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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.

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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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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

Introduction.

  • 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)
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How to Write a History Essay

Last Updated: December 27, 2022 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Emily Listmann, MA . Emily Listmann is a private tutor in San Carlos, California. She has worked as a Social Studies Teacher, Curriculum Coordinator, and an SAT Prep Teacher. She received her MA in Education from the Stanford Graduate School of Education in 2014. There are 8 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 241,912 times.

Writing a history essay requires you to include a lot of details and historical information within a given number of words or required pages. It's important to provide all the needed information, but also to present it in a cohesive, intelligent way. Know how to write a history essay that demonstrates your writing skills and your understanding of the material.

Preparing to Write Your Essay

Step 1 Evaluate the essay question.

  • The key words will often need to be defined at the start of your essay, and will serve as its boundaries. [2] X Research source
  • For example, if the question was "To what extent was the First World War a Total War?", the key terms are "First World War", and "Total War".
  • Do this before you begin conducting your research to ensure that your reading is closely focussed to the question and you don't waste time.

Step 2 Consider what the question is asking you.

  • Explain: provide an explanation of why something happened or didn't happen.
  • Interpret: analyse information within a larger framework to contextualise it.
  • Evaluate: present and support a value-judgement.
  • Argue: take a clear position on a debate and justify it. [3] X Research source

Step 3 Try to summarise your key argument.

  • Your thesis statement should clearly address the essay prompt and provide supporting arguments. These supporting arguments will become body paragraphs in your essay, where you’ll elaborate and provide concrete evidence. [4] X Trustworthy Source Purdue Online Writing Lab Trusted resource for writing and citation guidelines Go to source
  • Your argument may change or become more nuanced as your write your essay, but having a clear thesis statement which you can refer back to is very helpful.
  • For example, your summary could be something like "The First World War was a 'total war' because civilian populations were mobilized both in the battlefield and on the home front".

Step 4 Make an essay...

  • Pick out some key quotes that make your argument precisely and persuasively. [5] X Research source
  • When writing your plan, you should already be thinking about how your essay will flow, and how each point will connect together.

Doing Your Research

Step 1 Distinguish between primary and secondary sources.

  • Primary source material refers to any texts, films, pictures, or any other kind of evidence that was produced in the historical period, or by someone who participated in the events of the period, that you are writing about.
  • Secondary material is the work by historians or other writers analysing events in the past. The body of historical work on a period or event is known as the historiography.
  • It is not unusual to write a literature review or historiographical essay which does not directly draw on primary material.
  • Typically a research essay would need significant primary material.

Step 2 Find your sources.

  • Start with the core texts in your reading list or course bibliography. Your teacher will have carefully selected these so you should start there.
  • Look in footnotes and bibliographies. When you are reading be sure to pay attention to the footnotes and bibliographies which can guide you to further sources a give you a clear picture of the important texts.
  • Use the library. If you have access to a library at your school or college, be sure to make the most of it. Search online catalogues and speak to librarians.
  • Access online journal databases. If you are in college it is likely that you will have access to academic journals online. These are an excellent and easy to navigate resources.
  • Use online sources with discretion. Try using free scholarly databases, like Google Scholar, which offer quality academic sources, but avoid using the non-trustworthy websites that come up when you simply search your topic online.
  • Avoid using crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia as sources. However, you can look at the sources cited on a Wikipedia page and use them instead, if they seem credible.

Step 3 Evaluate your secondary sources.

  • Who is the author? Is it written by an academic with a position at a University? Search for the author online.
  • Who is the publisher? Is the book published by an established academic press? Look in the cover to check the publisher, if it is published by a University Press that is a good sign.
  • If it's an article, where is published? If you are using an article check that it has been published in an academic journal. [8] X Research source
  • If the article is online, what is the URL? Government sources with .gov addresses are good sources, as are .edu sites.

Step 4 Read critically.

  • Ask yourself why the author is making this argument. Evaluate the text by placing it into a broader intellectual context. Is it part of a certain tradition in historiography? Is it a response to a particular idea?
  • Consider where there are weaknesses and limitations to the argument. Always keep a critical mindset and try to identify areas where you think the argument is overly stretched or the evidence doesn't match the author's claims. [9] X Research source

Step 5 Take thorough notes.

  • Label all your notes with the page numbers and precise bibliographic information on the source.
  • If you have a quote but can't remember where you found it, imagine trying to skip back through everything you have read to find that one line.
  • If you use something and don't reference it fully you risk plagiarism. [10] X Research source

Writing the Introduction

Step 1 Start with a strong first sentence.

  • For example you could start by saying "In the First World War new technologies and the mass mobilization of populations meant that the war was not fought solely by standing armies".
  • This first sentences introduces the topic of your essay in a broad way which you can start focus to in on more.

Step 2 Outline what you are going to argue.

  • This will lead to an outline of the structure of your essay and your argument.
  • Here you will explain the particular approach you have taken to the essay.
  • For example, if you are using case studies you should explain this and give a brief overview of which case studies you will be using and why.

Step 3 Provide some brief context for your work.

Writing the Essay

Step 1 Have a clear structure.

  • Try to include a sentence that concludes each paragraph and links it to the next paragraph.
  • When you are organising your essay think of each paragraph as addressing one element of the essay question.
  • Keeping a close focus like this will also help you avoid drifting away from the topic of the essay and will encourage you to write in precise and concise prose.
  • Don't forget to write in the past tense when referring to something that has already happened.

Step 3 Use source material as evidence to back up your thesis.

  • Don't drop a quote from a primary source into your prose without introducing it and discussing it, and try to avoid long quotations. Use only the quotes that best illustrate your point.
  • If you are referring to a secondary source, you can usually summarise in your own words rather than quoting directly.
  • Be sure to fully cite anything you refer to, including if you do not quote it directly.

Step 4 Make your essay flow.

  • Think about the first and last sentence in every paragraph and how they connect to the previous and next paragraph.
  • Try to avoid beginning paragraphs with simple phrases that make your essay appear more like a list. For example, limit your use of words like: "Additionally", "Moreover", "Furthermore".
  • Give an indication of where your essay is going and how you are building on what you have already said. [15] X Research source

Step 5 Conclude succinctly.

  • Briefly outline the implications of your argument and it's significance in relation to the historiography, but avoid grand sweeping statements. [16] X Research source
  • A conclusion also provides the opportunity to point to areas beyond the scope of your essay where the research could be developed in the future.

Proofreading and Evaluating Your Essay

Step 1 Proofread your essay.

  • Try to cut down any overly long sentences or run-on sentences. Instead, try to write clear and accurate prose and avoid unnecessary words.
  • Concentrate on developing a clear, simple and highly readable prose style first before you think about developing your writing further. [17] X Research source
  • Reading your essay out load can help you get a clearer picture of awkward phrasing and overly long sentences. [18] X Research source

Step 2 Analyse don't describe.

  • When you read through your essay look at each paragraph and ask yourself, "what point this paragraph is making".
  • You might have produced a nice piece of narrative writing, but if you are not directly answering the question it is not going to help your grade.

Step 3 Check your references and bibliography.

  • A bibliography will typically have primary sources first, followed by secondary sources. [19] X Research source
  • Double and triple check that you have included all the necessary references in the text. If you forgot to include a reference you risk being reported for plagiarism.

Sample Essay

history university essay

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Write an Essay

  • ↑ http://www.historytoday.com/robert-pearce/how-write-good-history-essay
  • ↑ https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/centers/writing/writing-resources/writing-a-good-history-paper
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/the_writing_process/thesis_statement_tips.html
  • ↑ http://history.rutgers.edu/component/content/article?id=106:writing-historical-essays-a-guide-for-undergraduates
  • ↑ https://guides.lib.uw.edu/c.php?g=344285&p=2580599
  • ↑ http://www.hamilton.edu/documents/writing-center/WritingGoodHistoryPaper.pdf
  • ↑ http://www.bowdoin.edu/writing-guides/
  • ↑ https://www.wgtn.ac.nz/hppi/publications/Writing-History-Essays.pdf

About This Article

Emily Listmann, MA

To write a history essay, read the essay question carefully and use source materials to research the topic, taking thorough notes as you go. Next, formulate a thesis statement that summarizes your key argument in 1-2 concise sentences and create a structured outline to help you stay on topic. Open with a strong introduction that introduces your thesis, present your argument, and back it up with sourced material. Then, end with a succinct conclusion that restates and summarizes your position! For more tips on creating a thesis statement, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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How to Write a Good History Essay. A Sequence of Actions and Useful Tips

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Before you start writing your history essay, there is quite a lot of work that has to be done in order to gain success.

You may ask: what is history essay? What is the difference between it and other kinds of essays? Well, the main goal of a history essay is to measure your progress in learning history and test your range of skills (such as analysis, logic, planning, research, and writing), it is necessary to prepare yourself very well.

Your plan of action may look like this. First of all, you will have to explore the topic. If you are going to write about a certain historical event, think of its causes and premises, and analyze what its impact on history was. In case you are writing about a person, find out why and how he or she came to power and how they influenced society and historical situations.

The next step is to make research and collect all the available information about the person or event, and also find evidence.

Finally, you will have to compose a well-organized response.

During the research, make notes and excerpts of the most notable data, write out the important dates and personalities. And of course, write down all your thoughts and findings.

It all may seem complicated at first sight, but in fact, it is not so scary! To complete this task successfully and compose a good history essay, simply follow several easy steps provided below.

Detailed Writing Instruction for Students to Follow

If you want to successfully complete your essay, it would be better to organize the writing process. You will complete the assignment faster and more efficient if you divide the whole work into several sections or steps.

  • Introduction

Writing a good and strong introduction part is important because this is the first thing your reader will see. It gives the first impression of your essay and induces people to reading (or not reading) it.

To make the introduction catchy and interesting, express the contention and address the main question of the essay. Be confident and clear as this is the moment when you define the direction your whole essay will take. And remember that introduction is not the right place for rambling! The best of all is, to begin with, a brief context summary, then go to addressing the question and express the content. Finally, mark the direction your essay about history will take.

Its quality depends on how clear you divided the whole essay into sections in the previous part. As long as you have provided a readable and understandable scheme, your readers will know exactly what to expect.

The body of your essay must give a clear vision of what question you are considering. In this section, you can develop your idea and support it with the evidence you have found. Use certain facts and quotations for that. When being judicial and analytical, they will help you to easily support your point of view and argument.

