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10 Great Essay Writing Tips

how to write a university history essay

Knowing how to write a college essay is a useful skill for anyone who plans to go to college. Most colleges and universities ask you to submit a writing sample with your application. As a student, you’ll also write essays in your courses. Impress your professors with your knowledge and skill by using these great essay writing tips.

Prepare to Answer the Question

Most college essays ask you to answer a question or synthesize information you learned in class. Review notes you have from lectures, read the recommended texts and make sure you understand the topic. You should refer to these sources in your essay.

how to write a university history essay

Plan Your Essay

Many students see planning as a waste of time, but it actually saves you time. Take a few minutes to think about the topic and what you want to say about it. You can write an outline, draw a chart or use a graphic organizer to arrange your ideas. This gives you a chance to spot problems in your ideas before you spend time writing out the paragraphs.

Choose a Writing Method That Feels Comfortable

You might have to type your essay before turning it in, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Some people find it easy to write out their ideas by hand. Others prefer typing in a word processor where they can erase and rewrite as needed. Find the one that works best for you and stick with it.

how to write a university history essay

View It as a Conversation

Writing is a form of communication, so think of your essay as a conversation between you and the reader. Think about your response to the source material and the topic. Decide what you want to tell the reader about the topic. Then, stay focused on your response as you write.

how to write a university history essay

Provide the Context in the Introduction

If you look at an example of an essay introduction, you’ll see that the best essays give the reader a context. Think of how you introduce two people to each other. You share the details you think they will find most interesting. Do this in your essay by stating what it’s about and then telling readers what the issue is.

how to write a university history essay

Explain What Needs to be Explained

Sometimes you have to explain concepts or define words to help the reader understand your viewpoint. You also have to explain the reasoning behind your ideas. For example, it’s not enough to write that your greatest achievement is running an ultra marathon. You might need to define ultra marathon and explain why finishing the race is such an accomplishment.

how to write a university history essay

Answer All the Questions

After you finish writing the first draft of your essay, make sure you’ve answered all the questions you were supposed to answer. For example, essays in compare and contrast format should show the similarities and differences between ideas, objects or events. If you’re writing about a significant achievement, describe what you did and how it affected you.

how to write a university history essay

Stay Focused as You Write

Writing requires concentration. Find a place where you have few distractions and give yourself time to write without interruptions. Don’t wait until the night before the essay is due to start working on it.

how to write a university history essay

Read the Essay Aloud to Proofread

When you finish writing your essay, read it aloud. You can do this by yourself or ask someone to listen to you read it. You’ll notice places where the ideas don’t make sense, and your listener can give you feedback about your ideas.

how to write a university history essay

Avoid Filling the Page with Words

A great essay does more than follow an essay layout. It has something to say. Sometimes students panic and write everything they know about a topic or summarize everything in the source material. Your job as a writer is to show why this information is important.


how to write a university history essay


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how to write a university history essay

How to Write Your First Undergraduate Essay

Jeremy Black prepares readers for the rigours of university history.

Well done! You have got into university to read history, one of the most interesting subjects on offer. One reason it is very interesting is that there is a clear progression from the challenges at A level to the requirements of a degree. And that is your problem. You have been set your first essay and you are not clear about these requirements.

The first rule is a simple one. The questions may look the same but your answers must be different. One can be set the identical question, say ‘Why did the French Revolution occur?’, at ages 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 or, if you are an academic writing a paper, 50 or 60, but a different type of answer is required.

In what way different? Not primarily in terms of more facts, because university history degrees are not essentially a test of knowledge, not a question of remembering dates or quotes. It is certainly appropriate to support arguments with relevant information, the emphasis being on relevant not information, and, when you deploy facts, do get them right. To get your facts wrong risks undermining the impression you create because it suggests that you do not really know the subject.

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But history is what you remember when you forget the facts. It is a habit of thought, an attitude of critical scrutiny and exposition, a method of enquiry. These should underlie your reading for your essay and should guide your preparation, and it is in their light that facts are to be assessed. They must contribute to the critical argument, and that requires an ability to engage with three elements if the essay is to be a good one:



  • Historiography.

I will go through all three, but do not worry. At this stage, for most students, these are an aspiration and not an achievement; but the aspiration is important as it shows you, first, how your degree course is different from A level and, secondly, what you will be expected to be able to do by the end of your university career. To do well, you should make an effort to begin including each of these elements in your essays.

Many questions relate to key concepts in history. For example, if you are asked ‘What were the causes of the French Revolution?’, the key concepts are causes and revolution. What do you mean by the French Revolution? Is it primarily the violent challenge to royal authority in 1789, the creation of a new political order, a marked ideological discontinuity, the process of socio-economic change, or, if a combination of all of these, which takes precedence and requires most explanation? What do you understand by causes? Are we talking primarily about long-term, ‘structural’ factors that caused problems, or about precipitants that led to a breakdown of the existing situation? These issues need discussing explicitly, out-in-the-open. That is key to a good essay at university level. They should not be left unspoken and unaddressed; and your discussion of them should reflect your awareness that issues are involved in the analysis, and that you are capable of addressing them. You also need to be aware that there will be different answers and this should guide your handling of the concepts. This leads into Methodology.

