HOW TO WRITE A HISTORICAL ESSAY

Here is a video lesson about writing a historical essay, with the emphasize on AP essay exam, that I presented in April, 2020, as part of a initiative by Take Lessons website.

As it was my first Zoom presentation, it didn’t went quite seamless but with some hiccups that took about ten minutes of air time. So, that is the reason that at the beginning I am going kind of fast through the presentation. But I will attach a transcript for those of you who want it.

Let me know if you have questions. Thank you for watching and leave a comment.

This lesson has 2 parts.

Essay Writing Part 2

HOW TO WRITE A CLEAR AND CONCISE HISTORICAL ESSAY

Transcript

Today we will take a look at one of the most used form of academic assignments that most people have written an at some point mainly for school or work: the essay.

There is more than one type of essay, but most of them share some basic features: they have same structure and deliver the same thing.

For the purpose of this class we will look at how to write a clear and concise historical essay.

We will learn:

  • What is a historical essay
  • How to structure your essay
  • How to narrow your topic
  • How to find an argument
  • How to present your evidence
  • and what makes a good writing.

Although the rules we will discuss during this presentation apply to most essays, we will focus on the Historical essay. We will also consider the ones assigned in school or for an exam, called Essay Exam.

WHAT IS A HISTORICAL ESSAY?

Let’s start with a simple question: what is an essay?

Here is a general definition: An essay is a short form of writing based on a single subject that expresses information as well as the writer’s own ideas.

Now, let us narrow our focus and ask: What is a historical essay?

It is basically the same thing except that the subject is historical in nature, the information is collected from historical sources and the writer’s own ideas reflect their historical thinking.

A historical essay is a thesis and the evidence that sustains it.

It is something that the writer wants to examine more carefully, or a problem that the writer wants to solve.

But ultimately, the essay is a story about a historical issue that you bring to the readers and make it believable by the evidence you show and at the end you tell them your personal opinion about the issue.

Pretty simple.

Next, let’s see its structure.

HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR ESSAY

Like all other writings, the essay has the following structure: an introduction, a body of writing, and a conclusion.

In the introduction  

  • evaluate the historical topic, or what is that you write about,  
  • state your argument or claim a point of view that you plan to demonstrate using pieces of evidence.

A good introduction is one paragraph long, where you can use 2 to 3 sentences.

Like this:

“Although the arrival of the Portuguese was a very important change in Indian Ocean maritime trade in the sixteenth century, it did not completely transform the trade, as the Portuguese never extended their control beyond a few ports and had to compete with Indian merchants and regional states such as the Ottoman Empire and the Sultanate of Aceh.”

Notice how, in this single paragraph, we have a brief historical context: the geographical location and the time, the topic, – trade in the Indian Ocean, and the  argument – the extend of which Portuguese transform the trade in the Indian Ocean.  

In the body

  • start with a larger historical context (when did it happened and where and what else was going on), in other words you place your topic in a broader range of events or historical processes. Make this as long as you need but for a school assignment or exam, keep it one paragraph with maybe 3 to 5 sentences.
  • the historical context introduces your topic after which you can start to deliver your evidence, one at a time, showing how each of them are related to the argument you make.
  • discuss your sources and their credibility, as you present your support.

For a normal essay the body can be as long as it is necessary for you to introduce the topic in more details, as I said, and also to present and analyze your supporting evidence and add all other knowledge you may have that is related to a specific piece of evidence.

For essay exam, you should limit the number of paragraphs to the number of evidences you want to provide.

In the conclusion

  • summarize your thesis one more time and give your detached, but personal, opinion about the subject matter. This is not required to earn points on your AP essay exam, but it is a good practice for other essays.

Now, that we know what an essay is, let’s see how to write a good one.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT ESSAY?

You may think: How do I write a good essay?

Are there any guidelines I can follow so I can write an essay that is compelling to the reader? That is crystal clear, free of stuffing, and proves my point?

The answer is yes. And following those guidelines, along with a good grasp on knowledge and some writing exercises can help us write a pretty good essay.

Here is what to consider when writing your essay:

First, – a narrow topic, as focused as you can get. It that will become the subject of your essay. (Ex. Portuguese trade in the Indian Ocean) Keep in mind that the topic is not the same thing with an argument. While the topic is the subject, the argument is the point you make about the subject.

Then – a clear argument, that doesn’t leave any room for confusion, that relates to the topic and is stated in the introduction. (argument – ex. Did not completely change in trade)

Followed by – thoughtfully chosen, strong supporting evidence, plenty to prove your point but not too much as to overwhelm it.

Then – author’s impartial opinion, as a confirmation of your historical thinking

And – clear writing, free of clutter.