As long as your essay has a limited size, don’t be too precise. It is allowed to summarize the most essential background information, for example, instead of giving a precise list of all the issues that matter.

It is also good to keep in mind that each paragraph of your essay’s body must tell about only one issue. Don’t make a mess out of your paper!

It is not only essential to start your essay well. How you will end it also matters. A properly-written conclusion is the one that restates the whole paper’s content and gives a logical completion of the issue or question discussed above. Your conclusion must leave to chance for further discussion or arguments on the case. It’s time, to sum up, give a verdict.

That is why it is strongly forbidden to provide any new evidence or information here, as well as start a new discussion, etc.

After you finish writing, give yourself some time and put the paper away for a while. When you turn back to it will be easier to take a fresh look at it and find any mistakes or things to improve. Of course, remember to proofread your writing and check it for any grammar, spelling and punctuation errors. All these tips will help you to learn how to write a history essay.

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Essays form an integral part of your history courses. They can also be one of the most rewarding aspects of a course, giving you a chance to research the raw material of history (primary sources) and to analyze other historians’ interpretations of the past (secondary sources). Essay writing is an opportunity to develop your research and writing skills. It is ultimately a lesson in communication. No matter how comprehensive your research or how brilliant your ideas, the essay will flounder if it is not well-organized and presented in clear and grammatically correct English. Obviously, good essay writing requires time. Pay attention to deadlines and give yourself sufficient time to research, write and revise your essay. The following guidelines are geared to the writing of History essays.

DEFINING THE TOPIC

In many classes, you will be given a list of essay topics from which to choose. It is wise to do some preliminary research to determine what topics really interest you and it is also advisable to clarify your chosen topic with your TA or instructor. If you are allowed to select your own topic or wish to substantially modify a given topic, be sure you have your topic approved by your TA or instructor.

COMPILING A BIBLIOGRAPHY

Finding and researching appropriate and adequate sources for your essay will be a critical part of its success. No essay should be attempted on the basis of text books or one or two sources. In the John Robarts Library, you have access to one of the major research libraries in North America and there are other more specialized libraries on campus. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the U of T library system. All holdings can be searched on-line;  the on-line catalogue  is an essential research tool. It can also be helpful to do an actual shelf search; several hours spent browsing through library shelves on areas indicated in your first sources often lead to valuable discoveries. In addition to books, don’t neglect articles on your subject. Articles in periodicals are too often overlooked by students, although they may contain new approaches to and concise sources of information. Discuss research problems with librarians and do employ all available aids for use of the library system. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Websites: These days students are often turning to rapidly-proliferating websites for sources. Sometimes these can be helpful, especially if they are archival websites which can give you direct access to primary documents. However, websites should be used with caution . In some fields, websites can be the source of much inaccurate information and controversial and/or ill-founded opinion. If you want to use a website in your essay writing, you should adhere to the following procedure.

1. Get the approval of your instructor in advance for websites that you are planning to use.

2. Websites must be listed accurately in your bibliography and if you use material from them, it must be properly footnoted.

PLANNING THE PAPER

You should make and revise outlines while researching the paper, emphasizing your developing perception of the major issues. Research cards are your main tools. They should be filed under topic headings, reviewed, and rearranged frequently in order to fill in gaps in information or analysis. This enables you to determine what is of value as you research the paper; to return to an orderly collection of material if you have to leave it for any reason; and to organize your thoughts when you finally sit down to write the paper.

WRITING THE PAPER

Again, it must be emphasized that you should leave sufficient time for at least one draft. Work from an outline, coordinating your research notes, but leaving yourself enough flexibility to make changes. The first draft can be written quickly, as it is for substance and arguments, which can be refined with each succeeding draft. In later drafts you can concentrate on polishing your style. You should make sure:

1. the introduction is clear, indicating the historical context and the problem under discussion 2. the narrative and argument are presented logically and concisely in the body of the essay 3. the conclusion summarizes and unifies the arguments presented

Essays should be carefully proofread and checked for correct spelling and grammar. Academic are usually written in formal style. Thus you should generally avoid contractions and colloquialisms unless the subject matter particularly calls for such usage. On the other hand “formal” does not mean verbose, stodgy or vague. Long Latinate words, passive constructions, and sentences that begin “it is” or “there are” are common patterns which result in obscure or boring writing. Good academic writing is formal, but also lively and direct. As a general rule, it is better to aspire to clarity and economy; few students find difficulty meeting the suggested length of the essay. Verbosity is demonstrated more often than brevity. Good writing is also precise. Try to choose words that express your intention exactly. Modern academic style requires care and precision in the use of language regarding race and gender. Just as you would avoid racist slurs and words that convey old-fashioned racial stereotypes, it is important to avoid phrases and words that are gender exclusive, unless you consciously intend them to be so. Do not use phrases such as “the history of mankind” when you really mean humanity. Using the pronoun “he” when you are referring to subjects of both genders should be avoided. Beware of false universals; for example, do not say “the inhabitants” when you mean the adult male residents, or “universal suffrage” when you really mean “white adult male suffrage”.

The final draft should be typed on standard size 11″ x 8 1/2″ paper. Use double spacing, except for long quotations (over twenty-five words) and footnotes which should be single spaced. Remember to number all pages. The essay should have a title page which includes your name, student number and course number (and tutorial section if appropriate). Be sure you keep a copy of your paper.

DOCUMENTATION AND FOOTNOTES

It is obvious that most ideas presented in an undergraduate essay will derive from other sources, so it is necessary that these be acknowledged. In general, footnotes should be used to make clear to the reader on what authorities you are basing your statements. The History Department prefers what is called the traditional system of footnotes and endnotes, as illustrated below. In particular, footnotes should:

1. indicate the exact source of every quotation used 2. acknowledge indebtedness to others for opinions and ideas 3. give authority for a fact which the reader might question 4. call attention to other interpretations, additional authorities or more extended treatment of the topic. Such a “substantive” footnote should be used with restraint.

Footnotes can appear either at the bottom of the page or collected together at the end of the essay where they are referred to as endnotes. The numeral indicating the footnotes should come at the end of the quotation or the sentence, usually as a superscript. Think of a footnote as conveying four pieces of information which are set off by commas in the following order:

1. Author (surname after initials or first name), indented

  • The title of a book is underlined or written in italics.
  • The title of an article is put within quotation marks, followed by the periodical, underlined or in italics
  • Place and date of publication in parentheses ( ),
  • A fuller reference will include the publisher after the place of publication.
  • Article citations do not include the place of publication and publisher.

3. Page number (including volume number if necessary)

For example:

1 J.M.S. Careless, Canada, A Story of Challenge (Toronto, 1970), p. 207.

2 Basil Davidson, “Questions about Nationalism”, African Affairs 76 (1977), p.42.

In subsequent references, a shorter reference can be used. It should include the author’s last name, a meaningful short title, and page numbers. For example:

3 Careless, Canada, pp. 179-206.

Where the reference is exactly the same as the preceding one, the Latin abbreviation ibid. can be used; where it is the same, but the page number is different, use ibid., followed by the relevant page number. However, the short title form is preferable for subsequent references and the use of other Latin abbreviations such as op.cit. is not recommended.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

All works consulted, not just those cited in the footnotes, should be indicated in the bibliography. You may be required to prepare an annotated bibliography, wherein you comment on the contents, utility, or worth of each source. If so, make sure you understand what the instructor expects, in particular the length as well as the nature of each annotation. Generally, list the sources in alphabetical order, by author. In some assignments, you may be required to subdivide the bibliography into primary and secondary sources. The format for a bibliography is similar to that for footnotes, except that the author’s surname precedes the other names and initials, periods instead of commas are used to divide the constituent parts, publication data is not put in brackets, and pages numbers are not included except in the case of articles where the full page reference is necessary. For example:

Careless, J.M.S. The Union of the Canadas. The Growth of Canadian Institutions

1841-1857. Toronto, 1967.

Davidson, Basil. “Questions about Nationalism”. African Affairs 76 (1977), pp. 39-46.

OTHER SOURCES

There are numerous other sources to assist you in essay writing. A good place to start is with the U. of T. Writing website which offers excellent advice on academic writing. Published guides include:

  • Northey, Margot and Margaret Procter. Writer’s Choice. A Portable Guide for Canadian Writers. Toronto: Prentice Hall, 1998.
  • Robertson, Hugh. The Research Essay. A guide to and papers. Ottawa: Piperhill Publications, 1999.
  • Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1998
  • Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations. 5th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Essays are expected to be handed in on the due date. Instructors are required to inform students on the course outline what their penalties for lateness are. If you have good reason to request an extension, it is advisable to do this before rather than after the fact. 

Research Techniques

Research does not mean hunting for books, or just reading them. It means reading your sources with definite questions in mind. Essays should not be written from open books, but from notes made while reading sources. Orderly arrangement of these is imperative, including the author, title, and page number of the source. Whether you are taking notes by hand or by computer, be sure your are systematic and accurate. There are a number of methods for organizing your notes. One traditional way is to use two different types of cards, “bibliography” (author-title) cards and “research” (subject-information) cards. Bibliography cards give relevant information about the sources used. They include the name of the author, the full title, and the location and date of the edition used. This card includes your evaluation of the usefulness of the source for your topic and relevant details about the author and his/her method. You will need this summation if you are asked to do an annotated bibliography.

The research card contains your notes on the topic, with a separate card for each important idea or piece of information. If you are copying material that you might wish to quote, be sure that it is copied accurately, that you have the exact source including page numbers, and that you have separated “quotes” from summaries in your own words. Note-taking by computer should be an adaptation of these basic procedures. You should keep all your research notes. In some junior-level courses, you may be required to submit them with your essay.

Sample Bibliography Card

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UCLA History Department

Steps for Writing a History Paper

Writing a history paper is a process.  Successful papers are not completed in a single moment of genius or inspiration, but are developed over a series of steps.  When you first read a paper prompt, you might feel overwhelmed or intimidated.  If you think of writing as a process and break it down into smaller steps, you will find that paper-writing is manageable, less daunting, and even enjoyable.  Writing a history paper is your opportunity to do the real work of historians, to roll up your sleeves and dig deep into the past.

What is a History paper?

