Guide to writing history essays



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2. Structure
Basic essay structure
2.1 Newspaper articles and even television reports, it seems, always abide by the famous ‘three rules of journalism’: (1) tell them what you’re going to tell them; (2) tell them; (3) tell them what you told them! While this is overstated, the traditional essay structure nevertheless also runs along the same general lines. It is classically divided into three parts: the introduction, the main body, and the conclusion.
2.2 In your introduction do not simply repeat or rephrase the question; give your answer to it! This means that it should include a clear and direct thesis statement. You should lay out how you intend to address the subject and what your main lines of argument will be. You should also establish the chronological or thematic parameters of your essay, and provide definitions of all critical terms or concepts. The best introductions, in fact, are often the last part of the essay to be written, when the essay is essentially complete. The reason is that it is only then, when your argument has been fully developed and clearly laid out, that you can present a precise and accurate introductory description of it. Even so, you should begin with a working draft of your introduction, which you can then revise in the light of your eventual conclusions.
2.3 The main body of your essay should be a systematic working through of the evidence you have compiled in support of your argument, usually arranged around three or four main points. (You might also need to take time to address evidence or arguments which appear to disprove your argument.) How you organise the main body of your essay ultimately will depend on the type of argument you are making and the nature of the evidence you are presenting. But in all cases, strive for a clear grouping of the different strands of your argument, even if it must be as blunt as writing: ‘first’ …, ‘second’ …, ‘third’ …, and so on. Use paragraphs intelligently to help structure your essay.
2.4 In writing your conclusion, it is usual to summarise (not simply repeat!) the key points and evidence that have been presented and to restate the essay’s argument. But an essay’s conclusion should also go beyond merely re-stating the points already made—rather, it should deal with genuine conclusions. Now that you have proved your case, what does it tell you? What wider ideas, insights or implications does your argument suggest? What lessons might we draw from the brilliant job of research and analysis that you have performed? Be honest: if some of your original ideas were not supported by the evidence, point this out; make clear where the evidence was too inconclusive to allow for absolute or firm conclusions; and so on.

Open’ and ‘closed’ essay structures


2.5 As you consider how to structure your essay, it may be useful to think about the differences between two quite different approaches to structuring history essays, which can be called the closed argument and the open argument.
2.6 An essay with a closed argument moves from the general to the specific, as it steadily narrows the subject down to a specific answer. In structure, it begins with an introduction that lays out in general terms the problem being investigated; the main body of the essay then works through a chain of evidence dealing with the chief issues at stake; and finally, only in the conclusion, is a specific answer to the essay’s question arrived at. The closed argument is thus workmanlike, dependable, and sticks closely to the point.
2.7 An essay with an open argument, by contrast, moves from the specific to the general, as it begins with a direct answer to the essay’s question and steadily expands its discussion of the subject. In structure, it begins with a sharply-defined thesis statement that answers the exact question asked; the main body of the essay then systematically proceeds from point to point, presenting evidence to support its specific thesis; the conclusion, finally, goes beyond merely restating the thesis and instead considers the wider implications of the argument being made. The open argument is thus more ambitious, discursive and difficult to pull off.


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