International School History - Skills - Essay Writing

Top 5 tips for writing good history essays

1. Plan.

Know exactly what you want to say before you start writing. This means planning your answer in advance. Perverse as it may seem, out of the exam hall it is probably best to begin by writing your conclusion first. This will force you to answer the question set (see ATBQ below) and reduce the argument of your essay to its essential factors. In your plan try to identify the 4-6 big points that you are going to make, this is what is meant by ‘analysis’. In making one big point you are showing the links that exist between lots of small points. You are showing how and why certain factors are more important than others. In short, all good essays have a clear direction - they are headed somewhere - if you know where you are going it is easier to get there.

2. Evaluate.

History questions that are worth asking are never easy to answer. The answer is never ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but always somewhere in between. ‘To what extent do you agree…’, ‘How far do you accept…’, ‘How significant…’, ‘Examine’ and ‘Discuss’ all imply that a debate is expected. Although it is probably best to be clear about which side of the debate you are on, it is always essential to show that you are aware that there are two sides to the debate. Even if you are convinced that the policies of Austria-Hungary were largely responsible for the outbreak of WWI, it is important that you show an awareness that not all historians agree with you. Importantly, your line of argument (thesis) must be supported by a justification of why you favour it; again this is what is meant by ‘analysis’. A good essay plan is often drawn up as a table with two columns; factors that agree and disagree with the assumption or statement in the question.

3. ATBQ[1].

Essay questions never ask you to ‘write all you can remember about subject X as recorded in certain pages of your notes’. You can only score marks if you are being relevant, so take your time, before plunging into the writing, to think clearly about the meaning of the essay title (see Plan above). Each paragraph should make a clear contribution to answering the question set and the first sentence of each paragraph (the big ‘point’ see PEE below) should address the question directly.

4. Introduce.

Do not simply start your essay; spend time on writing a well-crafted introduction. You do not need to set the scene or provide an historical context. Particularly in examination you won’t have time for that. You simply need to do two things: i) Answer the question i.e. state your conclusion ii) Explain in brief how you will arrive at that conclusion. The second of these will see you outline (or signpost) the ‘big points’ that you identified in the planning of your essay. Having read your introduction the reader should have a very clear mental map (hence ‘signposts’) of what you are going to argue and how you are going to develop it in the remaining paragraphs of the essay. This is what examiners mean when they say an essay is coherent. It helps if from the very beginning the reader can see how the various bits are linked together.

5. PEE[2]

If you have planned the essay well and written a good clear introduction the rest of the essay should just fall into place. Each paragraph should start with a big ‘point’ that you made in your introduction. Then you will need to explain this big point, possibly by breaking it down into a series of smaller points. Finally your paragraph should be well supported by evidence or facts from the historical record. If you are arguing that Russia was relatively developed before the First World War you must provide some evidence to back the statement up e.g. statistics showing increased levels of manufacturing production. Obviously this is where the extent of your reading and research is revealed. If you have read the same books as everyone else then your essay will not stand out (and vice versa). The best paragraphs may also PEE(L) with a last sentence that links to the next stage of your argument in the paragraph below.

I appreciate I have said nothing about a conclusion. If the essay is good enough the conclusion should be clear right the way through the essay. A simple recap of your main points should suffice. The examiner will have awarded your ‘A’ grade a long-time before he reads your last paragraph.

RJ-N 190911

[1] Answer The Bloody Question

[2] Point, Explanation, Example


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