History papers are driven by arguments.  In a history class, even if you are not writing a paper based on outside research, you are still writing a paper that requires some form of argument.  For example, suppose your professor has asked you to write a paper discussing the differences between colonial New England and colonial Virginia.  It might seem like this paper is straightforward and does not require an argument, that it is simply a matter of finding the “right answer.”  However, even here you need to construct a paper guided by a larger argument.  You might argue that the main differences between colonial New England and Virginia were grounded in contrasting visions of colonization.  Or you might argue that the differences resulted from accidents of geography or from extant alliances between regional Indian groups.  Or you might make an argument that draws on all of these factors.  Regardless, when you make these types of assertions, you are making an argument that requires historical evidence.  Any history paper you write will be driven by an argument demanding evidence from sources.

History writing assignments can vary widely–and you should always follow your professor’s specific instructions–but the following steps are designed to help no matter what kind of history paper you are writing.  Remember that the staff of the History Writing Center is here to assist you at any stage of the writing process.

  • Sometimes professors distribute prompts with several sub-questions surrounding the main question they want you to write about.  The sub-questions are designed to help you think about the topic.  They offer ideas you might consider, but they are not, usually, the key question or questions you need to answer in your paper.  Make sure you distinguish the key questions from the sub-questions.  Otherwise, your paper may sound like a laundry list of short-answer essays rather than a cohesive argument. A helpful way to hone in on the key question is to look for action verbs, such as “analyze” or “investigate” or “formulate.”  Find such words in the paper prompt and circle them.  Then, carefully consider what you are being asked to do.  Write out the key question at the top of your draft and return to it often, using it to guide you in the writing process.  Also, be sure that you are responding to every part of the prompt.  Prompts will often have several questions you need to address in your paper.  If you do not cover all aspects, then you are not responding fully to the assignment.  For more information, visit our section, “Understanding Paper Prompts.”
  • Before you even start researching or drafting, take a few minutes to consider what you already know about the topic.  Make a list of ideas or draw a cluster diagram, using circles and arrows to connect ideas–whatever method works for you.  At this point in the process, it is helpful to write down all of your ideas without stopping to judge or analyze each one in depth.  You want to think big and bring in everything you know or suspect about the topic.  After you have finished, read over what you have created.  Look for patterns or trends or questions that keep coming up.  Based on what you have brainstormed, what do you still need to learn about the topic?  Do you have a tentative argument or response to the paper prompt?  Use this information to guide you as you start your research and develop a thesis.
  • Depending on the paper prompt, you may be required to do outside research or you may be using only the readings you have done in class.  Either way, start by rereading the relevant materials from class.  Find the parts from the textbook, from the primary source readings, and from your notes that relate to the prompt. If you need to do outside research, the UCLA library system offers plenty of resources.  You can begin by plugging key words into the online library catalog.  This process will likely involve some trial and error.  You will want to use search terms that are specific enough to address your topic without being so narrow that you get no results.  If your keywords are too general, you may receive thousands of results and feel overwhelmed.  To help you narrow your search, go back to the key questions in the essay prompt that you wrote down in Step 1.  Think about which terms would help you respond to the prompt.  Also, look at the language your professor used in the prompt.  You might be able to use some of those same words as search terms. Notice that the library website has different databases you can search depending on what type of material you need (such as scholarly articles, newspapers, books) and what subject and time period you are researching (such as eighteenth-century England or ancient Rome).  Searching the database most relevant to your topic will yield the best results.  Visit the library’s History Research Guide for tips on the research process and on using library resources.  You can also schedule an appointment with a librarian to talk specifically about your research project.  Or, make an appointment with staff at the History Writing Center for research help.  Visit our section about using electronic resources as well.
  • By this point, you know what the prompt is asking, you have brainstormed possible responses, and you have done some research.  Now you need to step back, look at the material you have, and develop your argument.  Based on the reading and research you have done, how might you answer the question(s) in the prompt?  What arguments do your sources allow you to make?  Draft a thesis statement in which you clearly and succinctly make an argument that addresses the prompt. If you find writing a thesis daunting, remember that whatever you draft now is not set in stone.  Your thesis will change.  As you do more research, reread your sources, and write your paper, you will learn more about the topic and your argument.  For now, produce a “working thesis,” meaning, a thesis that represents your thinking up to this point.  Remember it will almost certainly change as you move through the writing process.  For more information, visit our section about thesis statements.  Once you have a thesis, you may find that you need to do more research targeted to your specific argument.  Revisit some of the tips from Step 3.
  • Now that you have a working thesis, look back over your sources and identify which ones are most critical to you–the ones you will be grappling with most directly in order to make your argument.  Then, annotate them.  Annotating sources means writing a paragraph that summarizes the main idea of the source as well as shows how you will use the source in your paper.  Think about what the source does for you.  Does it provide evidence in support of your argument?  Does it offer a counterpoint that you can then refute, based on your research?  Does it provide critical historical background that you need in order to make a point?  For more information about annotating sources, visit our section on annotated bibliographies. While it might seem like this step creates more work for you by having to do more writing, it in fact serves two critical purposes: it helps you refine your working thesis by distilling exactly what your sources are saying, and it helps smooth your writing process.  Having dissected your sources and articulated your ideas about them, you can more easily draw upon them when constructing your paper.  Even if you do not have to do outside research and are limited to working with the readings you have done in class, annotating sources is still very useful.  Write down exactly how a particular section in the textbook or in a primary source reader will contribute to your paper.
  • An outline is helpful in giving you a sense of the overall structure of your paper and how best to organize your ideas.  You need to decide how to arrange your argument in a way that will make the most sense to your reader.  Perhaps you decide that your argument is most clear when presented chronologically, or perhaps you find that it works best with a thematic approach.  There is no one right way to organize a history paper; it depends entirely on the prompt, on your sources, and on what you think would be most clear to someone reading it. An effective outline includes the following components: the research question from the prompt (that you wrote down in Step 1), your working thesis, the main idea of each body paragraph, and the evidence (from both primary and secondary sources) you will use to support each body paragraph.  Be as detailed as you can when putting together your outline.

If you have trouble getting started or are feeling overwhelmed, try free writing.  Free writing is a low-stakes writing exercise to help you get past the blank page.  Set a timer for five or ten minutes and write down everything you know about your paper: your argument, your sources, counterarguments, everything.  Do not edit or judge what you are writing as you write; just keep writing until the timer goes off.  You may be surprised to find out how much you knew about your topic.  Of course, this writing will not be polished, so do not be tempted to leave it as it is.  Remember that this draft is your first one, and you will be revising it.

A particularly helpful exercise for global-level revision is to make a reverse outline, which will help you look at your paper as a whole and strengthen the way you have organized and substantiated your argument.  Print out your draft and number each of the paragraphs.  Then, on a separate piece of paper, write down each paragraph number and, next to it, summarize in a phrase or a sentence the main idea of that paragraph.  As you produce this list, notice if any paragraphs attempt to make more than one point: mark those for revision.  Once you have compiled the list, read it over carefully.  Study the order in which you have sequenced your ideas.  Notice if there are ideas that seem out of order or repetitive.  Look for any gaps in your logic.  Does the argument flow and make sense?

When revising at the local level, check that you are using strong topic sentences and transitions, that you have adequately integrated and analyzed quotations, and that your paper is free from grammar and spelling errors that might distract the reader or even impede your ability to communicate your point.  One helpful exercise for revising on the local level is to read your paper out loud.  Hearing your paper will help you catch grammatical errors and awkward sentences.

Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself while revising on both the global and local levels:

– Does my thesis clearly state my argument and its significance?

– Does the main argument in each body paragraph support my thesis?

– Do I have enough evidence within each body paragraph to make my point?

– Have I properly introduced, analyzed, and cited every quotation I use?

– Do my topic sentences effectively introduce the main point of each paragraph?

– Do I have transitions between paragraphs?

– Is my paper free of grammar and spelling errors?

  • Congratulate yourself. You have written a history paper!

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How to organise a history essay or dissertation

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Research guide

Sachiko Kusukawa

There are many ways of writing history and no fixed formula for a 'good' essay or dissertation. Before you start, you may find it helpful to have a look at some sample dissertations and essays from the past: ask at the Whipple Library.

Some people have a clear idea already of what they are going to write about; others find it more difficult to choose or focus on a topic. It may be obvious, but it is worth pointing out that you should choose a topic you find interesting and engaging. Ask a potential supervisor for a list of appropriate readings, chase up any further sources that look interesting or promising from the footnotes, or seek further help. Try to define your topic as specifically as possible as soon as possible. Sometimes, it helps to formulate a question (in the spirit of a Tripos question), which could then be developed, refined, or re-formulated. A good topic should allow you to engage closely with a primary source (text, image, object, etc.) and develop a historiographical point – e.g. adding to, or qualifying historians' current debates or received opinion on the topic. Specific controversies (either historically or historiographically) are often a great place to start looking. Many dissertations and essays turn out to be overambitious in scope, but underambition is a rare defect!

Both essays and dissertations have an introduction and a conclusion . Between the introduction and the conclusion there is an argument or narrative (or mixture of argument and narrative).

An introduction introduces your topic, giving reasons why it is interesting and anticipating (in order) the steps of your argument. Hence many find that it is a good idea to write the introduction last. A conclusion summarises your arguments and claims. This is also the place to draw out the implications of your claims; and remember that it is often appropriate to indicate in your conclusion further profitable lines of research, inquiry, speculation, etc.

An argument or narrative should be coherent and presented in order. Divide your text into paragraphs which make clear points. Paragraphs should be ordered so that they are easy to follow. Always give reasons for your assertions and assessments: simply stating that something or somebody is right or wrong does not constitute an argument. When you describe or narrate an event, spell out why it is important for your overall argument. Put in chapter or section headings whenever you make a major new step in your argument of narrative.

It is a very good idea to include relevant pictures and diagrams . These should be captioned, and their relevance should be fully explained. If images are taken from a source, this should be included in the captions or list of illustrations.

The extent to which it is appropriate to use direct quotations varies according to topic and approach. Always make it clear why each quotation is pertinent to your argument. If you quote from non-English sources say if the translation is your own; if it isn't give the source. At least in the case of primary sources include the original in a note if it is your own translation, or if the precise details of wording are important. Check your quotations for accuracy. If there is archaic spelling make sure it isn't eliminated by a spell-check. Don't use words without knowing what they mean.

An essay or a dissertation has three components: the main text , the notes , and the bibliography .

The main text is where you put in the substance of your argument, and is meant to be longer than the notes. For quotes from elsewhere, up to about thirty words, use quotation marks ("...", or '...'). If you quote anything longer, it is better to indent the whole quotation without quotation marks.

