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Essay Writing and Referencing

Essay Writing Checklist

Here are some of the things you need to think about in preparing an essay. Few of them are iron rules. Good essays come in many forms, and a good essay writer will sometimes ignore some of these guidelines. But to become a good essay writer you would probably do well to start by following them.

Please remember that writing an essay involves skills of discussion and argument which differ from those that might be used in the informal setting of a seminar. In the first place, argument and analysis in essays will usually have to be more carefully structured than the comments you might make in a seminar or tutorial discussion. In essays, you should demonstrate awareness of more than one argument, acknowledge differences in the views of historians, and adopt a critical appreciation of evidence and its sources. You should also provide the necessary scholarly underpinning for your analysis by showing the sources of your information and arguments in bibliographies and footnotes.

On questions of presentation, footnoting, etc. you should follow the advice given from the department.

The Essay Question

  • Have you really answered the question?
  • Have you thought what might lie behind the question, e.g. if it asks 'Was the First World War the main cause of the Russian Revolution?', have you thought about what alternative explanations might be suggested?
  • Is each paragraph clearly related to the overall question, raising a new topic and moving the argument forward?
  • The ultimate test is that if you left the title off the top of your essay, could a friend guess the question from your answer?

Your Analysis

  • Have you made an argument or is the essay simply relating what happened?
  • Is your argument logical, coherent and clear?
  • Are you contradicting yourself?
  • Are you using appropriate evidence to back up each part of your argument?
  • Are you aware of counter-arguments?
  • Have you combined evidence and ideas from several different sources at each stage of the argument, or are you merely summarising what your sources say one by one?

Your Research

  • Have you done enough reading? Six books/article/chapters is suggested for a short essay; ten or more for a long one.
  • Are you up to date on the historical debate? Do not rely only on the older texts.
  • Have you listed in the bibliography all the sources you used, and only those sources?


Why reference?

From reading academic articles and books, you should be familiar with the scholarly practice of making references in the text to other people's work and providing listings of relevant source material at the end of the text.

Why is this done?

  • To enable someone reading the document to find the material you have referred to or consulted
  • To demonstrate your width of reading and knowledge about a subject
  • To support and/or develop points made in the text
  • To avoid accusations of plagiarism: using somebody else's work without acknowledging the fact

Citation style

A citation style is a system for formatting references, whether in the main text of an essay, in the footnotes, or in the bibliography. It covers such things as the order of information in the citation style, the length of the citation, and the use of capitalisation and italics.

A common style used in the humanities is known as the MHRA style, so-called because it is administered by the Modern Humanities Research Association, a scholarly association based in the UK. Below are some examples of citations formatted in the MHRA style.

A book:

Tom McArthur, Worlds of Reference: Lexicography, Learning and Language from the Clay Tablet to the Computer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 59.

A chapter in an edited book:

Martin Elsky, ‘Words, Things, and Names: Jonson’s Poetry and Philosophical Grammar’, in Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben, ed. by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), pp. 31–55 (p. 41).

A journal article:

Robert F. Cook, ‘Baudouin de Sebourc: un poème édifiant?’, Olifant, 14 (1989), 115–35 (pp. 118–19).

These examples are taken from the MHRA Style Guide, the third (2013) edition of which is available here. For a short summary of the guide, see pages 3 to 8. For more detail on referencing, see pages 58 to 82.

Another citation style often used by historians is the one in the Chicago Manual of Style, published by the University of Chicago Press and currently in its seventeenth edition. This style is subtly different from the MHRA style, as you can see by comparing these citations with the ones above:

Tom McArthur, Worlds of Reference: Lexicography, Learning and Language from the Clay Tablet to the Computer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 59.

Martin Elsky, “Words, Things, and Names: Jonson’s Poetry and Philosophical Grammar,” in Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), 41.

Robert F. Cook, “Baudouin de Sebourc: un poème édifiant?”, Olifant 14 (1989): 118–19.

Which citation style should you use? The History Department does not favour one particular style, but it does require that students:

  • Use the same style throughout any given essay
  • Use a recognised style for citations rather than inventing your own style – the MHRA and Chicago style guides are examples.
  • Use footnotes for citations rather than in-text citations, such as the in-text citation style administered by the American Psychological Association (the APA style is widely used in the social sciences but rarely in the humanities)
  • Include a bibliography at the end of each essay, ie. a list of the works you have cited in the course of the essay


The Department has no rules about how assessments should be presented and formatted. What is important is to ensure that your writing is clearly readable on a screen, which makes it easier for markers to focus on the merits of your argument and writing rather than be distracted by poor presentation. Please check with your tutor in case there are specific requirements for a particular module. If you aren’t sure where to begin, the following are suggested guidelines for how you might format and present your assessments:

  • Font
    • Your font should usually be font size 12 in a standard font (e.g., Arial, Calibri or Times New Roman).
  • Margins
    • There should be standard margins (e.g., the default for Microsoft Word is 2.54cm) on all sides of the page.
  • Line Spacing
    • The line spacing for the text of your essay should be double-spaced.
    • The line spacing for the footnotes should, however, be single-spaced.
  • Alignment
    • Work should be left aligned or justified, rather than centred or right aligned.
  • Pagination
    • Number each page of your essay.
  • Title Pages/Coversheets
    • Title pages and/or coversheets are not required, but you should include the title or question at the beginning of the assessment.
  • Numbers
    • Numbers up to one hundred, when occurring in normal writing, should be written out in words rather than numerals.
    • When there are many figures, it is better to use words only for numbers up to nine.
    • Spell out 'per cent' rather than using the % sign in your text.
  • Dates
    • Instead of (for example) '22nd of June 1941', the correct format for dates would be '22 June 1941'.