How Do I Write a History Essay?
I recently received an inquiry from a student about how to write history essays. She asked:
Hi Mr. C! I don’t know how to write a history paper. I’m honestly not sure what I want to say or how to properly research and write it. I don’t really know what the steps are when writing something like this. I know I have opinions and thoughts about history but I don’t know how to research them and construct an essay and thesis. Can you help?
This very broad question depends on many specifics: What type of essay has the instructor assigned? What sources are available or provided? How long is the essay assigned to be? However, I think I can give some very general pointers.
The Nitty Gritty Matters
First, remember that history is the study of particulars. In subjects like math and science, we learn about general laws found in nature. In literature, we study themes found in literary works. In history, however, we are not looking at generalities but particulars: this specific battle, the deeds of some particular ruler, that certain historical epoch. We are looking at nitty-gritty, concrete realities, not abstractions.
When writing a paper, make sure to include plenty of concrete examples to make your point. Don’t say, “There were many troubles in Europe that led to the outbreak of World War I.” Instead, say, “Violent attacks on Habsburg authority in Serbia by the Black Hand, wrangling between Britain and Germany in Africa over their colonial empires, and the Anglo-German naval arms race in the North Sea all contributed to the tensions that preceded the First World War.”
See? You’re giving concrete examples of specific things that happened to make a point. I like to think of it as a court case—if you were arguing in court, you’d have to lay out specific points of evidence to make your case. You must address the who, what, when, where, and why. Similarly, a history paper should make a case using an appeal to concrete facts. Forgive me if I am overstressing this. It is only because many students do not do this well.
Stick to the Relevant Facts
Second, ensure that whatever facts you choose actually relate to the essay’s subject. For example, if the essay assignment is “Compare and contrast the reigns of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor,” the facts you choose to incorporate should illustrate the contrast. Or, if your assignment is “Explain how disputes over slavery led to the Civil War,” your examples need to highlight how they contributed to the deepening divisions between the North and the South. If your assignment is, “Discuss three important contributions the Benedictines made to medieval society,” the three examples you choose should each clearly demonstrate how the Benedictines’ actions benefitted the material society around them.
This suggestion might seem obvious, but the truth is students are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of facts in history. They often do not know what is relevant to an assignment and what is not. Sometimes, they clutter a paper with facts not pertinent to the assignment, either because they aren’t sure what is pertinent or to “fluff” the paper’s length. It is tremendously helpful to look at the facts and ask, “How does this support my argument?” before including it.
Support Your Thesis
Third, like any other essay, structure your paper around strong thesis statements for both your overall essay and the individual paragraphs. The introduction should lay out the main argument you will make in your essay (“The Tudors grew their power through a combination of war, diplomacy, and marriage alliances”).
Subsequent paragraphs will zoom in on each of these items—one will focus on the wars fought by the Tudors, incorporating two or three concrete examples to illustrate. Then, another will focus on the diplomatic alliances/treaties, again with relevant examples that point back to and support the subject of the paragraph. The last paragraph will highlight the political marriages of the Tudors, with examples. Then, your conclusion will reaffirm the overall thesis, tying together all the supporting theses by showing how they relate to the main thesis.
Use Active Voice
Fourth—and this applies to all academic writing—try to use the active voice unless the context makes the passive voice necessary. This keeps sentences clearer and makes it less likely that you will ramble. Instead of, “Alsace-Lorraine was invaded by the Germans,” try “The Germans invaded Alsace-Lorraine.” Instead of, “Agricultural labor was important to the monks,” say, “The monks valued agricultural labor.” This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and there will be times when passive voice is preferred, but it’s a good rule of thumb to “clean up” your sentences so they aren’t so cumbersome, allowing the paper to “flow” better.
Homeschool Connections offers award-winning writing courses for homeschool families. (The writing program won first place in the iLearn Awards this year!) To learn more, visit Aquinas Writing Advantage.
You can check out my history courses as well as courses from the other great Homeschool Connections teachers at Homeschool Online Course Finder.
I hope this helps you polish up your history writing skills. And remember, History is AWESOME!