In this section, you should explicitly address the issue of how scholars, including yourself, can handle the conceptual questions. This follows the previous point closely. What sources should scholars use and how should they use them? Do you put a preference in studying the French Revolution on the declarations made by revolutionaries, on their public debates, or on what happened ‘on the ground’, including the violent opposition they aroused? If you discuss the latter, you underline the fact that the Revolution led to civil war, and that the causes of what you present as the Revolution were not a mass rejection of the existing system. You also point out that in 1789 few people envisaged what they were expected to support in 1792 (a republic and the trial of the king) let alone 1793 (the Reign of Terror). The Revolution is thus presented and studied as a dynamic, changing process, which requires different explanations at particular stages.


A key feature of university work is that you need to address explicitly the degree to which historians hold different views, and why, and to show that you understand that these views change, and can locate your own essay in their debates. For the French Revolution, we see a tendency among French scholars to stress socio-economic causes, among American academics to emphasise the conceptual inconsistencies of the French ancien régime , and among British writers to underline short-term political issues.

Ten Key Things To Do

  • Read the question and understand what it is asking.
  • Work out your approach.
  • Write a detailed essay plan, with different points per paragraph.
  • Have an introduction in which you reveal your understanding of the current debate in interpretations.
  • Remember to handle the concepts in the question and in your answer clearly.
  • Remember to introduce the relevant historical methods explicitly.
  • Engage with the historiography, the views of different historians.
  • In doing so, show how your work is part of the debate.
  • Have a clear conclusion that brings out the relevance of the topic and your answer for wider historical issues.
  • Include a reading list and a word count.

Sounds difficult? Well, these approaches add interest and understanding, and help make your degree a worthwhile process of education and exposition.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is the author, with Donald M. MacRaild, of Studying History (Palgrave, 3rd edition, 2007).

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A guide to writing history essays

This guide has been prepared for students at all undergraduate university levels. Some points are specifically aimed at 100-level students, and may seem basic to those in upper levels. Similarly, some of the advice is aimed at upper-level students, and new arrivals should not be put off by it.

The key point is that learning to write good essays is a long process. We hope that students will refer to this guide frequently, whatever their level of study.

Why do history students write essays?

Essays are an essential educational tool in disciplines like history because they help you to develop your research skills, critical thinking, and writing abilities. The best essays are based on strong research, in-depth analysis, and are logically structured and well written.

An essay should answer a question with a clear, persuasive argument. In a history essay, this will inevitably involve a degree of narrative (storytelling), but this should be kept to the minimum necessary to support the argument – do your best to avoid the trap of substituting narrative for analytical argument. Instead, focus on the key elements of your argument, making sure they are well supported by evidence. As a historian, this evidence will come from your sources, whether primary and secondary.

The following guide is designed to help you research and write your essays, and you will almost certainly earn better grades if you can follow this advice. You should also look at the essay-marking criteria set out in your course guide, as this will give you a more specific idea of what the person marking your work is looking for.

Where to start

First, take time to understand the question. Underline the key words and consider very carefully what you need to do to provide a persuasive answer. For example, if the question asks you to compare and contrast two or more things, you need to do more than define these things – what are the similarities and differences between them? If a question asks you to 'assess' or 'explore', it is calling for you to weigh up an issue by considering the evidence put forward by scholars, then present your argument on the matter in hand.

A history essay must be based on research. If the topic is covered by lectures, you might begin with lecture and tutorial notes and readings. However, the lecturer does not want you simply to echo or reproduce the lecture content or point of view, nor use their lectures as sources in your footnotes. They want you to develop your own argument. To do this you will need to look closely at secondary sources, such as academic books and journal articles, to find out what other scholars have written about the topic. Often your lecturer will have suggested some key texts, and these are usually listed near the essay questions in your course guide. But you should not rely solely on these suggestions.

Tip : Start the research with more general works to get an overview of your topic, then move on to look at more specialised work.

Crafting a strong essay

Before you begin writing, make an essay plan. Identify the two-to-four key points you want to make. Organize your ideas into an argument which flows logically and coherently. Work out which examples you will use to make the strongest case. You may need to use an initial paragraph (or two) to bring in some context or to define key terms and events, or provide brief identifying detail about key people – but avoid simply telling the story.

An essay is really a series of paragraphs that advance an argument and build towards your conclusion. Each paragraph should focus on one central idea. Introduce this idea at the start of the paragraph with a 'topic sentence', then expand on it with evidence or examples from your research. Some paragraphs should finish with a concluding sentence that reiterates a main point or links your argument back to the essay question.

A good length for a paragraph is 150-200 words. When you want to move to a new idea or angle, start a new paragraph. While each paragraph deals with its own idea, paragraphs should flow logically, and work together as a greater whole. Try using linking phrases at the start of your paragraphs, such as 'An additional factor that explains', 'Further', or 'Similarly'.

We discourage using subheadings for a history essay (unless they are over 5000 words in length). Instead, throughout your essay use 'signposts'. This means clearly explaining what your essay will cover, how an example demonstrates your point, or reiterating what a particular section has added to your overall argument.

Remember that a history essay isn't necessarily about getting the 'right' answer – it's about putting forward a strong case that is well supported by evidence from academic sources. You don't have to cover everything – focus on your key points.

In your introduction or opening paragraph you could indicate that while there are a number of other explanations or factors that apply to your topic, you have chosen to focus on the selected ones (and say why). This demonstrates to your marker that while your argument will focus on selected elements, you do understand the bigger picture.

