Guide to writing history essays



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The thesis statement
1.5 Your ‘thesis statement’ is the central idea or argument that your essay is setting out to prove. It is the answer to the question that you have set for yourself in the essay. As such, it is the focus for the entire essay and all the relevant evidence that you have assembled during your research will be directed to supporting it. A poor thesis statement is one whose argument is obvious to the reader and does not stand in need of proof, or alternatively one which cannot be proved. A good thesis statement is one whose argument is interesting and even aggressive, sustainable by proof, and clearly and concisely focused. Consider the following examples:
The First World War was a conflict between European powers. This statement contains a weak, self-evident generality without an argument to be proven.
The First World War was the result of various international power struggles in Europe. This statement is slightly better, but still too broad and without an interesting or particularly meaningful argument.
Contrary to popular belief, the First World War was primarily caused by the imperial rivalries of the great powers as they clashed in their struggle to establish or protect their power outside of Europe. This statement contains a distinct argument, takes a strong position, stands in need of proof, and clearly lays out where its focus will be.
1.6 Formulating your thesis statement is thus a critical part of the writing process. Unfortunately, it also often seems rather intimidating. Student writers too frequently are stuck in the mindset that they have nothing important, insightful or original to say about a topic. But this is not so. If you have studied a subject closely, read about it across a range of sources and spent time genuinely thinking about it, it is almost impossible not to end up with a worthwhile set of opinions and conclusions. As you research your topic, you should jot down your thoughts, ideas and responses to the material you read; such active thinking about the material will steadily clarify your own opinion on the question being asked.
1.7 You can arrive at real insights from surprisingly modest beginnings. For example, ‘Stalin was a psycho’ is not much of a historical argument; it is merely an expression of an immature and lazy attitude. And yet, real research and reflection on Stalin’s personal cruelty and murderous policies can produce an excellent essay that makes a nuanced argument about whether he was indeed driven by a psychopathic personality disorder, as some historians have argued was the case, or in fact was motivated by a totalitarian ideology that placed the needs of state and party above the rights or happiness of individuals, as other historians have asserted. In doing so, you will have converted a first impression into a genuine piece of scholarship.


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