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How to write a History Essay effectively

Writing can be difficult. We all know the sensation of starring at a blank piece of paper, questioning what to do and the nagging doubt that if we begin writing, something will go wrong, and you won’t be able to complete your essay. You will be paralysed by the fear that, whatever you do, whatever you write it will be somehow wrong and you will fail your exam. This is a pressure particularly felt by History students. History is a rigorous and complex subject that needs focus and skill to ensure that you do it well at a high level. If you don’t properly understand what is needed of you in a well written History essay, then you will have problems ensuring that you get high grades. Therefore, you need to be sure of exactly what is required of you to ensure that your essay is of the highest possible standard. This article will break down for you exactly what you need to do to make your history essay as effective and interesting as it can possibly be. This article will answer your question as to how to write a history essay.

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The very first thing you must do with your History essay question and any university essay, is to examine the question. The question is your starting point as well as your ending point; to properly understand the question and integrate it into your essay will ensure that the reader understands that you can deal with the ideas raised by the question, provide answers to them and discuss interpretations of both the question and the topic in general that you may disagree with but must be able to grasp in order to properly address the problem that has been set for you. Let us take an example of a question that you may be given to write an essay in response to. A typical history degree will include topics from across history including Medieval Western History, which is a popular topic within History degrees. A question you could be possibly set is “What is the importance of the Black Death in changing the course of Medieval History (1066 – 1483)?” Once you have your question it is time to deconstruct it and see what the core of the question it. This will not only allow you to understand the question and therefore answer it, but it will also provide you with information that you can include in your main essay.

  • What, Why, How, Where. The first thing you must consider is what type of question your question is. Is it a “What question”, a “Why question”, a “How question” or a “Where question”. Once you have established this you can understand what the question is asking for – is it asking for the reason something happened, what events made it happened, the location of the happening or the series of events that happened. This will allow you to fully understand what you must produce in response to the question and how best to frame it. This will allow you to demonstrate that not only do you understand the question but that you can easily pinpoint what the question is asking and ensure your response demonstrates that you understand it.
  • The language used. The use of language in a question is vitally important as it ensures whether the question is asking you to develop a point or whether it is trying to ascertain what you know about the subject it is asking you about. This is important as it will allow you to fully understand how the question is asking you the question. Taking our example question, the use of the words “importance” and “changing” highlight to the student an element that will influence their answer. The question is not simply asking about “The Black Death” it is asking about the importance of the Black Death. This means that you need to demonstrate to the reader that you understand the importance of the subject in context with the broader topic – this will allow to compare the influence of the Black Death with the Hundred Years War or the Peasants Revolt and thus demonstrate that you understand how to write about the subject. The use of the word “changing” is also important; in the context of the sentence it refers to the Black Death changing the course of Medieval History. This demonstrates that your tutor wants to see that you understand that the Black Death changed the Medieval period and that to demonstrate this change you must refer to how things were prior to the Black Death and after it, to highlight what a difference it made on History and society. This will allow you to show how aware you are of the subject and help support your argument – whether you believe that it did change Medieval History or that it didn’t. Linguistic indicators like the ones used above are vital for a student wanting to ensure that they do well in their exams.
  • The period. The period is particularly important in History essays because it signals which part of History you are dealing with. It also will demonstrate what the tutor believes constitutes the period. Rarely in History essays will you simply see an essay that refers to the period by its name alone – you won’t simply see “The Middle Ages” or “The Iron Age” because this is far too unspecific. A date will usually follow the use of the period in the question. In the case of this example question, the Medieval period is referred to as having occurred between 1066 and 1483. This is something that you can use to criticise the question in the Historiography section. The use of the years 1066 and 1483 are significant as it can be inferred that the writer of the question is posing the question from an Anglocentric world view – the belief that the Medieval period began with the Norman Invasion of Britain and ended with the Battle of Bosworth. This can be challenged through using opposing views as to when the Medieval period occurred. Similarly, the use of dates in your question helps you to narrow down as to what period you are writing about; rather than writing about the Middle Ages, you are focussing on the part of the period most associated with the Black Death. This will allow you to be certain as to what facts you need to use and to be certain that your essay will carry authority when it is read by your tutor as you will be able to demonstrate that you know what you are talking about and can analyse the period in some depth. All these things are important when writing a History essay, to make sure it is the best it can be.

Now that you have analysed your question it is time to consider your plan. When planning your essay, it is important that you ensure that you make it as straight forward as possible. Your essay’s structure shouldn’t be complicated as this will only confuse you when writing it. It should be as simple as possible to ensure that you remember it and that you can adequately use it when you come to do your essay – the most important thing to remember is your content, so make sure your plan isn’t complicated.

Once you have written your plan, it is time to look at the areas that you need to focus on to write an excellent essay. In History, the use of conceptualisation is important as it allows the historian to properly assess what they are talking about and ensure that they don’t include information from other periods which may confuse the reader. Conceptualisation also allows for debate. As we discussed above when analysing the question itself, when thinking about your question and then incorporating it into your essay you must consider what the question means by the Medieval period. Because of our time we know what the questioner considers the period to be but given the Black Death encompassed all Europe, should it not mean that we consider not only how it impacted on English medieval society but also that of the great powers of France and Spain? This is an important area that you can use when discussing your question and ensuring that your argument has authority behind it. It allows your essay to not simply answer the question but to also explore the possibilities that are raised by the question.

The use of Methodology in History is another important element that should be included in your essay. Methodology examines the way that scholars, including yourself, attempt to prove certain points and what type of documentation they would use. For instance, if you were writing about the Black Death contemporary histories are a useful source, as is archaeological evidence found from plague pits, as is the evidence of church records. The list is endless, and it is an open casket which you can use to address whatever points you wish to about the methods used by historians to ascertain certain facts.

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