The classic sections of an essay


  • Establishes what your argument will be, and outlines how the essay will develop it
  • A good formula to follow is to lay out about 3 key reasons that support the answer you plan to give (these points will provide a road-map for your essay and will become the ideas behind each paragraph)
  • If you are focusing on selected aspects of a topic or particular sources and case studies, you should state that in your introduction
  • Define any key terms that are essential to your argument
  • Keep your introduction relatively concise – aim for about 10% of the word count
  • Consists of a series of paragraphs that systematically develop the argument outlined in your introduction
  • Each paragraph should focus on one central idea, building towards your conclusion
  • Paragraphs should flow logically. Tie them together with 'bridge' sentences – e.g. you might use a word or words from the end of the previous paragraph and build it into the opening sentence of the next, to form a bridge
  • Also be sure to link each paragraph to the question/topic/argument in some way (e.g. use a key word from the question or your introductory points) so the reader does not lose the thread of your argument
  • Ties up the main points of your discussion
  • Should link back to the essay question, and clearly summarise your answer to that question
  • May draw out or reflect on any greater themes or observations, but you should avoid introducing new material
  • If you have suggested several explanations, evaluate which one is strongest

Using scholarly sources: books, journal articles, chapters from edited volumes

Try to read critically: do not take what you read as the only truth, and try to weigh up the arguments presented by scholars. Read several books, chapters, or articles, so that you understand the historical debates about your topic before deciding which viewpoint you support. The best sources for your history essays are those written by experts, and may include books, journal articles, and chapters in edited volumes. The marking criteria in your course guide may state a minimum number of academic sources you should consult when writing your essay. A good essay considers a range of evidence, so aim to use more than this minimum number of sources.

Tip : Pick one of the books or journal articles suggested in your course guide and look at the author's first few footnotes – these will direct you to other prominent sources on this topic.

Don't overlook journal articles as a source. They contain the most in-depth research on a particular topic. Often the first pages will summarise the prior research into this topic, so articles can be a good way to familiarise yourself with what else has 'been done'.

Edited volumes can also be a useful source. These are books on a particular theme, topic or question, with each chapter written by a different expert.

One way to assess the reliability of a source is to check the footnotes or endnotes. When the author makes a claim, is this supported by primary or secondary sources? If there are very few footnotes, then this may not be a credible scholarly source. Also check the date of publication, and prioritise more recent scholarship. Aim to use a variety of sources, but focus most of your attention on academic books and journal articles.

Paraphrasing and quotations

A good essay is about your ability to interpret and analyse sources, and to establish your own informed opinion with a persuasive argument that uses sources as supporting evidence. You should express most of your ideas and arguments in your own words. Cutting and pasting together the words of other scholars, or simply changing a few words in quotations taken from the work of others, will prevent you from getting a good grade, and may be regarded as academic dishonesty (see more below).

Direct quotations can be useful tools if they provide authority and colour. For maximum effect though, use direct quotations sparingly – where possible, paraphrase most material into your own words. Save direct quotations for phrases that are interesting, contentious, or especially well-phrased.

A good writing practice is to introduce and follow up every direct quotation you use with one or two sentences of your own words, clearly explaining the relevance of the quote, and putting it in context with the rest of your paragraph. Tell the reader who you are quoting, why this quote is here, and what it demonstrates. Avoid simply plonking a quotation into the middle of your own prose. This can be quite off-putting for a reader.

  • Only include punctuation in your quote if it was in the original text. Otherwise, punctuation should come after the quotation marks. If you cut out words from a quotation, put in three dots (an ellipsis [ . . .]) to indicate where material has been cut
  • If your quote is longer than 50 words, it should be indented and does not need quotation marks. This is called a block quote (use these sparingly: remember you have a limited word count and it is your analysis that is most significant)
  • Quotations should not be italicised

Referencing, plagiarism and Turnitin

When writing essays or assignments, it is very important to acknowledge the sources you have used. You risk the charge of academic dishonesty (or plagiarism) if you copy or paraphrase words written by another person without providing a proper acknowledgment (a 'reference'). In your essay, whenever you refer to ideas from elsewhere, statistics, direct quotations, or information from primary source material, you must give details of where this information has come from in footnotes and a bibliography.

Your assignment may be checked through Turnitin, a type of plagiarism-detecting software which checks assignments for evidence of copied material. If you have used a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, you may receive a high Turnitin percentage score. This is nothing to be alarmed about if you have referenced those sources. Any matches with other written material that are not referenced may be interpreted as plagiarism – for which there are penalties. You can find full information about all of this in the History Programme's Quick Guide Referencing Guide contained in all course booklets.

Final suggestions

Remember that the easier it is to read your essay, the more likely you are to get full credit for your ideas and work. If the person marking your work has difficulty reading it, either because of poor writing or poor presentation, they will find it harder to grasp your points. Try reading your work aloud, or to a friend/flatmate. This should expose any issues with flow or structure, which you can then rectify.

Make sure that major and controversial points in your argument are clearly stated and well- supported by evidence and footnotes. Aspire to understand – rather than judge – the past. A historian's job is to think about people, patterns, and events in the context of the time, though you can also reflect on changing perceptions of these over time.

