WRITING HISTORICAL ESSAYS

GENERAL RULES

1. A good essay does more than "rattle off" facts. It reveals an understanding of the general principles of the "big picture" of history. The best essays "weave" an understanding of content with some critical analysis.

2. Plan your essay! Brainstorm and list facts pertaining to the question. Then, write a working outline before you begin the writing process. An essay will be judged on the strength of the thesis, the quality of historical argument, and the evidence used (correctly) to support the thesis. Take some time to "pre-write", to plan your strategy. Follow the steps listed below.

3. Generally, the five paragraph essay is expected; however, some questions do not lend themselves to that format. Look for key words in the question, and the directive verbs found in the question.

SEVEN STEPS IN WRITING AN ESSAY

1. Analyze the Question

    a. Without a clear understanding of the question, you cannot write an adequate answer. Be sure to you address all "tasks" in the question. Pay attention to every word in the question.

    b. Understand the directive terms: discuss, explain, evaluate, analyze, etc. (See Reverse)

    c. All questions have one thing in common: they demand judgment about the historical evidence. A question is never satisfactorily answered by simply reporting information. If you think that you can write an essay without making some judgment on the issue, you have not understood the question.

    d. Be sure to include all aspects of the question.

2. Collect and Sort Information

    a. Once you understand the question, "brainstorm" what you know about the topic. List everything; then categorize it in some meaningful way.

    b. Note-taking/Outlining is important in the pre-writing stage. It focuses attention on possible ways to organize material.

    c. Make a "working thesis", a general answer to the question.

    d. Also, anticipate counterarguments. Consider arguments that are against your thesis, not to prove them, but to show you are award of opposing viewpoints. The strongest essays confront conflicting evidence. Include this in your essay somewhere.

4. Develop a Thesis

    a. Thesis: Your brief answer to the question given. It generally explains why or how something happened. Your thesis should take a stand on an issue or historical problem.

    b. A thesis makes an assertion that a reasonable person could disagree with. It is your "claim" statement, what you claim to be true.

    c. A thesis requires some judgment and interpretation of evidence. Everything that comes after your thesis should support the thesis. Develop your thesis throughout your essay. However, include it in your introductory paragraph: tell the reader so he/she can evaluate your arguments as they read your essay.

    d. For a thesis to be "well-developed", it should have some power to explain the issues in question. It should be "focused" on the way you plan to answer the question. Try to make your thesis "measurable". You can, then, show analytical ability.

    e. Here is a somewhat formulaic approach to constructing a thesis:

        -A "concessive" clause: "although such and such"Öif you do not concede something, you will appear unreasonable, or unaware of another side of the issue.

        -The "main" clause: the thing you will attempt to prove in your essay.

        -The "because" clause: this will force you to summarize supporting arguments (categories).

4. Write the Introduction

    a. Include relevant background information, i.e., time and place (setting) are usually important to establish.

    b. DEFINE your key terms, those that are vague or controversial (effective, liberal, revolutionary, etc.)

    c. Include your THESIS statement. It is best to "weave" your arguments into the thesis.

    d. Good essays get to the point quickly. Avoid broad statements such as "from the earliest times....". Donít waste time getting to the point!

    e. Organize your attack: arrange your arguments in some logical order: chronological, least-to-most important, or some such way.

5. Write the Body/Supporting Paragraphs (Prove one "big picture" idea/argument per par.)

    a. Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Every sentence should relate to and support the main idea.

    b. Prove your arguments. Demonstrate "analysis", tell how, why the thing happened.

    c. Provide factual information to prove your thesis. Each set of facts (to support a category) should be in a separate paragraph. Use specific support ("capital letters").

    d. Evidence should be used, such as data (facts and figures) or authority (what historians know, or think they know).

    e. Evidence is detailed information that gives the reader reason to believe what you tell them. All generalizations and assertions should be supported by facts.

    f. Use "structural indicators" (first, in the second place, etc.) and use transitional devices between body paragraphs. Show where you are going with your essay.

