)      The Eagles face little playoff competition in their own division, and you have the numbers and anecdotal evidence to support the claim,

2)      They have two premier quarterbacks, and you have the numbers and figures as evidence to back up the claim,

3)      The Eagles’ players have the playoff experience required to make a championship run, and you have league stats as evidence.

Although you may have found even more evidence to support your thesis, remember that you cannot include everything in a 2-3 page paper.  Limit yourself to the points you believe best support your thesis.  Sometimes you may only be able to use 3 of the 4 areas, so you WILL have to pick and choose between them!

5. What to do with contradictory evidence. 

When you find evidence that contradicts your thesis, don’t ignore it!  You should touch upon these points briefly in your paper, but you do not want to spend excessive time on them.  Acknowledge the evidence, and then explain how it is either less important than, or outweighed by the evidence that supports your thesis.

For Example:  Let’s go back to the question about the New Deal.  You decided that it was effective in many ways, and you wrote a thesis to that effect.  However, you also found two key pieces of evidence that partially contradicts your thesis:

1)      The New Deal did not end the Depression.

2)      The Supreme Court declared some New Deal programs unconstitutional, and this drastically limited the overall effectiveness of FDR’s policies.

In this case you could argue that while the Supreme Court ruined several programs, the most important remained unaffected.  Or you could argue that while the New Deal did not end the Depression, the economy was on the road to recovery, and compared to earlier policies in the Hoover administration, this was a positive step.

Professor Chew’s Top Eight Ways to Improve Your Writing

1. Know your audience or “ideal reader”

Many students have trouble getting started on a paper—a phenomenon broadly known as “writer’s block.”  One of the key causes is the lack of an audience.  Nobody gets writer’s block when writing an email to a friend or a letter to uncle Bob.  Why not?  Because you have a person you are writing to.  To overcome writer’s block, and to help you determine what information and how much of it you will include in your essay, you should write your paper to an audience, or “ideal reader.”

Of course, your audience for a history paper is usually the professor who will grade it.  This leads many students to assume that their audience or “ideal reader” is the professor, and the professor is already familiar with the material.  As a result, student writers often take shortcuts by failing to place information within its context, or by neglecting to define terms.  Writing this way puts you at risk of providing insufficient information; when grading the essay the instructor is likely to assume that you are not familiar with the context or terms. 

The best way to overcome writer’s block and determine what information to include is to write your paper so that a general reader unfamiliar with the topic would be able to read and understand the essay—that’s your “ideal reader.”  The best example is a fellow student who is NOT enrolled in this course—this person can follow an argument, but they are unfamiliar with the material. 

2. Write in the simple past tense.

In English or Lit courses, the default tense is always the present tense.  In history, however, we are concerned about past or completed actions (most of the time).  Since you’re writing about the past, you need to write in the past tense.

Correct: Roosevelt ordered the banks closed until auditors verified that they were solvent.

Incorrect: Roosevelt orders the banks closed until auditors verify that they are solvent.

3. Avoid excessive use of the passive voice.

The passive voice often fails to identify who or what is performing the actions you are describing.  Also, the passive voice tends to result in excessive use of various forms of the verb “to be,” which leads to wordiness.   Phrasing sentences in the active voice allows you to use active verbs that are more descriptive and that enliven your writing.

Passive voice: Many programs were created to put Americans back to work.

Active voice: The government created many programs to put Americans back to work.

In the passive voice example, the reader does not learn who created the programs.  Was it government, private corporations, or some other organization?  The active voice clearly indicates where the programs originated.

4. Avoid using the pronoun “I”

Unless your professor instructs you otherwise, you should avoid the use of “I” in college writing, as it is too informal.  Using the first person also emphasizes the idea that you are “merely” expressing opinion, while writing in the third person creates the illusion of objectivity.  It’s a rhetorical trick, of course; you are still expressing an opinion or view, but in the third person, it sounds more authoritative than if expressed in the first person. 

More effective: The WPA was one of the most successful New Deal p        programs.

Less effective: I think that the WPA was one of the most successful New Deal programs.

5. Avoid the use of qualifying terms.  Be confident in your writing!!

Terms such as “possibly,” “probably,” “seems,” “may,” and “might” indicate weaknesses in your argument.  In some cases where evidence is almost completely lacking, such words can be used, but when the preponderance of evidence points in one direction, do not use qualifiers.

Correct: The “Bank Holiday” restored public confidence in the financial system.

Incorrect: The “Bank Holiday” probably restored public confidence in the financial system.

6. Avoid slang and needless words.

Unless you are using a direct quotation that employs slang, do not use it.  Slang will ruin the tone of your paper.  State your ideas as directly as possible using a conversational tone.  Excessive use of adverbs, adjectives, and prepositional phrases can clutter a sentence, obscuring rather than amplifying your points.  Many students load their papers with “filler” words in order to meet a minimum length requirement.  This is obvious to the reader, and does more harm than good.

Clear and succinct: The CCC employed thousands of workers to construct hiking trails in national parks.

More cumbersome: The CCC kept thousands of guys busily banging away at putting up the long hiking trails through America’s beautiful national parks.

7. Vary your sentence structure. 

Blend brief, direct statements with longer, more complex sentences.  This improves the flow of your paper and makes it more readable.  Too many short sentences make your paper choppy and difficult to read.  An endless string of long sentences confuses the reader.

8. LAST—BUT NOT LEAST—READ YOUR DRAFT ALOUD!!!

Hearing your own words will help you identify run-on sentences, awkward phrasing, and other problems that might otherwise escape your attention.  Do not read silently, because your eyes will gloss over words and phrases that should be removed, and insert words and phrases that actually are not on the page.  Your ears will catch those problems, and it is the best chance you have for self-editing.  It is also the most effective way to proofread your work before turning it in.

The preceding information has been substantially modified, but is based on a handout originally prepared by Richard Chew and Kyle Zelner for the History Writing Resources Center at the College of William and Mary.

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