Things to remember

  • Write history essays in the past tense
  • Generally, avoid sub-headings in your essays
  • Avoid using the word 'bias' or 'biased' too freely when discussing your research materials. Almost any text could be said to be 'biased'. Your task is to attempt to explain why an author might argue or interpret the past as they do, and what the potential limitations of their conclusions might be
  • Use the passive voice judiciously. Active sentences are better!
  • Be cautious about using websites as sources of information. The internet has its uses, particularly for primary sources, but the best sources are academic books and articles. You may use websites maintained by legitimate academic and government authorities, such as those with domain suffixes like .gov .govt .ac or .edu
  • Keep an eye on word count – aim to be within 10% of the required length. If your essay is substantially over the limit, revisit your argument and overall structure, and see if you are trying to fit in too much information. If it falls considerably short, look into adding another paragraph or two
  • Leave time for a final edit and spell-check, go through your footnotes and bibliography to check that your references are correctly formatted, and don't forget to back up your work as you go!

Other useful strategies and sources

  • Student Learning Development , which offers peer support and one-on-one writing advice (located near the central library)
  • Harvard College's guide to writing history essays (PDF)
  • Harvard College's advice on essay structure
  • Victoria University's comprehensive essay writing guide (PDF)


Tips from my first year - essay writing

This is the third of a three part series giving advice on the essay writing process, focusing in this case on essay writing.

Daniel is a first year BA History and Politics student at Magdalen College . He is a disabled student and the first in his immediate family to go to university. Daniel is also a Trustee of Potential Plus UK , a Founding Ambassador and Expert Panel Member for Zero Gravity , and a History Faculty Ambassador. Before coming to university, Daniel studied at a non-selective state school, and was a participant on the UNIQ , Sutton Trust , and Social Mobility Foundation APP Reach programmes, as well as being part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. Daniel is passionate about outreach and social mobility and ensuring all students have the best opportunity to succeed.

dd profile

History and its related disciplines mainly rely on essay writing with most term-time work centring on this, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. The blessing of the Oxford system though is you get plenty of opportunity to practice, and your tutors usually provide lots of feedback (both through comments on essays and in tutorials) to help you improve. Here are my tips from my first year as an Oxford Undergraduate:

  • Plan for success – a good plan really sets your essay in a positive direction, so try to collect your thoughts if you can. I find a great way to start my planning process is to go outside for a walk as it helps to clear my head of the detail, it allows me to focus on the key themes, and it allows me to explore ideas without having to commit anything to paper. Do keep in mind your question throughout the reading and notetaking process, though equally look to the wider themes covered so that when you get to planning you are in the right frame of mind.
  • Use what works for you – if you try to use a method you aren’t happy with, it won’t work. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment; to the contrary I highly encourage it as it can be good to change up methods and see what really helps you deliver a strong essay. However, don’t feel pressured into using one set method, as long as it is time-efficient and it gets you ready for the next stage of the essay process it is fine!
  • Focus on the general ideas – summarise in a sentence what each author argues, see what links there are between authors and subject areas, and possibly group your ideas into core themes or paragraph headers. Choose the single piece of evidence you believe supports each point best.
  • Make something revision-ready – try to make something which you can come back to in a few months’ time which makes sense and will really get your head back to when you were preparing for your essay.
  • Consider what is most important – no doubt if you spoke about everything covered on the reading list you would have far more words than the average essay word count (which is usually advised around 1,500-2,000 words - it does depend on your tutor.) You have a limited amount of time, focus, and words, so choose what stands out to you as the most important issues for discussion. Focus on the important issues well rather than covering several points in a less-focused manner.
  • Make it your voice – your tutors want to hear from you about what you think and what your argument is, not lots of quotes of what others have said. Therefore, when planning and writing consider what your opinion is and make sure to state it. Use authors to support your viewpoint, or to challenge it, but make sure you are doing the talking and driving the analysis. At the same time, avoid slang, and ensure the language you use is easy to digest.
  • Make sure you can understand it - don’t feel you have to use big fancy words you don’t understand unless they happen to be relevant subject-specific terminology, and don’t swallow the Thesaurus. If you use a technical term, make sure to provide a definition. You most probably won’t have time to go into it fully, but if it is an important concept hint at the wider historical debate. State where you stand and why briefly you believe what you are stating before focusing on your main points. You need to treat the reader as both an alien from another planet, and a very intelligent person at the same time – make sure your sentences make sense, but equally make sure to pitch it right. As you can possibly tell, it is a fine balancing act so my advice is to read through your essay and ask yourself ‘why’ about every statement or argument you make. If you haven’t answered why, you likely require a little more explanation. Simple writing doesn’t mean a boring or basic argument, it just means every point you make lands and has impact on the reader, supporting them every step of the way.
  • Keep introductions and conclusions short – there is no need for massive amounts of setting the scene in the introduction, or an exact repeat of every single thing you have said in the essay appearing in the conclusion. Instead, in the first sentence of your introduction provide a direct answer to the question. If the question is suitable, it is perfectly fine to say yes, no, or it is a little more complicated. Whatever the answer is, it should be simple enough to fit in one reasonable length sentence. The next three sentences should state what each of your three main body paragraphs are going to argue, and then dive straight into it. With your conclusion, pick up what you said about the key points. Suggest how they possibly link, maybe do some comparison between factors and see if you can leave us with a lasting thought which links to the question in your final sentence.
  • Say what you are going to say, say it, say it again – this is a general essay structure; an introduction which clearly states your argument; a main body which explains why you believe that argument; and a conclusion which summarises the key points to be drawn from your essay. Keep your messaging clear as it is so important the reader can grasp everything you are trying to say to have maximum impact. This applies in paragraphs as well – each paragraph should in one sentence outline what is to be said, it should then be said, and in the final sentence summarise what you have just argued. Somebody should be able to quickly glance over your essay using the first and last sentences and be able to put together the core points.
  • Make sure your main body paragraphs are focused – if you have come across PEE (Point, Evidence, Explain – in my case the acronym I could not avoid at secondary school!) before, then nothing has changed. Make your point in around a sentence, clearly stating your argument. Then use the best single piece of evidence available to support your point, trying to keep that to a sentence or two if you can. The vast majority of your words should be explaining why this is important, and how it supports your argument, or how it links to something else. You don’t need to ‘stack’ examples where you provide multiple instances of the same thing – if you have used one piece of evidence that is enough, you can move on and make a new point. Try to keep everything as short as possible while communicating your core messages, directly responding to the question. You also don’t need to cover every article or book you read, rather pick out the most convincing examples.
  • It works, it doesn’t work, it is a little more complicated – this is a structure I developed for writing main body paragraphs, though it is worth noting it may not work for every question. It works; start your paragraph with a piece of evidence that supports your argument fully. It doesn’t work; see if there is an example which seems to contradict your argument, but suggest why you still believe your argument is correct. Then, and only if you can, see if there is an example which possibly doesn’t quite work fully with your argument, and suggest why possibly your argument cannot wholly explain this point or why your argument is incomplete but still has the most explanatory power. See each paragraph as a mini-debate, and ensure different viewpoints have an opportunity to be heard.
  • Take your opponents at their best – essays are a form of rational dialogue, interacting with writing on this topic from the past, so if you are going to ‘win’ (or more likely just make a convincing argument as you don’t need to demolish all opposition in sight) then you need to treat your opponents fairly by choosing challenging examples, and by fairly characterising their arguments. It should not be a slinging match of personal insults or using incredibly weak examples, as this will undermine your argument. While I have never attacked historians personally (though you may find in a few readings they do attack each other!), I have sometimes chosen the easier arguments to try to tackle, and it is definitely better to try to include some arguments which are themselves convincing and contradictory to your view.
  • Don’t stress about referencing – yes referencing is important, but it shouldn’t take too long. Unless your tutor specifies a method, choose a method which you find simple to use as well as being an efficient method. For example, when referencing books I usually only include the author, book title, and year of publication – the test I always use for referencing is to ask myself if I have enough information to buy the book from a retailer. While this wouldn’t suffice if you were writing for a journal, you aren’t writing for a journal so focus on your argument instead and ensure you are really developing your writing skills.
  • Don’t be afraid of the first person – in my Sixth Form I was told not to use ‘I’ as it weakened my argument, however that isn’t the advice I have received at Oxford; in fact I have been encouraged to use it as it forces me to take a side. So if you struggle with making your argument clear, use phrases like ‘I believe’ and ‘I argue’.

