How to write a history essay: The best way to do it

History is a fascinating subject. We can learn a great deal from the past and therefore ensure that we understand the future. Yet studying the past is not simply important for understanding the future but contemplating the lives of our ancestors is an interesting and provocative area of academia and to be able to understand history allows us to conceive how we fit into the great tapestry of life. To study history is, therefore, to study life and to know how to analyse the facts, discern an argument and answer a question. It is a skill that will help you throughout life, not simply as a student of history. Therefore, understanding how to write a history essay is a valuable tool which will ensure that you not only get good grades but also have skills that will help you with the rest of your professional life.

 

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One of the key elements of succeeding in doing an essay about history is the ability to understand the question. You may think this seems like a simple and easy part of writing an essay but, in fact, it can sometimes be difficult. If the question is phrased in a way you may not be familiar with or due to stress you don’t read the question properly then this can change your entire response to the question and ensure that your essay is not marked as it should be. Therefore, not only understanding the question but being able to analyse the question is one of the most important things you can do when writing your response. Once you understand the question fully you can analyse it and use your analyse to channel your answer and therefore provide an argument in answer to the question that you have been set that will ensure you get good marks.

As mentioned above, the analysis of the question is just as important as understanding it. To analyse a question is different from simply understanding a question – for instance if you had a question that said something like “How did the Crusades affect Medieval Europe?” then the likelihood is that you would easily be able to understand the question. You’d know that it was asking the way the Crusaders affected Medieval Europe but understanding the question doesn’t mean that you can write a response to it. Only by analysing the question thoroughly can you ensure that you will be able to produce an excellent response to the question in hand. This article will break down the best ways for you to analyse your question and therefore to ensure that you produce the best possible answer that you can.

  • What, Why, How Where. This is a particularly important element of your question The circumstances that are related to your question are vital to ensure that you understand it. By grasping the context surrounding the question you can ensure that your answer is not only solely based in the period that the question is asking you about but also that you fully understand what that era represents and what the part of the era you have been asked about represents, not only within the period you are being asked about, but within the wider context of history. This will allow you to be able to reference modern events and draw parallels without writing too extensively about an era that you are not meant to write about. For instance, rather than drawing a direct comparison with the Crusades and the Iraq War and then going on to talk about the Iraq War, which will simply fill up your essay with information that is not only irrelevant but also forcing you to not spend time on the main subject at hand, you can use the parallel differently and gain extra marks for it. As an example, if you were using a historian as a source for your analysis regarding the Crusaders and that historian was contemporary and had written about the Iraq War or had in some way been affected by it, then you could use this as a means of not only mentioning the comparison but also either criticising or praising the source for, dependent on the source, either being overly connected to modern events and unintentionally or intentionally politicising his analysis or being disconnected from modern events.
  • The language used. Another interesting point of analysis is what sort of language has been used in the question. This will help determine how you should respond to the question. For example, if your question was, as used above, “How did the Crusades affect Medieval Europe?” then you would know the question is asking you about the different ways The Crusades impacted on Medieval Europe. This would then allow you to consider the different ways that the Crusades changed Medieval Europe and thus you would be able to develop a plan to use as the basis of your essay. For example, you could consider the ways that they affected religion, how they impacted on the power structure of Medieval Europe, how they impacted on the roles of gender, how they affected art and culture. The list is endless and by thinking of these various arguments, you can then consider which are the most important and use the ways that they did impact on Medieval Europe as a means of creating paragraphs to include in your essay and make it as impressive as it can possibly be. Understanding the language behind the question allows you to be able to write an answer that is convincing and authoritative.
  • Context. The context of the question you are being asked is important because it will allow you to know what sort of material you can use to support your argument. For instance, if you question was on modern history then you’d be unlikely to use archaeological evidence and more likely to use evidence from film or television to support your argument. Similarly, if you were writing about Ancient Egypt you will be more likely to use evidence from inscriptions and archaeology than anything else. By understanding the context in which the question is asked you will be able to demonstrate that you have a mastery of the period you are writing about. This is important in ensuring that the person reading your essay fully understands your intentions. This will allow them to appreciate your work and to understand your argument properly and examine it as they would any other piece of work. As a famous author once said, “context is all” and, therefore, it is so important to understand when writing an essay, particularly one about history.

Thinking about the period that your question is about is important and, as we discussed above, it is vital that you understand what exactly the question is asking you, in relation to the period that the question will refer to. However, what is also important is to understand period thinking. This means that is necessary to think as the people you are writing about would have thought. This doesn’t mean that you must write a fictional piece about them – it simply means understanding the way they would have thought and using that as a means of analysing the facts and assessing the analysis of historians. A folly of many historians is to simply look at the evidence through the eyes of someone living today rather than to consider why people in the past thought their actions were justified and why they did them. Only this way will you be able to be truly critical as you should be able to consider events from two sides – that of the detached, modern historian and that of the person experiencing the events. This will allow you to have perspective and give your critical analysis more credence.

We have gone over the main elements of critical analysis above, but it is worth, briefly, going over it again. Critical Analysis is particularly important in history because, simply because something is stated as fact by a historian does not mean you should say “well therefore it happened.” This isn’t to say your work should be filled with conspiracy theories but rather you should be able to understand and demonstrate in your work the ability to criticise historians and their arguments.

Once you have finished your essay it is time to check it to make sure that it doesn’t include any inaccuracies, this is particularly important when writing an essay about history. However, if you are doing the essay in exam conditions then don’t worry too much about trying to rewrite great chunks of it – checking your spelling and grammar is just as important for ensuring that you get the best possible grades.

Hopefully this article will have shown you exactly how to write a history essay. However, if there are some elements that you find confusing then perhaps we can help?

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