Notes may either be at the bottom of the page (footnotes) or at the end of the main text, but before the bibliography (endnotes). Use notes for references and other supplementary material which does not constitute the substance of your argument. Whenever you quote directly from other works, you must give the exact reference in your notes. A reference means the exact location in a book or article which you have read , so that others can find it also – it should include author, title of the book, place and date of publication, page number. (There are many different ways to refer to scholarly works: see below.) . If you cite a primary source from a secondary source and you yourself have not read or checked the primary source, you must acknowledge the secondary source from which the citation was taken. Whenever you paraphrase material from somebody else's work, you must acknowledge that fact. There is no excuse for plagiarism. It is important to note that generous and full acknowledgement of the work of others does not undermine your originality.

Your bibliography must contain all the books and articles you have referred to (do not include works that you did not use). It lists works alphabetically by the last name of the author. There are different conventions to set out a bibliography, but at the very least a bibliographic entry should include for a book the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title of the book in italics or underlined, and the place, (publisher optional) and date of publication; or, for an article, the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title in inverted commas, and the name of the journal in italics or underlined, followed by volume number, date of publication, and page numbers. Names of editors of volumes of collected articles and names of translators should also be included, whenever applicable.

  • M. MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • William Clark, 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995), 1–72.
  • M. F. Burnyeat, 'The Sceptic in His Place and Time', in R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy in History , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 225–54.

Alternatively, if you have many works to refer to, it may be easier to use an author-date system in notes, e.g.:

  • MacDonald [1981], p. 89; Clark [1995a], p. 65; Clark [1995b], pp. 19–99.

In this case your bibliography should also start with the author-date, e.g.:

  • MacDonald, Michael [1981], Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clark, William [1995a], 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26, 1–72.

This system has the advantage of making your foot- or endnotes shorter, and many choose it to save words (the bibliography is not included in the word limit). It is the system commonly used in scientific publications. Many feel however that something is historically amiss when you find in a footnote something like 'Plato [1996b]' or 'Locke [1975]'. In some fields of research there are standard systems of reference: you will find that this is the case if, for example, you write an essay/dissertation on classical history or philosophy of science. In such cases it is a good idea to take a standard secondary source as your model (e.g. in the case of classics, see G.E.R. Lloyd's The Revolutions of Wisdom: Studies in the Claims and Practices of Ancient Greek Science , Berkeley 1987).

Whatever system you decide to follow for your footnotes, what matters most is that the end-product is consistent.

Keep accurate records of all the relevant bibliographic information as you do your reading for your essay/dissertation. (If you don't you may waste days trying to trace references when you are close to submission deadlines.)

Consistency of style throughout the essay/dissertation is encouraged. There are many professional guides to thesis writing which give you more information on the style and format of theses – for example the MLS handbook (British) and the Chicago Manual of Style (American), both in the Whipple, and a booklet, H. Teitelbaum, How to Write a Thesis: A Guide to the Research Paper , 3rd ed., 126 pp., New York: Macmillan (& Arco), 1994 (in the UL: 1996.8.2620). But don't try to follow everything they say!

Every now and then you should read through a printout of your whole essay/dissertation, to ensure that your argument flows throughout the piece: otherwise there is a danger that your arguments become compartmentalised to the size of the screen. When reading drafts, ask yourself if it would be comprehensible to an intelligent reader who was not an expert on the specific topic.

It is imperative that you save your work on disk regularly – never be caught out without a back-up.

Before you submit:

  • remember to run a spell-check (and remember that a spell check will not notice if you have written, for example, 'pheasant' instead of 'peasant', or, even trickier, 'for' instead of 'from', 'it' instead of 'is', etc.);
  • prepare a table of contents, with titles for each chapter of your essay/dissertation, page numbers and all;
  • prepare a cover page with the title, your name and college;
  • prepare a page with the required statement about length, originality etc.

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history university essay

How To Write a Good History Essay

The former editor of History Review Robert Pearce gives his personal view.

First of all we ought to ask, What constitutes a good history essay? Probably no two people will completely agree, if only for the very good reason that quality is in the eye – and reflects the intellectual state – of the reader. What follows, therefore, skips philosophical issues and instead offers practical advice on how to write an essay that will get top marks.

Witnesses in court promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. All history students should swear a similar oath: to answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question. This is the number one rule. You can write brilliantly and argue a case with a wealth of convincing evidence, but if you are not being relevant then you might as well be tinkling a cymbal. In other words, you have to think very carefully about the question you are asked to answer. Be certain to avoid the besetting sin of those weaker students who, fatally, answer the question the examiners should have set – but unfortunately didn’t. Take your time, look carefully at the wording of the question, and be certain in your own mind that you have thoroughly understood all its terms.

If, for instance, you are asked why Hitler came to power, you must define what this process of coming to power consisted of. Is there any specific event that marks his achievement of power? If you immediately seize on his appointment as Chancellor, think carefully and ask yourself what actual powers this position conferred on him. Was the passing of the Enabling Act more important? And when did the rise to power actually start? Will you need to mention Hitler’s birth and childhood or the hyperinflation of the early 1920s? If you can establish which years are relevant – and consequently which are irrelevant – you will have made a very good start. Then you can decide on the different factors that explain his rise.

Or if you are asked to explain the successes of a particular individual, again avoid writing the first thing that comes into your head. Think about possible successes. In so doing, you will automatically be presented with the problem of defining ‘success’. What does it really mean? Is it the achievement of one’s aims? Is it objective (a matter of fact) or subjective (a matter of opinion)? Do we have to consider short-term and long-term successes? If the person benefits from extraordinary good luck, is that still a success? This grappling with the problem of definition will help you compile an annotated list of successes, and you can then proceed to explain them, tracing their origins and pinpointing how and why they occurred. Is there a key common factor in the successes? If so, this could constitute the central thrust of your answer.

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The key word in the above paragraphs is think . This should be distinguished from remembering, daydreaming and idly speculating. Thinking is rarely a pleasant undertaking, and most of us contrive to avoid it most of the time. But unfortunately there’s no substitute if you want to get the top grade. So think as hard as you can about the meaning of the question, about the issues it raises and the ways you can answer it. You have to think and think hard – and then you should think again, trying to find loopholes in your reasoning. Eventually you will almost certainly become confused. Don’t worry: confusion is often a necessary stage in the achievement of clarity. If you get totally confused, take a break. When you return to the question, it may be that the problems have resolved themselves. If not, give yourself more time. You may well find that decent ideas simply pop into your conscious mind at unexpected times.

You need to think for yourself and come up with a ‘bright idea’ to write a good history essay. You can of course follow the herd and repeat the interpretation given in your textbook. But there are problems here. First, what is to distinguish your work from that of everybody else? Second, it’s very unlikely that your school text has grappled with the precise question you have been set.

The advice above is relevant to coursework essays. It’s different in exams, where time is limited. But even here, you should take time out to do some thinking. Examiners look for quality rather than quantity, and brevity makes relevance doubly important. If you get into the habit of thinking about the key issues in your course, rather than just absorbing whatever you are told or read, you will probably find you’ve already considered whatever issues examiners pinpoint in exams.

The Vital First Paragraph

Every part of an essay is important, but the first paragraph is vital. This is the first chance you have to impress – or depress – an examiner, and first impressions are often decisive. You might therefore try to write an eye-catching first sentence. (‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a climax,’ counselled the film-maker Cecil B. De Mille.) More important is that you demonstrate your understanding of the question set. Here you give your carefully thought out definitions of the key terms, and here you establish the relevant time-frame and issues – in other words, the parameters of the question. Also, you divide the overall question into more manageable sub-divisions, or smaller questions, on each of which you will subsequently write a paragraph. You formulate an argument, or perhaps voice alternative lines of argument, that you will substantiate later in the essay. Hence the first paragraph – or perhaps you might spread this opening section over two paragraphs – is the key to a good essay.

On reading a good first paragraph, examiners will be profoundly reassured that its author is on the right lines, being relevant, analytical and rigorous. They will probably breathe a sign of relief that here is one student at least who is avoiding the two common pitfalls. The first is to ignore the question altogether. The second is to write a narrative of events – often beginning with the birth of an individual – with a half-hearted attempt at answering the question in the final paragraph.

Middle Paragraphs

Philip Larkin once said that the modern novel consists of a beginning, a muddle and an end. The same is, alas, all too true of many history essays. But if you’ve written a good opening section, in which you’ve divided the overall question into separate and manageable areas, your essay will not be muddled; it will be coherent.

It should be obvious, from your middle paragraphs, what question you are answering. Indeed it’s a good test of an essay that the reader should be able to guess the question even if the title is covered up. So consider starting each middle paragraph will a generalisation relevant to the question. Then you can develop this idea and substantiate it with evidence. You must give a judicious selection of evidence (i.e. facts and quotations) to support the argument you are making. You only have a limited amount of space or time, so think about how much detail to give. Relatively unimportant background issues can be summarised with a broad brush; your most important areas need greater embellishment. (Do not be one of those misguided candidates who, unaccountably, ‘go to town’ on peripheral areas and gloss over crucial ones.)

The regulations often specify that, in the A2 year, students should be familiar with the main interpretations of historians. Do not ignore this advice. On the other hand, do not take historiography to extremes, so that the past itself is virtually ignored. In particular, never fall into the trap of thinking that all you need are sets of historians’ opinions. Quite often in essays students give a generalisation and back it up with the opinion of an historian – and since they have formulated the generalisation from the opinion, the argument is entirely circular, and therefore meaningless and unconvincing. It also fatuously presupposes that historians are infallible and omniscient gods. Unless you give real evidence to back up your view – as historians do – a generalisation is simply an assertion. Middle paragraphs are the place for the real substance of an essay, and you neglect this at your peril.

Final Paragraph

If you’ve been arguing a case in the body of an essay, you should hammer home that case in the final paragraph. If you’ve been examining several alternative propositions, now is the time to say which one is correct. In the middle paragraph you are akin to a barrister arguing a case. Now, in the final paragraph, you are the judge summing up and pronouncing the verdict.

It’s as well to keep in mind what you should not be doing. Do not introduce lots of fresh evidence at this stage, though you can certainly introduce the odd extra fact that clinches your case. Nor should you go on to the ‘next’ issue. If your question is about Hitler coming to power, you should not end by giving a summary of what he did once in power. Such an irrelevant ending will fail to win marks. Remember the point about answering ‘nothing but the question’? On the other hand, it may be that some of the things Hitler did after coming to power shed valuable light on why he came to power in the first place. If you can argue this convincingly, all well and good; but don’t expect the examiner to puzzle out relevance. Examiners are not expected to think; you must make your material explicitly relevant.

Final Thoughts

A good essay, especially one that seems to have been effortlessly composed, has often been revised several times; and the best students are those who are most selfcritical. Get into the habit of criticising your own first drafts, and never be satisfied with second-best efforts. Also, take account of the feedback you get from teachers. Don’t just look at the mark your essay gets; read the comments carefully. If teachers don’t advise how to do even better next time, they are not doing their job properly.

Relevance is vital in a good essay, and so is evidence marshalled in such a way that it produces a convincing argument. But nothing else really matters. The paragraph structure recommended above is just a guide, nothing more, and you can write a fine essay using a very different arrangement of material. Similarly, though it would be excellent if you wrote in expressive, witty and sparklingly provocative prose, you can still get top marks even if your essay is serious, ponderous and even downright dull.

There are an infinite number of ways to write an essay because any form of writing is a means of self-expression. Your essay will be unique because you are unique: it’s up to you to ensure that it’s uniquely good, not uniquely mediocre.

Robert Pearce is the editor of History Review .

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history university essay

How to write an introduction for a history essay

Gladiator equipment

Every essay needs to begin with an introductory paragraph. It needs to be the first paragraph the marker reads.

While your introduction paragraph might be the first of the paragraphs you write, this is not the only way to do it.

You can choose to write your introduction after you have written the rest of your essay.

This way, you will know what you have argued, and this might make writing the introduction easier.

Either approach is fine. If you do write your introduction first, ensure that you go back and refine it once you have completed your essay. 

What is an ‘introduction paragraph’?

An introductory paragraph is a single paragraph at the start of your essay that prepares your reader for the argument you are going to make in your body paragraphs .

It should provide all of the necessary historical information about your topic and clearly state your argument so that by the end of the paragraph, the marker knows how you are going to structure the rest of your essay.

In general, you should never use quotes from sources in your introduction.

Introduction paragraph structure

While your introduction paragraph does not have to be as long as your body paragraphs , it does have a specific purpose, which you must fulfil.

A well-written introduction paragraph has the following four-part structure (summarised by the acronym BHES).

B – Background sentences

H – Hypothesis

E – Elaboration sentences

S - Signpost sentence

Each of these elements are explained in further detail, with examples, below:

1. Background sentences

The first two or three sentences of your introduction should provide a general introduction to the historical topic which your essay is about. This is done so that when you state your hypothesis , your reader understands the specific point you are arguing about.

Background sentences explain the important historical period, dates, people, places, events and concepts that will be mentioned later in your essay. This information should be drawn from your background research . 

Example background sentences:

Middle Ages (Year 8 Level)

Castles were an important component of Medieval Britain from the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 until they were phased out in the 15 th and 16 th centuries. Initially introduced as wooden motte and bailey structures on geographical strongpoints, they were rapidly replaced by stone fortresses which incorporated sophisticated defensive designs to improve the defenders’ chances of surviving prolonged sieges.

WWI (Year 9 Level)

The First World War began in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The subsequent declarations of war from most of Europe drew other countries into the conflict, including Australia. The Australian Imperial Force joined the war as part of Britain’s armed forces and were dispatched to locations in the Middle East and Western Europe.

Civil Rights (Year 10 Level)

The 1967 Referendum sought to amend the Australian Constitution in order to change the legal standing of the indigenous people in Australia. The fact that 90% of Australians voted in favour of the proposed amendments has been attributed to a series of significant events and people who were dedicated to the referendum’s success.

Ancient Rome (Year 11/12 Level)  

In the late second century BC, the Roman novus homo Gaius Marius became one of the most influential men in the Roman Republic. Marius gained this authority through his victory in the Jugurthine War, with his defeat of Jugurtha in 106 BC, and his triumph over the invading Germanic tribes in 101 BC, when he crushed the Teutones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (102 BC) and the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae (101 BC). Marius also gained great fame through his election to the consulship seven times.

2. Hypothesis

Once you have provided historical context for your essay in your background sentences, you need to state your hypothesis .

A hypothesis is a single sentence that clearly states the argument that your essay will be proving in your body paragraphs .

A good hypothesis contains both the argument and the reasons in support of your argument. 

Example hypotheses:

Medieval castles were designed with features that nullified the superior numbers of besieging armies but were ultimately made obsolete by the development of gunpowder artillery.

Australian soldiers’ opinion of the First World War changed from naïve enthusiasm to pessimistic realism as a result of the harsh realities of modern industrial warfare.

The success of the 1967 Referendum was a direct result of the efforts of First Nations leaders such as Charles Perkins, Faith Bandler and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Gaius Marius was the most one of the most significant personalities in the 1 st century BC due to his effect on the political, military and social structures of the Roman state.

3. Elaboration sentences

Once you have stated your argument in your hypothesis , you need to provide particular information about how you’re going to prove your argument.

Your elaboration sentences should be one or two sentences that provide specific details about how you’re going to cover the argument in your three body paragraphs.

You might also briefly summarise two or three of your main points.

Finally, explain any important key words, phrases or concepts that you’ve used in your hypothesis, you’ll need to do this in your elaboration sentences.

Example elaboration sentences:

By the height of the Middle Ages, feudal lords were investing significant sums of money by incorporating concentric walls and guard towers to maximise their defensive potential. These developments were so successful that many medieval armies avoided sieges in the late period.

Following Britain's official declaration of war on Germany, young Australian men voluntarily enlisted into the army, which was further encouraged by government propaganda about the moral justifications for the conflict. However, following the initial engagements on the Gallipoli peninsula, enthusiasm declined.

The political activity of key indigenous figures and the formation of activism organisations focused on indigenous resulted in a wider spread of messages to the general Australian public. The generation of powerful images and speeches has been frequently cited by modern historians as crucial to the referendum results.

While Marius is best known for his military reforms, it is the subsequent impacts of this reform on the way other Romans approached the attainment of magistracies and how public expectations of military leaders changed that had the longest impacts on the late republican period.

4. Signpost sentence

The final sentence of your introduction should prepare the reader for the topic of your first body paragraph. The main purpose of this sentence is to provide cohesion between your introductory paragraph and you first body paragraph .

Therefore, a signpost sentence indicates where you will begin proving the argument that you set out in your hypothesis and usually states the importance of the first point that you’re about to make. 

Example signpost sentences:

The early development of castles is best understood when examining their military purpose.

The naïve attitudes of those who volunteered in 1914 can be clearly seen in the personal letters and diaries that they themselves wrote.

The significance of these people is evident when examining the lack of political representation the indigenous people experience in the early half of the 20 th century.

The origin of Marius’ later achievements was his military reform in 107 BC, which occurred when he was first elected as consul.

Putting it all together

Once you have written all four parts of the BHES structure, you should have a completed introduction paragraph. In the examples above, we have shown each part separately. Below you will see the completed paragraphs so that you can appreciate what an introduction should look like.

Example introduction paragraphs: 

Castles were an important component of Medieval Britain from the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 until they were phased out in the 15th and 16th centuries. Initially introduced as wooden motte and bailey structures on geographical strongpoints, they were rapidly replaced by stone fortresses which incorporated sophisticated defensive designs to improve the defenders’ chances of surviving prolonged sieges. Medieval castles were designed with features that nullified the superior numbers of besieging armies, but were ultimately made obsolete by the development of gunpowder artillery. By the height of the Middle Ages, feudal lords were investing significant sums of money by incorporating concentric walls and guard towers to maximise their defensive potential. These developments were so successful that many medieval armies avoided sieges in the late period. The early development of castles is best understood when examining their military purpose.

The First World War began in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The subsequent declarations of war from most of Europe drew other countries into the conflict, including Australia. The Australian Imperial Force joined the war as part of Britain’s armed forces and were dispatched to locations in the Middle East and Western Europe. Australian soldiers’ opinion of the First World War changed from naïve enthusiasm to pessimistic realism as a result of the harsh realities of modern industrial warfare. Following Britain's official declaration of war on Germany, young Australian men voluntarily enlisted into the army, which was further encouraged by government propaganda about the moral justifications for the conflict. However, following the initial engagements on the Gallipoli peninsula, enthusiasm declined. The naïve attitudes of those who volunteered in 1914 can be clearly seen in the personal letters and diaries that they themselves wrote.

The 1967 Referendum sought to amend the Australian Constitution in order to change the legal standing of the indigenous people in Australia. The fact that 90% of Australians voted in favour of the proposed amendments has been attributed to a series of significant events and people who were dedicated to the referendum’s success. The success of the 1967 Referendum was a direct result of the efforts of First Nations leaders such as Charles Perkins, Faith Bandler and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The political activity of key indigenous figures and the formation of activism organisations focused on indigenous resulted in a wider spread of messages to the general Australian public. The generation of powerful images and speeches has been frequently cited by modern historians as crucial to the referendum results. The significance of these people is evident when examining the lack of political representation the indigenous people experience in the early half of the 20th century.

In the late second century BC, the Roman novus homo Gaius Marius became one of the most influential men in the Roman Republic. Marius gained this authority through his victory in the Jugurthine War, with his defeat of Jugurtha in 106 BC, and his triumph over the invading Germanic tribes in 101 BC, when he crushed the Teutones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (102 BC) and the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae (101 BC). Marius also gained great fame through his election to the consulship seven times. Gaius Marius was the most one of the most significant personalities in the 1st century BC due to his effect on the political, military and social structures of the Roman state. While Marius is best known for his military reforms, it is the subsequent impacts of this reform on the way other Romans approached the attainment of magistracies and how public expectations of military leaders changed that had the longest impacts on the late republican period. The origin of Marius’ later achievements was his military reform in 107 BC, which occurred when he was first elected as consul.

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Best way to structure a history essay

The Best Way to Structure an Undergraduate History Essay

The Best Way to Structure an Undergraduate History Essay 

history university essay

Any essay, regardless of the subject, teaches you to think critically, to reason on complex and controversial issues, to characterise phenomena. With regard to history, reflect on events and reveal the identity of the historical character. Such a creative task helps the examiners understand how well the student knows the subject, whether he is able to organise and analyse the material, whether he can write about it freely. History is not an easy science. This is just information, and the researcher ponders how it was or how it could be in reality. That is why we decided to help you and tell you a couple of secrets on how to better structure your essay.

