Guide to writing history essays

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C. Writing your essay
1. Argument
Three kinds of essay question
1.1 A history essay calls for an argument, especially essays where the topic is phrased in the subject of a question. As the first step in formulating your argument, you should begin by establishing in your own mind exactly what you are being asked to argue about. Read the question carefully to determine what is being asked, what sorts of assumptions and preconceptions it includes, what its terms mean, and what sorts of responses you can make (supporting, rejecting, revising, etc.). Most historical questions or problems are debatable, meaning that there is no single or simple answer to them. Take the time to decide in your own mind what you genuinely think about a subject, and what you genuinely believe to be the answer to a particular question or problem. One way to approach this process is to consider the distinction between descriptive, analytical and critical essays.
1.2 The descriptive essay is appropriate for cases where you have been asked to describe a particular event, problem, book, author, etc. You might be asked ‘What happened during the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s?’ or ‘What is Ian Kershaw’s view of the changes in German foreign policy during 1938-39?’ In the first case, you would structure your essay as a summary of the events of the Terror, based on various primary and secondary sources, reporting on its scale, events and mechanisms. In the second case, you would consult Kershaw’s books and in your essay summarise the various changes in German foreign policy that he outlines. The descriptive essay can be useful therefore, but it is limited. In both of these examples, while the summaries would provide accurate descriptions, they would not really advance our historical understanding of why the Stalinist Terror was so significant or of what Kershaw’s books have contributed to the scholarship on German foreign policy.

1.3 The analytical essay is perhaps the most common sort of essay confronted by students. Here you take on questions that require individual judgement and analysis in order to give an adequate answer. You might be asked ‘How central was Stalin’s role in the Terror of the 1930s?’ or ‘What are the most important features of Kershaw’s interpretation of Hitler’s foreign policy in the late 1930s?’ In the first case, you would need to make a reasoned judgement regarding the responsibility of a single individual (Stalin) for a massively complex and geographically widespread process of murder and repression. How do you define ‘terror’ and ‘responsibility’? What other factors might have been responsible for these horrific events? What sort of evidence is necessary to prove Stalin’s responsibility? For the second case, you might begin by considering how to select certain interpretations as more important than others. What criteria can you develop to discriminate between them? On which points does Kershaw himself lay the most stress? Which elements of his interpretation are accepted by other historians, and which are rejected? Where do you think Kershaw’s interpretation is strongest, and where is it weakest? Such analytical approaches produce essays that make arguments about how to assess historical events and interpretations; they require you to analyse the relevant material, to make judgements and to defend them.

1.4 The critical essay is less common and more challenging, but is perhaps the most interesting sort of essay. It asks you to critically evaluate a book, school of interpretation or approach to a problem from a historiographical point of view. You might be asked ‘Are the “intentionalist” school of historians right to blame Stalin alone for the 1930s Terror?’ or ‘Do you find Kershaw’s interpretation of Hitler’s command over German foreign policy convincing?’ These questions require you to master the relevant historical literature—the ‘intentionalist’ vs. ‘structuralist’ debate in Soviet history or the development of Kershaw’s portrayal of Hitler as Führer—and then to develop your own criteria of evaluation. The critical essay necessarily extends beyond the frame of reference of the subject or book you are considering and places it within the larger historiography of the topic. A critical reading seeks out omissions and contradictions, assesses the strengths and weaknesses in the use of evidence or argument, and makes an evaluation of the historical debate or the individual author’s approach. While students sometimes see this as an exercise only in identifying things that they can condemn, a true critical reading is really about evaluating an argument and can often result in an entirely positive assessment.

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