How to Write Historical Essays

In my past 100 level History courses, many students’ responses failed to meet the basic requirements of a historical essay. Because of that, I have provided a basic tutorial on how to write an essay in a History course. This tutorial was written by UMGC’s outstanding professor, Dr. Jeffrey Glasco. I have modified it slightly to suit the needs of this course.

Historical essays need to have an argument in them as History is basically an argument about why the past turned out the way it did. It is not just a description of some aspects of the past, but instead an argument about the past. History is basically an argument about why the past was or turned out the way it did. While you should have learned to write an argumentative essay in high school, it is never too late to learn how to write an effective one. Being able to write an effective argumentative essay will be an essential skill in this course and most jobs that require a college degree.

The key thing in an argumentative essay is the thesis. The thesis is basically a one sentence answer to a question, and your thesis comes at the start of your essay. A thesis sentence should contain an argument, it is not a question or an introduction of what you are going to discuss. For example, a good thesis sentence might be, “As social mobility increased in England, the rising middle class sought to distance itself from those below it on the social ladder by carefully selecting consumer goods that would associate them with the social rank toward which they were striving.” That thesis has a clear argument in it.

Another example of an ineffective thesis sentence includes, “In this essay, I will compare the English working class with the English middle class.” That fails as it lacks any argument; it only introduces your topic. One could adjust this promise to compare and successfully turn it into a thesis statement, “The English working class and the English middle class shared many of the same ‘English’ values, but they differed starkly as well, and the middle class strove to sharpen those lines of differentiation.”

Your thesis must come at the start of your essay. That way the reader knows what your argument is and what your supporting points are there to prove. If you do not have a thesis, then your supporting points are just a list of facts and they have no significance. That makes your thesis sentence the most important part of your essay, be it for a weekly initial response or one of the course papers. An essay that lacks a strong thesis never really answers the topic question and is thus a weak essay. Your thesis should come at the start of your essay, the first sentence in a weekly response or within the first paragraph of a longer essay such as the two papers. Don’t bury your thesis in your paper. An argumentative sentence in your last paragraph is a conclusion, but doesn’t work as a thesis as you need to lead off your essay with a thesis. 

The next part of your essay and the longest are your supporting points. These are not simply a list of facts related to your topic, but key facts that work to prove your thesis sentence. As I noted, if you don’t have a strong thesis sentence, then your supporting facts don’t prove anything as the reader needs a thesis to know what your supporting points are working to prove. Supporting points are not just a random assortment of facts related to your topic, but instead are carefully selected evidence that prove your thesis. Think about how a lawyer would present a case. They have a thesis – such as my client is innocent (thesis) and then they present evidence to prove why their client is innocent (their supporting points). That’s exactly the same way a History essay is constructed. Your supporting points also need to be convincing to work, just like your lawyer needs to present convincing evidence to the jury to make them believe that you are innocent.

The last part of your essay needs to be a conclusion. The conclusion does two and only two things. First, it reminds the reader of what your thesis is. That reminder should be at the start of your conclusion. The second part of your conclusion is a direct summation of your supporting points. If you have used three key supporting points in your essay, then you need to remind the reader of all three supporting points and explain to them how those points proved your thesis, remember that a History essay is both an argumentative essay and a persuasive essay. In your conclusion, you should not go off tangent and bring in ideas or comparisons that you did not use in your thesis and supporting points. Likewise, you should not bring up big cosmic points in your conclusion as your conclusion is only about your argument and supporting points, not the nature of the universe. 

No essay without a strong thesis that answers the question and sets forward an argument, supporting points which act to directly prove your thesis, and a conclusion that reminds the reader of your thesis and supporting points will succeed. If any part is missing, the essay will be ineffective, much like a house that is missing its foundation, walls or roof. Also all three parts need to work together and be all aligned to prove one argument. If your conclusion and thesis don’t agree, the reader is left wondering what your argument was. If your supporting points do not prove your thesis, then the reader will not believe your argument was valid. 

There are several ways to make sure you have a strong essay. The first is to review your factual material and start off by writing your thesis sentence first. That means you start off with your argumentative answer first. Then you go back to your factual material and select the facts which best prove your thesis and use those to prove your thesis. Along the way, ask yourself, “How did this fact prove my thesis?” If you cannot answer that, then think about why you are including that fact. Once you have written your thesis and supporting facts, go back and reread them. Think about what was your thesis and your supporting points as those will be the focus of your conclusion. Then write your conclusion, starting with a restatement of your thesis followed by a summary of your key supporting points. After you have written your conclusion, reread your essay and make sure that everything (thesis, supporting points, and conclusion) are all working together to prove a common point. That means that writing an argumentative essay is a multi-step process, it is not just a single draft dump of ideas. Any essay you write in this class (be it an initial response to a weekly discussion or a major paper) should consist of more than one draft. By doing the above, you will produce a stronger essay, and in this class stronger essays are more effective and thus earn higher grades. 

If you have any questions please feel free to ask. This post should help you improve your Initial Posts and later course papers. These skills will also help you later on when you need to write an argumentative essay, be it a History essay or an essay for another field or job.