Important to  Remember

Before starting your paper, it is necessary to clearly understand the specifics of historical research. In many ways, the work of a historian resembles that of a detective. Based on the available evidence (sources), using relevant methods, it is necessary to restore the picture of the events that took place. But there is one big difference from the activity of the detective, namely, the historical background must be taken into account. There is no need for a detective to concentrate on this specially, he/she, him/herself lives in this reality. 

For a historian, everything is not so simple, he/she must take into account that at different times people were driven by a different logic. The picture of the world of modern man and the picture of the medieval world will differ dramatically. It is impossible to assess the events of the Middle Ages, the same Inquisition , from the point of view of modern morality. If you do not have the ability to look at historical events as an independent historian, then perhaps you would be better off turning to the essay writing service for help.

Note: Don’t Mention too Many Dates

Do not overuse dates in your essay. Why? Oh, because the requirements, as a rule, do not say anything about the dates, but a couple of points can be removed for a mistake. Therefore, before writing a year-month-do-hour-minute of the events that you taught so meticulously, think – are you sure of its correctness? Of course, such significant dates as, for example, the establishment of America’s independence or the dates of the First World War should still be indicated, but you must be responsible for their correctness.

Structure and Content

A well-written history essay will include the following points:

* Introduction;

* Main part;

* Conclusion.

Each item should contain information that will maximise the chosen topic. At the same time, you should not supply your essay with empty, meaningless sentences. If you want to know an outside opinion about what you wrote, then ask a friend to give you a review. Speaking of reviews, if you have any doubts about the quality of an essay site, you can also read the essayshark.com reviews of satisfied customers.

Write an Introduction

Very little is required of you here: just indicate 2 events/processes (preferably with reference to a specific date) that fit into the framework of the period, without detailed disclosure. Also, this paragraph should contain a disclosure of the roles of two historical figures associated with the above events. The algorithm is as follows: 1 person – a role in 1 event; 2nd person – a role in 2nd event. At this step, students very often face the difficulty of interpreting the very concept of “role in an event”. In fact, everything is very simple: the role of an individual in an event is basically his/her specific actions (orders, command of troops, negotiations , etc.) that influenced this event and are directly related to it.

Write the Main Part

Most often, here you are required to indicate two cause-and-effect relationships within the selected period. Also, the main part should contain a historical assessment of the significance of the period based on facts or an authoritative opinion.

Write a Conclusion

With the last paragraph, you conclude the entire essay with the classic “the significance of this period for the history of America / the world cannot be overemphasised because of …”. Congratulations, your essay on history is written! Now … put it all into practice.

  • ← The Greatest Research Question for Writing a History Essay
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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout was written with several goals in mind: to explain what historians do and how they approach the writing process, to encourage you to think about your history instructor’s expectations, and to offer some strategies to help you write effectively in history courses.

Introduction: What is history?

Easy, right? History is everything that happened in the past: dates, facts, timelines, and the names of kings, queens, generals, and villains. For many students, the word “history” conjures up images of thick textbooks, long lectures, and even longer nights spent memorizing morsels of historical knowledge.

For your instructors in the history department, however, history is a fascinating puzzle with both personal and cultural significance. The past informs our lives, ideas, and expectations. Before shrugging off this abstract notion, ask yourself another “easy” question: Why are you here at UNC-CH?

Maybe you’re at UNC because it was the best school that accepted you, or because UNC has great sports teams. In the big picture, however, you are here because of history, i.e., because of past events and developments. You are here (on the planet) because two people’s lives collided—in the past. You may be here (in North Carolina) because you or some ancestor crossed an ocean several weeks, years, decades or centuries ago. You are here (in Chapel Hill) because, two hundred years ago, some people pooled their ideas, energy, and money to dig a well, collect some books, and hire some professors. You are here (at an institution of higher education) because long ago, some German scholars laid the groundwork for what we call the “modern university.”

In other words, your presence on this campus is the result of many, many historical developments. Although we are all unique, we share parts of our identities with past peoples and cultures. The problems we face today may have puzzled—or even been created by—past people and cultures. This same past has eliminated many hurdles for us (think of the polio vaccine) and may even offer possible solutions for contemporary concerns (consider the recent revival of herbal medicines).

Finally, history is ever-changing. Question: what did Christopher Columbus do? Well, if you’re like many people, you’re thinking, “He discovered the New World.” Well, sort of. It took a while before the Spaniards realized he’d landed on an island off the coast of this New World. It took even longer for historians to figure out that the Vikings crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus. And now we know that this world wasn’t really “new”—there were civilizations here that far predated organized cultures in Europe.

So, historians study the past to figure out what happened and how specific events and cultural developments affected individuals and societies. Historians also revise earlier explanations of the past, adding new information. The more we know about the past, the better we can understand how societies have evolved to their present state, why people face certain problems, and how successfully others have addressed those problems.

As you can see, the questions of history include the immediate and personal (how did I get here?), the broad and cultural (why do universities function as they do?) and the purely factual (what exactly did Columbus find?). The answers historians offer are all more or less educated guesses about the past, based on interpretations of whatever information trickles down through the ages.

History instructors’ expectations of you

You can assume two things about your Carolina history instructors. First, they are themselves scholars of history. Second, they expect you to engage in the practice of history. In other words, they frequently want you to use information to make an educated guess about some bygone event, era, or phenomenon.

You probably know how to guess about the past. High school history exams and various nameless standardized tests often encourage students to guess. For example:

1. The hula hoop was invented in

d) none of the above

In academia, however, guessing is not enough. As they evaluate assignments, history instructors look for evidence that students:

  • know about the past, and can
  • think about the past.

Historians know about the past because they look at what relics have trickled down through the ages. These relics of past civilizations are called primary sources. For some periods and cultures (20th century America, for example), there are tons of primary sources—political documents, newspapers, teenagers’ diaries, high school year books, tax returns, tape-recorded phone conversations, etc. For other periods and cultures, however, historians have very few clues to work with; that’s one reason we know so little about the Aztecs.

Gathering these clues, however, is only part of historians’ work. They also consult other historians’ ideas. These ideas are presented in secondary sources, which include textbooks, monographs, and scholarly articles. Once they’ve studied both primary and secondary sources, historians think. Ideally, after thinking for a while, they come up with a story to link together all these bits of information—an interpretation (read: educated guess) which answers a question about some past event or phenomenon.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Except when two historians using different sources come up with contradictory answers to the same question. Even worse, what if two historians ask the same question and use the same sources but come up with different answers? This happens pretty regularly and can lead to heated debates, complete with name-calling. Even today, for example, historians still can’t agree on the extent of apocalyptic panic surrounding the year 1000.

To avoid unnecessary disagreements and survive legitimate debates, good historians explain why their question is important, exactly what sources they found, and how they analyzed those sources to reach a particular interpretation. In other words, they prove that both their approach and answers are valid and significant. This is why historical texts have so many footnotes. It’s also why history instructors put so much emphasis on how you write your paper. In order to evaluate the quality of your answer to a historical question, they need to know not only the “facts,” but also:

  • why your question is significant
  • where you got your facts
  • how you engaged and organized those facts to make your point

To sum up: most UNC history instructors will expect you to both know information and interpret it to answer a question about the past. Your hard-won ability to name all the governors of Idaho in chronological order will mean little unless you can show why and how that chronology is significant.

Typical writing assignments

(For general tips, see our handout on understanding assignments .)

A typical Carolina history course includes several kinds of writing assignments:

  • Research papers —As the name suggests, these assignments require you to engage in full-fledged historical research. You will read sources (primary and/or secondary), think about them, and interpret them to answer some question about the past. Note: Contrary to popular fears, research papers are not the most common kind of paper assigned in college-level history courses.
  • Response papers —Much more common in survey courses, these assignments ask you to reflect on a given reading, film, or theme of the course and discuss/evaluate some aspect of it. Don’t be disillusioned, however; these are rarely intended to be free-flowing, last minute scrawls on the back of a napkin. Be prepared to address a question and support why you think that way about it.
  • Exam essays —Essay exam questions are close cousins of response papers. Assuming you’ve kept up with the course, you should have all the “facts” to answer the question, and need only (!?!) to organize them into a thoughtful interpretation of the past. For tips on this, see our handout on essay exams .
  • Book reviews —These will vary depending on the requirements of the course. All book reviews in history should explain the basic argument of the book and assess the argument’s strengths and weaknesses. Your assessment can include an evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, methodology, organization, style, etc. Was the argument convincing? If so, then explain why, and if not, explain why. Some instructors will also expect you to place the book within its historiographical context, examining the relationship between this work and others in the field. For more information, see our handout on book reviews .
  • Historiographical essays —These assignments are common in upper-level and graduate history classes. Historiographical essays focus on how scholars have interpreted certain events, not on the events themselves. Basically, these assignments are “histories of history” and require that students be able to explain the different schools of thought on a subject.

Here’s an example of a thesis statement for a historiographical essay:

The historiography of the American Revolution can be primarily seen as a shift between various Whig and Progressive interpretations. While Whig historians are concerned with political ideology and the actions of powerful people, Progressive interpretations generally examine the social causes of the Revolution.

To begin a historiographical essay, you will first read multiple works on the same topic, such as the American Revolution. As you would for a book review, you will then analyze the authors’ arguments, being sure to avoid simple summaries. You can organize your essay chronologically (in the order that the books on the topic were published) or methodologically (grouping historians with similar interpretations together).

Some questions to consider as you write a historiographical essay are: How has the historiography on this subject evolved over time? What are the different schools of thought on the topic, and how do they impact the interpretations of this subject? Why have different scholars come to different conclusions about this topic? You may find some of the information in our handout on literature reviews helpful.

The specifics of your particular assignment will obviously vary. However, if you’re not sure how to attack a writing assignment in your history course (and why else would you be reading this?), try our 8½ Step Plan.

8½ step plan

1. Recall the link between history and writing In case you missed this, history is basically an educated guess about the past.

When you write, you will most likely have to show that you know something about the past and can craft that knowledge into a thoughtful interpretation answering a specific question.

2. Read with an eye towards writing

You will have to read before you write. If the reading has been assigned, guess why your instructor chose it. Whatever you read, ask yourself:

  • How does this text relate to the themes of the lecture/discussion section/course?
  • What does this text say? What does it not say?
  • How do I react to this text? What are my questions? How could I explain it to someone else (summarize it, diagram the main points, critique the logic)?

For more on this, see also our handout on reading to write .