6. Write the Conclusion

    a. Good essays should end simply and cleanly.

    b. The conclusion should focus on the thesis. Restate the thesis in a fresh and interesting manner or explain its significance.

    c. Attempt to use "foreshadowing", connecting to future events, etc. But, do not introduce new evidence.

7. Proof the Essay

    a. Check your work

    b. Reread your entire essay; begin with the conclusion, then the intro; see if they agree.

    c. Be familiar with the reminders listed below as you proof your work.

PERTINENT REMINDERS

1. Keep it simple. Do not use "flowery language", or overly complex sentences. Do, though, use a few big words (relevant words)Ödo use them correctly! Donít use many words when one or two will do.

2. Write about the past in the past tense.

3. However, write in the active voice, it is livelier and more interesting to read. Active voice is when the subject acts through the verb (Columbus discovered America, Napoleon made the decision to invade Russia).

4. Write clearly and neatly. At least, do your very best! Readers are prejudiced against sloppiness!

5. Misspellings may be inevitable, nevertheless, a student should learn to spell terms associated with each unit of study as well as other frequently occurring terms, such as "affected" and  "occurred", words like "which", "their/there".

6. Things to avoid in writing historical essays:

    a. Lengthy quotations. In fact, try to avoid using any quotations in your essays.

    b. Rhetorical questions and rhetoric in general. The essay is not to get on a soapbox and espouse personal opinions not relevant to the question.

    c. Do not use personal pronouns ("they" said, e.g.) or vague references.

    d. Writing in the first person, such as "I think", "in my opinion" should be avoided.

DIRECTIVES

Look for directive verbs or phrases that are intended to direct the focus of the essay. Examples:

1. Analyze: Determine the nature and relationship of the component parts of; explain; break-down.Tell "how", "why" something happened. It is like "cause and effect".

2. Assess: Judge the value of character of something; appraise; evaluate. How true or false it is.

3. Compare: Examine for the purpose of noting similarities and differences. When the question call for comparisons, they expect you to include differences as well.

4. Describe: Give an account of; tell about; give a word picture of.

5. Discuss: Talk over; write about; consider or examine by argument or from various points of view;debate; present the different sides of.

6. Evaluate: Give the positive points and the negative ones; appraise; give an opinion regarding the value of; discuss the advantages and disadvantages of.

7. Examine: Make clear or plain; make clear the causes or reasons for; make known in detail; tell the meaning of.

8. To What Extent and In What Ways: How much? In what ways did an event or condition relate to another? Understand both what was done and what was still left to be done. Anticipate  counterarguments.

Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing


I. Thou shalt begin with an outline that buildeth thy entire paper around thy central ideas.

An outline built around a THESIS AND SUBTHESES will do the job much better than one that only categorizes information or puts it into chronological order--although topical analysis and narrative also have their uses. In any case, whether you organize by thesis-subthesis, topic, or narrative, your central task is to ask penetrating, interpretive questions of your sources. Therefore structure your outline to let incidental facts recede as supporting evidence, and to emphasize answers to intelligent questions.

Facts and details should always support the main ideas in evident ways.

Do not relegate the real point (or points) of the paper to the conclusion.


II. Thou shalt avoid self-conscious discussion of thy intended purposes, thy strategy, thy sources, and thy research methodology.

Draw your reader's attention to the points you are making, not to yourself and all the misery and sweat of your process of research and writing. Keep the focus on what you have to say, not on the question of how you hope to develop and say it. Do not parade around in your mental underwear. Show only the well-pressed and well-shined final product.

Avoid self-conscious-sounding phrases such as: "now let us turn to"; "I will demonstrate that"; "now we see that"; even "I think that", or (even worse) "I feel that".

Avoid use of first person.

If you must discuss methodology, do it in a preface; discussing sources is fine, but in a bibliographical essay.

Phrases that tell your reader explicitly what you intend to do or to do next, or that tell explicitly where to see emphasis, are crutches. They indicate weaknesses in your paper's implicit development and emphasis.

The above does not mean that you offer the reader no cues and clues. Yes, it is important, in the opening paragraph or two of a paper or a section, to lay out the essential question(s) you will address and often to hint at the answers you may find. But do it artistically, not with a heavy hand.

