STUDENT GUIDE: How to Write a History Essay
Whether it’s junior History, or the senior subjects of Ancient History or Modern History, there are a few golden rules to follow when learning how to write a History essay. Here, we share those and explain them for you so that you can give yourself the best chance to achieve success.
Address the Question.
It’s the bleeding obvious, and no doubt your teachers are always yapping on about “answering the question”, but for good reason. The best essays are always those that adequately address what is being asked. You could write the most detailed analysis of the history of Napoleon ever, but if the question is about World War I, well…
When it comes to answering the question, then, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Firstly, what is the operative word(s)? And secondly, what is the scope?
The operative word(s) is the actioning part of the question – “to what extent…”, “explain…”, “assess…”, etc. Most of the time in History, you will be asked to make a value judgment or to offer an opinion on a particular event or issue. It is rare that you will be asked to simply describe the order of events. In that case, don’t just recount what happened; make an assessment about the significance of your examples!
The scope refers to the range or the bounds of your question. This could be a timeframe (e.g. 1939-1945), or it could be a country, an event, a group of people, etc. The scope is helpful, because it sets parameters that guide your response; it tells you what to focus on.
Let’s use an example to clarify. This question comes from the Year 11 Modern History course:
“To what extent was Russia’s involvement in WW1 responsible for the
downfall of the Romanovs?”
Here, the operative words are “to what extent”, and the scope is “Russia’s involvement in WW1” and “the downfall of the Romanovs”. So in our essay we need to a) form an opinion as to the significance of Russia’s activities in WW1 for the downfall of the Romanov dynasty, and b) back up this opinion using evidence within the scope – events from Russia’s involvement in WW1, and the lead-up and eventual fall of the Romanovs.
Much like an English essay, you should address the question directly with a thesis statement in your introduction, and a topic sentence in each body paragraph, before linking back to it in your conclusion.
Use Evidence to Support Your Claim.
The body of your essay is where your knowledge of content comes into play. All those dates and statistics you’ve banked away somewhere, this is their time to shine! But, as mentioned, rarely (if ever) will you be asked to describe an order of events, so don’t fall into the trap of simply recounting details. The trick is to use historical evidence to support the claim of your essay, and this involves analysing it.
So how exactly do you do this?
You might be familiar with the PEEL structure for essay paragraphs – Point, Evidence, Explain, Link. We recommend using this for your essays in History, as it allows you to easily address the question, and to clearly layout and analyse your evidence.
If you follow this structure, your best bet is to allocate one body paragraph for each point. So, using the above question as an example, let’s say you want to cite two key points about Russia’s involvement in WW1, and two points outside of the War; you would need a total of 4 body paragraphs. In each body paragraph, introduce the example with a topic sentence which makes a point about how it relates to the question. Then, drop in some evidence (a key event, a quote from a speech, a statistic, etc.) to support your point. Then – and this is the important bit – explain or analyse this piece of evidence. Why is this piece of evidence important? What does it show us, or what can we learn? You might also keep in mind where the evidence is sourced from, possible biases, and its usefulness and reliability. Finally, link this point back to your essay’s claim, including a mention of significance or value.
This might sound a bit pedantic, but it is so easy to lose marks for not referencing properly, and History teachers in particular are very sensitive about this, and for good reason. Exactly where historical information comes from plays a big part in determining what it is likely to say, and is something that should always be kept in mind, particularly in the research phase. Your teachers may not necessarily always agree with the points you make in your essays, but if you reference your evidence properly, and mention possible biases, you will demonstrate to them that you’ve made informed and considered choices with your evidence – and they can’t argue against that!
So there you have it, our golden rules learning how to write a History essay. Go forth and excel!