I hope this will help as a toolkit to get you started, but my last piece of advice is don’t worry! As you get so much practice at Oxford you get plenty of opportunity to perfect your essay writing skills, so don’t think you need to be amazing at everything straight away. Take your first term to try new methods out and see what works for you – don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Good luck!

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The History Handbook contains essential information on writing essays, presenting your work, and avoiding plagiarism. Make sure you read it. It can be accessed at

This handout addresses important issues that require further attention and thought.

What are the Specific Features of an Essay in HISTORY?

In your life you will write in order to accomplish many different goals. Different tasks will require different writing styles, and different ways of structuring your thoughts. You would for example write a newspaper article in a particular way, summarising the important points of the story at the beginning, to command attention but also to allow the reader easily to skim the newspaper. You would structure a novel in quite another way, to communicate other types of ideas and information, and to meet the specific expectations of readers.

A History essay is another particular form of writing, with its own rules and requirements that reflect the nature and purpose of the discipline of History.

In general, in a History essay you will attempt to convey to the reader your own ideas about a very specific subject, in the form of a reasoned, logical and balanced argument. History as a discipline involves understanding that there are many valid perspectives on any one issue. Different people at the time you are writing about had a range of viewpoints on the world around them. Part of the task of the historian is to exercise powers of empathy and reflect the diversity of those past perspectives. Thus you must write a balanced essay which discusses a range of different viewpoints and interpretations. However, at the same time the historian must acknowledge that she is writing from her own particular viewpoint. Thus in your essay you must make it clear what your own viewpoint is, and argue the case for why this is the most useful way of seeing the subject, supporting your arguments with evidence .

Essays titles are often designed very carefully, and phrased so as to encourage you to argue a case on a particular issue. Titles will often take the form of a question, and will focus on controversial or difficult aspects of a topic. If you are given the opportunity to design your own title for an assignment, then make sure that you set out a question that provokes an interesting, rather than bland and descriptive, answer. It is vital that you answer the question, or address the issues raised by the title, as explicitly as possible.

At all times, your essay should focus on analysis and argument – NOT narrative or a simple chronology of events. Why? Because you are trying to write in the style of a scholarly academic historian. You are NOT trying to write in the style of a popular historian, or attempting to write a section of a textbook, or just telling a story.

You can think of this point in terms of two distinct ways of writing history (‘historiography’) that developed in Classical times:

The Western tradition of historiography was created in a remarkably short time by two men. Herodotus invented the idea that […] history-writing should be analytical, not merely narrating but also searching for the causes of things, and the idea of weighing evidence and recognising that it comes in different categories with different degrees of reliability (what you have seen, what you have read, what you have been told).

