A Checklist for Writing A Level History Essays, Part Two
So if you followed Part 1 of this checklist, you should have
i) a reasonably intelligent sounding introduction
ii) some notes containing five key points supporting your argument.
More importantly, because you thought about what you wanted to say before starting writing, you should know what you think about the question and have an answer already formed in your head, more or less.
This is a huge advantage over the usual approach, which is ‘readthequestionthenstartwritingwithoutthinkinginabigrush’.
1. How to create an impression.
If you can work your answer into your already-reasonable introduction, you would have shown the examiner that you have a definite point of view, and are prepared to argue it. Examiners like to see confidence. If you know what you are going to say they will expect that you will probably support it with good evidence, and start to relax.
Even better, if you have a powerful, very relevant quote which you could somehow slip into the introduction in a clever way, the examiner will feel that you have mastered your subject and will already be thinking of higher grades. But don’t worry if you can’t do this just yet - you have enough on your plate finishing this essay off!
2. Fill in the gaps.
If you have five very relevant points to make, based on your earlier planning, then the actual writing of the essay, instead of being a laborious task, will actually be quite easy. All you have to do is ‘fill in the gaps’ between your points.
In any history essay question, you will be provided with materials from which to select these points. Pick more than five if you wish, so that you can edit them down to five very relevant and appropriate points. Set out five paragraphs, each one based around one of your quotes or points. Each paragraph must refer in some way to the question, or it will be irrelevant - but because your points come directly from the material you’ve been given, it’s unlikely that you will wander far away from the question.
You’ve been told often enough that ‘everything you say you must have a supporting fact or example’ and most students tackle that the wrong way: they write something and then look for a supporting fact or example. Doing it this way increases your chances of staying relevant and on-question.
3. Provenance, provenance, provenance.
Keep in mind that, just because a historian says something that doesn’t make it ‘true’.
Use these questions to guide you:
i) Who is the author of the quote?
ii) To whom was he or she speaking (who was his or her audience)?
iii) What effect was he or she trying to create? (Purpose)
iv) What is the mood or tone of what is being said? Is it sarcastic? Sympathetic? Ignorant? Hostile? Any other tone?
v) How reliable is the quote? Was the person there at the time? Or is he or she trying to ‘spin’ an argument of some kind?
vi) How typical is the view expressed in the quote of others at the time and since?
vii) How useful is the quote in making the point of your argument?
If you’re wondering what to put into the gaps of your essay, comments about each or all of the above would be good.
4. Never fail to write a conclusion.
If you plan your time poorly, as many students do, you don’t ever get to the ‘end’ of the essay. Your work finishes mid-sentence. Examiners look for solid conclusions that draw together the threads of an argument and hammer home its points, leaving the reader in no doubt. Take the question and restate it as an argument.
Say anything else you have to say.
You can see from the checklist, Parts One and Two, that the main thing is to step back from what you are doing and take control: don’t be bulldozed into simply writing word after word and hoping for the best. When you are in command, knowing what you want to say, and with some structure as to how to say it, examiners will recognise that and reward it accordingly.