Friday, 28 February 2014

Basic history essay-writing advice



Every exam board publishes its mark schemes on-line. The candidate who wants to do well should study those mark schemes, because different exam boards do give slightly different weight to the different things that make up an essay. Some boards have special extra ingredients, such as the SQA requirement at Advanced Higher that there should be explicit references to historiography. Your teachers should have made you aware of these things.

Nevertheless, a good essay is a good essay is a good essay, and some general points can be made with confidence. Incidentally, as well as marking hundreds of essays and attending training days for teachers I have even worked for two exam boards and even at one time set papers and helped write marking criteria, so my advice is based on knowledge and experience.

After years of discussion with my good friend the Head of English we discovered that writing a good English Lit. essay does not necessarily involve quite the same approaches. This advice is about history essays.

Every good history essay should have the following ingredients.

I used to draw this on the board. Pupils seemed to find it helpful

  1. Relevance. It must answer the specific question and nothing else. You will never be asked “Write an essay about the Crusades”. You will be asked something specific like “To what extent were the Crusades the result of religious enthusiasm?” Everything in the essay should be directed to answering that question. Bad essays only tackle the question in the last paragraph. In a good essay every paragraph makes a directly relevant contribution to the argument.

It is not a bad idea to have a sentence in each paragraph that echoes closely the wording of the title. eg “Another reason for thinking that there was a lot more to the Crusades that religious enthusiasm is….”  This should ensure that your essay is kept on message.

  1. Structure. Good essays have a planned structure. A chronological structure can occasionally work with some questions, but usually it is best avoided. One thing that is definitely wrong is telling the story. Summarising the story from memory in your own words is junior school stuff. Examiners know you know the story. They want you to answer a question about it. Most pupils can write about 900 words in 45 minutes, so 3 or 4 paragraphs apart from the introduction and conclusion [see below] usually works. Each paragraph should make one big argumentative point, and the points should be arranged in order so that they lead convincingly to your conclusion.  

  1. Introduction and Conclusion Some examination boards have found essays so damaged by poor quality introductions, and then running out of time at the end, that they advise leaving out the introduction. Nevertheless, good introductions make better essays. A good introduction should NOT introduce the topic (eg The Crusades) but should introduce your argument (the extent to which the Crusades were caused by religious enthusiasm) and should show where your argument is going. A good conclusion should sum up your answer clearly, and the main reasons why you have arrived at that conclusion rather than a different one. Good introductions and conclusions should add value to an essay, not be there merely because you have been told they should be there. Make sure you leave time to write a substantial conclusion that adds value. “Thus we see that the Crusades were partly caused by religious enthusiasm, but there were other causes as well” adds no value at all.

  1. Substance Some examiners would put this at the top of the list. Of course it is important. In a good essay every argumentative point will be supported by some evidence. Distinguish between extra detail that does not actually help answer the question and telling detail that really gives weight to relevant points. The first is better than nothing; at least it shows you know something of the topic. But it is the second sort that really lifts an essay. Quotations, statistics, incidents that help prove your points are the things to aim for. There should be lots of real history in your essays.

  1. Clear English This is not much to do with spelling and punctuation as such, though these should be as good as possible. It is all to do with word-choice, sentence structure and generally making sure that the words you use say clearly what you mean. Just for starters – never say “government” when you mean “parliament”.


Here are a few examples of common faults:
·        Using exclusive superlatives when they are not what you mean, and not true. Words like “only”, “first” and “greatest” allow no compromise and should be used with care.
·        Using words like “thus” and “therefore” when you cannot in fact make a logical inference. If the case is not watertight say: “this suggests that” or something like that.
·        Writing sentences that are far too long, with too many subordinate clauses, and that eventually run out of control.    
·        Leaving out a step in the argument because it is clear in your mind when it will not be clear to the reader unless it is put down on paper.
·        Writing two sentences that contradict each other.


All of these things can be done poorly, quite well, or very well; but if you do them all competently you should get a decent grade. Good luck.



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