Thucydides then […] removed most of the ethnography and geography that Herodotus had included and focused intensely on the study of political and psychological process under the pressure of extreme events, expressed through narrative. He thus created a concept of history that was to predominate until the 20th century; that is, of history as story, with, typically, an emphasis on politics and war. Outside the academy that is still what history means to most people. [1]

Follow Herodotus, not Thucydides.

Your essay needs to be structured so as to make your analysis and argument stand out. It should include three substantive parts:

  • Introduction

In the Introduction you set out your own arguments and show how you will develop them over the course of the essay. You should ensure that your arguments directly answer the specific question that has been set. You may also wish to use your introduction to define any terms or phrases which are integral to the essay and which may require clarification. Where possible, in a short essay keep your introduction to a single paragraph. If you have multiple paragraphs in your introduction, make sure to answer the question and set out your argument in your first paragraph.

The Body of your essay will be composed of multiple paragraphs, and will develop the ideas set down in your introduction. Each paragraph should in general deal with one main point, which is clearly and logically connected with the paragraphs and points that precede it and follow it, and thus contributes to the overall flow of your argument.

The Conclusion of your essay must show how you have fulfilled the promise of the introduction, how you have supported your arguments, and how you have answered the specific question that was set. You may also use the conclusion to acknowledge any ambiguities or points of debate that must remain unresolved.

You should aim for a clear, concise and accurate writing style. You should avoid using overly complex language, and make sure that you know the meaning of all the words that you use. Short sentences are often better than long ones.

Only include material that is relevant to your argument. Avoid vague, general statements, and include only points and ideas that help you answer the question.  Use just enough evidence (examples, case studies, statistics) to back up your argument, but do not fall into the trap of providing evidence merely for its own sake. 

Quoting, Paraphrasing and Avoiding Plagiarism

In the course of your essay, you will wish to refer to the views and ideas of other historians. This will allow you to bring in the range of viewpoints that a good essay requires. To do this, you will need to read scholarly books and articles. Do NOT rely entirely on textbooks or lectures for your material.

The History Handbook includes detailed guidance on using footnotes and a bibliography to acknowledge where you have referred to the work of other historians and where you have borrowed words and ideas from them. You must use these referencing tools properly to avoid plagiarism.

When you quote, make sure you do so accurately, using exactly the same words, punctuation etc. used by the original author. Include quote marks around the words being quoted. Insert a footnote, and in your bibliography add an entry for the source.

You do not want to quote too much. As a rough guide, you should have no more than one quote per paragraph. Avoid long quotations. Wherever possible, paraphrase – put the ideas of other people into your own words. According to Diana Hacker, ‘A paraphrase reports information in roughly the same number of words used by the source, [but does not borrow] extensive language from a source [...] you must restate the source’s meaning in your own words.’ [2] So you should change the structure of the sentence, as well as the words being used.  When you paraphrase, you MUST also include a footnote and an entry in your bibliography, just as you would for a quotation. This shows that you are not trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as your own.

Here are some examples: 

Original Quotation

‘With his treasury overflowing with American silver, the King of Spain could credibly aspire to world domination. What else was all that money for, but to enhance his glory?’ [3]

Unacceptable Paraphrase

According to Ferguson, with a treasury overflowing with American precious metals, the King of Spain could reasonably hope for world domination. Why else did he want all that money, but to give him more glory?

This is unacceptable as a paraphrase, because a) there is no footnote reference to the original source, b) it uses too many of the same words used by the original author, and c) it adopts much the same sentence structure. Using Ferguson’s words and ideas in this way would amount to plagiarism.

Acceptable Paraphrase 1

According to Ferguson, the Spanish King hoped for glory and world domination, as he had grown rich on silver from the Americas. [4]

This is an acceptable paraphrase, as when you compare it with the original you can see that it uses both different wording and a different sentence structure. It also includes a footnote reference to the original source.

Acceptable Paraphrase 2

The Spanish King had grown rich on American silver, which he saw as a means to increase his political power in Europe and overseas. [5]

This is also acceptable. Although it is not such a close paraphrase as paraphrase 1, it is clearly coming from the same source and thus needs the footnote.


  • Included an introductory paragraph? This should avoid vague general statements and instead show the reader how you intend to answer the specific question set, and what your overall arguments are.
  • Made sure that every paragraph of your essay is directly relevant to the specific question set, and that you explicitly tell the reader how the material in that paragraph relates to your overall arguments?
  • Either paraphrased in entirely your own words the ideas you are citing from books and articles, or used quotation marks whenever you have included direct quotes from these books and articles?
  • Included full footnote references BOTH for paraphrased ideas cited from books and articles AND for direct quotes from books and articles? And a bibliography at the end?
  • Finished with a full concluding paragraph that explicitly answers the specific question set, summarises your own overall arguments, and points to any further important issues that you think your essay has raised?
  • Proofread your essay thoroughly and eliminated all typos?
  • Formatted your essay, and particularly your footnotes and bibliography, as specified in the History Handbook?

[1] Richard Jenkins, ‘Bottom’, London Review of Books , 9 August 2001.

[2] Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual (Boston, 1993), pp. 84-85.

[3] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003), p. 7.

[4] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003), p. 7.

[5] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003), p. 7.

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Arts: History essay

What is the purpose of a history essay.

