Guide to writing history essays

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While historically accurate, this sample essay is obviously heavily contrived: you would not normally expect to have such a density of references (eight footnotes in a single paragraph), yet it would be a rare paragraph in an essay that would not require at least one citation of a source.

Notice that the first sentence does not have a reference. Generally known or accepted factual material does not require a citation to support it. Thus, you do not need a source to demonstrate that Hitler is a controversial historical figure, or that he came to power on 30 January 1933.

Note 1: This is a ‘bibliographical note’ referring to a body of literature on a certain topic. Notes of this sort are used to support statements in essays such as ‘there has been an increasing amount of interest in’ or ‘some historians have argued that’. This note contains examples of the proper formats for three major types of source: a book, a journal article, and a contribution to an edited collection. You can see here that, when citing more than one source in a note, you should separate them with semi-colons. Because it is the general argument of these three works that is being referenced here, there is no need for specific page numbers.

Note 2: Quotations must always have a specific reference, including an exact page number, to identify precisely where the quote comes from. This note shows how to refer to a work that has already been mentioned in a previous note—by using only the author’s last name, a shortened version of the title and the correct page reference.

Notes 3 and 4: Here a new source is introduced, first to provide a quotation and then to provide some statistical data. As with quotations, statistics and exact figures must always have a specific reference, including an exact page number, to show precisely where this information was obtained. Notice that while the abbreviation ‘Ibid.’ is used in Note 4, as it is a consecutive reference to the same source (the book by Adamthwaite), a shortened-form reference could also have been employed.

Note 5: This note is attached to a longer, ‘block’ quotation in the text. You can see that the quotation is single-spaced, indented and does not use quotation marks except for the ‘quote within the quote’ at the end. The quotation itself comes from a primary source, the diary of Sir Alexander Cadogan, a diplomat from the time, which has since been published. The footnote also identifies that the underlining in the quotation is in the original source.

Note 6: Notes can sometimes be used to provide additional information or to develop a point that is worth mentioning but is too tangential to be included in the main body of the essay. Be sparing on this, however: the vast majority of such information is either so peripheral that it should be omitted entirely or is important enough that it ought to go in the main body of the essay.

Note 7: This note shows how one might paraphrase an author’s statement of their argument.

Note 8: This note shows how to reference material that was itself cited in another of your sources. In this case, it would be an incomplete note that merely cited Sharp’s article, but it would be dishonest to cite only Chamberlain’s book if you had not yourself consulted this source in the original. You should never cite as your source any document, book or article unless you have read it yourself.

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