3. Dissect the question

Since you now (having completed step 1) anticipate having to make—and support—an educated guess, pick the question apart. Identify:

A. Opportunities to show what you know. These are requests for information and are usually pretty easy to find. Look for verbs like these:

B. Opportunities to show what you think. These are requests for interpretation. If you’re lucky, they will be just as obvious. Look for key words like these:

Requests for interpretation may not always be worded as questions.

Each of following statements asks for an educated guess:

  • Compare the effects of the French Revolution and white bread on French society.
  • Analyze what freedom meant to Cleopatra.
  • Discuss the extent to which television changed childhood in America.

Warning: Even something as straightforward as “Did peanut butter kill Elvis?” is usually a plea for both knowledge and interpretation. A simple “yes” or “no” is probably not enough; the best answers will include some information about Elvis and peanut butter, offer supporting evidence for both possible positions, and then interpret this information to justify the response.

3½. Dissect any other guidelines just as carefully

Your assignment prompt and/or any writing guidelines your instructor has provided contain valuable hints about what you must or could include in your essay.

Consider the following questions:

  • In all papers for this course, be sure to make at least one reference to lecture notes.
  • Evaluate two of the four social classes in early modern Timbuktu.

History instructors often begin an assignment with a general “blurb” about the subject, which many students skip in order to get to the “real” question. These introductory statements, however, can offer clues about the expected content and organization of your essay. Example:

The modern world has witnessed a series of changes in the realm of breadmaking. The baker’s code of earlier societies seemed no longer relevant to a culture obsessed with fiber content and caloric values. The meaning of these developments has been hotly contested by social historians such as Al White and A. Loaf. Drawing on lecture notes, class readings, and your interpretation of the film, The Yeast We Can Do , explain which European culture played the greatest role in the post-war breadmaking revolution.

Although it’s possible this instructor is merely revealing his/her own nutritional obsessions, a savvy student could glean important information from the first two sentences of this assignment. A strong answer would not only pick a culture and prove its importance to the development of breadmaking, but also:

  • summarize the relationship between this culture and the series of changes in breadmaking
  • briefly explain the irrelevance of the baker’s code
  • relate the answer to both the arguments of White and Loaf and the modern world’s obsessions

For more on this, see our handout on understanding assignments .

4. Jot down what you know and what you think This is important because it helps you develop an argument about the question.

Make two lists, one of facts and one of thoughts.

FACTS: What do you know about breadmaking, based on your sources? You should be able to trace each item in this list to a specific source (lecture, the textbook, a primary source reading, etc).

THOUGHTS: What’s the relationship between these facts? What’s your reaction to them? What conclusions might a reasonable person draw? If this is more difficult (which it should be), try:

  • Freewriting. Just write about your subject for 5-10 minutes, making no attempt to use complete sentences, prove your ideas, or otherwise sound intelligent.
  • Jotting down your facts in no particular order on a blank piece of paper, then using highlighters or colored pencils to arrange them in sets, connect related themes, link related ideas, or show a chain of developments.
  • Scissors. Write down whatever facts and ideas you can think of. Cut up the list and then play with the scraps. Group related ideas or opposing arguments or main points and supporting details.

5. Make an argument This is where many people panic, but don’t worry, you only need an argument, not necessarily an earth-shattering argument. In our example, there is no need to prove that Western civilization would have died out without bread. If you’ve been given a question, ask yourself, “How can I link elements of my two lists to address the question?” If you get stuck, try:

  • Looking back at steps 3 and 3½
  • More freewriting
  • Talking with someone
  • Letting all the information “gel” in your mind. Give your subconscious mind a chance to work. Get a snack, take a walk, etc.

If no question has been assigned, give yourself plenty of time to work on step 4. Alternately, convince yourself to spend thirty minutes on a 6-sided strategy Donald Daiker calls “cubing.” (If thirty minutes seems like a long time, remember most instructors really, really, really want to see some kind of argument.) Spend no more than five minutes writing on each of the following (just thinking doesn’t count; you have to get it down on paper):

  • Describe your subject. It’s breadmaking. Everyone eats bread. Bread can be different textures and colors and sizes…
  • Compare it. Breadmaking is like making steel because you combine raw ingredients…It’s totally different than…
  • Associate it. My grandfather made bread twice a week. Breadmaking makes me think of butter, cheese, milk, cows, the Alps. Loaf talks about Germans, and some of them live in the Alps.
  • Analyze it. White thinks that French bread is the best; Loaf doesn’t. There are different kinds of bread, different steps in the breadmaking process, different ways to make bread…
  • Apply it. You could teach a course on breadmaking. You could explain Franco-German hostilities based on their bread preferences…
  • Argue for or against it. Breadmaking is important because every culture has some kind of bread. People focus so much on food fads like smoothies, the “other white meat,” and Jell-O, but bread has kept more people alive over time…

Now, do any of these ideas seem significant? Do they tie in to some theme of your reading or course? Do you have enough information in your earlier “facts” and “thoughts” lists to PROVE any of these statements? If you’re still stumped, gather up all your lists and go talk with your instructor. The lists will prove to them you’ve actually tried to come up with an argument on your own and give the two of you something concrete to talk about. For more on this, see our handout on making an argument , handout on constructing thesis statements , and handout on asking for feedback on your writing .

6. Organize

Let’s say you’ve batted around some ideas and come up with the following argument:

Although White’s argument about the role of food fads suggests that French culture drove the modern breadmaking revolution, careful consideration of Loaf’s thesis proves that German emigres irreversibly changed traditional attitudes towards bread.

The next step is to figure out a logical way to explain and prove your argument. Remember that the best thesis statements both take a position and give readers a map to guide them through the paper. Look at the parts of your thesis and devote a section of your essay to each part. Here’s one (but not the only) way to organize an essay based on the above argument:

  • P1: Introduction: Why is breadmaking a relevant subject? Who are White and Loaf? Give thesis statement.
  • P2: What is/was the breadmaking revolution? What traditional attitudes did it change?
  • P3: How does White’s argument about food fads lead one to believe the French have dominated this revolution?
  • P4: Why is White wrong?
  • P5: What is Loaf’s thesis and how do you see it asserting the role of German emigres?
  • P6: Why does Loaf’s thesis make sense?
  • P7: Conclusion: Sum up why Loaf’s argument is stronger, explain how society has been changed the breadmaking revolution as he understands it, and tie these ideas back to your original argument.

7. Fill in the content

Fill in each section—also called a paragraph—using your lists from step 5. In addition to filling in what you know and what you think, remember to explain each section’s role in proving your argument and how each paragraph relates to those before and after it. For more help with this, see our handout on introductions , handout on conclusions , handout on transitions , and handout on paragraph development .

Ideally, this would really be steps 8, 9, and 10 (maybe even 11 and 12 for a big or important paper), but you’d never have gotten this far if you suspected there were that many steps. To maintain the illusion, let’s just call them 8a, 8b, and 8c.

8a. Check the organization This is really double-checking STEP 6. Do the parts of your paper make sense—and prove your point—in this order?

8b. Check content First, read your draft and ask yourself how each section relates to your thesis or overall argument. Have you explained this relationship? If not, would it be easier to rework the body of your paper to fit your argument or to revise your thesis to fit the existing content?

Next, reread your draft, and identify each sentence (based on its actual content): Is it “knowing” or “thinking” or both? Write one or both of those words in the margin. After doing this for each sentence in the whole paper, go back and tally up how many times you scribbled “I know” and “I think.” This next part is important:

THE “KNOWS” and “THINKS” SHOULD BALANCE EACH OTHER OUT (more or less).

This should usually be true both within specific paragraphs and in the paper as a whole. It’s fine to have 4 “knows” and 6 “thinks,” but if things are way out of balance, reread the assignment very carefully to be sure you didn’t miss something. Even if they ask for your opinion, most history instructors expect you to back it up by interpreting historical evidence or examples.

8c. Proofread for style and grammar This is also important. Even though you’re not writing for an English course, style and grammar are very important because they help you communicate ideas. For additional tips, see our handout on style and handout on proofreading .

While every assignment and course will have its unique quirks and requirements, you’re now armed with a set of basic guidelines to help you understand what your instructors expect and work through writing assignments in history. For more information, refer to the following resources or make an appointment to work with a tutor at the Writing Center.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Collingwood, R. G. 1989. The Written World: Reading and Writing in Social Contexts . New York: Harper Collins.

Daiker, Donald, Andrew Kerek, and Max Morenberg. 1994. The Writer’s Options: Combining to Composing , 5th ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Marius, Richard, and Melvin E. Page. 2010. A Short Guide to Writing About History , 7th ed. New York: Longman.

Smith, Hadley M. 2012. Writing in the Disciplines: A Reader for Writers , edited by Mary Lynch Kennedy and William J. Kennedy, 7th ed. New York: Pearson.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Style, Voice and Using Evidence: 7 Tips for Writing a Better History Essay

February 3, 2022

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Let’s be honest: the academic essay as a genre can feel clunky and counterintuitive for anyone, whether you’re an uninitiated first-year or a seasoned fourth-year. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by an essay, you’re certainly not alone. We know writing a History essay can be a handful, which is why we have collaborated with Elizabeth Elliott, fourth -year History Honours student and History Writing Centre Peer Tutor, to bring you some useful tips to help you ace your next writing assignment. 

Argument and Analysis

Forming an interesting thesis.

Why should your reader care about your topic and argument? The audience needs to know why what you are arguing is important. What scholarship are you adding to? What have you observed, and why is it significant? Keeping in mind why your subject is important will help you to form a thesis rather than to simply identify a topic. 

Sufficient Evidence

What needs to be probably true for someone to accept what you argue? I use the word probably because you should be selecting strong evidence to support your claims. What can we reasonably believe to be true? The quality of the evidence will vary depending on the sources you use.

Interpreting the Evidence

Seek to provide a balanced analysis. To do this, give a fair interpretation of the evidence. Ask yourself: How would I argue against myself? Imagine what someone would say to you if they held the opposite position. This strategy will help you find weaknesses in your arguments, which you can then address. You can directly discuss and rebut these counter arguments in your paper unless it is distracting from the narrative flow of the paper. 

Integrating Quotations

You should aim to integrate your quotations in a way that you will not disrupt the flow of your essay with a quote that only loosely connects to the surrounding argument. The reader should not have to work to determine the significance of the quotation you choose. Why is it there? Quotations do not speak for themselves. How do these quotations constitute supportive evidence of your argument? Be selective with quotations. Incorporate what is essential and well-stated. Some details are better placed in your footnotes.

