Writing an essay can be a daunting thing at the best of times, but writing a history essay is probably even more frightening. That’s because several skills are demanded from you at the same time - it’s a bit like trying to juggle five balls at once!
A-level examiners want you to answer the question, demonstrate analysis rather than just narrative and insist that you include information to support your point of view. On top of that, every essay needs a unique answer, so there is no easy formula. However, these general points will help to keep you on the right track.
1. It’s all about the question
Students tend to glimpse the topic - for instance, ‘Churchill’- and proceed to write down everything that they know about Churchill as fast as they can, hoping that in some way they are addressing the question. The first habit to get into when tackling a history essay question is to read the question several times until you understand exactly what it is asking you to do. This will actually save you time and gain you marks immediately because you won’t be rambling on about irrelevant information.
2. Once you think you understand the question - read it again.
A history essay question can be broken down into two parts:
i) what is the issue which is to be considered?
ii) what is the subject matter?
If you don’t break the question down, you will probably fall into the trap of simply narrating back to the examiner a series of events - what actually happened - rather than answering the essay question.
For example, in the question ‘Using these sources in their historical context, assess how far they support the view that Churchill's views towards Germany and appeasement were correct’ the issue to be considered is the correctness of the sources, and the subject matter is Churchill's views towards Germany and appeasement.
If you don’t separate the two out, you will tend to drift towards explaining how Churchill's views towards Germany and appeasement were correct, rather than looking at the sources, and so lose a whole load of marks.
3. Plan what you are going to say.
If you have done the two points above, you will probably have avoided the most common problem in history essays - irrelevancy. To completely avoid it, and to gain marks (as opposed to avoid losing them) you must know what you are going to say BEFORE you start writing the essay.
This is by far the most common failing in any essay writing, but especially in History. Students panic: they glance at the question and then commence writing at a crazy speed while hoping that their own writing will somehow come together, take shape, make sense and answer the question. Obviously, unless there’s a miracle, none of these things happen and you end up with a mess. And low grades.
So before you start writing, make a plan: read the question (again) and decide for yourself what your answer will be broadly - do you agree with any views stated? Is there a point that is clearly being asked for? Decide on your basic line of thinking.
As a fantastically useful rule of thumb, come up with five points, five quotes from sources or other accepted facts, that you can string along that line of argument. Make brief notes and then move onto the next step.
4. Break the introduction barrier.
As I have written elsewhere, the most common barrier faced by students in attempting to write any essay is that terrible blank page or screen at the beginning.
You’ve probably been told that your introduction must ‘make a good impression’, that it needs to ‘grip the reader’, that ‘everything depends on it’. Which of course makes the situation ten times worse.
So here’s a totally counter-intuitive task which works every time:
Write an incredibly dull introduction.
That’s right: jot down a boring introduction which is basically a tedious restatement of the question.
For example, using the question above, ‘Using these sources in their historical context, assess how far they support the view that Churchill's views towards Germany and appeasement were correct’, you could write something like:
‘In this essay sources will be looked at in their historical context, and assessed to see how far they support the view that Churchill's views towards Germany and appeasement were correct.’
You could probably make it even more boring, but you get the idea.
This serves two amazing purposes:
i) it breaks the blankness of the page. No matter how dull that sentence is, you are no longer looking at a blank page. That’s a step forward - you’ve started!
ii) you have actually told yourself what to do in the essay: you’ve converted a question into an order. That helps to clarify what you will do next.
5. Jazz up your introduction.
Don’t leave it there though: you can do two fabulous things which will raise the appeal of the introduction to any reader and will probably gain you half a grade right there.
i) add into your ‘dull’ beginning five adjectives or adverbs.
In this brief essay, particular sources will be looked at in their historical context, and carefully assessed to see how far they support the view that Churchill's contemporary views towards Nazi Germany and appeasement were correct.
See how that adds a subtle flavour?
ii) change the word order around and add to it to make it more exciting by choosing the words that stand out and bringing them closer to the start.
In the above example, for instance, probably the most noteworthy words are
So put them towards the beginning, like this:
‘Assessing particular historical sources regarding Churchill’s contemporary views towards Nazi Germany and appeasement, this brief essay will carefully attempt to determine the degree to which each source was correct.’
Now it starts to sound like you know what you are talking about. Because of course you do know what you are talking about, it’s just that a history essay might not be your chosen way of demonstrating that knowledge. You’d probably prefer to sit down over a coffee and explain it all to the examiner in a two-hour conversation. But that’s the whole point of these essays: they train you to demonstrate your knowledge to others succinctly and in a form which can be read by anyone.
By doing that, by communicating your views clearly and supporting what you say appropriately, you not only show others that you know the material, but you come to know it more securely yourself.
Stay tuned for Part Two.