Tips on Essay Writing
Read and analyse the essay title. Be as careful and thorough as possible, and answer a set of basic questions: What is the subject matter? What period shall I consider? Which geographic area? Etc… The punctuation, the use of singular/plural, may also be important.
Then, write down your preliminary thoughts and ideas and try to identify the historical problem raised by the question. You will indeed soon realize that history is just as much about questions as it is about answers…
Your tool box
The quality of an essay largely depends on the approach adopted by its author. Much, therefore, hinges on your understanding of the question. As a result, you should pay particular attention to your reading and interpretation of the essay title. An interesting and cogent argument only stems from a sophisticated understanding of the topic under consideration.
As Marc Bloch might have put it, the historian’s craft depends on his/her ability to choose and use the right tools to make sense of the experience of past societies. It is indeed very important for you to create what I would call “a conceptual tool box”, a set of core concepts and definitions you would then be able to draw on to understand and delineate the essay question, to formulate a historical problem, and to construct your own interpretation.
When dealing with issues in British or European history and politics for instance, you need to have in mind a clear and concise definition of notions such as republicanism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, authoritarianism, sovereignty, polity, citizenry, etc.
Lectures and seminars will give you the opportunity to get acquainted with the most important notions, concepts, and categories of analysis you need. It is however essential for you to build up a personal repository of concepts through your own academic and extra-curricular reading and reflections.
At the end of your course, you will obviously be expected to demonstrate a very good command of the areas and topics covered by the different modules. Yet, you are not only expected to know, but also to prove you know how to think historically, critically about those issues. This is where it gets tricky, challenging and… really good fun!
Don’t panic though. You have a couple of years ahead of you and your tutors are here to guide and help you.
How to organize your argument and structure your essay.
The introduction should consist – at least – of the following three points:
• First: introduce and present the subject matter in broad terms
• Secondly – and most importantly –: identify and clarify the historical problem raised by the essay title. This of course differs from the mere presentation of the topic and goes to the crux of the matter.
• Thirdly: signpost your argument
Think about the essay as a walk…
As you are taking your reader on a walk, you first need to invite her/him, to let her/him know where you are both going to (introduce the subject matter).
To capture her/his attention, her/his historical imagination, you need to make clear why the walk is worth her/his time and energy (raise the historical problem).
Then show her/him the path you have decided to follow… (signpost your argument)
Once you have done that, take the reader’s hand and lead the way…
The body of the essay should present and detail your reasoning in a clear and systematic fashion.
1- Make sure that your overall analysis and each of your individual points is buttressed by historical evidence.
2- Make sure your essay follows a logical order; that the succession of points, sections, and paragraphs derives from an intellectual logic. In other words, your essay should not be a mere catalogue of ideas but should present them in a reasoned and coherent way.
It is important to bear in mind that you are working to satisfy a particular type of readership. Your job is indeed to convince your tutor/examiner of the validity and solidity of your argument. And this is why you ought to pay particular attention to the structure of the essay.
Last but not least… do not only think about yourself as the author of the essay, but also as its editor. It is indeed extremely important for you to pause and think critically about your own argument. Once you have built your essay’s plan or structure, take a serious look at it, be your own critic and amend your work accordingly. Repeat the exercise when the writing is done. It is a very good way to refine and improve your argument.
Each seminar session is structured around an essay question, so we will effectively be practicing the methodology of the essay every week.
Essay Writing Template
I designed an essay writing template (download here) to help you plan your essay and write the introduction. We will talk about the way to use it but you are free to adapt it.