And now, let’s get into details for each one of these guidelines.

HOW TO NARROW YOUR TOPIC

You may ask why do I need to narrow my topic? Isn’t it better to be general?

The answer is no. And here is why?

When the topic is too general

  • it becomes difficult to organize your information
  • it may be even harder to address the sources
  • it may take longer time to write it – especially if you are in an exam
  • writers and readers may become overwhelmed and frustrated and even lose interest altogether.

Instead, we should look at a narrow case to address a larger issue.

Here is an example:

We know that our ancestors have traveled the world, exchanging goods, but also innovation, or ideas. They made paths, we called them now trade routes, or zones of interactions and we learn about them in history class.

One such route is along the coasts of Indian Ocean.

So, this is a very general topic: Indian Ocean as a zone of interaction. But we know that there are ports along the coasts, in those ports are people, and they build ships, they exchange goods; one may sale a few ounces of spices for two guns; also their religion may be different; their technological level may vary – some may be more advanced than others, and so on. There are also differences in the interactions based on historical time, from century to century as we know very well what happened with the colonization of the Americas.

So, we can narrow our topic to, say, the movement of Hinduism, or the slave trade. See how those subtopics may fit under a larger topic?

But you can go even deeper: say you want to focus on the movement of Hinduism along Indian ocean coasts and that is a narrow enough topic for you to build your claim.

Another example we can take is WWII. There are so many micro topics under this big umbrella that historian have filled many shelves with books about those topics. Let’s name a few: causes, belligerent countries, different battle fronts, military technology used, guns, planes and submarines, the race for the atomic bomb, hospitals, casualties and so on. But every one of these subtopics you can narrow it even further. Say, you are interested in the land vehicles used in the war. And from all the countries you are interested in only US land vehicles. Among those are armored cars, tanks, amphibious vehicles and so on. Among thanks there are 4 types which you can narrow even further to the, say Destroyers. This would be your topic upon which you can make an argument.

Now, that you have pinpoint the one focused topic you want to present, it is time to make your claim, or your argument.

Sometimes school assignments and exams have a built-in topic that is narrow enough.

Next, lets see how to find your argument.

HOW TO FIND YOUR CLEARLY STATED CENTRAL ARGUMENT, OR CLAIM, OR THESIS

The argument is the most important part of your essay.

The Argument is a statement you make that binds all the information, the evidence, your skills as a historian and your valued opinion together.

This statement we call it argument, claim, or thesis.

An argument or a claim is a point of view that you state or claim as being true. This is often called a thesis.

But why write an essay at all when it is easier to state the facts, to narrate what happened?

I argue that an essay brings up an authentic point of view. Our own. And this is how we find that argument.

Think about your topic and write down any ideas you have about it. Here are some questions you can ask yourself about the topic:

  • Why did it happen?
  • Why things are the way they are?
  • Who or what contributed?
  • What were the causes and what are some lasting, or unexpected results?
  • Haw did things changed since and what were the forces?
  • What is your interpretation of the facts?

And that interpretation, or point of view, is the argument, or claim, or thesis. That unique interpretation is what keeps an essay together.

Here is what makes a good argument

  • an argument is a proposition that you want your readers to accept
  • it must be clearly stated in the first paragraph as to leave no doubt about what your readers are expecting.
  • a good argument will set the scene for the essay and will opens the road for the body of the evidence
  • the best way is to state it in the first paragraph along with some brief historical context

Here are some steps for the essay exam

For the essay exam you will get a prompt that is most of the time a question. You are asked to answer that question, making a claim, and using a series of given documents as your sources. There are a few steps here that you can follow to find your claim.  

Step 1: understanding the question

  • Read each paragraph carefully.
  • Circle the historical subject/topic/event to which the paragraph refers to.
  • Underline what is requested from you to do.
  • Most prompts will test one of the following historical reasoning skills:

causation, continuity and change over time, or comparison.

  • Look for keywords in the prompt that indicate which skill is being tested (for instance, “changes” often indicates continuity and change over time, while phrases such as “transformed” or “led to” often indicate causation); keep the skill in mind as you read the documents and consider organizing your essay according to the skill.

Step 2: Simplifying the question

  • Rewrite each paragraph keeping only the underlined and circled parts (reduce it to essential with simpler and lesser wording).

Step 3: Evaluating your knowledge

  • Write down ideas and facts that come to mind about the topic of the paragraph.
  • Read the documents and write down clues, ideas – later you can use those for presenting of your evidence.
  • Circle the ideas and facts you are more familiar with.
  • Underline the ones that are the most specific.
  • Reread the prompt, thinking about how each of the documents relates to the prompt.