As with many other scholars, historians learn their craft through researching and writing essays. The main purpose of a history essay is to formulate and defend a logical and convincing argument about a key problem or question in the discipline.

This involves:

  • examining important debates among historians
  • demonstrating skills in finding, evaluating, and presenting analysis of relevant primary and secondary sources.

5 key steps to a successful history essay View

Sources in a history essay.

The research materials required for a history essay will generally fit into one of two categories: primary sources (first hand evidence) and secondary sources (scholarly writings on the topic).

Primary & secondary sources accordions

Primary sources.

Typically, primary sources are materials that were produced during the historical period that you are studying. These kinds of research materials are called primary sources because they were written or created by those who experienced or observed the events and conditions under analysis. However, primary sources can also include related autobiographies, memoirs, oral histories and other materials that were recorded after these events and conditions.

Primary sources take many different forms. The most common types used by historians are:

  • texts , such as letters, diaries, official documents, newspaper reports, or fictional accounts (such as novels or poems)
  • oral accounts , accessible through audio or audio-visual recordings and transcripts
  • images , such as paintings, prints, photographs, maps and posters
  • film from the period.

This is far from an exhaustive list! All surviving materials are potential primary sources. New scholarship in the discipline depends, to a significant extent, on exploring different kinds and combinations of primary sources.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources are studies of the past written by historians or, occasionally, scholars in other disciplines. You should be relying on scholarly sources, which are secondary sources that have been reviewed by experts in the field and recommended for publication. These can be found in peer reviewed journals and books from scholarly publishers. They are the product of considerable research and contribute to ongoing academic discussions in the discipline.

Secondary sources generally come in the following forms:

  • books written by a single author or co-written with other historians
  • edited collections . These are books that focus on a particular period or theme that consist of separately authored chapters
  • peer-reviewed journal articles . These are articles published in recognised academic journals that have gone through a referee process.

In your essay, you will be required to use these types of scholarly sources to support your argument. The quality of the sources you choose will influence the quality of your essay.

Non-scholarly sources can include newspaper articles, blog posts, popular (non-academic) books, and journals or magazines that are not peer reviewed. In most cases, these kinds of sources are not appropriate for a research essay in history unless they are used as primary source material.

Check your understanding View

Imagine that you are conducting research for an essay about the relations between Europeans and Native Americans during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Consider each of the sources below and decide whether or not it is a primary or a secondary source.

How to analyse your sources

Analytical writing relies on a critical engagement with your primary and secondary sources. In order to generate this kind of engagement, many historians and other scholars compile a list of questions, or make up a note taking template, that encourages them to think critically and write down their thoughts.

Analysis - accordions

Analytical questions to ask about your primary sources.

  • What do I know about the circumstances and context surrounding its creation? How does this impact the content and the views presented in the work?
  • Whose voices are present in the text? Have important perspectives been left out? Why is this? What implications does this have for my ability to answer the question?
  • What secondary sources or theories might be useful for contextualising, understanding and interpreting a source such as this?
  • How is this type of source useful in exploring and answering my central question (in other words, how is it important for the development of my argument)?
  • Does this source contradict my thinking on the topic? What does this mean for my overall argument?

Analytical questions to ask about your secondary sources

  • What argument is this scholar making?
  • What evidence or theories have they used?
  • Have they provided enough supporting evidence to support the argument?
  • Is their reasoning sound? In other words, have they drawn conclusions that are a suitable match for the evidence that they have provided?
  • How has this study changed or influenced my understanding of the topic and my approach to the essay question?

Note taking template to help you analyse sources

The table below offers an example of how you might construct a note taking template to help you critically analyse your sources. It will help you identify connections between sources, and will help you use the secondary sources to offer a perspective on your primary sources.

The difference between descriptive and analytical writing

When writing a history essay, you will be required to both describe and analyse your sources and your topic. While description and analysis are both essential features of academic writing, remember that the purpose of your essay is not to merely describe past events or the material contained in your sources. For a strong critical argument, you must also analyse them.

Descriptive writing is necessary in order to outline a past event or set of conditions, or to summarise the content or argument of a text. While descriptive writing may be necessary, it does not demonstrate a deep understanding of your sources or the topic. Descriptive writing is there to support your analysis.

Analytical writing involves a critical engagement with your primary and secondary sources.

Read each paragraph and decide whether it is descriptive or analytical.

How to Write a History Essay, According to a History Professor

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  • History classes almost always include an essay assignment.
  • Focus your paper by asking a historical question and then answering it.
  • Your introduction can make or break your essay.
  • When in doubt, reach out to your history professor for guidance.

In nearly every history class, you'll need to write an essay . But what if you've never written a history paper? Or what if you're a history major who struggles with essay questions?

I've written over 100 history papers between my undergraduate education and grad school — and I've graded more than 1,500 history essays, supervised over 100 capstone research papers, and sat on more than 10 graduate thesis committees.

Here's my best advice on how to write a history paper.

How to Write a History Essay in 6 Simple Steps

You have the prompt or assignment ready to go, but you're stuck thinking, "How do I start a history essay?" Before you start typing, take a few steps to make the process easier.

Whether you're writing a three-page source analysis or a 15-page research paper , understanding how to start a history essay can set you up for success.

Step 1: Understand the History Paper Format

You may be assigned one of several types of history papers. The most common are persuasive essays and research papers. History professors might also ask you to write an analytical paper focused on a particular source or an essay that reviews secondary sources.