Variety of Sources

Inspect your footnotes. There are situations where reliance on one source is appropriate, such as when analyzing a primary source. However, a lack of variety in your footnotes in most papers will show an over-reliance on one source, which should be avoided. Aim to weave and synthesize many sources together and to extrapolate what you can from them. Use a variety of sources and gather the best evidence to support your arguments. 

Writing and Style  

Active voice.

Identify the subject of the sentence and ask yourself if it is clear who you are writing about. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is indeterminate. Ask yourself: Who did what to whom ? It is important that we know who the historical actors are. Passive voice removes responsibility and agency of these actors because it makes them unknown. The word “by” in a sentence is often indicative of a passive sentence. 

The tendency to write passive sentences often arises from a lack of confidence in your argument, and c onfidence is essential to strong writing. Passive voice creates a feeling of uncertainty, which is why reading a sentence with passive voice is not very persuasive. It is difficult to convince your reader if you appear uncertain about your ideas. If you have done your research and have found strong evidence to support your claims, then have confidence in your claims. 

Persuasive sentences also sound persuasive, which is another reason why it is good to read your paper aloud. It is easier to write with confidence from the beginning than to go back and change passive sentences into active ones.

Passive voice example 1 : An attempted invasion was thwarted in 1588. 

Passive voice example 2 : An attempted invasion by the Spanish was thwarted in 1588.

Active voice example : The Spanish Armada failed to reach England. 

Cultural Sensitivity

Ask yourself: am I making an argument that is sensitive to the subject matter? Consider other peoples’ perspectives and values respectfully. Be conscientious about seeking to understand cultural contexts and perspectives that may be different from your own. 

The History Writing Centre is a peer-to-peer tutoring service that operates on a drop-in basis. Office hours are Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 am to 1:30 pm. Check out the History Writing Centre webpage for more information on how to make your writing stronger.

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[Re]considering the male gaze in Italian Baroque sculpture

photo of Baroque style bust statue

The Lamar Dodd School of Art directs us to this essay written by art history student Gabriela Diaz-Jones published in The Classic Journal, the Franklin College Writing intensive Program's journal of undergraduate writing and research, “ Baroque Women in Marble as Intimate or Intricate.” Diaz-Jones explores the objectification of female sitters sculpted in marble during the Italian Baroque era, focusing on two busts, one by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the other by Alessandro Algardi:

The two artworks are borne from nearly opposite contexts. Algardi created a poised, almost lifeless portrait, befitting of its likely funerary purpose. Bernini, on the other hand, carved a work that is stunningly intimate and energetic, gesturing to his secret sexual relationship with Costanza. Bernini’s invention of the “speaking likeness,” the concept of ownership regarding women’s jewelry and clothing during this period, sexual connotations of women’s hair, the myth and symbolism of Medusa, and the legacy of men’s signing images of women as assertions of ownership all come into play when examining and interrogating these works. The tenor of this paper will be that both busts, while they have entirely opposite approaches to depicting women (formal versus intimate, reserved versus dynamic) are still stunningly alike. In both artworks, male artists used sculpture to construct an idealized version of a woman, either moral or seductive. Ultimately both “constructions” are fictions, not reflective of reality but rather, reflections of the role they wanted these women to play (deceased wife of a patron, or lover.) Bernini and Algardi both brought marble to life in the quintessential Baroque style, but the “life” that they imbued into the rock was, without a doubt, not their subjects’ own.

Read the entire essay .

Image: Algardi, Alessandro.  Bust of Maria Cerri Capranica , 1640, marble, 90 x 61.3 x 29.2 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California (Artstor, ITHAKA).

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Black History Month: What is it and why is it important?

Black History Month - A visitor at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories. Image:  Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

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history university essay

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This article was originally published in February 2021 and has been updated .

  • A continued engagement with history is vital as it helps give context for the present.
  • Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories, going beyond stories of racism and slavery to spotlight Black achievement.
  • This year's theme is African Americans and the Arts.

February is Black History Month. This month-long observance in the US and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and provide a fresh reminder to take stock of where systemic racism persists and give visibility to the people and organizations creating change. Here's what to know about Black History Month and how to celebrate it this year:

Have you read?

Black history month: key events in a decade of black lives matter, here are 4 ways businesses can celebrate black history month, how did black history month begin.

Black History Month's first iteration was Negro History Week, created in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the "father of Black history." This historian helped establish the field of African American studies and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History , aimed to encourage " people of all ethnic and social backgrounds to discuss the Black experience ".

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” ― Carter G. Woodson

His organization was later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and is currently the oldest historical society established for the promotion of African American history.

Why is Black History Month in February?

February was chosen by Woodson for the week-long observance as it coincides with the birthdates of both former US President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Both men played a significant role in helping to end slavery. Woodson also understood that members of the Black community already celebrated the births of Douglass and Lincoln and sought to build on existing traditions. "He was asking the public to extend their study of Black history, not to create a new tradition", as the ASALH explained on its website.

How did Black History Month become a national month of celebration?

By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the civil-rights movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week was celebrated by mayors in cities across the country. Eventually, the event evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History month. In his speech, President Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.

Since his administration, every American president has recognized Black History Month and its mission. But it wasn't until Congress passed "National Black History Month" into law in 1986 that many in the country began to observe it formally. The law aimed to make all Americans "aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity".

Why is Black History Month celebrated?

Initially, Black History Month was a way of teaching students and young people about Black and African-Americans' contributions. Such stories had been largely forgotten and were a neglected part of the national narrative.

Now, it's seen as a celebration of those who've impacted not just the country but the world with their activism and achievements. In the US, the month-long spotlight during February is an opportunity for people to engage with Black histories, go beyond discussions of racism and slavery, and highlight Black leaders and accomplishments.

What is this year's Black History Month theme?

Every year, a theme is chosen by the ASALH, the group originally founded by Woodson. This year's theme, African Americans and the Arts .

"In the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, culinary and other forms of cultural expression, the African American influence has been paramount," the website says.

Is Black History Month celebrated anywhere else?

In Canada, they celebrate it in February. In countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland, they celebrate it in October. In Canada, African-Canadian parliament member Jean Augustine motioned for Black History Month in 1995 to bring awareness to Black Canadians' work.

When the UK started celebrating Black History Month in 1987, it focused on Black American history. Over time there has been more attention on Black British history. Now it is dedicated to honouring African people's contributions to the country. Its UK mission statement is: "Dig deeper, look closer, think bigger".

Why is Black History Month important?

For many modern Black millennials, the month-long celebration for Black History Month offers an opportunity to reimagine what possibilities lie ahead. But for many, the forces that drove Woodson nearly a century ago are more relevant than ever. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian Institution said at the opening of the Washington D.C.'s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016: “There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honouring our struggle and ancestors by remembering".

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Black History Month 2024: African Americans and the Arts 

A woman reads a book

The national theme for Black History Month 2024 is “ African Americans and the Arts .”  

Black History Month 2024 is a time to recognize and highlight the achievements of Black artists and creators, and the role they played in U.S. history and in shaping our country today.  

To commemorate this year’s theme, we’ve gathered powerful quotes about learning, culture and equality from five historic Black American authors, teachers and artists who made a significant impact in the Arts, education ― and the nation.  

  Making history  

“Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.” – Carter G. Woodson, Author, Journalist, Historian and Educator, 1875-1950  

Known as the “Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson was primarily self-taught in most subjects. In 1912, he became the second Black person to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard.   

He is the author of more than 30 books, including “T he Mis-Education of the Negro. ”  

Carter G. Woodson dedicated his life to teaching Black History and incorporating the subject of Black History in schools. He co-founded what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. (ASALH) . In February 1926, Woodson launched the first Negro History Week , which has since been expanded into Black History Month.  

Carter G. Woodson

Providing a platform  

“I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent.” – Augusta Savage, Sculptor, 1892-1962  

An acclaimed and influential sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance, Augusta Savage was a teacher and an activist who fought for African American rights in the Arts. She was one out of only four women, and the only Black woman, commissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She exhibited one of her most famous works, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which she named after the hymn by James Weldon Johnson, sometimes referred to as the Black National Anthem. Her sculpture is also known as “ The Harp, ” renamed by the fair’s organizers.  

Photograph of Augusta Savage

Raising a voice  

“My mother said to me ‘My child listen, whatever you do in this world no matter how good it is you will never be able to please everybody. But what one should strive for is to do the very best humanly possible.’” – Marian Anderson, American Contralto, 1897-1993  

Marian Anderson broke barriers in the opera world. In 1939, she performed at the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of 75,000 after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied her access to the DAR Constitution Hall because of her race. And in 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She sang the leading role as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.  

history university essay

Influencing the world  

“The artist’s role is to challenge convention, to push boundaries, and to open new doors of perception.” – Henry Ossawa Tanner, Painter, 1859-1937  

Henry Ossawa Tanner is known to be the first Black artist to gain world-wide fame and acclaim. In 1877, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts , where he was the only Black student. In 1891, Tanner moved to Paris to escape the racism he was confronted with in America. Here, he painted two of his most recognized works, “ The Banjo Lesson” and “ The Thankful Poor of 1894. ”    

In 1923, Henry O. Tanner was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government, France’s highest honor.  

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Rising up  

“Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.” – Phillis Wheatley, Poet, 1753-1784  

At about seven years old, Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from her home in West Africa and sold into slavery in Boston. She started writing poetry around the age of 12 and published her first poem, “ Messrs. Hussey and Coffin ,” in Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper in 1767.   

While her poetry spread in popularity ― so did the skepticism. Some did not believe an enslaved woman could have authored the poems. She defended her work to a panel of town leaders and became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry. The panel’s attestation was included in the preface of her book.  

Phillis Wheatley corresponded with many artists, writers and activists, including a well-known 1 774 letter to Reverand Samson Occom about freedom and equality.  

Phillis Wheatley with pen and paper

Honoring Black History Month 2024  

Art plays a powerful role in helping us learn and evolve. Not only does it introduce us to a world of diverse experiences, but it helps us form stronger connections. These are just a few of the many Black creators who shaped U.S. history ― whose expressions opened many doors and minds.  

Black History Month is observed each year in February. To continue your learning, go on a journey with Dr. Jewrell Rivers, as he guides you through Black History in higher education. Read his article, “A Brief History: Black Americans in Higher Education.”  

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