In the cases of historiographical papers and book reviews you may of course discuss sources. Those cases are exceptions. There may be other exceptions.


III. Thou mayest covet other writers' ideas but thou shalt not steal them.

Document EVERY quotation, paraphrase, or crucial idea that you borrow from a source.

Document those facts which you cannot consider common textbook knowledge--especially those which could be controversial or which are crucial to the development of your argument, analysis, or narrative.

If there get to be too many footnotes, combine some or all that refer to a given paragraph. However, never make one footnote cover material in more than one paragraph. When in doubt, footnote.


IV. Thou shalt strive for clarity above cuteness; thou shalt not use jargon when common language will serve, nor a large word when a small one will serve, nor a foreign term when an English one will serve, nor an abstract term where a vivid one is possible.

Learn first of all to write lean, tough, logical, precise prose. After you have learned that, you may begin to experiment with metaphors, allusions, and fancily turned phrases. But use these only if they add to communication and do not clutter it up.

Never use more words when you can make the point with fewer.

Trying to impress your reader with obscure vocabulary, erudition in foreign or specialized verbiage, and all such pretension, is absolutely out.

Take special care to keep verbs in their active, verb form, rather than changing them into abstract nouns, usually with "tion" endings. ("She helped organize." Not: "She helped in the organization of." "He was one who used Marx's ideas." Not: "He participated in the utilization of the ideas of Marx.")


V. Remember thy paragraph to keep it a significant unity; thou shalt not fragment thy discussion into one short paragraph after another, and neither shalt thou write a paragraph that fails to develop a topical idea.

Think of the paragraph as an instrument to develop an idea. The paragraph should have a recognizable idea, usually as a topic sentence.

Usually, three sentences are minimum for a good paragraph, and most paragraphs should have more. Short paragraphs seldom develop ideas or nuances. They are for people with very short attention spans (which partly explains why journalists use them).

Maximum length for a good paragraph is roughly one typed, double-spaced page, although a paper full of such long paragraphs will be tiring. A good length for most is 1/2 to 3/4 page.

There are times to violate the no-one-or-two-sentence-paragraph rule, especially: to make a succinct statement stand out sharply for emphasis; or, to make a transition to a new section of the paper.


VI. Thou shalt write as if thy reader is intelligent--but totally uninformed on any particular subject: hence, thou shalt identify all persons, organizations, etc., and shalt in every way try to make thy paper a self-sufficient unit.

Here, the chief temptations are: to plunge into a subject without adequately establishing time, place, and context; and, to refer to authors and to obscure historical events as if everyone knew of them. The motive may even be snobbery, showing off one's esoteric knowledge.

So, do not refer to facts in language that implies that the reader is already familiar with them, unless you have first established the facts. To do so may make the reader feel dumb. Often this rule means: using "a" or no article at all instead of using "the" or a possessive pronoun; and, not putting the reference in a subordinate clause.

In the first reference to a person, organization, or whatever, give the complete name (not only initials). Thereafter, unless a long space has elapsed, you may refer to a person only by last name (seldom the familiarity of only the first name). In the case of an organization, after the first reference you may use an acronym (e.g., CIA for Central Intelligence Agency) if you have made the meaning of the acronym clear.


VII. Thou shalt use quotations sparingly and judiciously, only for color and clarity; if thou must quote, quotations should not break the flow of thine own language and logic, and thy text should make clear whom thou art quoting.

Effective quotation is a literary device--not a way to transfer information unprocessed and undigested from your sources to your reader.

Quoting does NOT add authority, unless you have already established that the source carries authority. Even then, paraphrasing may do as well or better. (Often, you should be able to write better than did the original author!)

Usually, for art's sake, do not quote whole sentences. Your language will flow better, without strange sentence structure and abrupt shifts in style, if you quote only short phrases and merge them nicely into your own stream of language.

Indented block quotations are out! If a quotation gets beyond about four lines (heaven forbid!), break it up, paraphrase, do something--but do not make notches at the edge of your paper that signal a coming mass of undigested material.