Step 4: Finding your essay idea/thesis

  • Look at each of your underlined ideas, the facts, and the clues from your document. Those underlined, specific ideas are the base of your claim.
  • See what some common things are, what are some big differences. Why is this? Is there a pattern?
  • Is there anything that jumps up at you from that information? What is it that idea that inspire you to write a sentence about it? And can you prove it?

Chose the one that (1) you are the most familiar with, (2) is the most interesting, and (3) you can write the least seven paragraphs about.

HOW TO PRESENT YOUR EVIDENCE

Now, that you have a claim, argument, or thesis, it is time to bring in your evidence.

  • The evidence is detailed information from primary or secondary sources that comes to support your point.
  • This step is the body of your essay and is the reason why you claim your argument as being true. You are now asked to prove it. Lucky you, by now you will have a lot of facts and ideas to work with.
  • Only present those evidence that serves the point – just like ingredients in a recipe – do not add onion to a cake!
  • The pieces of evidence often fit like pieces in a puzzle.

Where do you find your evidence?

Everywhere, in personal sources are journal and memoirs, letters, book keeping journals, official sources census information, birth records,  statistics, other are articles in newspapers, paintings, drawings or cartoons, archaeological discoveries and so on and then secondary sources that are mostly writings about the primary sources.

Is the source credible?

Could that the writer has given false information to gain specific advantages? Or present a dispute only from one point of view? Those questions need to be quickly addressed and remember that even if you find a source that may not be credible it can be used as a counter evidence to prove your point.

You do not have to document matters of common knowledge, or undisputed pieces of information.

  • Give readers a reason to believe your story.
  • And don’t forget that details in a primary source makes history come to life

For the essay exams you must provide evidence you have learned about.

The evidence has 2 sources:

1. the documents we are asked to build an argument upon

2. our own knowledge

The knowledge you already have and the ideas from the source must work together as an evidence.

For the AP Essay Exam, try to limit the paragraphs to the number of evidences you have. Ideally, there would be one evidence per paragraph for ease of reading.

After you have presented you evidences, it is time for conclusion.

Here is the place to make any personal comments, to draw any other conclusions that may touch on the argument, make any judgements as far as they can be backed up with facts. Draw you on opinions from the sources and cite them. Best, put your own interpretation on conclusion.

CLEAR WRITING

  • Avoid dense material – that means to shorten your sentences and get rid of words that are not necessary.
  • Use simple words – that means that if you have 2 words that describe the same thing chose the one that is the most used, most understood,
  • Avoid confusion – again, the choice of words, use the one that describes the best whatever you want to say. Also, if you have made a statement in one paragraph, avoid contradicting yourself in the next. Make sure your statements are accurate.
  • Respect your audience – people that read your essay are smart.
  • Define complicated specialized terms – if you have to use fancy terms, or that are specific for the subject, or that are very technical,  make sure you explain them, so the readers that don’t know the term can understand, and the one that know, appreciate your knowledge.
  • Use whole names – When you name people, places, and other designations use the whole name. It is ok to use abbreviation as long as you have already explained what it stands for.
  • Include all the necessary information – don’t assume people know what you mean. It is better to tell them more then less.
  • Check your grammar – so that your thoughtful written essay isn’t smudged by a simple and avoidable grammar mistake.  

Student’s essay checklist     

1. Have I food, defendable argument?

2. Is my evidence conclusive?

3. Have I express the knowledge I have about the subject?

4. Is my writing clear and concise?

Extra Tips for the essay exam

Tests what you know and what you think about the subject.

Those type of exams are intended to let you show your knowledge, prove your historical thinking skills

And demonstrate you can interpret sources

You may be asked to

Tell a story

Explain the historical significance …

Make a comparison

Argue a point.

Most essay exams will test one of the following three reasoning skills: change and continuity, comparison, and causation.  

Comparison

Comparison asks us to identify, compare, and evaluate multiple perspectives on a given historical event so you can make conclusions about that event.

This skill also requires the ability to describe, compare, and assess several historical developments within one society, between different cultures, and in diverse chronological and geographical contexts. Comparisons can also be made across different time periods and geographical locations, and between contrasting historical events within the same time period or geographical area

Causation

To review, causation is the ability to identify, analyze, and evaluate causes and effects. You will need to describe the causes and effects of a historical event, development, or process. To get the maximum points, you will also need to explain the reasons for those causes and effects.

Change and continuity

As we discussed, the historical thinking skill of Continuity and Change Over Time requires you to be able to determine what changed and what stayed the same between different time periods. To get max points, you will also need to explain the reasons for historical continuity and change over time.

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