5 Tips for Writing History Essays

It's that time of year, again. Students are cramming on facts, teachers are sighing over forgotten essay formats, and the dates for exams are fast approaching, ready or not.

After a few years of teaching writing for history, I've learned five steps that work.

1. Understand the Problem

We naturally ask questions as we attempt to understand a problem. Write every question that comes to mind. Use the "W" questions to guide your inquiry. Organize your questions by historical thinking skills and themes (see 3 below). The questions you write will help you make choices in the next step.

Helpful questions:

What is the question asking you to do? Analyze? Evaluate?
What evidence will you need to support a response?

Historical Thinking Skills:
  • Chronology
  • Causation
  • Comparison
  • Context
  •  ... and more.
2. Find and Interpret Sources

Even though Google is full of information, we still need to know which keywords will produce the most relevant results. Choose words based on the questions you wrote in step 1, and use Google operators to filter search results and access more relevant areas of the Internet.  Try the Google Guide. It's my favorite.

As you search, you'll need to make quick decisions about which sources are worth reading. Think about the origin and purpose of the source as they relate to the value and limitation. In other words, can you trust it? And, how does it help support the main point? 
  • Is it primary or secondary? 
  • Who wrote it? 
  • Is the author credible? 
  • Why was it written?
Determine the point of view and any potential bias, which is not a bad thing. Bias is something we have to understand to develop a context for the information we are using. For example, if the essay is about Hitler's views of German Jews in 1938, the bias of his diary will not be contextualized as if we were writing an essay about German Jewish culture of the early Twentieth Century.

3. List, Group, & Label Evidence

Based on the evidence you select to support your response to the question, how can it be organized thematically so focused claims can be made to formulate your argument? 

List your evidence and group it according to similarities. Use themes to label the groups, but be sure to choose specific themes like "new labor systems" instead of something too broad like "economics." 

Click on the images below for original documents

4. Write a Response Statement (thesis)

This is your argument. Make sure the reader is not left with questions about the position you are taking to respond to the problem. A strong thesis will help the reader understand the time period and themes you are using to organize the evidence.

Think of the thesis statement as historical thought's moving truck. You collect the evidence and pack it into boxes (grouping) and label it so we know where to put it on the truck. Then, you load the boxes into the truck, or in this case, the thesis statement. The body paragraphs are the unpacking of the boxes, one paragraph at a time.

5. Develop an Essay (body paragraphs) 

The tough part is already done. If your work is solid on the first four steps, writing the body paragraphs should go smoothly.

Include two to four pieces of evidence to support the main point each paragraph develops. The main points are based on the thesis statement and the themes that you used to organize your evidence.

Remember to include the bias and point of view of the sources. Not every source is perfect, so your authority will be well established if the reader knows the value and limits of each source. This is why god history writing requires so much time spent on reading for context. We don't want to misrepresent the facts or ideas as we use them to substantiate our argument.

Be confident. Start with what you know, and make connections. It's time to unpack your ideas.