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
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.
Understand the directive terms: discuss, explain, evaluate, analyze, etc.
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.
sure to include all aspects of the question.
2. Collect and Sort
a. Once you understand the question, "brainstorm" what you know about the topic. List everything; then categorize it in some meaningful way.
Note-taking/Outlining is important in the pre-writing stage. It focuses
attention on possible ways to organize material.
a "working thesis", a general answer to the question.
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
4. Develop a Thesis
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
thesis makes an assertion that a reasonable person could disagree with. It is
your "claim" statement, what you claim to be true.
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.
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.
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
4. Write the
Include relevant background information, i.e., time and place (setting) are
usually important to establish.
your key terms, those that are vague or controversial (effective, liberal,
Include your THESIS statement. It is best to "weave" your
arguments into the thesis.
essays get to the point quickly. Avoid broad statements such as "from the
earliest times....". Donít waste time getting to the point!
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
Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Every sentence should relate to and
support the main idea.
Prove your arguments. Demonstrate "analysis", tell how, why the thing
Provide factual information to prove your thesis. Each set of facts (to support
a category) should be in a separate paragraph. Use specific support
Evidence should be used, such as data (facts and figures) or authority (what
historians know, or think they know).
Evidence is detailed information that gives the reader reason to believe what
you tell them. All generalizations and assertions should be supported by
"structural indicators" (first, in the second place, etc.) and use
transitional devices between body paragraphs. Show where you are going with your
6. Write the Conclusion
essays should end simply and cleanly.
conclusion should focus on the thesis. Restate the thesis in a fresh and
interesting manner or explain its significance.
Attempt to use "foreshadowing", connecting to future events, etc. But,
do not introduce new evidence.
7. Proof the Essay
Check your work
Reread your entire essay; begin with the conclusion, then the intro; see if they
familiar with the reminders listed below as you proof your work.
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
6. Things to avoid in
writing historical essays:
Lengthy quotations. In fact, try to avoid using any quotations in your essays.
Rhetorical questions and rhetoric in general. The essay is not to get on a
soapbox and espouse personal opinions not relevant to the question.
not use personal pronouns ("they" said, e.g.) or vague references.
Writing in the first person, such as "I think", "in my
opinion" should be avoided.
Look for directive verbs or phrases that are
intended to direct the focus of the essay. Examples:
Determine the nature and relationship of the component parts of; explain; break-down.Tell
"how", "why" something happened. It is like "cause and
2. Assess: Judge
the value of character of something; appraise; evaluate. How true or false it
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.
Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing
shalt begin with an outline that buildeth thy entire paper around thy
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
details should always support the main ideas in evident ways.
relegate the real point (or points) of the paper to the conclusion.
shalt avoid self-conscious discussion of thy intended purposes, thy
strategy, thy sources, and thy research methodology.
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.
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
If you must
discuss methodology, do it in a preface; discussing sources is fine, but
in a bibliographical essay.
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.
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.
mayest covet other writers' ideas but thou shalt not steal them.
EVERY quotation, paraphrase, or crucial idea that you borrow from a
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.
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.
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.
more words when you can make the point with fewer.
impress your reader with obscure vocabulary, erudition in foreign or
specialized verbiage, and all such pretension, is absolutely out.
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.")
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
Think of the
paragraph as an instrument to develop an idea. The paragraph should have
a recognizable idea, usually as a topic sentence.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
quotation is a literary device--not a way to transfer information
unprocessed and undigested from your sources to your reader.
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
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.
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
Thou shalt not relegate essential information to thy footnotes
discursive footnotes should be very few. If the information is important
enough to print, get it into the text; if not, save the paper.
shalt write consistently in past tense, and in other ways keep thy
reader firmly anchored in time.
"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.
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
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".
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".
shalt not use passive voice.
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.
have the notion that passive, colorless writing shows scholarly
objectivity. The idea is pure rot.
. The Scoring Rubric for the
AP US DBQ Essays:
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
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.
(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:
poorly written with no thesis
shows no comprehension of the complexity of the question
has major errors which show no understanding of the period or the topic
uses no documents or cites a few of them incorrectly
a 1 is awarded if the essay is on topic and at least addresses the