Writing a good history paper is one of the most important parts of a high school or college history course. It also helps develop critical thinking, analysis and written communication skills. Aside from good general grammar, what most professors will be expecting from a history essay are two things in particular: an original or at least a specific argument written in the context of the secondary literature (i.e. what other historians have already said about the topic), and a defence of that argument using primary evidence (sources whose writers were observers or participants in the events you’re describing).
Develop a Research Question and a Thesis Statement
According to the University of Ottawa history program, the first step in writing a good history program is to formulate a solid research question and then develop an answer to it, known as the thesis statement.
This is different than selecting a topic. Selecting a topic and then summarizing historical events is likely to produce a narrative or descriptive essay which simply runs through historical events in the order that they happened. This can be interesting and even entertaining, if you’ve picked an exciting topic. However, for a course assignment, the most important factor is always your ability to analyze critically. That’s what professors reward with high grades.
A question or problem begins from the chosen topic, like World War I or the American Civil War. However, it asks something much more narrow and analytical. A student might ask, for example, what factors caused one of these wars – or, in a comparative essay, might explore the similarities and differences in the roots of the American and French revolutions.
The best history papers begin with questions that aren’t easy to answer, because it will be those papers that most impress the professor. A history essay which estimates the number of deaths in the First World War, for example, won’t look particularly impressive to the marker. The answers are well-known and easy to find. A more valuable if much more difficult-to-write essay might start by asking how soldiers in that war faced death, and what they thought or wrote about their experiences at the front.
The history paper then becomes the answer to the research question. At its core, usually somewhere in the introduction, is one or two sentences that provides the argument and the answer to the research question in a nutshell. This statement is known as the thesis statement. It is imperative that a school or college essay in history have a thesis statement in the introduction. Markers often look for this sort of statement and deduct marks heavily if they cannot find it.
The title is often the most neglected part of the paper, and seldom counts for much of the grade. However, it is still the student’s first chance to impress their instructor with the potential of their work – or to disappoint them because of its repetitiveness or blandness. Professors and teaching assistants may grade over a hundred papers a year, and the best papers must stand out from the crowd. The title should be slightly more than just a statement of the topic; it should also hint at what your argument will be. To return to the original example, a strong title would not simply be “The American Revolution.” Instead, it might be, “Taxation, Economic Liberalism, and the Origins of the American Revolution.”
The introduction serves three essential tasks: it identifies the research problem, the scholarly context and your thesis statement. In short papers the introduction may be a single paragraph. However, in upper-level classes introductions may go on for several pages.
In addition to the thesis statement, the most important part of the introduction in a history paper is a discussion of what has already been said about the topic by other historians. Markers look for evidence that a student has read a variety of published works on the topic and understands how their argument relates to the arguments already made by other historians. In some disciplines this is referred to as the “literature review” section of a paper; in history, it’s also sometimes referred to as “historiography.”
Finally, having stated what your problem is and what other historians have said about it, close the introduction with your thesis statement. The thesis statement specifies what you are going to say about the problem. The best essays – and therefore the best thesis statements – say something that hasn’t been said before. In short college history papers, originality is usually less important than simply being aware of how your argument relates to other historians. This is where the literature review comes in: it lets the professor know that what you’re trying to do here is to support or challenge an argument that’s already well established in the literature.
The body is the majority of the essay. This is the part of the essay where, having established in the introduction what you want to talk about in the paper, you can proceed to actually talk about it. The majority of your research should have gone into finding evidence that will be presented here, in the body of the paper.
In the introduction, the focus was on relating the argument to other historians. In the body, history papers should be based mainly on an analysis of primary evidence – information taken from sources that were very close to the events being described. This shows the professor that you are trying to view history through the eyes of the people who were living at the time, rather than just reproducing claims made by historians who are in all likelihood still alive and still teaching, somewhere else in the country. Good historical arguments always rest on primary evidence.
There are effectively two ways to lay out the body of the essay. First, narrative history proceeds in roughly chronological order from one point to the next, trying to reconstruct events in the order that they happened and explaining their significance along the way. On the other hand, argumentative writing does not necessarily go in chronological order. Instead, it moves between key themes which are each important components of the thesis statement.
How you choose to outline the essay is essentially up to you (unless you are given more specific guidelines by the professor, in which case you must follow those). However, you should lay it out in the way that seems to make most sense for what you’re trying to accomplish. An essay arguing that there were three principal causes of the Revolutionary War, for example, should be organized thematically rather than chronologically: it should talk about the first cause, then the second cause and finally the third.
All essays must finish with a conclusion. This wraps up the paper by summarizing what you have tried to argue in the body. The length of a conclusion also depends on the length of the paper, but in general, you should aim to write a conclusion which is about as long as the introduction.
The conclusion is more than just repeating the thesis statement from the introduction, although it should be restated here in slightly different words. If possible, relate the work back to the published literature again. If this history paper raises unusual questions that could be tackled in a subsequent research project, reflect on the need for further research.