VIII. Thou shalt not relegate essential information to thy footnotes

Normally, discursive footnotes should be very few. If the information is important enough to print, get it into the text; if not, save the paper.


IX. Thou shalt write consistently in past tense, and in other ways keep thy reader firmly anchored in time.

The "historical present" causes more confusion than it is worth. Sense of time and context is first among the historian's contributions. Writing of past events in the present tense is usually evidence that the author lacked appreciation for historical setting.

Historical essays and book reviews present special problems. But even the author's act of writing a book took place in the past, even if only a year or two ago. Thus, Hofstadter ARGUED, not "argues", in his Age of Reform. Hofstadter is now dead, and presumably cannot argue (present tense). Even if he were still living, we do not know that he has not changed his mind; authors do change their minds. On the other hand, the book, if it is the subject of the verb, does always continue to make the same point, so that you do use present tense. Thus, Hofstadter's Age of Reform "argues," not "argued".

As you write, frequently intersperse time phrases: "in 1907", "two years later", whatever. If the date is the more important, state the date; if time elapsed is the more important, use a phrase such as "two years later".

Perfect tense is very helpful, indeed often necessary, for keeping the time line clear--especially when you shift or flash forward or backward from some reference point in time. ("In August, 1893 Smith met Jones at the World's Exhibition in Chicago. Three years earlier they had met in London. Now they met as old friends.") Note "had met".


X. Thou shalt not use passive voice.

Passive voice destroys clarity because often it does not make clear who did the acting. ("The order was given.") In such cases, it fails to give complete information. Or even if it does give the information ("The order was given by Lincoln.") it gives it back-end-forward. Why not: "Lincoln gave the order."?

If you write many sentences in passive voice, check whether your language is not generally abstract and colorless. Passive voice almost always goes with a style that lacks vigor and clear, direct statement.

Some people have the notion that passive, colorless writing shows scholarly objectivity. The idea is pure rot.



. The Scoring Rubric for the AP US DBQ Essays:

DBQ essays have recently been ranked between 0-9 with the following guideline required for each ranking. Since the DBQ essay is worth approximately 27% of your entire AP grade (out of 100% of the points possible), each of the following points (1-9) is worth about 3 points on a 100 point scale. And, be mindful of the fact that approximately 45 (%)points converts to the bottom side of an AP score of a "3". Therefore, a strong DBQ essay score when coupled with two mediocre free response essays and about 50% of the multiple choice questions answered correctly yields a passing AP score of a "3". (The AP Program will send you your score of 1-5 for the AP Exam. A 3 is passing while a 4 or 5 might be required at most competitive colleges for college credit. And, in AP US History, about 55% pass the exam with a 3 or higher.)

To receive an 8-9, the essay needs:

1) a clear thesis which addresses the central issue(s) in the question

2) an intelligent response to the question--answer the question

3) to use at least 5 (more than half) of the documents effectively with some documents analyzed

4) to support the thesis with pertinent outside information, ie
historical connects --key terms, proper names, laws, people, dates, Supreme Court decisions

5) to be well-written, well organized and have few errors

To receive a 5-7, the essay needs:

1) a thesis dealing with the central question (topic)--answering the question

2) some analysis of the topic

3) use of about half of the documents wisely with maybe a few documents analyzed

4) have some outside information for support

5) be organized and written with some skill with some errors, but minor ones.


To receive a 2-4, the essay needs:

(Generally drop a notch in the above categories--thesis, outside info, effectiveness, and document usage.)

1) a thesis, but it may be weak or simply a restatement of the question

2) to deal with the topic but may be limited in scope

3) to use some of the documents but usage is sketchy or poorly done

4) some organization and to be written moderately well

5) has some major mistakes but not overwhelmingly so

To receive an 0-1, the essay probably:

1) is poorly written with no thesis

2) shows no comprehension of the complexity of the question

3) has major errors which show no understanding of the period or the topic

4) uses no documents or cites a few of them incorrectly

Generally a 1 is awarded if the essay is on topic and at least addresses the question.