Spend some time reading the assignment. If it's unclear what type of history paper format your professor wants, ask.

Regardless of the type of paper you're writing, it will need an argument. A strong argument can save a mediocre paper — and a weak argument can harm an otherwise solid paper.

Your paper will also need an introduction that sets up the topic and argument, body paragraphs that present your evidence, and a conclusion .

Step 2: Choose a History Paper Topic

If you're lucky, the professor will give you a list of history paper topics for your essay. If not, you'll need to come up with your own.

What's the best way to choose a topic? Start by asking your professor for recommendations. They'll have the best ideas, and doing this can save you a lot of time.

Alternatively, start with your sources. Most history papers require a solid group of primary sources. Decide which sources you want to use and craft a topic around the sources.

Finally, consider starting with a debate. Is there a pressing question your paper can address?

Before continuing, run your topic by your professor for feedback. Most students either choose a topic so broad it could be a doctoral dissertation or so narrow it won't hit the page limit. Your professor can help you craft a focused, successful topic. This step can also save you a ton of time later on.

Step 3: Write Your History Essay Outline

It's time to start writing, right? Not yet. You'll want to create a history essay outline before you jump into the first draft.

You might have learned how to outline an essay back in high school. If that format works for you, use it. I found it easier to draft outlines based on the primary source quotations I planned to incorporate in my paper. As a result, my outlines looked more like a list of quotes, organized roughly into sections.

As you work on your outline, think about your argument. You don't need your finished argument yet — that might wait until revisions. But consider your perspective on the sources and topic.

Jot down general thoughts about the topic, and formulate a central question your paper will answer. This planning step can also help to ensure you aren't leaving out key material.

Step 4: Start Your Rough Draft

It's finally time to start drafting! Some students prefer starting with the body paragraphs of their essay, while others like writing the introduction first. Find what works best for you.

Use your outline to incorporate quotes into the body paragraphs, and make sure you analyze the quotes as well.

When drafting, think of your history essay as a lawyer would a case: The introduction is your opening statement, the body paragraphs are your evidence, and the conclusion is your closing statement.

When writing a conclusion for a history essay, make sure to tie the evidence back to your central argument, or thesis statement .

Don't stress too much about finding the perfect words for your first draft — you'll have time later to polish it during revisions. Some people call this draft the "sloppy copy."

Step 5: Revise, Revise, Revise

Once you have a first draft, begin working on the second draft. Revising your paper will make it much stronger and more engaging to read.

During revisions, look for any errors or incomplete sentences. Track down missing footnotes, and pay attention to your argument and evidence. This is the time to make sure all your body paragraphs have topic sentences and that your paper meets the requirements of the assignment.

If you have time, take a day off from the paper and come back to it with fresh eyes. Then, keep revising.

Step 6: Spend Extra Time on the Introduction

No matter the length of your paper, one paragraph will determine your final grade: the introduction.

The intro sets up the scope of your paper, the central question you'll answer, your approach, and your argument.

In a short paper, the intro might only be a single paragraph. In a longer paper, it's usually several paragraphs. The introduction for my doctoral dissertation, for example, was 28 pages!

Use your introduction wisely. Make a strong statement of your argument. Then, write and rewrite your argument until it's as clear as possible.

If you're struggling, consider this approach: Figure out the central question your paper addresses and write a one-sentence answer to the question. In a typical 3-to-5-page paper, my shortcut argument was to say "X happened because of A, B, and C." Then, use body paragraphs to discuss and analyze A, B, and C.

Tips for Taking Your History Essay to the Next Level

You've gone through every step of how to write a history essay and, somehow, you still have time before the due date. How can you take your essay to the next level? Here are some tips.

  • Talk to Your Professor: Each professor looks for something different in papers. Some prioritize the argument, while others want to see engagement with the sources. Ask your professor what elements they prioritize. Also, get feedback on your topic, your argument, or a draft. If your professor will read a draft, take them up on the offer.
  • Write a Question — and Answer It: A strong history essay starts with a question. "Why did Rome fall?" "What caused the Protestant Reformation?" "What factors shaped the civil rights movement?" Your question can be broad, but work on narrowing it. Some examples: "What role did the Vandal invasions play in the fall of Rome?" "How did the Lollard movement influence the Reformation?" "How successful was the NAACP legal strategy?"
  • Hone Your Argument: In a history paper, the argument is generally about why or how historical events (or historical changes) took place. Your argument should state your answer to a historical question. How do you know if you have a strong argument? A reasonable person should be able to disagree. Your goal is to persuade the reader that your interpretation has the strongest evidence.
  • Address Counterarguments: Every argument has holes — and every history paper has counterarguments. Is there evidence that doesn't fit your argument? Address it. Your professor knows the counterarguments, so it's better to address them head-on. Take your typical five-paragraph essay and add a paragraph before the conclusion that addresses these counterarguments.
  • Ask Someone to Read Your Essay: If you have time, asking a friend or peer to read your essay can help tremendously, especially when you can ask someone in the class. Ask your reader to point out anything that doesn't make sense, and get feedback on your argument. See whether they notice any counterarguments you don't address. You can later repay the favor by reading one of their papers.

Congratulations — you finished your history essay! When your professor hands back your paper, be sure to read their comments closely. Pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses in your paper. And use this experience to write an even stronger essay next time.

Explore More College Resources

How to write a research paper: 11-step guide.

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Ask a Professor: How to Ask for an Extension on a Paper

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