Guide to writing history essays



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Write like a historian
3.5 Good writing style is an integral part of strong history essays. As a general rule, try to be direct, clear and engaging in your writing. Assume you are writing for an audience that is mature, intelligent and interested—exactly like yourself. Do not assume that your readers will know things without having to be told: if you or a fellow student would require a concept to be explained or term defined, then do so for your reader.
3.6 Don’t try to constantly hedge your bets—be decisive and take a stand. This means addressing the question that is being asked. Don’t wander off into irrelevancies but pose the question clearly and make your answer precise and persuasive.
3.7 Strive for precision. This means resisting the impulse to descend into vague statements and sweeping generalizations. Impossibly broad statements—such as ‘The devastation on the Eastern Front was extreme and affected the lives of many people’—end up proving nothing in themselves. At the same time, definite assertions still require the support of specific detail as evidence: factual detail; statistics; quotations from individuals or documents of the time; and (least effective) quotations from historians. Here an example of how a general assertion might be backed up with specific detail as evidence:
Hitler was lazy. The most obvious example can be seen in his working habits when Führer. He never emerged from his private rooms before midday, took enormously lengthy meals, and generally stayed up until about 2 a.m. watching films before going to bed. As Alan Bullock notes, Hitler ‘hated systematic work, hated to submit to any discipline … and he habitually left as much as he could to others’.1
3.8 Avoid ‘fluff’! Meaningless qualifications and ‘filler’ statements—such as ‘thus one can see that’ or ‘having shown this first point, next this second point will be discussed’—merely weaken your essay. Avoid weak phrases like “In my opinion’ or ‘It seems to me’: the reader knows already that ideas and assertions expressed in your essay are your own opinion, so drop the weak preface and be emphatic. For example: ‘In my opinion, Lenin was just as brutal a dictator as Stalin’ is weaker than ‘Lenin was just as brutal a dictator as Stalin’.


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