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5 Steps to Writing an Historical Essay

Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates

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Some students rush through assignments, others highlight every line, both thinking that by counting pages or words they are doing well. As you read the important point is to identify critical arguments in the texts. Don't just read for "information. What is the author saying? What are his or her stated and unstated assumptions? What kind of evidence supports the arguments and how is it used? What do particular documents or texts tell you about the time in which they were written?

Your questions will be the beginning of your own thesis. As noted above, all serious writing is done in drafts, and not the night before. Even if you are pressed for time as, of course, you will be give yourself enough time to review and revise your own writing. Students will sometimes turn in papers they have never actually read themselves; this is a mistake which shows.

Think of the first or "preliminary" draft as a detailed outline. Establish your thesis and see how it looks in writing. Is it too general or specific? Does it address the questions asked by the instructor? Because the thesis is so critical, small changes in it will have a big impact. Don't be afraid to refine it as often as necessary as you continue reading and writing. Now you have completed your draft. Return to your introduction. Is the thesis clearly stated?

Have you established the argument and evidence you will present? Rephrase your thesis if necessary. You may not even be clear about the final thesis until you have written much of the paper itself and seen how the argument holds together. Add examples or delete non-relevant materials and make sure paragraphs connect with transitions and topic sentences.

Some classes, such as the History Seminar, have students critique each others' research drafts, often several times. Such exercises are invaluable opportunities to learn how other people read you, and how to be fair, judicious, and helpful in your own critiques.

Whenever possible try to have someone else read your work and comment on it. Finally, check for sense, grammar, spelling, and mechanical and typographical errors. Show respect for your reader by not making him or her wade through a sloppy manuscript. Details may not make or break a work, but they make a definite impression about how much you care. Every professor or instructor has his or her own standards for excellent, good, average, and unacceptable work.

A common grading misunderstanding arises from a student belief that answering a question "correctly" in essay form means an automatic "A. This is only "competent" work.

How well you write is what makes the difference. Do you detail your arguments, define terms, make logical connections, expand points, develop ideas, read sources in original and imaginative ways?

The difference between competent and excellent work is difficult to define. Read your own work critically. Are you making the easy points most students would make? Are you really citing and examining the texts? Have you developed original interpretations? Have you given careful thought to argument and presentation, and the logic of your conclusions? Excellent work begins when you challenge yourself.

Students are sometimes overwhelmed when asked to produce original, critical work. What could they say which has not already been said by an expert? No one asks you to be an expert. Your originality lies in your talent as a critical reader and a thoughtful writer. Whether you are studying many sources for a research paper or a few passages from one text for a book review, what matters is how you select, present, and interpret materials. You must at all costs avoid plagiarism, which is a crime and means automatic failure.

Plagiarism means taking credit for work which is not your own, and can involve: Pay attention to point 1: Points are obvious cases of cheating. A strict definition of plagiarism is as follows:. Although it is generally recognized that everything an individual has thought has probably been influenced to some degree by the previously expressed thoughts and actions of others, such influences are general.

Plagiarism involves the deliberate taking of specific words and ideas of others without proper acknowledgment. Butters and George D.

Duke University Department of English, , p. Avoid plagiarism by preparing well, relying on your own words and judgments, and—when citing evidence—using proper bibliographic and footnote forms.

Attention to plagiarism should not discourage you from using sources to the fullest; on the contrary it should challenge you to think critically about how you make ideas your own, what debts you owe to others, and how you put the two together to do intellectually honest and original writing.

When turning in papers, always keep a copy for yourself; papers do on occasion disappear. Standard format is double-spaced with wide enough margins for reader's comments.

Don't forget to put your name, the class name, and the title of the paper on the first page. Always number the pages for easy reference. For questions on the stylistic, grammatical, or technical points of preparation, familiarize yourself with the standard reference guides used by all professional writers, such as The Chicago Manual of Style now in a 14th edition , or Kate L. There you will find information on such topics as proper footnote style. We have included some of the standard forms below:.

Princeton University Press, , pp. Mary Contrary, "How Gardens Grow: As noted in the introduction, this guide is a very general formula for writing essays.

Create an Introduction Paragraph. Creating an introduction paragraph becomes more easy once the thesis has been determined. When writing your introduction there are a few ideas you need to keep in mind: Some people may prefer to write their thesis first as we have done here, or some may choose to begin writing their introduction paragraph and then figure out the thesis as they get there.

Neither way is wrong! The majority of your work will appear here, in the body of the essay. This will usually be a minimum of 3 paragraphs more or less depending on how many points included in you thesis.

Between each major idea you need to use creatively phrased transition statements that allow the flow of the essay to not be disrupted. The key to a good body portion of your essay is to remember to only discuss 1 major idea per paragraph. Make districtions between you major ideas in order to help support your thesis. The conclusion is the easiest part of your essay. Here you should wrap up you main ideas that you have thoroughly discussed and argued throughout your body paragraphs.

Make sure not to introduce any new points here. Here is a visual representation of what your essay should look like:

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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. See also Historical Abstracts (Ref. D1.H5). Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves.