Guide to writing history essays

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Taking good notes
1.5 Good note-taking is a focused and systematic process. From the very start of your research, you should concentrate on answering the specific question contained in your essay topic and not become bogged down in digressions or generalities. In consequence, you should be sparing in the time-consuming process of recording direct quotations in your notes, for they ought to be used sparingly in your essay. Instead, for each source summarise the argument being made as you understand it in your own words, along with the evidence that the author presents to support it. Be selective in what you photocopy and be sure to read and annotate your copies as soon as possible after making them: large piles of photocopied pages tend to remain undigested and unused.
1.6 A good essay cannot be written from scrappy and unsystematic notes. Be diligent in organising your research (by headings, marginal notes, colour codes or a simple filing system) and indicating the exact source of each piece of information. Being able to give accurate and informative references in your essay is part of avoiding the problem of plagiarism and depends upon your having clear and accurate notes—with any source the very first step is thus to note its full bibliographic details and thereafter constantly to keep track of the page numbers from which you are gathering information.
2. Sources
A history essay can only be as strong as the sources on which it is based. There are two main types of sources that you will draw on as you conduct the research for your essay: primary sources and secondary sources.
Primary sources
2.1 Primary sources are best defined as original documents or artefacts which date from the time period of the topic on which you are writing. Thus, for an essay on the origins of the First World War, primary sources might include: official government documents from the major belligerent powers; personal diaries or letters, written at the time by both political and military leaders and ordinary people; the descriptions of events recorded in contemporary newspapers; photographs, maps, coins and stamps; and even popular books or patriotic songs. While it is not always possible for undergraduates to gain access to such sources, it is often much easier than students believe. Government documents, for instance, are frequently available in official published documentary collections: the Murdoch library holds the twelve volumes of the series British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914—a vast range of official papers on British foreign policy. Additionally, in the internet age it is becoming constantly easier to find documentary and visual sources on the web.
2.2 Primary sources form the basic building blocks of all historical writing. Because the discipline of history is based upon interpretation, however, historians do not take the evidence provided by primary sources at face value. They read and assess each source critically—with the result that different historians often arrive at very different conclusions about the meaning of the same source. You must be careful about assuming that primary sources are somehow ‘true’ because they were created by people of the time. People of any time have their own agendas, prejudices and biases—whether overt or secret, conscious or unconscious—and these can shape or distort the content and meaning of a source. As you evaluate any piece of evidence, consider who created it and why, who was the intended audience, and what was the historical context in which it was created and received.

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